The Peacock Network was once a bastion for drama and comedy. Those days are long gone, with only a few bright spots in an otherwise abysmal line-up (Scrubs, My Name is Earl, and The Office being most of those highlights). Recently, they announced that Universal (NBC and USA Networks parent company) were moving Monk and Psych from USA to NBC, as if that was going be a good thing for those shows. Why find new shows or talent when you can just bring some up from the minor leagues? Just the other evening, we saw some commercials for four new shows this summer on NBC: all were reality/contest shows (including American Gladiator, which pretty much sucked the first go around). Now, comes an announcement that they are going to start crafting shows around sponsor’s products. Of course, that’s assuming any advertisers are even considering spending money at NBC.
Oh, to have blogged in so long and only to come back with a measly list of fluff. Well, something’s better than nothing, right?
I’ve been on a rather rampant fantasy kick as of late:
- “Dungeons & Dragons” — That venerable fantasy RPG lost one of it’s founders last month. However, not to be stopped, a new 4th edition of the rules are being published in June. D&D has definitely come up out of Mom’s basement, showered, and decided that hanging out with some of the cool kids isn’t so bad, after all. This, along with the fact that nerds are now cool, might just make for a renaissance of table-top gaming.
- “Dragonlance” — When I was a kid, “Dragonlance” was the coolest D&D setting (at least to my pal, TJ, and I — he even had the campaign book). An animated film was released to DVD in January of the first of the original trilogy of novels. You know, the sort of the thing that every kid dreams about as they read fantasy novels at age 12? Ah, even at that age, I’d have understood just how bad this adaptation was. I was depressed but happened upon a fantastic graphic novel by Devil’s Due Publishing of the same series of novels made me almost completely forget what an awful film Dragons of Autumn Twilight was. I even picked up a new novel by the same authors, which so far has been quite enjoyable.
- Krull — Speaking of D&D and my childhood (the two of which are pretty closely linked), I learned from IMDb that the 80’s fantasy film Krull was originally to be the first official “Dungeons & Dragons” movie. I went back and watched it and too things struck me: A) it doesn’t really resemble D&D at all and B) it wasn’t nearly as good a movie as I remembered it being (Great way to start a career, there, Liam Neeson!). Then I realized that pretty much all movies based on D&D have been awful: Krull, Dungeons & Dragons, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. When a movie by the SciFi channel is the best of the back, that’s just plain sad. I think Wizards of the Coast should encourage a TV series, instead. Better yet: more graphic novels.
- Graphic Novels — Having read the graphic novel of Dragons of Winter Night, I went in search of more graphic novels to feed my endless need for scifi and fantasy. Oh boy, did I find them: Aliens, Predators, Aliens vs. Predators, Conan the Barbarian, G.I. Joe… okay that last one isn’t really scifi, but did I mention childhood nostalgia? Maybe that’s a better theme here. Anyway, I’ve been on a graphic novel kick and, despite it being a rather pricey habit, it has been very rewarding. A lot of these really represent some great comic book artform and I’ve determined are often my best hope for amazing fantasy visuals, gripping plotlines, and epic characters. They sure as hell aren’t to be found in any of the movies.
- Audiobooks — Lastly, I’ve also been on something of an audiobook habit (more posts to follow on this subject). I was able to find some really great audiobooks by R. A. Salvatore and Michael Moorcock; two men who write about troubled anti-heroes with long, white hair. I even found audiobooks for that original Dragonlance trilogy I mentioned. There’s just one drawback to the audiobooks: I used to listen to these (along with podcasts) on my commute. Now that I hardly drive at all, it’s going to me forever to listen to them all!
Well, before you give me a wedgie and shove inside my locker along side my Player’s Manual, I should also say that I’ve been enjoying Season Two of The Wire, as well as all this fantasy stuff. Perhaps that explains it: I needed something whimsical and out-of-this-world to balance out the dark, gritty nature of a show like the The Wire. At least, that’s why I keep telling myself.
When I was a kid, I played just about every computer text adventure game I could get my hands on. I did try to play one of those graphical D&D games, but it never seemed to run very well on my VTech Laser128 (an Apple II clone). However, the text adventure games seemed to have so much more wit to them. I think it was very much a result of the games’ authors being required to focus on story and find creative responses to all the crazy sorts of input that players would be sure to enter. I mean, didn’t we all instruct our brave adventurer to “
pick nose” at some point?
So, I was really excited to see the trailer for Get Lamp, a documentary film about the text adventure game. Check it out. Of course, this is about as Indy as independent films get and the film maker isn’t too sure when he’s going to release it — you’ll just have to sign up for the e‑mail list.
And if you’ve never played a game like this, or just forgot how fun they were, then why don’t you go play Zork for a while? Don’t forget your trusty map:
…and if you’ve got a more recent version of OS X installed (like me), then you can no longer play the copy of Zork you downloaded from Infocom’s website. You can still install the Zork engine and play via the Terminal. However, if you’re too lazy to do that (also like me), you can still play a web-based version at iFiction.
So, after months and months of online discussion, Mythbusters Jamie and Adam put the physics where the rubber meets the road.
Almost two years ago, I (and most of the internet, it seems) saw a thought question at Kottke.org regarding an airplane on a giant conveyor belt. If the belt moved the exact same speed as the airplane’s wheels – only in the opposite direction – would the plane take off? Well, the answer was immediately clear to me, but that’s for the sole reason of I took several semesters of statics, dynamics, and physics in college. I knew immediately that the plane would take off, without any question. I did my best to clearly explain why this was the case in the ensuing discussion on Jason Kottke’s website1.
Well, last night, I (and Kottke, along with a lot of others) were vindicated as we watched a little yellow, single seat ultralight take off from a 2,000 foot long conveyor belt on a new episode of Mythbusters.
Now, as just a brief – and parenthetical – afterthought: it always feels good to be proven right. However, one of the most awesome experiences in science is when all common sense tells you one thing, but the numbers and scientific logic tell you the opposite. In that case, when a empirical result supports the unlikely or seemingly impossible, it is a marvelous and wonderful surprise. Think about all the really cool experiments you ever saw in science class or on Mr. Wizard, and I’ll bet they fit into that latter case. What you thought couldn’t happen does indeed happen right before your eyes. That very thing has made many a person fall in love with science for the rest of their lives and I sincerely hope that this experiment did the same for a lot of people last night.
In the meantime: I told you so!
I really enjoy most movies-based-on-books in which the author is involved in the film itself (“Hellboy” and “Sin City,” for examples). Of course, what happens when a director or screen-writer decides to significantly change portions of the story (like in virtually ever one of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of films)? Well, I am not going to argue when the writer gives their blessing, as appears to be the case with Frank Darabont’s change to the ending of Stephen King’s “The Mist.” Darabont quoting King:
And I still have the e‑mail. He said, “Wow, I love the ending. If I’d thought of it, I’d have used it in the story.”
Angela and I are both really excited about Harry Potter this month because within the span of about a week, both the fifth film will come to theaters (we’ve already got our tickets) and the seventh book, and final, book will be arriving at bookstores (yes, we’ve already got one copy on reserve at our local fantasy and scifi book seller).
I’m seeing a lot of storied regarding pleas for J.K. Rowling to “save Harry!” There is a great deal of concern that the character of Harry Potter will be killed off in the last book. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked at all, as it makes for both good story and character arcs (the fates of the antagonist and protagonist are intrinsically linked; death of the hero/savior for the good of all, etc.). All the same, the time for making such pleas for Harry’s life has long since past. I’m quite sure that the final edit has already gone to the printers at this point given this might just be the largest single book printing for a first edition in all of history. Where were you people months ago when people first started getting concerned about this?
At any rate, Rowling has been pretty clear that whether Harry lives or dies in a couple of weeks, she won’t be writing about him any more.
Okay, so this is turning out to be more of a bi-weekly thing than anything else. I don’t recall ever promising anything — as who would I promise it to?
Five things that have been on my radar ‘o fun over the past couple of weeks:
- This is a great music video by a formerly-not-known-to-me Brit indie Bats for Lashes. I like the kind of creepy, haunting sound of the song which matches perfectly the Donnie Darko inspired video imagery (via BoingBoing).
- Angela and I have been watching Judd Apatow’s “Undeclared” via Netflix. It’s not nearly as good as “Freaks and Geeks” but still better than your average comedy. Most of this, by Apatow’s description is due to the fact that the really good stuff that goes on at college can’t be shown on network television. True, that. Anyone wanting to go see Knocked Up, please give me a call.
- Last night, we went to see Son Volt at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Last week was Big Head Todd & the Monsters. Two really good bands. Frankly, I didn’t have too high of hopes for the Son Volt show as the “reunion” of that band feels a lot like Jay Farrar cashing in on the relative success of the band as compared to his solo career (especially last month’s new album, which I found disappointing). However, I really like Farrar’s songs, be they Son Volt, solo career, or Uncle Tupelo – all of which got some play-time last night.
- Per everyone-I-know’s recommendations, I read the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.‘s “Slaughterhouse Five” recently. Well, after having read the book, of course the next thing to do is see the movie (no, not really – I think it’s a shame that the general notion seems to be that the highest status a novel can have is to be made into a film). So last weekend, I watched the 1972 movie based on the book. I was fairly pleased with how it got portrayed and apparently, Vonnegut was, too.
- Last, but probably the most important, Angela and I really enjoyed the baby shower our friends Holly and Meg threw for us at also-friend Jessica’s house. It was great and we were simply amazed at how generous our friends are. We clearly have no idea what we’re doing with this whole baby thing (apparently just like everyone else, knowledge that has kept us going). However, in addition to the really great gifts that everyone went out of their way to get us (and mail us, too!), having people to count on is a big deal. Thanks, everyone.
I’m trying to make this a weekly thing, but who knows how long it’ll last.
Another week flew by me and I’m not sure where it went. That’s more the norm than not I suppose. Here’s a few things, in no particular order that have been interesting and enjoyable this week:
- Getting to see inside me by having an MRI done. I’ve been learning some about medical imaging in the past few months with baby ultrasounds for Angela as well as x‑rays and MRIs for me. It’s all amazing stuff and makes me really appreciate modern medicine and our ability to see what is happening inside us without ever opening us up. Of course, the cost for all this imaging is still high enough to make it as common as I expect it someday will be, so that makes me appreciate having good insurance.
- Having a good boss. Okay, he doesn’t read this so don’t assume it’s for his benefit or anything. However, I’ve had some bad jobs before and I’ve been lucky to work for people sense college that allowed me to work in my own style instead of some rigid framework. Work has been insanely hectic for the past couple of months and that’s going to continue for a while in the future. However, my boss never beats me up about it. He’s demanding, but not unreasonable and that’s about the best you can hope for in this kind of work.
- Okay, just so you don’t think this is some thanksgiving list, I’ve also been loving three new albums I downloaded this week. Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky is kind of a continuation of A Ghost is Born; some quirky and soft melodies punctuated with some rockin’ moments. Not having listened to Modest Mouse for all that long, I can’t say if We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is much of a progression for that band since their last album, but I can say I like it a lot. After seeing The Avett Brothers last week, I can see why my friend Chris likes them so much. Their live album on iTunes – Live, Vol. 2 – seems to capture a lot of their live shows and “Pretty Girl From Annapolis” has been stuck in my head for days, now. I need to pick up their new album as well.
- I got on a Futurama kick a few days ago and have been watching a number of episodes off of Comedy Central (I only occasionally watched it first run in my pre-TiVo days). It’s best moments are using Fry & Co. to make commentary about modern life (this must have been the inspiration for Idiocracy…). It’s most boring moments to me are showing once again how annoying Dr. Zoidberg is or how crass Bender is.
- This weekend is the Lebanese festival in Richmond. Angela went to lunch there with some of her co-workers, as did one of my co-workers, and they said it was great. Angela is going to take me to dinner there this evening. I haven’t enjoyed it just yet, but I know I will!
Apparently, the Apocolypse came sometime before 2006 [Ed: Yes, of course. It was the day John Kerry lost to George Bush. Zing.]. I know this because in the first few months of 2007, I watched three of the most amazing post-apocalypse films I’ve ever seen and they were all from the past year1.
V for Vendetta
The Wachowski brother’s V for Vendetta
The Wachowski brothers haven’t really done much since the first Matrix film, and I’m including the latter 2/3rds of the trilogy in ‘not much’ (and, yes, they were above average sci-fi films but not of the same caliber as the first). However, last year’s V For Vendetta was a stunning political thriller. Science fiction in name only, just as most all great sci-fi is, this film warns about how the difference between a state gripped with fear for its security and a fascist state is really only one of time. The film’s boldness goes well beyond just harsh critiques of modern-day political rhetoric (though the storyline was written in the 80’s). The treatment of the two lead characters: a hero who’s face we are never shown and a lovely heroine who has her head shaved are not common Hollywood treatments (think: shirtless muscle-men and flawless beauties, despite rather harsh circumstances that wouldn’t warrant either).
Science fiction is the home of the dystopia storyline and like the best of them2, this world is terrifying mainly because of it’s similarities to our own rather than its differences. Also, V is a beautiful film and doesn’t beat the audience over the head with either special effects or political statement. However, both are a strong presence in the film. It left me with the both feelings of despair and hope. Despair that people in my country just might be afraid enough to let this sort of thing happen but hope that most of us are smart enough to see through such theater. Also, hope because the story takes place in Britain and Americans aren’t so polite about being bullied from the get-go.
Mike Judge’s Idiocracy
Mike Judge’s love-it-or-hate-it story doesn’t have atomic bomb wielding terrorists destroying the world we know. Rather, people destroy it by taking a path toward stupidity. We de-evolve into a race of idiots. It’s an apocalypse 500 years in the making.
I personally loved this film, despite the fact that I had an overwhelming sense of depression after watching it. While I laughed at much of the straight-faced humor presented, it was more like the laugh of a person caught in a hopeless situation, giving up on any hope of changing the future and reduced to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Modern tragic comedy, although I thought that was supposed to have a happy ending (the film does, unless you live in modern times…).
The design of the film wasn’t one of beauty. However, that was essentially the point. Beauty is gone and is replaced not with the gray despair of most dystopias. No, this is much more like the dystopia of Brave New World, where only a few people realize that they have much to unhappy about. Here, in Idiocracy, we have something far worse: advertising. The materialistic tendencies of much of today’s popular culture have collided with mass advertising such that if you can see it, it’s fair game for branding. Further degradation of society comes in virtually ever aspect of life: entertainment, health care, politics, education, the legal system, food, and even speech. We’ve all been in an atmosphere things like initiative, intelligence, and caring were shunned. It was called High School. Imagine a world in which everyone behaves just like the back row of your high school algebra class.
Terrifying. Also, genius political and social satire.
Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men
Here’s a film that would have made perfect sense and been almost as enjoyable without any sound, in my opinion. While the story was gripping (based loosely on the novel written by P.D. James), it is Cuaron’s visual style that tells so much story. Long, incredibly long, impossibly long shots span minutes of the story creating a sense of drama that is unreal. The sense of being in the story is almost overwhelming at times3. I can’t even quite describe it as documentary style. It’s more like being right in the scenes and not being able to close your eyes to blink for even a moment. It is intense and amazing to watch.
The film is steeped with allegory, particularly Christian stories and themes. The film opened on Christmas Day last year and can easily be described as a modern day tale of Joseph and Mary. However, most people don’t celebrate Christmas with dystopian tales of the possible end of humanity; resulting in the film bombing at the box office. However, the film has gained a great deal of critical acclaim and the DVD release might as well have been its debut, so don’t feel bad if you missed it. It’s also just as well, as you might want to watch it a couple of times just to catch all those amazing long-shot scenes and much of the imagery, both present and implied.
Science fiction is the home of the dystopian story. Through a fabled look at the future, we can make political and social commentary on the present and the past. The disarming nature of science fiction allows us to do so in a way that is non-threatening but also allows us to explore the “what if” scenario without abandon. This is why I love science fiction so much and why the dystopian storyline is my favorite in the that genre. When done right, the ‘magic black box device’ or ‘singular event that changed man’ becomes just a prop to allow the writers, directors, and actors to explore the human condition in a way we can’t do in the here and now. It may seem ironic that the genre that is the home of distant worlds in other galaxies and alien life forms is the one that allows us to most closely examine our home and what it means to be human; that looking off into the future gives us the perfect mirror for today. However, in the great stories in science fiction, that is exactly the point.
Laser blasters, light sabers, slimy bug eyed monsters, and giant robots are just really cool icing on the cake.
- We don’t get out to the cinema much these days, so we just wait until everything comes out on DVD and rent it via Netflix. I could write endlessly on why this is better than going to the movies, but that will have to be another post. [↩]
- 1984 is probably the most famous of this genre and incidentally, the hero of that tale was portrayed by John Hurt in a film adaptation. Hurt is re-cast as the totalitarian in V, moving from little man to giant head via video screen. [↩]
- Unless you are Angela, who has slept through some pretty great films and this was no different. [↩]
Ever since I decided that purchasing a DVD of “Monarch of the Glen” at the BBC store at the BBC Television Centre just outside of London would be a good idea, I’ve been haunted with how to watch my legitimately purchased television show. Angela and I have purchased a number of other DVD from Amazon.co.uk since and we’ve enjoyed getting to watch these shows instead of waiting to see if they’ll ever make it to this side of the Atlantic1.
VLC Player can play Video_TS files from a ripped DVD, allowing you to check the file back-up was done right before burning a physical back-up disc. Here’s a scene from the second season of Monarch of the Glen.
First, some background on why all this is such a pain. Video formats differ between the US and Europe (and much of the rest of the world, for that matter). There are three different signal types: NTSC, PAL, and SECAM. Here in the us, we use NTSC and in the UK, it’s PAL (SECAM is French and not quite as common). The short version of this issue is the different signal rates, resolution, and encoding result in a PAL signal on a NTSC monitor as a black & white “rolling” picture (sound may or may not be affected). It’s like Andy Kauffman got a hold of your DVD player and finds the joke much funnier than you do.
The other issue, as it pertains to DVDs, is the “Region Code.” As film studios get some sort of demented kick out of releasing films at different times around the world (or just not releasing them at all), the region code prevents discs made for one global region being played in another. There are some players which are made “region free” (or, more often, can be hacked to that setting) but most are not. DVDs in the UK are Region 2 where as the U.S. market is Region 1. Thus, we own several DVDs that won’t load on our DVD player and even if they did, wouldn’t be watchable.
All this, despite the fact that we legally bought them.
Trying To Be A Good Guy
I first learned about Channel 4’s The IT Crowd from a post Cory Doctorow made on BoingBoing. It was great that the studio was going to post the videos online to watch, but it sucked that only UK residents could watch them (your IP tells others where you are surfing from). I was able to download copies of the show via BitTorrent and so that’s how I first watched them. I really enjoyed the show a lot and felt it would be fair to pay them for making such a great little comedy. Therefore, I purchased the first season of the show from Amazon.co.uk (similar to how I first got into Lost, by the way).
Now, having purchased the The IT Crowd in addition to having purchased all seven seasons of Monarch of the Glen, we have a fairly good collection of Region 2 discs. Up until recently, we had a hacked Philips DVD player that was able to play them without trouble. Unfortunately, that player gave out prematurely and we had no intention of replacing with an equally cheap one (only rich men can afford to buy cheap things, as they must buy them over and over; or so the saying goes). That meant we’d have to make Region 1 back-ups of our DVDs, though.
No problem, right? You just copy them like any other files on a computer, right? No, it doesn’t quite work that way. You’re thinking like a criminal, says Hollywood.
So We Have To Break The Law?
It is illegal to make a copy of a DVD as this requires “breaking” the Content Scrambling System (CSS) on the disc. However, that being said, there are a number of commercial and open source applications which will rip a DVD. There are some really great ones for the mac. Handbrake2 is a great piece of software for stripping out the video on a DVD and creating a single, portable file. However, it does not create an exact copy of the disc. MacTheRipper3, on the other hand, can extract the entire contents of a disc, menus and all, onto a computer’s hard disc. Both are handy applications, depending on what format you want your video in. We use Handbrake to create compact copies of a movie or shows to store on Angela’s laptop when traveling. This saves on space as well as battery life. I would like to point out that while we do rip Netflix rentals, we delete them after watching them (storage is far more precious on her iBook than the time it takes to re-rent a movie).
However, for my need to watch a Region 2 PAL disc on my Region 1 NTSC DVD player, I need Mac The Ripper. It’s a fairly dummy-proof piece of software: insert the disc, select a directory to store the files in, accept the default settings, and click “Go.” However, you must have a drive that will allow you to load discs from different regions. Usually, that’s not a problem as it’s the Operating System that restricts the Region setting. However, on a lot of Intel macs, such as my iMac, the drive has the region in the firmware. Firmware that, at least as of yet, isn’t user hackable. Mac The Ripper doesn’t appear to be able to do anything with it.
If only I had a drive that didn’t care what Region the disc was…
Two Options, Neither Perfect
The first option was to reset the DVD Region on Angela’s iBook and use it to rip the discs, storing them via the network on my iMac’s hard drive. This worked well enough, but what if Angela wanted to watch a different DVD? We can only change the Region four more times, one of which kind of has to be back to Region 1. She’d not be too happy with me if I more-or-less broke the DVD playing functionality of her laptop. Sure, we rip a lot of stuff, but still; we’d both like it to function normally in case we’d like to just watch a movie.4
The second option was to find an external DVD drive (or burner, as external DVD-ROMs are all in museums now). Those are usually somewhat costly, but I lucked out and found a Sony DRX-700UL Dual Layer DVD burner on eBay for under $50. I was excited that it was FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 but unfortunately it’s a Windows-only device and for some odd reason only works with OS X on my iMac via USB, but not FireWire. Oh well, I have more free USB ports than FireWire anyway. Otherwise, this solution has worked flawlessly. Mac The Ripper is able to copy over the files from a 7.8 GB DVD in about 20 minutes. I use Toast 8 to select the Video_TS directory5 on the internal SuperDrive.
A Sony Dual Layer burner I was able to purchase for fairly cheap on eBay allows me to rip DVDs from Regions other than Region 1 onto my hard drive for creating back-ups.
I’m not thrilled that I had to spend $50 for an external drive (which clutters up the desk I’ve tried so hard to unclutter) not to mention about $2.50 per DL disc. Given that I have about 25 Region 2 discs to make back-ups of, this is about a $110 endeavor. All just to watch movies that I purchased legally!
Now, one final note on all this. I’m not suggesting nor am I condoning making copies for giving away or selling to anyone. I simply want to be able to watch the media that I’ve legally purchased in my own home and I believe you should be able to do the same. There are any number of reasons why someone would legitimately want to watch a foreign DVD (school research, learning a language, fan of foreign films, immigrants looking for a taste of the old country, etc.). Whatever dumb reasons that Hollywood, the MPAA, and others have come up with to try and prevent “piracy” seem only to have served to frustrate and demonize consumers. It’s unfortunate, but I have no intention of letting it stop us from enjoying the shows and films we love.
- Further, since we rarely watched some of the boutique channels anyway, we’ve long-since canceled our cable package which included BBC America. That channel is sorely missed (The Office, anyone?), but for the price we paid we could purchase or rent cheaper. [↩]
- Winner of ‘most nonsensical icon of the year.’ [↩]
- A program which deserves ‘worst icon of the year’ award. Also, you’re totally on your own using this one. [↩]
- Of course, I could just change the Region on my iMac, but we do watch a lot of movies on this machine now. Front Row is really awesome and frankly, our house is freakin’ cold downstairs in February. [↩]
- This is the file structure for a DVD movie. Incidentally, you can play Video_TS directories off of your hard drive with VLC, allowing you to check the files before burning them to DVD. Dual Layer discs aren’t cheap. [↩]