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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Really memorable female characters are hard to come by. Hollywood seems to think that to make a female character strong, she has to wear tight leather or know kung fu. Ironically, these sorts of characteristics often detract from the strength of that character. After all, if I was an expert of highly stylized hand-to-hand combat I could probably slay a vampire too. Likewise, if I was skinny and beautiful (more so than I already am) I could probably seduce the equally shallow and uninteresting guy characters. Let us then take a moment to examine some genuinely fantastic female characters and talk about what makes them so great.

Azula (Avatar: The Last Airbender) – Some of my favorite characters are those that are really on the edge of sanity. Many of the great villains are as intelligent as they are psychopathic (think Heath Ledger’s Joker). However, these kinds of characters have been predominantly male. For most of the series, the Fire Nation princess Azula is decisive, cunning, and ruthless. She is described by one of the men serving beneath her as “inspirational and terrifying at the same time”. She controls her allies and enemies with fear. It isn’t until the end of the last season that her sanity begins to slip and she takes after comic book super villains. It is then that we begin to see her brutality as a result of national indoctrination as well as deep seeded insecurity.

“Perhaps you should spend less time worrying about the tides, who have already made up their mind about killing you, and worry more about me, who’s still mulling it over.”

Margret “Margie” Gunderson (Fargo) – You wouldn’t necessarily expect a little pregnant lady with a Minnesota Nice accent would be on this list. That said, Margie shows off her incredible police smarts in pursuit of two criminals with a lot of blood on their hands. She is polite and sees the best in people, even though she is consistently dealing with the worst. She even gives a guy disposing of a body in a wood chipper a chance to come quietly before resorting to force. She shows considerable bravery and if I lived in a town like Fargo, I’d want her to be the sheriff.

“And for what? A little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

Samus Aran (Metroid) – Calling Samus a great female character may seem like a bit of a cop out. She is not the most brilliant female character ever written, but the way she has been presented was. Donning a full suit of powered armor, and being a silent protagonist, most assumed that she was a man until the surprise revelation at the end of the first game, which admittedly was a classless striptease. Except in the abysmal Metroid Other M (which I’m conveniently ignoring), Samus has been mostly a blank slate. However, this doesn’t mean we know nothing about her. As a lone wolf and a bounty hunter, we know she is tough, independent, and stands apart from society. She has no qualms about journeying into the dark unknown and battling bizarre and dangerous aliens but shows compassion through her interactions with the baby Metroid.

“I completely eradicated them [the metroids] except for a larva, which, after hatching, followed me around like a confused child.”

Katherine “Kissin Kate” Barlow (Holes) – Though she is arguably only a minor character, Katherine Barlow’s sub-plot in Holes is one of the highlights of the novel. The richness of her story is really best described in the book (go figure) but in short, it is a compelling story of how a school teacher becomes a feared Western outlaw. She loves the right man for the right reasons, even though his race made a relationship illegal (in Texas 1860). When their relationship is discovered and he is executed, she takes her revenge by shooting the sheriff and becoming a feared outlaw, amassing serious loot. Her nickname comes from the signature kiss that she gives to every man she kills. However, her death shows us that in the end she’s still a softie and all the loot in the world won’t fill that big hole in her heart. Kate Barlow is a badass, but she’s a sweetheart at the same time. Her story is as tragic as it is believable and you understand how she became what she was. Even as an outlaw, you have to pity and admire her, making her a bit of an anti-hero.

Trout: “I ain’t gonna kill you. But when I’m through, you gonna wish you was dead.”

Kate: “I been wishin I was dead for a long time.”

Lady Eboshi (Princess Mononoke) – Moral ambiguity became a prevalent theme in arts and literature of the 20th century and it is still a present and mature topic today. Lady Eboshi is one of my favorite morally grey characters. She is the most obvious antagonist in Princess Mononoke. After all, she wants the head of the forest spirit, doesn’t mind burning down the forest, and she wants to rule the world. At the same time, she buys the contracts of brothel girls and gives them a good life in her city. She also bandages and cares for the lepers that are considered abominations by the rest of the world. Those who work for her and live in her city respect and adore her, while her enemies fear her. She is one of the deepest characters I’ve seen in anime (not that I’m well versed) and she still manages to be believable.

Gonza: “But, what about the men she [the wolf goddess] pushed over the cliff?”

Eboshi: “They’re dead. Let’s get the living home.”

Having been born to two parents that would at one point work for Microsoft, I suppose Windows is in my DNA. My house was always full of the latest and greatest from Microsoft. As I developed a love for technology, it was always products from Microsoft that quenched my thirst for the cutting edge.

You can imagine how I felt about Apple’s “Get a Mac” ad campaign, which featured PC users as dorky, incompetent losers. It was hard to not resent the company and its founder and CEO Steve Jobs for so aggressively antagonizing a company that had fueled a passion of mine. I’ll just come out and say it. I hated Apple and I hated Steve Jobs because to me, he was Apple.

Considering my opinion of Steve Jobs and Apple, one might be surprised to hear that eventually, I would eventually draw inspiration from him rivaled by only a few of the greatest people and minds of all time including the likes of Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla, or Leonardo da Vinci. So what changed my mind?

The short version is that as I learned about Apple and Jobs, I eventually was able to separate the two in my mind. Eventually I would come to terms with Apple as a company, and even grudgingly admit that they had some great products. However, my respect for Jobs came more from the way he chose to live his life than from his work at Apple.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a passion for technology. Not just the gadgets, but the history behind technology that most of us take for granted. Many of us probably have difficulty imagining a time without computers, but what Jobs did was even more difficult. In a time when there were no computers, he imagined a world with them.

Of course, he was not the only visionary at the beginning of the computer revolution. The computer revolution was full of starry-eyed children who dared to change the world. Thirty years later, most of them have names that wouldn’t sound too familiar.

Jobs however never showed fear in following his intuition and doing things his own way. He dropped out from Reed College after only a few months of attendance. He chose to stick around and audit classes that he found interesting while living on the floor of friends’ rooms. He would later describe this decision as one of the best he ever made saying, “much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

After founding Apple in 1976, Jobs quickly found himself as one of the most influential people in technology, and one of the most important businessmen in the country. As CEO of the company, Jobs was ruthless, uncompromising, and very successful. However, after an internal power struggle, Jobs was fired by the board of directors in 1985. Not giving up on what he loved, Jobs founded another company called NeXT – which was bought by Apple in 1996. In less than a year, Jobs was CEO of his first company again and had his heart set on saving Apple from the bankruptcy they faced at the time.

The rest is fairly recent history. Microsoft invested $150 million in non-voting Apple stock, giving Apple limited financial security. Though the iMac won back confidence in (and customers for) the company, Apple wasn’t officially on fire until the iPod and iTunes would simultaneously rock digital content distribution and consumer electronics. After a string of other hits, Apple became the most valuable publically traded company in the world.

Despite his business success, Jobs struggled with his health. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, Jobs underwent numerous medical procedures. Though forced to take medical leave multiple times, Jobs remained CEO of Apple. Stepping down as CEO in August 2011, Jobs kept doing what he loved until he physically was incapable of doing so. He died less than two months later at the young age of 56.

People may mourn Jobs because of the relationship they have with the products of his company, and I wonder if that is the right reason to mourn someone. Personally, that was never what I found inspiring about him. Jobs made himself blind to everything that could make him fail. In some cases, that blindness caused his failure. However, it was that boldness and tenacity that was behind much of his success. While many people may have lived following their hearts unafraid of death and failure, few also managed to change the world in the process.

As a college student making decisions about how I will live my life, I think of Jobs when my mind second guesses my heart. I think of Jobs when faced with decisions between what is easy but unfulfilling versus what is scary but potentially amazing. The best part is, even though he is gone now, his story lives on and will never be any less inspiring.

There has been a lot of talk of the “Post-PC Era”. The term, arguably coined by Steve Jobs at the 2010 All Things D conference, is romanticized as a future where mice and keyboards gather dust, everything is controlled by our voice and fingers, and computing is fun and universally accessible. Tablet devices like the iPad have shown that many common tasks can be done quite efficiently on thin devices with touch interfaces.

However, no matter how much you believe in the post PC era, there comes a time when you have to bust out ole’ reliable. I’m talking about the mouse and keyboard. Working with spreadsheets, writing long documents, and developing code are all tasks that are, at best, cumbersome on a touch interface. Even fun activities like gaming are often far better with a mouse and keyboard (think games like League of Legends or Starcraft). These tasks are not simply going to disappear and, realistically, will never work as well with touch as they do with traditional input devices.

The problem is, as of now, the worlds of touch and mouse/keyboard are too separate. Many people own a tablet in addition to one or more traditional PCs. It’s hard to imagine that right now there are many people who only own a tablet. Bluetooth keyboards can help you make the jump, but at the end of the day, tablets and their applications are designed for touch.

To keep up with the times, many software developers made mobile versions of their desktop applications. Others develop only for touch or mouse/keyboard but not both. Cloud computing offers some solutions to bridge the gaps between the two worlds but it is often frustrating to work with both kinds of devices. Does it really have to be such a headache?

Enter Windows 8. Microsoft is being bold in their attempt to marry the old with the new. Windows 8 attempts to offer the best of both worlds by creating a touch-friendly interface (called the “Metro UI”) that exists alongside the traditional desktop. On machines with x86 processors, Microsoft has promised 100% backwards compatibility with applications. However, it’s fairly clear that Microsoft wants things to move to the Metro UI. The big question is, does Metro work well with a mouse and keyboard?

The answer to this question is complicated but it is very important to consider that just because an application is developed in the Metro environment does not mean that it has to be used with a touch screen. This could be the key to the future of user interface.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that a spreadsheet application will never work well with touch (you may feel differently but bear with me). I could develop a spreadsheet application for the Metro UI that you download from the Windows Marketplace and that has a live tile on the new Metro UI. You can now launch my application either by touching the tile, or by clicking with your mouse (your choice). However, if I’ve developed my application to be used with a mouse and keyboard, you’d be pretty foolish to try and use it with your fingers. Nobody is making me have large icons, tap-and-hold menus, or any other touch-friendly paradigms. As the application developer, I have all the freedom in the world to write whatever kind of application I want.

Microsoft really needs to show a little leadership here and develop a few applications in Metro that are still tailored for mouse and keyboard to educate users and developers that Metro is not only about touch. The Office suite is a clear choice here, but applications in the Windows Live Essentials could be a good idea as well (especially Windows Live Movie Maker). Even triple A games like Gears of War could be written in Metro and rely only on mouse and keyboard. However, this is only half the battle in unifying the two worlds.

The last piece of the puzzle is detection of the input device currently being used. If applications could tell whether or not you are using your fingers or a mouse, they could then alter their interface to match. Instead of developing a mobile version and a desktop version of the same application, developers could make a single version with two UIs. Under the hood, there is only one application but to the user, the application may look completely different depending on how they are using it.

An obvious example of where this is a good idea is the web browser. Mobile browsers and desktop browsers look quite different. If I launch the browser with my finger, I should get nice big icons, and other mobile UI elements. However, if I click that browser icon with my mouse, I should get a UI that has a favorites bar, a persistent tabs bar, and all the familiar UI of the desktop browser. Though the UI would dynamically change to fit my use case, everything under the hood (like the layout engine) would be the same.

If we can begin to develop these kinds of applications, we may be able to begin owning a single device that serves as our PC when we are doing precise work like content creation, but is our tablet when we are browsing the web and consuming media. I dream of a day where my keyboard and mouse sit on my desk as I work and when I am done, I pick up my computer, walk to bed, and peruse Facebook with my fingers. One device to rule them all.

If you are a student at UW, odds are you are a straight, white, upper-middle class American. You may have grown up in suburbia, and your biggest problem probably is keeping your New Year’s resolutions. If more than one of the above applies to you, then it may be a good idea to periodically watch a movie that shows the realistic struggle of someone that has things a little harder. Pariah may not be groundbreaking or life changing, but it certainly offers some fresh perspective.

Set in New York, “Pariah” is centered around a 17-year-old black girl named Alike who struggles to find her identity as a lesbian. Those with enriched vocabularies already know that pariah is another word for outcast, and the theme of the movie is very true to its title. Starting off still in the closet, Alike secretly spends time with her supportive, out-of-the-closet friend Laura going to lesbian clubs, purchasing strap-ons (though oddly she’s never been kissed), and trying to find a girlfriend. However, at home and school she changes clothing and behavior to better fit in with expectations. It’s a challenging life and I found myself empathizing with her struggle.

The movie is a little slow, with most of the plot being revealed through dialogue. The camera generally remains steady and background music is used sparingly. The result is that there is a distinct realism to the movie, which ends up being one of the strongest aspects of it. However, it also made the movie feel a little quiet and dull, and I found myself thinking it could have been paced better. That being said, at 86 minutes it does not overstay its welcome and you won’t find yourself eyeing the theater exit. The cast is made up of lesser-known actors and I must say they did a fantastic job. Dialogue is natural, snappy, and, at times, quite funny. While not a comedy, there are certainly some parts that are good laughs. Much of the humor is fairly sexual and approaches the line without ever crossing it (at least not my “line”).

There really isn’t much to complain about with the movie, and yet I felt it lacked something. My favorite movies are the ones that I catch myself thinking about days or even weeks later and that won’t be happening with “Pariah”. This is likely because I have little personal interest in the struggle of Alike. Some might say that it’s my problem for not caring more about gender, sexuality, and race issues, and that the movie is fantastic. However, I tend to go the other way and say that it is the movie’s job to make me care. So in that way, I didn’t enjoy the movie much, but I can see how someone who has had more personal experience in these sorts of matters might really love it. My favorite scenes were actually some of the family interactions. One in particular comes to mind in which Alike and her father converse, dancing around issues that they wish to address. Both are afraid to be direct, and hope that the other will just confess something. It was quite well done, and while it can’t carry the movie, scenes like this made the movie fun to watch.

Overall, I enjoyed Pariah. It was different, and even bold at times. However, nothing about it really spoke to me and I couldn’t convince myself that I’d be willing to pay to see it. This makes it difficult to recommend. I have to think that most readers are like me in that they’d enjoy watching it, but might not be able to justify paying for it. People who are passionate about gender and sexuality issues should certainly consider seeing it, as should those who really need a break from the Hollywood mold. However, I don’t believe it has much appeal to a mainstream audience.

The Verdict: Fantastically executed but only recommended for those passionate about gender and sexuality issues.

With the United States facing economic and political uncertainty and a presidential election just on the horizon, The Ides of March, directed by and starring George Clooney, comes to theaters at a very appropriate time. While some movies use the interest in a current event as a crutch, The Ides of March instead uses this topical interest to speak about very long-term and universal issues.

Based on the play Farragut North, which is in turn loosely based on the 2004 Democratic Primary Campaign of Howard Dean, The Ides of March revolves around Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) and his campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). The movie is set in Ohio as Morris attempts to win the Democratic Primary against Senator Pullman. Morris begins as a politician probably too idealistic to win a presidential election and Pullman serves as his foil, as his campaign is willing make promises and play dirty to win. Stephen, the main character, is young, highly skilled, and at the beginning, truly believes he can make a difference for the country.

Throughout the movie, the characters grapple with the tension between upholding their ideals, and the burdens and responsibilities of reality. The characters, especially Stephen, must decide if sacrificing their principles by partaking in underhanded political tactics is worth winning the election for their candidate. The movie very admirably humanizes politicians and shows how the stakes and corruption in politics changes even the most compassionate and honorable people. The movie puts democracy front and center and gives viewers a good close-up look of the system—flaws and all—and inspires them to think about it. The movie shows the promise and potential for democracy, but also shows how it is messy, complicated, and requires close attention from its citizens.

It may sound like the movie is a bunch of old people talking, but given the subject matter, it is actually very well paced. The movie focuses on a relatively small cast of interesting and believable characters. Morris probably stands out the most, with his sharp wit and interesting stances on political issues. Personally, I was ready to vote for him come November. Stephen is devilishly charming and having the most screen time, feels the most complete and believable. The plot, while somewhat heavy, is padded by good humor, punchy dialogue, and relatable moments between characters. These details keep things moving and enjoyable, while never distracting from the movie’s political commentary.

While The Ides of March is not necessarily the most creative or artistic movie, it doesn’t feel like it came from any of the standard Hollywood cookie-cutters. Everything about it is believable which makes its cynicism about politics feel more important. However, it does not stand on its political commentary alone. The strong cast of characters, excellent writing, and enjoyable plot makes the movie appealing to a mainstream audience.

The verdict: The Ides of March is entertaining, socially relevant, and I recommend it to everybody.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, more than any other show, earned my respect and then some. I felt too old for this show when it debuted in 2005 (I was 14). I considered watching it, but ultimately passed on it as I felt manipulating Earth/Fire/Air/Water couldn’t be done better than Captain Planet and I was getting a too old for cartoons. Though she practically had to force me to, my sister got me to watch a few episodes and I was soon hooked.

The premise is that in this world, a certain minority of people called benders can “bend” one of the four elements. Benders of one type tend to live together (along with non-benders) and hence the four nations called the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. However, the Avatar is a special individual capable of bending all four of the elements. The show begins in the middle of a war that has waged for 100 years, in which the fire nation has tried to expand their boarders. Many had hoped that the Avatar would use his power to stop the Fire Nation but near the beginning of the war, he disappeared and has not been seen since.

Avatar is one of the few TV shows that was clearly pitched and written for a set number of seasons (in this case 3) rather than being padded out until its cancellation is announced. The result is that the plot is flawlessly tied up in a neat bow and the show does not overstay its welcome, create huge plot holes, or have lapses in quality. Above all else, the ending isn’t a disappointment like with Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

The fantasy world of Avatar is really quite imaginative but even more importantly, detailed. Clearly a lot of thought went into the history of the world, the politics and culture of the individual nations, and even the geography. It’s one of those few worlds that rich enough to live in. I actually can’t think of another TV show that even comes close to such a diverse fantasy setting.

Avatar has an incredibly strong cast of characters and they are very well developed. All of them have interesting backstories that are revealed throughout the show and as the plot progresses, the characters complete realistic and compelling arcs. Even the villains have believable motivations and never feel like they’re evil just because someone has to be.

The show also deals with surprisingly mature themes given its primary audience. Without ever being monotonous or preachy, the show contains subtle political and social commentary. It also deals with more abstract themes such as duality, especially between good and evil, as well as destiny and free will. These themes are masterfully integrated into the plot and characters and really add to the show.

The series is not perfect however. In some cases, my instincts about being too old for the show were correct. The humor occasionally feels juvenile (though never cringe worthy) and certain parts of the plot feel like they should be darker but were softened up for the kids. Also, the first season (and especially the first episode) is not quite as good as the rest of the show. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get a few episodes in before disregarding the series because it would be easy to conclude the show is not that good from the first episode or two. These flaws are very minor and the biggest issue you’re likely to face is being a bit too proud to watch a “children’s show”.

It took a long time before I was willing to admit this, but Avatar is probably my favorite TV show ever. The setting is amazing, the characters are compelling, and the plot is moving, but most importantly, everything in the show fits together perfectly. A lot of love went into this series and it really shows. Avatar is currently (8/29/2011) available for steaming on Netflix and I recommend it to everyone.

You look around and wonder if the world seems a little more bearded lately. Does that guy actually think that thing looks good? How does he eat with that bush on his face? No, it’s not your imagination. A quick glance at the calendar will show that it is Movember, the month formerly known as November, now also called Novembeard, or No Shave November. Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, where razors rust and the hair they once pruned grows long, coarse, and wiry. How exactly did this ridiculous annual ritual begin, and why do so many take part in it?

Unbeknownst to many, the event began in 1999 as a way to spread awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate cancer. A group of young men conceived the idea in a pub in Adelaide, the Australian capital. Their idea was to grow moustaches for charity for the month of November and so “Movember” was born, which is a portmanteau of the words “mo” (Australian slang for moustache) and “November.”

The official Movember rules are actually fairly strict. Participants, called “mo bros,” must begin the month completely clean-shaven, and may only grow moustaches. Women are technically allowed to participate but only by helping to spread awareness, organize events, and collect money.

If you haven’t been following the rules, don’t worry: No Shave November is a related event that promotes the same causes, but broadens the field and is a little more relaxed. The only two rules are “No shaving in November” and “NO shaving in November.” Beards and sideburns are allowed, as well as the ladies. That’s right girls: Feel free to let your legs, pits, and anywhere else more closely resemble Chewbacca.

“The biggest risk to boys’ and men’s health is our social sense of masculinity,” said Jason Allen, who is chair of gender, women, and sexuality studies, and is a professor in the school of nursing at UW. He went on to describe how, culturally, men are expected to be independent and solve their own problems. This can lead them to make poor choices including reckless sexual behavior and choosing to not visit a doctor for health concerns.

No Shave November and related events attempt to counter those cultural expectations. There is certain brilliance to using facial hair as a means of spreading awareness of men’s health issues.  Because only men can grow it, facial hair is a near-universal sign of masculinity. By associating that masculine symbol with men’s health, the cultural pressure is reversed, as if to say, “Being a man is properly maintaining your health.”

Though both events originated as charitable causes, many, even those who participate, are unaware of this objective. Why do these people participate in this event? “Shaving isn’t really a fun thing for most people” Allen said, postulating that a large part of it is the excuse to change things up. “It becomes socially approved and an ‘in’ thing to do,” he added.

UW freshman Cooper Mellema, with the help of his RA, organized a floor competition for the residents of Lander floor 8. “It’s just a fun thing to do — or to not do,” he said. No Shave November gives guys an opportunity to be competitive by doing even less than they normally would. The Lander competition has several categories: Sasquatch (best beard), Best Neard (best neck beard), Nasty Stache (ugliest facial hair), and for the ladies, Leg Warmers (most leg hair), and Au Naturelle (most armpit hair). Around 10 guys on the floor are taking part. “I know at least one girl is doing it, but I think she’s only doing leg hair,” said Mellema.

In some cases, people think of No Shave November as a safe time to experiment with their facial hair without fear seeming like they are unkempt. “I wanted to see if I could grow a moustache” said UW junior Conor Roberts, sporting a respectable set of whiskers.

UW Junior Adrienne Barber, who is currently dating Roberts, was initially dubious about Robert’s participation in the event.

“I generally like guys clean shaven,” she said. “At first, I was really not happy about it. I was trying to convince him not to do it.”

But Barber admitted that after several days of growth, she had come to like the effect the hair had on his appearance.

“Sometimes people surprise you,” she said. “Sometimes guys can look good with facial hair, so there’s potential there.”

“I definitely look older and more mature,” Roberts said, although he conceded that he had no plans to change the way he keeps his scruff in the future. “It’s really annoying to touch. I am going completely clean shaven again December 1st.”

Roberts says when he is done he wants to give himself a few ridiculous shaves before removing it all. “I am going to give myself that Civil War shave where the mutton chops go into the moustache, but there isn’t really any beard.”

No Shave November is a great event for both those who wish to have a little fun with their facial hair, and those who are passionate about men’s health. Part of what makes the event enjoyable is the fact that people can know who participates just by looking. The nature of the event lends itself to pleasant surprises, and it only gets better as the month goes on and the hair grows out.

The charitable aspect of it desperately needs to be publicized. Many people participate just for fun, and finding out that it is also for a good cause would be a pleasant surprise for them. That said, the event has come a long way since 1999, and will most likely continue to grow on us all.

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