Archive for the Reviews Category

For my 41st birthday, I asked for (and received) a Parrot AR Drone 2.0. Yes, my birthday isn’t until the end of next week. Now that I’m over 40, I can open presents early if I want.

Starting at $300, the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 (“Parrot 2” hereon) is an intermediate level drone. There are several smaller toy drones in the sub-$100 range, and lots of “toys for big boys” drones in the $1,000+ range. The only comparable to the Parrot 2 is DJI’s Phantom, which runs $499 without a camera and $799 with a camera. $300 seemed more sensible for a first-time drone owner, so I went with the Parrot 2.

For roughly $50 more you can get the Power Edition — same drone, but with two larger batteries and three extra sets of propellers. I went with that one.

Here’s everything that came in the Power Edition package: the drone, an indoor hull, an outdoor hull, two lithium 1500 mAh batteries, a battery charger, some stickers, three additional sets of propellers (in orange, blue and red) and a manual with printing so small I couldn’t even tell if it was in English or not. (The manuals are online in PDF format here.)

Additionally, the Parrot 2 comes with two cameras (an HD 720p front-facing camera) and an SD down-facing camera) and a USB port. You can plug in a USB stick to record videos and pictures from your flights, or purchase additional USB add-ons like the GPS/black box.

Here is the drone with no hull attached.

If you fly it like this, it will be broken in about 4 seconds. Here it is with the outdoor hull:

…and here it is with the indoor hull:

So far I have only flown the Parrot 2 with the indoor hull attached, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, without it, I would have broken many things in our house. Second of all, the majority of all my videos end with me smashing the Parrot 2 into something and having it land belly-side-up somewhere. The indoor hull has definitely saved my propellers from slicing against tree limbs, blinds, the ceiling fan, my face, two different flat screen televisions and the cat at least once.

Unfortunately, the indoor hull is not designed to take a beating, at least not a beating of the level I’ve been dishing them out. My second crash resulted in a clean break of the styrofoam hull. I could not find any black electrical tape so I had to resort to repairing the hull with some white duct tape. An hour after owning the drone, my hull looked like this:

I have since removed all the white tape and replaced it with black electrical tape. Without tape, this hull would be in 5 separate pieces now. I’m afraid to fly this thing without one on. All things said, I have had some spectacular crashes (many from running into the ceiling fan (not running) 15′ in the air) and watching the Parrot 2 drop like a rock to the carpeted floor below. So far nothing has broken but I’ve only had it two days and I’ve been under the weather so I haven’t really put the thing to the test yet.

The Parrot 2 does not come with a remote — instead, you download a free app onto your iOS or Android device and that becomes your remote. Once powered up, the Parrot 2 actually becomes a wifi hotspot, so to start flying all you have to do is connect your device to the drone’s hotspot, launch the control app and you’re good to go.

Most of my early flights took place in the house. The learning curve comes from (a) learning how to control the Parrot 2 with the app, and (b) keeping yourself oriented as to which way the drone is facing. Using the app, your right thumb controls moving up/down and turning left/right, while your left thumb controls moving forward/backward and tilting left/right. It’s very easy for your thumbs to drift from the control circles, resulting in having to take your eyes off the drone and looking down at your phone or tablet instead.

There are lots of buttons on the app, ones for recording video, taking pictures, changing the drone’s options, and so on. There are a couple of ways to land the drone: one is by pressing that green “LANDING” square in the picture above. That cuts the power to 50% and the drone will try and land wherever it is. There’s also the red “EMERGENCY” button at the top of the screen that simply cuts power to the Parrot 2, at which point it will drop out of the sky like a brick. Yesterday I could not imagine a reason to hit that button but after having the Parrot 2 almost blown out into traffic by a wind gust, I can see where it might come in handy.

It’s also occasionally difficult to figure out which was is forward (especially with the indoor hull on installed) which is why I glued a pair of googly eyes to the front of mine.

Because the Parrot 2 is so light it is very susceptible to wind gusts. Last night after the wind calmed down I took the Parrot 2 outside and was able to capture the following picture of my house:

Five seconds later a wind gust blew the drone over my house and over my neighbor’s house, almost causing it to smash into their roof.

Here are a couple of videos I shot earlier using the Parrot 2. It never dawned on me that the Parrot 2’s camera would not record sound (only video) so I added some generic 8-bit music to it just because it felt very stark. I plan on attaching my Flip camera to it later tonight or tomorrow (if I’m not feeling better) and see if I can’t record two angles (along with some sound).

Almost immediately I need to order another battery and another indoor hull for my Parrot 2 (maybe with birthday money). I’d like to try flying the thing a little higher outside but I’ll have to wait until the wind dies down (and I get a little braver) before I do that.

EDIT: I forgot to mention how long the thing can fly. On a normal 1000 mHa battery, the Parrot 2 can fly for 8-12 minutes. With the 1500 mHa batteries I bought, you can fly for 12-18 minutes (each). The batteries take 90 minutes to fully charge. Also, the drone is able to fly high — really high. Even though the app supposedly limits the drone to 100m (roughly 330 feet) there are several videos on Youtube of people flying the Parrot 2 1,000 feet or higher (but not in Oklahoma wind…)

There’s something about physical miniature models that CGI, at least currently, cannot seem to capture. There’s no doubt that computer graphics have opened up new world (both figuratively and literally) to filmmakers, but the way a physical model photographs on screen just has a feel to it that computers can’t always seem to duplicate.

In Sculpting the Galaxy, physical models are the stars. With a preface by George Lucas, a foreward by Rick McCallum and an afterward by Phil Tippett there’s plenty to read here, but the focus of this book are the models themselves. While browsing through my local Half Price Books I spotted this book and randomly flipped it open to this picture:

Sold.

The book is divided into four chapters that serve as categories: Starships, Vehicles, Droids and Creatures, and Environments. Each section contains dozens of models and is roughly chronological as it moves from the original films to the prequels. Whether you were hoping to see detailed pictures of original TIE Fighters or details from Queen Amidala’s palace, you’ll find them here.

Huge advances in technology were made between the time the two trilogies, so while the original trilogy is represented solidly by an army of models, most of the prequels are represented by models that were later scanned and turned into three-dimensional computer models. It will always be more interesting to me to see the actual figures used in the hologram chess game on the Millennium Falcon as opposed to a carving of Watto that was eventually digitized into a CGI character.

The text accompanying the pictures is informative. Much of it is common knowledge to fans of the films, but even I picked up a few new nuggets of trivia along the way. I did not know that the original Death Star model was accidentally thrown away after filming, for example. Another thing I did not realize was just how many of the sets that appeared in the films were actually miniatures. Even a CGI podracer apparently looks better on screen when filmed against a physical set, even if the set is tiny.

My only real complaint about this book is that occasionally the text is difficult to read. On many pages, the headlines and captions are printed in a bronze, almost dark brown color on a black background. On other pages, white text appears on black, starry backdrops. More than half of the pages contain small, white text on black backgrounds. If you’re old enough to remember seeing the original trilogy in theaters a long, long time ago, forget your trusty blaster and bring your reading glasses to this battle instead.

Between Star Wars in Concert, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, and a few trips to museums, I’ve seen authentic Star Wars models half a dozen times. Unfortunately due to age they’re always behind glass. Sculpting the Galaxy is a great way to see them up close and marvel at the details that went into making ships we’ve been in love with for 30 years now.

In the mid 1990s, an anarchistic group of young men and women from the Philadelphia area moved into a rented farmhouse located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The house, dubbed “Big Fun” by its inhabitants, was the setting for what must have been some of the wildest debauchery Charlottesville, Virginia has ever seen.

One of Big Fun’s inhabitants (“The Gus”) began working on a glossary while living in Big Fun. The glossary contained hundreds of entries that defined words, locations, events and people. Eventually the originally hand-written glossary was converted into a computer document that was printed out and passed around Philly. In the spring of 1996, The Gus converted his glossary into a website. For 15 years now, The Big Fun Glossary has sat online, largely unchanged. The website is a tribute not only to Big Fun, but also to bad HTML design of the mid-1990s.

In 2007, The Gus took The Big Fun Glossary (the website) and released it as a self-published book titled Concerning Big Fun. That book is the subject of this review.

When I say that Concerning Big Fun is a copy of the online Big Fun Glossary, I do not meant that figuratively. The book is, for all intents and purposes, a text dump of the website. All the hyperlinks contained on the website appear underlined here. The caption on page 233 of the book prompts users to click the photo to enlarge it (I tried; it doesn’t work). The book’s introduction and stories that bookend the glossary itself appear virtually word-for-word as they do on the website. If you purchase Concerning Big Fun in hopes of new Fun-related content, you’ll be disappointed.

Why, one might ask, should anyone buy a printed copy of the glossary at all? I bought the book for two reasons. The first is that for fifteen years now, I’ve had Big Fun stories and adventures swirling around in my brain, and I thought The Gus deserved $11 for that. The glossary captures a moment in time that most reality shows could only dream of concocting. The other reason I purchased the book is that websites rarely live forever. The Gus mentions enough people by name that I have often feared a single cease-and-desist order from any one of them could take the Big Fun Glossary offline. Even if the website someday disappears, I’ll still own a hard copy of the glossary.

The glossary portion of the book alone runs 185 pages, and like you might expect, is presented alphabetically. For those just experiencing Big Fun for the first time, that means you’ll be reading people’s names before you know who they are, or who most of the major players even are. The website solves that problem to an extent by allowing readers to click on the hyperlinks and jump around.

Given enough time with the glossary, readers will uncover a situation not unlike MTV’s “The Real World” … that is, if the denizens from that show were placed in a house that ended up without running water and/or electricity and spent their time abusing everything from cough syrup to heroin while spray painting everything in sight, collecting doll heads, and mummifying cats. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the height of Big Fun, although I can tell you I couldn’t have personally lasted one night in the place. As I once said in a blog post about in regards to Big Fun, “I am sure that the thought of living in such squalor sounds like much more fun than it really is; and, by the time you get to the end of the timeline, it doesn’t even sound like that much fun. Fantastic romantacism, perhaps.”

What can I say to get you to buy this book? I cannot honestly say that reading about Big Fun was more fun on paper than it is on the website; in fact, the underlined words and passages in the book are a constant reminder that online these are hyperlinks I could be clicking to jump around. And, seeing as though Big Fun (the website) is still online, it’s hard to justify the purchase of a paper copy. That being said, I would urge you to check out the Big Fun website and, if you find yourself enthralled with the story the way I did, buy a copy of Concerning Big Fun and consider it a donation to The Gus for all the effort and work he put into capturing these stories.

Links:

Lulu.com: Concerning Big Fun
The Big Fun Glossary
The Gus’ Blog: Randomly Ever After

Every Star Wars diorama I set up in my bedroom as a kid had the same problem — a lack of extras. Ships and starring roles were never a problem — I had plenty of those — but what I didn’t have were the dozens of extra Stormtroopers needed to make a convincing scene from the Death Star. Darth Vader didn’t look near as menacing with only two Stormtroopers standing behind him, and my cantina scene looked downright sad with only Greedo, Walrus Man, Snaggletooth and Hammerhead hanging around the bar.

For fans of horror films and dioramas, Accoutrements has addressed this problem with the release of their Horrified B-Movie Victims. As the back of the packaging states, “We provide the screaming hordes! You provide the monster!” If only they had made Stormtroopers back in the day!

Included in the Horrified B-Movie Victims package are nine horrified b-movie victims — four women and five men, in various states of acting horrified. Four of the figures appear to be running away some unknown terror while the other five appear to be facing it, giving display makers some variety when it comes to placing their victims. Each victim is approximately three inches tall — too short to flee from my cantina display, but just the right height to appear terrified when placed next to the average toy monster.

While these figures may only appeal to a small, niche audience, I must fall within that demographic. I love these figures! I’ve had a blast arranging them in my cubicle, and my co-workers people have had a kick out of seeing what horrific creature will be chasing them next. Anyone who sets up displays around their work area (or just has a sick sense of humor) can pick up these figures from Archie McPhee, Accoutrements’ online store.

For those of you who hate nu-metal, hate teen angst, and hate bands with DJ’s, let me save you a few minutes of your time. Simply click the “back” button on your browser and pick another review. You won’t like Comadose. They’re opening for Vanilla Ice’s heavy metal band Bi-Polar later this month. If you think that’s a good thing, read on.

Comadose’s Re-Up could use a little polishing, but overall it should stand shoulder to shoulder with other albums of this genre. (Think 40 Below Summer or Primer 55.) The formula should be pretty familiar to you nu-metal fans by now. Loud drums, (heavy on the toms), palm muted guitars, plenty of rapping verses followed by screaming choruses, with a few DJ “wicky-wicky” sounds lightly sprinkled over the top. Stir, bake, cook until done, build a local following and sell on the web.

Not that there’s anything bad here, there’s just not much new either. The musicianship on the album is actually pretty good. The two guitarists (Worster/Ackroyd) split the stereo channels for some interesting guitar separation. Occasionally the two revert back to the Korn school of guitar playing (one plays rhythm, the other makes sound effects), but for the most part the duo offer up a two channel palm-mute attack which they pull off pretty well. Martin (bass) for the most part lines up behind the rhythm guitar, but occasionally takes the lead riff in a song or two. Jacob Brown on drums does a great job. The drums are loud and mixed right up front, with decent separation and nice tones. Roberge’s vocals are also perfect for this style of music; his raps are quick and crisp, his screams are loud and rough. The DJ scratching and samples (Cicchetti) don’t detract from the music too much. If you like that sort of thing, it’s there, and if you don’t, it’s not terribly distracting. The samples play nicely, but some of the scratching seems out of place. About the only bad thing I can say about the recording is that the mix is pretty bass heavy. I messed with my EQ for a few songs until I got rid of the muddyness. If they sell enough copies of this CD, I’m sure they’ll have it remastered. The highs are really crisp and distinct, but to hear them you’ll either have to crank up the treble or turn down the bass.

The band doesn’t break a lot of new ground lyrically either. “Buzzkill” is about “not being able to break them”, “Junkie” is about addiction, “Velcro” is about trying to part from a bad relationship, and “Slampig” is about “getting back in the pit”. While none of these songs are destined to be turned into novels anytime soon, I’m sure that’s what kids these days want to hear about. I used to think no one would be able to break me either, but then I got a haircut and started wearing a tie so I could get a job better than Pizza Hut. Junkies are junkies and bitches are bitches, so get over it. I’m too old to go in the pit anymore. Damn, I’m getting old. And cranky.

What’s wrong with Comadose? Nothing. In fact, it’s almost as if a nu-metal cookie cutter fell from Heaven and cut out the perfect “angry cookie”. There’s 0% learning curve here – fans of the genre will pop this CD in and leave it there for quite a while. It’s pretty familiar territory, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

With only 7 songs lasting a total of 28 minutes, the album feels more like a sampler than a full length effort. Comadose is doing everything right and chalks up some great experience with this album. Re-Up is good – and I’ll bet their next effort will be great. Definitely worth the $10 asking price from their website. Good stuff coming out of the northeast. They’re currently planning a Midwestern tour that begins early next year, so keep an eye out for them on the road.

Tracks:
01. Buzzkill
02. Junkie
03. Velcro
04. Slam Pig
05. Numb Skull
06. Cushion
07. Pain for Pleasure

With so many shopping options available these days (both brick & morter and online), it doesn’t take a lot to get me to quit coming to your store. I’ve implemented a “three strikes and your out policy” — if I get upset at your store three times, no matter how conveniently located you are or how much I want to like your company, I’m not coming back. Such is the case with Staples, located just Yukon just south of I-40 and Garth Brooks Blvd.

It all started last year, when Staples ran a sale on blank CDs. I go through a lot of blank CDs. I mean, a lot. I burn discs on a whim, making audio discs and mix CDs and give them away freely. There are months when I might go through a couple hundred blank discs, so when I see them on sale, I pick them up. So when places like Staples drop the price of their blank CDs in half as they did last year, I show up and buy in bulk. Blank CDs don’t go bad; they store just fine in the closet until I need them.

When I arrived at Staples I found they were sold out of blank CDs. The cashier gave me some great advice: “Go to Office Depot. They price match our ads.” I did just that. The Office Depot employees walked me right to their blank CD area and, even though they were marked for more than twice of Staples’, they gladly price matched the Staples ad, and I left (happily) with around 500 blank CDs.

You would think this would convert me to an Office Depot customer, but the problem is Staples is really close to my house. So when I needed a flat-panel monitor, I again went to Staples. After comparing models and prices, I picked out the one I wanted … only to find that, surprise, they didn’t have it in stock. Since I was going out of town the following day, I really needed the monitor that night. The manager informed me that he would not sell me the display (even at cost). The best he could do is order one and I could pick it up in a couple of days. “Don’t bother,” I told him. 30 minutes later I was the proud owner of a flat panel monitor, again from Office Depot. The monitor was $30 more at Office Depot, but I didn’t care. When I told my story to the cashier, she pulled a Staples sale ad from below the register, checked the price, and gave me $30 off. Wow!

And so, last weekend came the third strike. In search of a new digital camera, I stopped by Staples. Staples has 30 digital cameras on display. In stock, they had two. Not two of each model, two in all. They were out of stock of 28 of their 30 cameras. Can you guess what happened next? 30 minutes later I was walking out of Office Depot with a new digital camera.

The Staples in Yukon is clean and neat, but the best thing I can say about their merchandise is it’s a great place to go window shopping before you go to Office Depot (or the retailer of your choosing) to actually buy items. Sorry Staples, we won’t be back.