NBC: We’ve Pretty Much Given Up

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.

Five Fun Things Friday — Mid-April Edition

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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
my fantasy audiobook collection in iTunes
  1. 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.

Text Adventure Documentary Film

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:

Hand drawn map of Zork I

…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.

You are standing in an open field...

For The Last Time: The Plane Takes Off!

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.

Mythbusters graphic

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.

Plane taking off.

In the mean­time: I told you so!

  1. Kot­tke has real­ly tak­en some own­er­ship of this ques­tion, too. He even live-blogged last night’s episode. I, unfor­tu­nate­ly, had to TiVo it and watch it this morn­ing. Hence, the some­what late post of mine. []

Collaboration Is Not Second Guessing

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.”

Harry Potter and the Getting of Your Act Together

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.

Five Fun Things Friday — Mid-June Edition

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    Uncle Tupelo Cover
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Five Fun Things: May 18th Edition

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

2006: Year of the Post-Apocolypse

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Unless you are Angela, who has slept through some pret­ty great films and this was no dif­fer­ent. []

Fighting ‘The Man’ – International Film Edition

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 Playing Video_TS File

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?

Mac The Ripper In Action

Mac The Rip­per is an easy way to cre­ate back-ups of your DVDs

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.

Sony DRX-700UL Burner

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Win­ner of ‘most non­sen­si­cal icon of the year.’ []
  3. A pro­gram which deserves ‘worst icon of the year’ award. Also, you’re total­ly on your own using this one. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []