June 27, 2014

1996 Is Calling...

...and it wants its rant back.

While I contemplate the future of this blog and its associated podcast, I thought I'd share something I dug up while going through some very old saved email (well, it's old for email) discussions from the mid-1990s. I'd call it a good snapshot from the time, something that among other things tells me how my friends and I treated the medium of email. The messages are often extremely long and read much like blog entries or discussion board posts. It's hard to imagine this stuff being shared over any social media today. On Facebook, no one would even get past the first couple of sentences. To bring this back to some sort of subject, I chose to post this entry because the subject loosely fits this blog. The text file this was culled from didn't have an exact date on it but it did have all the email addresses the "essay" was originally sent to. I note today that while I recognize the email addresses, not one of the people associated with them still uses the address listed here (I haven't had an AOL email address in a looooong time). I corrected a few typos and formatted it for clarity but it's otherwise exactly what I wrote so let's see what I had to say about home video in 1996:
Let's just wait for the video...(long)

Dear friends: Today I am going to write about video (for you tech people, I mean consumer video, (IE. VHS and Laserdiscs that most people buy and rent). Since several friends have gotten on the bandwagon and purchased VHS decks somewhat recently and seeing that I am the resident authority on the subject, a dubious distinction to be sure, I thought it'd be a good time to give you all my take on video: where it's been and where it's going, and what is both good and bad about it.

True, it may seem like a silly thing to write about (although presenting it through the Internet seems strangely appropriate), it is a device that has changed the face of home entertainment in more ways than three.

Part I: A brief history of (video) time. Way back when, in 1976 or so, Disco was going strong and a new consumer wonder was introduced: the video cassette recorder. The early VCRs were large, ungainly, crude (by today's standards; just being able to time-shift a single program was quite the big event in those days--that is, for those who were adept enough to figure out how to program the beasts (those slobs have it so easy today!), and expensive (around $2,000).

And for you Betamax diehards (that would include myself and a few others whom I will not name in order to protect their families), I shall quickly cover the great Beta/VHS war that was waged in the early 80's.

1975: Sony and JVC both introduce new VCR formats (Sony=Beta, JVC=VHS), totally incompatible with one another. Now, as we currently see it, that was a very idiotic thing for them to have done, but the entire history of the recording industry has been littered with the corpses of formats that lost the struggle. Will they ever learn? Now, these two Japanese electronics giants had different ideas of how they should go about conquering this brave new market. Sony, knowing that they had the technically superior product, (Beta was a better format; nobody who knows anything about video would ever deny this) decided to keep it all to themselves and make all the profit since they figured that all those people out there would buy the Betamax no matter what since it was better. JVC, on the other hand, began licensing other companies to manufacture its machine (for a suitable fee, of course), to the point that anybody who wanted to could manufacture and market a VHS deck. It doesn't take much thought to figure out what happens next. By the early to mid 80's, when VCRs really started to sell, Sony was still keeping Beta to themselves (they did license to Sanyo, NEC--now out of the US market--, and Toshiba--one of the only companies to make both formats for a time--but by then it was too late), profiting in the short term, but losing the format war altogether since those few companies (at most) just couldn't get the market share that JVC and the dozen other (if you count the small fry) companies could manage. So, why didn't Beta succeed at least as well as, say, the Macintosh did? Beta just wasn't different enough for most people to notice. The Mac, on the other hand, while performing similar functions to its competitors, had a distinct and different operation and look which attracted a loyal customer base who didn't mind paying extra and only buying Apple products. So, Beta was relegated to the consumer electronics scrapheap and we all got stuck with the inferior, but better marketed format. Life isn't always fair.

And now, back to our story: At this point, the 80's are in full swing and a new business is being created: the video rental retailer. Up to this point, most people who bought VCRs, did so to record television shows (there was a Supreme Court case, brought about by the networks, around this time in which it was declared legal to record broadcasts for personal use). Pre-recorded movies on tape were expensive (they were often badly duplicated television copies) and often difficult to locate, but some people got the idea that if they bought these tapes and rented them out to people (the first Blockbuster was opened in '85) that they'd make a lot of dough. Boy, were they right. By the late 80's, the price of new VCRs had dropped so much that it seemed like EVERYBODY had one (many were buying second or third machines) and the video rental retailers kept right up with them. Another force driving all this at this time was the fact that the movie studios finally caught on and began mass producing videos and releasing a large number of titles. The demand is met.

And that pretty much brings us into the present. VCRs have been getting even cheaper (in more ways than one, but that's another topic I'd rather avoid at the moment) and video stores litter the landscape of America, there to satiate our ever-increasing appetites video movies. Laserdisc? I really don't need to say much about them since those who know, use Miracle, that wasn't it.....oh yeah, know better and the rest of you will never understand why they're better than videocassettes....Now that we all know where that grand institution known as home video came from (or was it a hideous UN plot?!), I can zero in on its effects on the public.

Part II: What's good about video:

Convenience. No one can deny the simple convenience and availability of the format. Video tapes are easy to use, cheap, and the choice of titles gets better all the time. I, as a rabid consumer of classic film, would be the first to admit that video has allowed me to see and own, for that matter, films I wouldn't have access to in theaters (cable is also getting quite good in this area and of course, cable and home video are getting closer and closer all the time) and this could get even better with the eventuality of video on-demand.

Cost. Yep, it's cheap.

Privacy. This could be lumped in with the convenience area, but there is no denying the fact that people often prefer to watch flicks in their living rooms (the video boom has breathed new life into the porn business) and to a certain point, I would agree. So, it would seem that video has it all wrapped up. It's convenient, cheap, there is a huge choice of titles, and you don't have to go to the trouble of going to that stinky movie theater just to see the latest Van Damme epic.

Part III: What's wrong with video:

Having said all that, I begin with this statement: I believe that the advent of home video has had the most detrimental effect on the art of film-making in its one hundred year history. This may sound a bit like an overreaction, but think about it: what other factor has had this kind of negative effect? Bear in mind that when I say "negative," I refer strictly to the "art" of film-making and not the financial performance of the film industry, which has benefited from the video surge (it helps that the film companies are actively involved in the business).

Some might argue that the coming of television in the early fifties was a more serious threat. Television was indeed a threat to the film industry, that is, the companies that produced the films (this of course, was mainly due to the studios' short-sightedness and the fact that the television networks grew out of a different industry: radio--the Sherman anti-trust act didn't hurt either). However, to the people making the films, it was a blessing in disguise. A number of positive changes came about, mainly thanks to competition with the tube:

The elimination of the Hays production code, (named for Will H. Hays, a former RNC chairman, during the Harding administration, who headed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which was created during the twenties by the studio moguls as a response to public pressure to exercise some kind of film censorship. Generally known as the "Hays Office," it came up with the "Hays Code" which dictated what could and couldn't be done on camera. The code was almost always strictly enforced by the Hollywood studios.) the advent of widescreen processes, such as Cinemascope (its current incarnation is known as Panavision) and the use of stereophonic sound (googlaphonic?!), and the elimination of the strict, micromanaged studio system (which is a whole other essay all by itself) which was often stifling to artists in film.

Video, oddly enough, has had the opposite effect. Instead of hurting the business end, it has damaged the creative end of the chain in more ways than one. One problem: video now often dictates how films are made (the marketing deals and strategies are figured out before the film is even shot, in many cases) from the types of films that get made to the way they are shot (oh, I guess I can't do this wide shot since it wouldn't look good on Joe Sixpack's 20" TV) to the material. "Forrest Gump" is a good example of a made-for-video film. It looks great on TV, and all those hit songs! It has also effected the way people watch films in the theaters. To many people, used to watching videos at home on their stratoloungers, going to see a film in the theater isn't much different. They seem to act the same way in a theater as they do at home (which would lead one to believe that most people are assholes in their own homes); they make noise during the film, talk, and be generally annoyed that their collective attention spans are being stretched to such extreme lengths.

So, it would seem as though the only reason most people ever go to a movie theater at all is because they can't see the material anywhere else. Now, if all the new films were simultaneously released in the theater and on video (and, yes, let's be fair: the price being the same to see the film), how many theaters would remain open? My guess would be very few. Is convenience that important to people? For you see, seeing a film in a dark theater, light through celluloid, is a different experience than watching it on television. Screen size aside, it is simply a different way to see the film for the way it is presented is different: you are actually going out to see, that is, to give your complete attention to, a film. While when seeing it on video, you're in your house, there are distractions, you can do the dishes, and so on. And then there's the technical end of it. The simple fact is, that most films, made after about 1953, were meant to be shown on a screen that's not only many times larger than a tv, but one that has a different aspect ratio (why they have to crop films when they're put on video). Letterboxing helps, but relatively few video consumers understand or care about something so complicated as screen sizes. So, am I advocating total abolishment of home video? Of course not. I find video to be quite useful, but, and I trust I can speak for most of you, I would rather see a film in a theater every time than watch it at home. A good Laserdisc of a film is a great thing to have around if you want to study a film; I like having certain films available to me because I am interested in how they are made. However, most people rent a video and forget all about it the next day and no wonder. The way they are watching it is so non-committal, that (those films that have material worthy of concentration) becomes meaningless, like the bad sitcoms they saw the night before.

And that brings me to another point: television. Television and film are becoming more and more alike, each borrowing from one another. I would almost call it, the dumbing down of film. Television/video has gained the slick production values of (this is relative) Hollywood, look at ST:TNG, and many of the films produced today have been reduced to big-budget television shows with no more depth than your average episode of 90210 (and don't even get me started on music videos!).

Part IV: Please be kind, rewind
Maybe the "American People" don't care about the art of film. Maybe they like to see good acting, writing, and direction (oh, and let's not forget special effects!) ,but only if they can see it while running on the treadmill. People obviously like to get out of their houses, but if they don't care about the films, why don't they just sit in bars and drink? There are many forces at work here and most are simply products of our society. People just don't want to concentrate on anything for very long and video is tailor made for our go-go way of living, it would seem. So, I apologize for the extreme length of this bit, but I thought some of you might be interested in this (since we are, after all, a generation of film students) to a certain extent. Chime in if you wish. I probably sound like I just joined the AARP film society, but this attitude has been built up over some time now and much of it has become more clear to me. I used to have a pretty laid-back attitude about video, but after years of use and observation, I have discovered the true, evil, twisted, government plot of this insidious device!

Help us, Sponk!!!!! See you at the video store! johnK

Well okay then. I really had to resist the urge to edit the hell out of that thing but the past is the past, right? I have to keep telling myself that this was five years before Wikipedia which today is a great resource for this kind of information. As far as I can remember, I really just pulled most of that essay out of my ass. There are some facts that aren't 100% correct but close enough to make the point. I like to think that I write somewhat better than that today. Oh yes, of course I do!

The other things I remember thinking as I read this piece were:

1. Where did I get off being so sanctimonious about movie and TV culture? Frustrated video store employee, guilty as-charged. I could easily write another long essay poking holes in my "video has damaged the art of filmmaking" screed but life is too short.

2. My remarks about home video: when I stop to think of the myriad forms of technology available to me today to watch movies and TV shows, I am amazed. We have it SO much better than we did in those days. Despite my ranting about the public at large disrespecting the "classic" movie-going experience, I as a film fan have never had it so good. There are so many ways to get access to content now. Sure, it's a pain to have to navigate all the different streaming/download services to find what you want but with few exceptions, we have easier access at far higher quality than ever before. And while first run movie theater ticket prices are higher, the price for purchase/rental of video today is the same or lower than it was in 1996.

Today, whenever I have to deal with video tape, I am reminded of how crummy it is as a consumer experience. I certainly have criticisms of DVD, Blu-ray, and Internet-based streaming services, but if the long term issues with digital archiving and storage can be solved, we're all a lot better off. Related to that, I have to say that I'm impressed that the few tapes from the 1980s I've played back recently (to digitize) still play and look about as good as they did decades ago. Will we be able to say the same for the digital content that's stored on servers today? Possibly. I hope.

So, if I could reach out and respond to my 1996 self, I would have two things to say:

1. Take it easy on the elitism.

2. It will get better.

February 16, 2011

Your Call Cannot Be Completed As Dialed

This week, my home landline telephone service was shut off and I have now joined the ever-growing group of people doing without the copper.

Making this change brought out a bit of nostalgia as this is the first time I have ever not had traditional phone service in my home. This is the phone I remember most from my childhood in Rapid City:


Hallmarks of those phones were that they always seemed to work and the buttons were lit. Those old phones were built like tanks (and weighed about as much too) and seemed to last forever.

Even without the solid build of the old Bell System phones, the landline phone remains the most reliable way to talk to someone. Even when the electricity fails, the phone still works.

I will always remember all the old clicks and associated noises the phone systems made when you placed a call, especially a long-distance one. There was just enough of a delay and other audible evidence to remind you that you were talking to someone far away.

I have yet to hear a cell phone that matches the ancient technology of the landline phone for voice quality. That's kind of sad, in a way. I recently got an iPhone, which I generally like very much, but despite all the amazing technology contained in this mobile computer, the cheapest old landline phone in my home still makes better calls. Such is the price of progress, I suppose. Skype calls over the Internet can sound better, but sometimes don't. I do have hope that someday, cell phones will be able to measure up to what we're all abandoning.

It may sound funny to hear that, but as much as I might like calling people on a landline phone, I found myself using it less and less. Cell phones as just too damned convenient and the cost issues made the decision easy. Maybe I'll miss the old phones, but I doubt it. Besides, who wants to talk to people anyway?

January 13, 2011

"What we require now is a feat of linguistic legerdemain and a degree of intrepidity."

A long, damned time. Yes, it has been quite a while since I have written a single word on this poor, pathetic, neglected blog. The multitudinous cries of pain out there in the cyber-darkness confirm that it has been indeed far too long. Oh wait, that was something else...never mind. I will not bore you with the details surrounding my absence from this blog, which has been around in various forms for a number of years. The point is that it's now time for me to resume. I have thought about this a slight bit and as I sit here peering out the window of the MS Zuirdam (cruise ship) en route to Costa Rica. I do not intend to completely return to the old formula where I would list the new releases with occasional commentary. The "standard" entries will now be more focused on things I am actually interested in talking about which may include new video releases, but the blog will be much less comprehensive than it was. There are plenty of other sources for timely release dates for new video titles and I dare say that no one probably missed what I was posting in that area anyway.
Besides the catchall self-indulgent category of "whatever the hell I want to talk about," I am continuing the Star Trek Original Series survey. Eric, Rob, and I have had far too much and gone too far to stop that. Yes, someday we will undoubtedly finish the series, Spock's Brain be damned!
To get things rolling again, I am going to write about more Star Trek. There is another Original Series installment coming soon as well. I just know you are all breathing a massive sigh of relief!

I recently re-watched Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). I am not entirely sure why I chose this movie; perhaps it was one I had not seen in a long while, but in any case, it stood out. When Star Trek VI came out, it was something I had been eagerly anticipating for some time. Star Trek V was a disaster that VI promised to rectify. Nicholas Meyer, the guy behind Star Trek II, was once again running the show and, well it just HAD to be better, right? In addition, this was in all likelihood going to be the last call for the whole original cast so the bar was set for them to go out on a high note before the Next Generation cast took over.
I won't waste space recounting the story here, but the story and ideas behind VI center around late Cold War anxieties and hopes for the future. In this movie, Kirk and Chang (the grizzled veteran Klingon commander) are the soon-to-be obsolete Cold Warriors (there is even a line in the film where Chang refers to he and Kirk as kindred Cold War spirits) with a very uncertain future in Star Trek's version of the "New World Order." For me, this is one the better elements of this particular installment; the story nicely weaves the death of Kirk's son David (from "Wrath of Khan") into the character of Kirk. Chang is obviously Kirk's mirror image on the Klingon side, so we see how similar the two are in many ways. Even Spock finds himself questioning whether he has gotten too old and inflexible to be of use in this new age. I appreciate the way that then movie is willing to acknowledge the fact that the characters are not what they were and not immune to change. I understand that perhaps this particular set of characters might be best left back in their eternal prime, but if you are going to continue to crank out movies when the actors are in retirement age, it gets pretty ridiculous to keep on pretending that nothing has changed.
The screenplay's way of dealing with the themes of change and loss is handled less clumsily with the characters than it is as it relates to the actual narrative. The obvious desire here is for Kirk and the crew to do just one more heroic, save-the-day action before heading off into the sunset. One problem with the way this is done in the movie is that to make our beloved character's actions possible, the rest of the Universe is made to seem fairly incompetent. The non-Enterprise Federation people really don't look like the have their shit together and while the antagonists appear to be more on-the-ball, they don't seem to have much of a backup plan when Kirk gets involved. While I am on the subject of weaknesses, the character of Valaris (SP?) is just plain irritating. The character needed to be there in some form so that the beans could be spilled, but the way she is written often serves to be an annoyance to Kirk and Spock. She is not at all sympathetic, a trait that even Savik (another introduced character I was not fond of) occasionally had. It is so bad that I don't even recall feeling anything when Spock basically mind-rapes her. This scene turns the good old Vulcan mind-meld into a violation that I cannot imagine Spock or any other non-psycho Vulcan under any circumstances approving of. Yes, the scene is a convenient way of revealing the assassination plot, but it reeks of writer laziness; they could have found a better way to get this done.
The production values are a mixed bag. In some ways, the film just looks cheap. The sets are often just repurposed from Star Trek: The Next Generation and they look it. Not only are the similarities apparent, the interior shots have this look that is perfectly adequate for television, but is lacking on the big screen. I suspect the bulk of this movie's (and other Trek films) budget went to the cast. I can almost buy the argument that the ship sets are supposed to be as creaky as the characters, but isn't this Enterprise supposed to be relatively new (introduced at the end of the fourth movie)? The space effects shots looked fine however.
I watched the Blu-Ray version of the movie. One of the best things about the box set that came out last year is that all the movies are the theatrical cuts. All the previous home video and TV versions of VI were longer cuts that reinstated a few scenes as well as using the non-original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (or 4:3 if you were unlucky enough). The BD version plays in its proper 'scope ratio of 2.35:1. Having the theatrical cut is actually good here as I have never cared for the extra scenes that were added in the old video versions. I have no doubt that longer versions are forthcoming to spur more repeat Trek purchases. Some traditions never die. Like most of the other films in the recent BD set, the picture looks very good but has had way too much grain reduction and sharpening applied to it. I was able to spot this quite easily on a 50" screen and a good projector would make this even worse. The most glaring issues pop up on actors' faces; they take on this waxy, overly clean look is just wrong. Most of the older Trek films were shot on cheaper, grainier film stock and by over-processing them, they end up looking like this. Yes, the overall image is better than the old DVDs, but they could have done better; maybe next time. I did not have time to take a look at the new bonus materials they did for this set. If anything interesting shows up, I will be sure to post an update.

June 30, 2010

Crushed Entry

I have recently had or observed a few conversations with friends about an old, mostly harmless topic: crushes on people in the world of entertainment. This of course is about as flimsy and trifling a topic as I talk about here. This has little to do with real romance or even sex (at least for most of us!) but perhaps it tells us something about ourselves. Maybe. Let's face it, this is fantasy land and sure, I could be prognosticating about politics or the future of technology (I have the word "technology" in my job title, so I must be an expert on it, no?) but sometimes you just want to swim in the shallow end of the pool. I would love to hear from any of you about this topic, but I thought I should go first. So, in a desperate ploy to generate comments, I present my list of those in the entertainment universe who I, shall we say, dig. Dig?

Helen Hunt. Helen is one of my earliest actress crushes; she and I go way back, so to speak. I remember noticing her cuteness back in the 1980s on the TV show St. Elsewhere where she played a minor love interest of...hmm, I don't seem to remember the other character, but she apparently stood out. She has done some good and bad movies, plus her long sitcom run on Mad About You in the 1990s. I'll always have a soft spot for Helen, even in the not-so-good movies.

Meg Ryan. After seeing When Harry Met Sally back in 1989, I really thought Meg was simply the hottest thing on the screen. I am positive that I was far from alone in my appreciation for Ms. Ryan's blend of sweet naivete and pure hotness. Although my old crush on her has faded over the years, I still emit a slight sigh whenever I see that movie today.

Inara George. Inara is the vocal half of the pop music duo The Bird and the Bee. My crush here is entirely on this woman's voice, which I just can't get enough of. To borrow the expression: I could listen to Inara sing the phone book (if I had one)!

Mary-Louise Parker. I first began to appreciate Parker during her stint on The West Wing Parker's delivery of Sorkin's smart, lightning-fast dialogue with her vivacious presence was irresistible. Parker has done some other interesting character roles, often non-leading parts in movies. No matter where I see her, she's damned sexy. I am currently getting a kick out of watching her play the pot-dealing (smokin'!) suburban mom in the cable show Weeds

So how about it? Does anyone want to share? If so, leave it in the comments someplace.

January 28, 2010

Launch Pad

OK, now it's time for another techno-blather post.

Since everyone else is talking about the recently-announced iPad, I thought I'd weigh in.

Like nearly everyone else, I have not seen the iPad in person so I can only evaluate it from what I've read so far. My initial impression is that the hardware side of this device is very nice and the software seems good, but could use some improvement. A few technology writers have already written some first impressions:

Farhad Manjoo in Slate wrote a piece called, "I Love the iPad". 'Nuff said.

The collective editors of Engadget, a site I read pretty regularly, posted their thoughts on the device. They're not exactly thrilled about the thing and if you want some real Apple/iPad hate, read the comments.

Slate's sister site, The Big Money, had a good piece on the potential effect the iPad could have on other businesses here.

And of course David Pogue of the New York Times had his say (positive on the whole).

Right off the bat, I have a few pros and cons:

The good:

1. The Apple-built processor, the product of a recent chip maker buyout, looks fast and energy efficient. Battery life is good, with a claimed 10 hours. Very nice.

2. The size of the device seems good for many uses. The mobile Safari browser should be quite usable. I don't always find the screen on the iPhone/iPod large enough for some extended web browsing.

3. Apple is offering this thing with 3G (cell carrier data) optional. You can buy this thing with wi-fi only and if you still want 3G, the pricing is quite reasonable without contracts.

4. The price seems right to me, considering what the iPod Touch goes for. Comparing its price to the Kindle is completely bogus. The hardware and capabilities don't come close to matching.

5. The iPhone apps will work on this thing. This opens up a lot of possibilities for developers to make some great stuff for this device.

6. Apple is using ePub for its electronic books. Thank you Apple for not introducing yet another proprietary book format.

The not so good:

1. The iPad, as of now can't run more than one application at once (save perhaps for Apple's own stuff like playing iTunes while checking mail). This can't be due to the hardware. I can only hope this will be addressed when the next iPhone OS is released.

2. No Adobe Flash. The iPhone doesn't run it either. This is a long-standing complaint against Apple and one that I agree with. Make Flash work with the iPhone OS, preferably with some kind of disable mode.

3. The iPad has no camera. Neither does the iPod Touch. It'd be great for this thing to have a built-in camera so one could do video chat on it. Let's hope both devices get it soon.

4. The screen, a back-lit LCD, won't be as easy on the eyes for reading books as e-readers that use e-Ink screens. This issue is a tough one because e Ink screens are pretty much only good at one thing: reading monochrome text. The iPad has many more uses. Will this thing be a good e reader?

My opinion right now, again not having used the thing, is that I will wait and see how it does and what software developers do with the platform. I believe there could be a lot of potential in this device. Right now, I think it'd be cool to have one of these to use at home for basic use like surfing, email, and social networking. As many have pointed out, the screen isn't really movie-friendly (it isn't widescreen) but that doesn't bother me since I don't find watching video on portables all that attractive, save for the occasional Youtube clip. I have a real video system in my home for real movie/TV watching. Many people have slammed the iPad for its inability to access Hulu. This is of course part of the Flash problem. While I want Apple to make Flash work on these devices, I don't think Hulu is going to be the downfall of the iPad. I've never found Hulu to be that great and Comcast might kill it off anyway. Of course I think it's fair to slam Apple for limiting its products to protect its content sales. Apple sells a lot of video content and they probably aren't in a rush to help their competitors. This is a real downside of being in the Apple ecosystem.

I've read a lot of bile-filled comments about the iPad, often referred to as the "MaxiPad" by those commenters who like to talk like 12 year olds, and they are so very certain of its impending failure. To them I would say the following:

Get a life. Screaming about the evils of Jobs/Apple is incredibly lame, especially when your favorite company Microsoft still owns the PC OS market. I think some people would only be happy if this thing ran Windows and cost $99. Go buy a Zune and shut up already.

Bet against Apple in the portable device realm at your own peril. These same people were certain that the iPod/iPhone were going to be a colossal flops. There is a chance that this product will flop, but it seems foolish to predict it at this point.

This product is not aimed at the tech press or people that comment on Engadget. Yes, I realize that includes myself. As much as I like having control and flexibility on my home desktop PC, I also find myself wanting a more appliance-like computing device at times. The iPad and its siblings are locked down and controlled: this is one reason why they work well and have a consistent experience for the user. Sometimes I just don't want to screw around with the same ongoing maintenance that is required on pretty much all laptops or netbooks. I just want the thing to work and I believe this device is a step in that direction. It won't replace my main computer, but it will find a use. We'll see if Apple and the other developers really make use of this thing beyond what they have now. I might be wrong and the techno-weenies might be right; the iPad could be the next Apple Cube. Stay tuned.

And one more link: Stephen Fry went to the iPad launch and wrote up a compelling, IMO case for it. He's always an entertaining writer and his comments can be found here.

December 23, 2009

The Dregs of Christmas

This year, I thought I'd do a brief rundown listing some of my favorite, for various reasons, holiday movies and TV specials. These are titles I don't tire of seeing year after year. They really do hold up.

I'm working on the next Trek entry, but it looks as though it isn't going to come together until after the holiday (please try and contain your disappointment!). The good part is, the next entry will be a two-episode hot kiss at the end of a wet fist, so prepare yourselves!

In the meantime, you can tide yourself over with a small gallery of all the Star Trek ornaments on our Christmas tree this year. Go check it out here. We also have many Lord of the Rings, Peanuts, Looney Tunes, Harry Potter, Scooby Doo, and other geek culture things (not to mention all the dog and cat ornaments). This tree truly does represent its owners.

So on to the list, in no particular order:

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) I just can't get tired of this classic Chuck Jones TV special. It represents the spirit of the season as well as being faithful to the book. It's very funny and sweet at the same time. Another thing I appreciate about this version is its efficiency: the program doesn't overdo it or add unneeded schmaltz. FAR superior to the feature film version (and don't get me started on the Horton movie). And if that isn't enough, need I mention Boris Karloff?

2. Holiday Inn (1942) As some of you know, this movie is a tradition with my family: we watched it nearly every year while I was growing up. We all know it so well that we tend to speak entire lines of dialogue from it while it's running. This movie, of course, originated the mega-holiday-juggernaut-hit, "White Christmas." No, it wasn't the movie White Christmas (1954), even though it is more recognized and has a somewhat similar plot. Holiday Inn, despite its cheesiness is a lot of fun for me. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are always entertaining with lines like, "A gentle smile often breeds a kick in the pants." Some of the songs aren't exactly Irving Berlin's finest, but they do at least have a certain cheeky fun to them. Heck, the movie is worth watching for Astaire's firecracker dance alone.

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) I don't need to tell you all much about this one. I've been a fan of it since I was very young, so much that I remember making a cassette tape recording of the special's audio so I could listen to it over again. No VCR at the time: I put the microphone of the tape recorder close to the TV speaker. Seriously high tech! Unsurprisingly, the voices used for the Peanuts characters in this special are the ones I still consider to be the "real" voices. The others just don't seem as right to me (ah, impressionable youth!). Looking at the show today, I love the music (classic stuff) and the humor still makes me laugh: "We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know." The animation is crude, but it totally fits the material and this holiday special isn't afraid to come out and talk about the actual holiday. I'm not really a Christian and am as far away as possible from the "war on Christmas" BS, but I've always appreciated the way that this special gets to the point of the holiday in an honest way. It sure beats, "Jesus is the reason for the season."

4. Love Actually (2003) This, in my view can't really be called a classic, (hasn't been around long enough) but I've seen this film often enough to recognize its value as a holiday staple. It may not age well in the long run, but I still find this "feel good" movie to be one of my favorites. Yes, it really does deserve the "feel good" label! The film manages to blend its amusing and bittersweet elements with an overall humanity that really works for me. The film occasionally loses control of its large collection of stories and characters, but manages to pull it together in the end. The conclusion, which tidies up many of story lines, has just enough uncertainty to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world. Not all the relationship issues are resolved happily or with the sentiment of a greeting card. If nothing else, the story surrounding Bill Nighy's aging rock star character makes the film worth watching.

5. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Again, I don't really need to give this one much explanation. It too was viewed on a regular basis when I was growing up. The movie has enough sentimentality ("sentimental hogwash!") for ten holiday movies and is often dismissed because of it or enjoyed only on that level. Beyond the main message of this movie, the things that keep me from getting bored with the film are the complexities of the ideas, the characters, the great performances of the cast, and the interesting way the film is structured. The guy who writes DVD Savant has a really interesting take on the film here. He talks a bit about the background of the movie and a very interesting theory about the way it's put together. I highly recommend reading it if you're a fan of this film. One quote:

"It would be fun to write a version of It's a Wonderful Life from Henry Potter's point of view. Potter only wants to bring order and frugality to a messy, mongrelized population and that upstart pipsqueak Bailey keeps gumming up the works.

Other character sketches are so rich they seem to indicate lives outside the movie proper. What was the sordid truth behind poor Violet Bick's reputation? Did Uncle Billy's transgressions drive his brother Peter to an early death? Just what did Miss Davis (Ellen Corby) need the $17.30 for? While George was propping up Bedford Falls, did the notorious playboy Sam Wainwright run Harry Bailey for congress on his war record, and warp American values by passing legislation favoring the plastics industry?

And what about Mr. Welch (Stanley Andrews), the unhappy husband of George's kids' schoolteacher, Mrs. Welch? Mr. Welch hits George for making his wife cry. He's the villain of the moment, but imagine a one-act play about life at the Welch family. They have no kids; she's underpaid and he's out of work. They're trying to be cheerful on Christmas Eve when an unreasonable parent accuses Mrs. Welch of endangering a student, Zuzu. Mrs. Welch breaks down in tears. Mr. Welch stomps out to get drunk. It sounds like something from James Joyce." Classic stuff.

6. A Christmas Carol (aka "Scrooge" 1951) This warhorse has been done a lot, but this is maybe the best filmed version. I also get a kick out of the Muppet version.

7. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) This is the one Rankin/Bass special I will still sit through and is the standout. Sure, the Rudolph song was written for a retail store jingle originally, but the story is good and has a message of tolerance (those commie 60s hippies!); come on, it has a gay dentist as a major supporting character! The old rickety stop-motion animation makes the Charlie Brown specials look sophisticated, but it's still endearing. And today, the message contained in the song, "There's Always Tomorrow," that you can always put off making your dreams come true, is a bit of a downer if you think about it very much. But really, who cares? We're all residents on that Island of Misfit Toys at one point or another.

OK, that's it for this year. I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but there's always tomorrow...

Have a great holiday, everyone (whatever you're celebrating) and stay ahead of the weather!

November 23, 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Barnes

I don't normally use this blog for personal stuff, but I wanted to note the passing of my Uncle Don Barnes, who died early this morning at the age of 94.

Don had suffered from Alzheimer's for the last 5 years so in a sense, he's been gone for a while. Nonetheless, I wanted to make a short note about this person who had a real influence on me.

Uncle Don, who along with my late Aunt Faith lived in the Rapid City area the entire time I was growing up; the Barnes' were a regular part of our lives during those years. We visited their house a lot when I was younger and if you could see what the place looked like, you'd understand the influence. Don was a retired electrical engineer (he worked for the FAA for some of his career IIRC) and a real pack rat. His garage and basement were stuffed full of all sorts of fascinating old electronics junk. I spent a lot of time in that basement (it was a fun place to play for us kids) and have vivid memories of the place. Don was one of the reasons I'm as into technology as I am. He was pretty much always interested in new tech and we had fun talking about whatever the latest stuff was. I often brought over some piece of audio gear, often in non-working condition. He was always ready to dive in and either get his soldering iron warmed up to fix it or show me what had to be done with it. I learned a lot about how electronics work from him and also have my background knowledge of old tech thanks to him (and my Dad, of course).

Don was also extraordinarily generous, as anyone who knew him could tell you. While he collected a lot of old stuff, he didn't hesitate to provide it to anyone who needed it. When I was done with high school and didn't have a car to drive, he gave me his unused 1962 Mercury Meteor. This old car, which was black with a red interior (and often dubbed "The Batmobile") and had rear fins, got me through several years of regular use.

So Don will not be forgotten in my family. His struggle with Alzheimer's was not easy to watch but we're fortunate that we had so many years with him. RIP, Uncle Don: we all miss you.

I'm going to skip the summary this week, but you can get the list by clicking here.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

June 22, 2009

"I am now leaving France. This is a bad idea."

And now it's hot/sticky out; seems like an odd Summer so far.

Watched the BD of Bolt (2008) the other night. It was actually pretty fun and entertaining. It isn't going to beat any Pixar films, but it's pretty good. I'm not sure I saw anything really new, but it was well done and had a lot of amusing things in it. The Rhino character was especially funny and frequently stole entire scenes. I also appreciate that this particular character wasn't a celebrity voice (at least it isn't one I'm familiar with). The Disney/Pixar combo seems to have been good for the Disney side of the house. We'll have to see if it effects Pixar long-term. The BD looked flawless, as expected.

Now on to this week's new stuff:

Bob Funk (2007)

The Code (2009) Also on BD.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

Dragon Hunters (2008) Also on BD.

Inkheart (2008) Also on BD.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Also on BD.

Mr. Troop Mom What, a sequel to Mr. Mom??? Also on BD.

My Dinner With Andre (1981) Criterion does the Louis Malle gabfest film.

The Pink Panther 2 (2009) Please...stop? Also on BD.

Waltz With Bashir (2008) Also on BD.

May 7, 2009

Andy does a great website for Dave Stafford, Architect Extraordinaire!

This is just a supplemental post for my buddy Andy who did a nice job on Dave Stafford's new website. It's simple, has some good samples of his work, and looks classy. It also delivers the essential information easily, which is something I can't say for some business sites. You can check out Dave's website here.

From the photos, it appears that Dave did the very cool bandshell design at Rapid City's Memorial Park.

Dave has recently started a new business, based in Rapid City, SD. As you'd expect, he does the architecture thing, but also works in sustainable design. Anyone know what the heck adaptive reuse really means? I'll have to ask him sometime. Dave also does design/build, which I am a bit familiar with here at the U. Sir Stafford apparently does work in historic preservation. It'd be interesting to hear his opinion on some of the unrestored buildings here on campus, no doubt. Project management is also apparently something he does in his new gig. I wish Dave all the best of luck in his new venture. He had some very good advice when we installed the door on the side of our garage (the dog yard access portal) which was helpful. If I ever have any real questions, I'm sure he'd be the guy to ask. Who knows, maybe I'll win the lottery and be able to hire Dave Stafford's services for a sweet Black Hills Summer home. Yeah, right! Again, the website, , is pretty sweet.

May 4, 2009


Stacie's getting a Dell. Yes, soon the great and powerful Dell Dude will be bringing a shiny new PC to our house, much like a silicon Santa dropping a large lead box down our chimney.

Shocked? I wouldn't be surprised. I've been a Mac evangelist for a long time, often convincing family/friends to buy Macs. I still do. Keep in mind that I still own Macs and am even fortunate enough to use one at work. However, they don't really make a Mac that's a reasonable proposition for Stacie.

So what's her problem, anyway? iMacs and Macbooks are good enough for many folks, what's the deal? Stacie, as you probably know, is an avid World of Warcraft player. True, this game doesn't tax a PC like many 3d games do, but it certainly performs better with a modern system with a discreet graphics card. Her current iMac has such a configuration. Now, it overheats under the strain of running the game at full tilt plus en extra display. Clearly she needs to do something before the logic board melts. Today, if you want a graphics card on an iMac, you have to buy to more expensive ($1700 and up) 24" to even get that as an option. Her old one had this as an option on the more middle of the road 20" mac. So it's either a near-$2k iMac or a Mac Pro workstation/tower (what I use). Um, not really in the cards right now. The lower end iMacs and Mac Mini just don't cut it for most games. Clearly, Stacie would be an ideal customer for the mythical midrange Mac Tower. Probably something in between a Mac Pro and an iMac. Apple doesn't seem all that interested in offering such a thing, so that left us in PCville. Plus, I've grown accustomed to having a system that doesn't require the replacement of the display every time I want to upgrade the CPU.

We were able to get a Dell desktop with the newer/fast Intel Core i7 processor, 6 gb of RAM, and the same video card that's in the $2k iMac. All for about a grand. And it'll be faster, plus she can add a faster video card later if she wants something better. The obvious downside is that she'll be running Windows. This isn't as big a deal for her. On her home computer, she mainly plays WoW, surfs the web, and does Office stuff. Seems like Windows will do the job for her, though she'd still rather be on the Mac OS. I, on the other hand, play WoW, use the Web, and do audio/video editing, along with some photo stuff. The Mac software serves me very well there and I'm still quite happy with my giant Mac tower. Sure, it's more Mac than I need, but until Apple decides to cater to people like me, I'm either buying one of these or leaving the Mac fold.

The Dell hasn't arrived yet, but it'll be interesting to see how it goes. I'll report back and let y'all know how Stacie's liking it.

February 13, 2009

Fighting Musicians

A bit of an off-topic post today. As you may or may not know, I've been substitute bass playing with the Minnesota Jazz Orchestra for the last couple of years. As far as I can tell, they're one of the better big bands in the metro area (I've managed to sub for a number of them). It's been really fun to do this kind of music again, something I really haven't gotten to do since my days at U of WY.

The regular bassist in this band, along with several other members, is about to (or already has, not sure) ship out to Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division "Red Bull" band (National Guard, they're supposedly back in February 2010). For a story on this band's deployment, click here. Of course I was totally opposed to W's decision to invade, but I have enormous respect for what these guys are going to be doing over there. The military bands are, more than ever, serving a good purpose. Groups like this really help the people serving in, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult situation. Believe it or not, I seriously considered doing military music when I got out of high school. I don't regret for a minute choosing not to do this, but at the same time wonder how things would have turned out had I done this. Quite different, no doubt, but this kind of thing makes you think, no?

While I am glad to have the chance to play regularly with this big band, my thoughts are with these men and women overseas who are serving their country with live music. I may wish for our troops to be out of Iraq ASAP, while they're there, they deserve some good tunes. My (virtual) hat is off to this group!

February 22, 2008

From another format war...

The Sony SL-2000 Betamax.

We had one of these in the early 1980s. It actually belonged to my old high school, but I got to use it now and then. It was quite the device at the time and cost several thousand dollars. I remember at least one band trip I tagged along with my folks on where I shot video of the marching band (I wasn't in high school yet). This was a very cool rig at the time (the camera that went with it was a tank) and got me all nostalgic...and imagine my surprise that someone had a copy of this ad for it!

July 25, 2007

Asleep at the Wheel (of WoW)

This was amusing enough that I had to main Warcraft character taking it easy after a long day of smashing ogres.


June 20, 2007

Showmanship Instead of Genius

Believe it or not, I do actually manage to do something other than play WoW, work, and watch movies! To illustrate it, here's a bit on a couple of books I've read as of late.


Orson Welles: Hello Americans

Stacie was kind enough to get this for me, knowing that I am a longtime Welles fan, and it does not disappoint. Simon Callow, the British writer/actor (go read his IMDB filmograhy; some interesting stuff including a role as Charles Dickens on Dr. Who) has set out to write a three volume biography of Welles. This is the second installment which covers the years between the premiere of Citizen Kane and his extended exile in Europe from 1947 onward (I find it interesting that two of the directors I am most interested in both ended up in self-imposed "exile" in Europe). Even though I knew something of this period and had seen the films he directed/acted in, I had no idea how much activity this guy was engaged in during this time. The films he worked on almost seem trivial compared to the flurry of political activity (he was a popular public voice, due to his radio career, of the Left and knew members of FDR's administration), theater projects (which included a titanic staging of Around the World in Eighty Days), and radio work (he seriously attempted to become a comedian). Then there was his marriage to Rita Hayworth...

A lot of space is devoted to the year or so in which he spent shooting the film, It's All True, which pretty much tanked his relationship with RKO (the studio he made Kane for) and was never even completed. He and his crew spent month after month in Brazil either haphazzardly shooting and partying. Take another look at the book's cover; this photo is a great example of this time (apparently he was quite popular with the locals!). The fallout from this South American project was, as is usually noted, the butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles left for South America before post production could be completed and the end result was the mutilation of what could have been a fantastic film. This time has been documented before of course, but never (as far as I know) to this level of detail. As Callow notes in the book, the years he covers in the book are actually very well documented. So much so that it's possible to tell what Welles was doing virtually every day during this time.

It's easy to read this and come to the conclusion that Welles was a man of many appetites (the chapters on South America illustrate this clearly), but he was also constantly attempting to reinvent himself. He was never content to merely be a film actor or director, he wanted to do many other things. However, it seems that in the end, film was what he came back to. His need for change and experimentation was ultimately what made it impossible for him to work within the industry. The fact that he allowed multiple film projects to be ruined by others is telling. There were numerous times when he could have intervened and prevented this from happening, but his very nature seemed to preclude this. It's not that he didn't care about it; just reading his many memos documenting the problems with the completed films indicates he was not happy about how they came out. He just wasn't able to stay with a project long enough to see it through, particularly the sometimes tedious post production process and when another project came along (of which there were many at this time), he plunged ahead with full enthusiasm to the next thing. This is important since it helps explain the often frustrating way in which he approached his work. Callow is obviously a fan of Welles, but is not timid about analyzing him, even if it is negative at times. I appreciate this since it makes Welles a more complete person as an artist. This well rounded analysis really hits the mark and still allows me to appreciate the many amazing things he did (I would love to hear some the political speeches he did on radio; it sounds like they were truly spellbinding.). I am going to get a copy of the first volume, which covers his career up through Kane and look forward to the final volume. Highly recommended.


2010: Odyssey Two

And now, something quite different. I first read this in 1983 or so and really liked it. I was also a fan of the 1984 film. In retrospect, Clarke's book holds up slightly better than the film, which comes across as more dated (anyone remember Roy Scheider sitting on the beach with his trusty Apple IIc?!). This is mainly due to the fact that they opted for more cold war "contemporary" political issues. One of the better parts of the book concerns the expedition of Chinese who land on Europa and encounter life there. Alas, this whole subplot was excised from the screenplay. Granted, it is not necessary to the overall plot, but it tended to add an unanticipated element of suspense where the story needed it. The other interesting thing I noted from the book was how the character of Dr. Chandra (creator of HAL) was Indian in the book and played Bob Balaban, who is obviously not Indian!

On its own, the book held my interest with its good science fiction ideas and details about space travel (Clarke has always been good at this). The narrative is a bit uneven and the characters a bit two dimensional. This book really doesn't grapple well with all the issues raised by the original Kubrick film. There are so many underlying ideas in 2001 that could have been explored here, but I suppose it's all a matter of how you want to read the ideas presented in the original book and film. The original is so complex in a way, that two completely different sequels (or maybe more) could have been written/filmed (provided you felt that 2001 needed a sequel; Kubrick clearly didn't). This was Clarke's way of going about it. For a great interpretation of the 1968 film, go check out this article by Micheal Berube. It's a fascinating read.

So, I got a kick out of reading this blast from the past (ha!) which really held up OK as long as you take it in the right context.

March 5, 2007

Get on the Bus, Gus

And now it's time for another round of nostalgic navel-gazing fun! If you're not down with the whole navel thing, worry not; there's a DVD-related entry coming later.

This past weekend, the community orchestra I play in did a concert in Marshall, MN. Marshall is several hours drive from here so most of the group got there on chartered buses. I should say that this whole thing was generously paid for (as well as a sizable monetary donation to the orchestra, which does not charge admission for its concerts) by the Schwan Food Company, which is based in Marshall. Of course they're a big corporation, but it was a nice thing to do and the community really turned out to support us. It was a very positive experience.

While we were on the way home the other night, I couldn't help but be reminded of the past; bus tours and trips. I assume that many people have negative associations with passenger bus travel. Since I haven't had to make a long trip on a regular bus with all the stops, I am free to think of your average Greyhound bus in a more positive, rose-colored fashion. Although I haven't traveled by bus on conventional trips, I used to take many trips on chartered tour buses. Since my Dad was a high school band director, I pretty much grew up going on at least one band trip a year. As far as I can remember, I always liked going on them and true to my nature, was fascinated by the bus itself. It didn't matter to me that this was a pretty mundane piece of machinery, it seemed cool. The smell of diesel exhaust still reminds me of this. I remember being impressed watching these guys drive handling the giant steering wheels that allowed them to maneuver these massive vehicles, as well as all those mysterious controls that didn't seem to exist on the family cars. The Grey Line drivers (who were really great guys, especially Don Wickler) we usually had were cool about letting me check out the gear and answering my questions about what all those controls did. To this day, I have this cache of knowledge regarding motor coaches that is a bit out of place in my collection of A/V geekery. This is all pretty much due to me talking to the drivers all those years, as well as a great deal of observation. The buses that run now are larger and have more comforts, but seem mostly the same as the ones I grew up riding (some of the Grey Line coaches were built in the 1960s, back when GM was still manufacturing them).

The thing about those bus trips, whether I was tagging along as a kid or part of the group on the tour, was that we were riding with people we knew. We had a reason and purpose to where we were traveling. It could have been a marching band competition, an orchestra tour of the state of Wyoming, or an all-state band/orchestra/chorus trip (where I got to know Hunter). There was always the anticipation of getting to the event and the inevitable downward slide on the way home. The other night I was glad to be getting off when we pulled in. In the past, there was always a pang of disappointment when we got off. I'm sure I'm forgetting a number of times when I would have rather not been stuck on a crowded bus, but hey, that's the beauty of nostalgic haze!

January 10, 2007

"David, computers don't call people!"

Today, like everyone else, I'm going to talk about the new Apple products: the iPhone and the AppleTV.

First, the phone. I won't waste your time describing this thing; I'll provide some links for some good articles on the phone. My first impression of this phone (without having actually seen one, natch):

The thing looks so cool. Sure, Apple's design is second to none, but for a cell phone/PDA, this thing looks dead sexy.

The interface: for me, the most compelling reason for Apple to get into the cell phone market is that in my experience, cell phone interfaces are garbage. I've owned a number of cell phones and PDAs; they've all had serious shortcomings in the way I interact with them. I've been using electronics since I was a kid and there are cell phones I've encountered (hi Mom!) that I've really had trouble trying to figure out, just how to do simple things like enter names/numbers into the phone book. Hmm, maybe my three year old niece Faith should have a whack at it! The older/simpler phones and PDAs worked well because they were simple devices. When the loads of new features and capabilities got dumped into these machines, the interface obviously got short shrift. I'm as fond of all the gizmos as the next geek, but a piss-poor interface ruins it for me. If the iPhone's interface is as simple and powerful as it seems, it will be a great thing, even if the device itself doesn't take the world by storm (Motorola, Nokia, and the rest will have to try and match it).

The screen: The screen looks great from the photos and the feature where it automatically flips from portrait to landscape mode is nice. Videos might actually be watchable on this thing. One concern I'd have about the screen is how durable it is and how well it works when covered with finger smudge. We'll have to wait and see (the phone ships in June) how well the screen holds up. If you haven't already, go to the iPhone site and check out the demo -- the scrolling feature in iTunes looks fantastic. They've clearly done a lot of work on these features.

The capacity and performance: One of the things I was talking with a friend about last night is how Apple isn't saying what kind of processor is powering this thing. This is an important issue when we're talking about what kinds of applications can be run (the phone runs some version of OS X) on it. Jobs demo'd mail, web, and iTunes, but it remains to be seen what else can be run. The available storage, 4 or 8 gb, seems barely adequate for iPod use and other data the phone needs to store. I would assume that this number will go up as flash memory gets bigger/cheaper. I understand that a hard drive, like the video iPods use, would make the phone too large/power hungry, but this seems like a paltry amount of storage. And, like all other iPods, the battery is not user-replaceable. That's really too bad since the battery life isn't so hot and I'd guess that many owners would opt for a second battery if it were replaceable.

The cell carrier: Apple went with Cingular and this is one of the biggest complaints many people have leveled against the iPhone and I agree. Apple has a history with Cingular and there were certainly a number of advantages for Apple in partnering with a single carrier. However, I wish they'd picked a different carrier. Everyone loves to hate their cell phone provider, but Cingular seems to get the worst ratings in most areas. They also have poor coverage nationwide. This is a bit of a dealbreaker for me. I currently have a Nextel phone (for work) and Shades uses a T-Mobile set. Nextel has huge gaps in coverage and will not allow you to roam on anyone else's network (they use a system that is incompatible with all other cell networks), so when I travel, I can't count on having any cell service everywhere. T-Mobile is better about this, but their coverage/roaming is spotty. Cingular is somewhere in between Nextel and T-Mobile for coverage and for me, that's pretty lousy. And as long as I'm ranting about cell phones, why is it with all this technology, that the 40 year old phone in my garage has better voice quality than a new cell phone?

So, I still think the product is potentially cool, but the wrinkle with Cingular is a bummer. Maybe they'll sell an unlocked version eventually. Here are some articles I found interesting on the iPhone:

This article gets it right on the need for a great cell phone.

This piece talks some about the lack of Apple's famous scroll wheel and has these amusing quotes regarding Jobs' introduction of the iPhone:

"Enthusiasm for a new Apple launch is taken for granted. Jobs himself has a charisma that the Wizard Saruman would envy; people who debate with him, even if they initially disagree, '... mostly they remembered that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves,' as Tolkien wrote."


"And as a commentator, you dare not deny Jobs in public. 'When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell... For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled... but none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will,' Tolkien finished." Tee hee

OK, on to the AppleTV. I like to download TV shows from, shall we say, places other than iTunes. Currently, the majority of this content is offered up in AVI (DivX/Xvid) format which plays well on PC/Macs and on many new DVD players. So, if I want to watch this stuff on one of my TVs without hooking up a computer, I burn these shows as data files do DVDR discs and play the burned discs on the DVD player. It works pretty well, except that I have to burn files to disc all the time, which gets old. It's fairly easy, but more of a chore than I'd like. The AppleTV is the kind of device that can eliminate the steps of burning data discs and sticking them into the DVD player. It does this by grabbing video/audio/pictures that I have in iTunes over my home network and playing them through my TV. It has a remote control and standard TV hookups so I don't have to screw around with computers and burned media to watch the TV shows I've downloaded.

This sounds, at first glance, like the thing I want. However there are a couple of problems. One, it only plays media that iTunes can read and for video that means mpeg4/h.264. In order to get the non-iTunes content playing on this thing, I'd have to convert it; burning discs takes less time. There maybe other products out there that do all this and read the all the formats I use. As of right now, this isn't it. Too bad since otherwise it looks very nice. Apple obviously intends people to use this with content purchased via the iTunes store. The other issue is the price. $300 seems a bit much to justify for something like this, but maybe if it did everything I want, I'd find a way to justify buying it.

OK, the one interesting piece of DVD news this week (OK, interesting is relative) was Warner's formal introduction of the "Total HD" disc. This is a Blu-Ray and a HD-DVD disc literally glued together (someone referred to it as "glue-ray"). They claim that all their hi def releases later this year will be in this combo format (they and Paramount currently release seperate HD discs). For more on this, check out this article. Between the combo disc and LG's new Blu-Ray/HD-DVD combo player that was announced at CES, there might be a happy conclusion to the format war. We'll have to see how it all plays out this year since the companies are going to ramp up the formats (more players, bigger movie titles) in the next 12 months.

And I think I might want a Wii...damn!

December 19, 2006

Don't Eat The Entertainment

Let's continue on to the HHK&C content I've been going over now; continuing my previous post on this.

Encounters of Our Kind

I consider this one to be the first fully-formed title and as a concept, it's probably the most complete. We did things just as funny or funnier after this, but this one still has the best-executed flow and consistency. So let's get to the tracks:

1. "If You Thought..." This little introduction is a hold-over from our previous project, "The Making of Burger Wars." "Burger Wars" (BW) was a tape that Lee and I did by ourselves. I plan to revisit this one at a later date. The "Making Of" was a partially completed mock-umentary that was the first to feature Phil. Even though this track makes little sense if you hadn't heard the prior stuff, it's still an amusing way to get into the tape. Note the use of "Also Sprach" which we will use again as well as the clipped voice of Mandy Kelts near the end.

2. "Rock Influences." Doesn't it seem odd to have this piece of classical music introducing a show about rock music? I can't remember why we used this cue really, though maybe it matches up with the stuffy-sounding host. Clearly this was a good excuse for Phil to do his John Lennon imitation, though it's really a device to get us into...

3. "We Interrupt..." We now meet one of Lee's major characters, Jeffrey Scott. This guy pops up quite a bit, bad accent and all. Now he's apparently dead (lost in space, what's up with that?!) so we get to hear his funeral. This scene has me standing off to the side reading the eulogy while Lee and Phil act as the grieving friends/family. I forgot that Lee plays three characters here (or four?) including Dirty Fairy. This scene is a bit on the long side, in retrospect. The track ends with the cut-back to the end of the "Influences" interview; very funny. "Who are we next week?" "I don't know, I think either Jesus Christ or the Bee Gees."

4. "Eye in the Sky" Lee does his EZ-Listening announcer voice and we're into a midnight traffic reporters, which is a fun concept. Around this time, Phil was a DJ for an elevator music station so we had a limitless supply of bad music, which we made ample use of. The funny thing here is the comment about the news of the UFO landing pre-empting The Cosby Show; in the middle of the night?

5. "On the Ground" Phil and I run in place next to the mics for that oh-so-authentic sound. 'Elllloooo! My main question about this track is, why don't John & Phil ask, aren't you dead?

6. "Pounded Puppies" This is one of those dated jokes, pound puppies. The song is multiple layers of us singing (Lee sings too, can you tell?) along with music from the "Tron" soundtrack!

7. "Hospital" So the traffic reporters take Jeffrey to the psych ward...where he's pumped full of drugs so he can get us all into...

8-10. "Star Trek" I've always considered this to be one of our more successful bits. The portrayal of Kirk that Lee does is very funny, though it doesn't really sound at all like Shatner (how many times does he say, "My GOD!" anyway?). Phil's Scotty voice is a combination of Scotty and a leprechaun. Our guest star Jeff does a great Spock whose rattling off decimals of pi which sends the bridge into a tailspin. The two things that struck me as funniest this time around were the scene in sick bay with Spock's canoe-sized ears and the end where they go back in time right before the ship explodes...again. That sequence was aided by the recording gear's ability to run at different speeds and the music that changes pitch was done with a malfunctioning cassette deck we had in the house. This machine ran at half speed unless you held down the play button (a lever-mechanical control). By taking your finger on and off the button, you could make the queasy pitch change happen. The ad in the middle here is obviously making fun of all those awful multi-record sets sold on TV (we revisit that ad satire later on), but you may ask, why Don Pardo and Grimace?! My Grimace voice is a holdover from the Burger Wars tape and Don? Well, besides thinking it would be amusing and warped to have them singing duets (preceding the trend of Duets albums methinks!).

Phil was famous for his Don Pardo voice when we were in high school (that and for getting thrown out of government class for saying everything in a Scottish accent!). I don't remember why we paired them up. As often happens on our projects, the ad is longer than whole scenes in the tape. And Grimace isn't really rapping...but it's still fun to hear multiple "Duh" along with music from Devo.

11. "The Hypnotists" This scene took a number of takes for us to get down, while the Star Trek stuff was done in very few takes, even though this scene is pretty simple by comparison. I think the real difficulty lies with the fact that both Phil and I were doing goofy voices. Phil's voice changed a lot from take to take and the gibberish I was speaking was quite random. Listen to the outtakes of this scene and you'll know why it took as long as it did--funny stuff even today.

12. "On the Ship" As Jeffrey rides on the alien ship, he gets to hear our version of TV shows on an alien ship...or is it them watching our shows? We made interesting use of multiple tape recorders for background sound effects here. Some dated 80s references here ("it's all the fault of my trusted advisors") , but at least we get another snippet of Dirty Fairy (DF). And speaking of DF, we get the whole "stand up" routine which still cracks me up. But not before Phil gets to do the most nasal-sounding lounge singer ever. Another thing that still amuses me is the way Lee plays both DF and the heckler ("what is it?!").

13. "Jeffrey Loses His Mindk" Back to the hypnotists where he falls into his "deepest/darkest fears." So who is supposed to be saying, "goodbye Jeffrey Scott?" It doesn't sound at all like the hypnotists...

14. "The Toilet Zone" More scifi fun which turns into a strange game show. Holy crap there's a lot of copyrighted music in this section! I just love the part here where he gets to the door where he has to be locked up with all the people he can't stand...FOR ETERNITY!!! I've gotta say that there's a surprising amount of menace in Phil and my voices where Jeffrey has to face his doom. At the end where he runs away from the hospital and Phil and I talk in our normal voices, there's this exchange:

Phil: What was his problem?
John: I don't know, must have been the drugs we gave him.
Phil: Yeah those drugs, oh well.

Just the way that last line is delivered makes me laugh; great stuff.

15. "Jeffrey Escapes" Like the Star Trek sketch, this whole thing comes full circle. That's one of the things I like about this tape; it has, to use the overused term, closure. And I am SO glad I thought to use the "disco" Close Encounters music at the end where Phil gets to spaz out doing Don Pardo: "Captain Don Kirk....ahhhhhhhhh!"

16. "Credits" Well, what can I say about this except that we like movies and if they can have long credits, why not us? As has become a long-running joke, I had a cold/larangitis so I could barely talk by the time we did this. I suppose it made this section more memorable. We thought that we deserved some self-congratulatory time at the end after all the work we put into it.

17. "Previews" More movie-style stuff. Amazingly, we actually made one of the tapes we did a preview for (not that we had any clue what it would be at the time). And a sequel to Burger Wars...uh. yeah!

18-27. Outtakes. This stuff is downright hilarious, particularly for those of us who were there. There's something universally funny about performers cracking up while delivering lines.

Encounters has always been a favorite of mine. It's pretty much all silly, some of it dated, some of it not quite so good as we thought it was 20 years ago (but what is?). With a single exception, these projects are pretty much profanity-free. It's not that we didn't swear, but felt that we could be funny without it.

So that will do it for this one. I'll be back with another post for the epic, B.O.B."

December 15, 2006

Let's Listen To It!

For those of you who don't have a long history with me, I'm going to devote this post to some serious navel-gazing into the musty sections of yore. Feel free to move along; I'll be back to the subject at hand soon enough.

Still with me? Good! As I've come to the end of another calendar year and semester (project paper done!), I had a moment to reflect a bit like so many others do and thought it high time to comment on something I've spent some time on during the past few weeks: the HHK (and C) tapes. OK, so I was also spending time with this stuff after cleaning them up on the computer for CD burning. This stuff was recorded in the late 1980s, starting in 1986 or so, by myself, Lee, Phil, and myself. Mr. Shawn C. joined us in late 1987. The tapes I've been going over were done around the time we graduated from high school, but I'd been doing stuff like that for years prior. As my family/friends can tell you, I've always been into electronic gear, particularly A/V equipment. When I was a kid, one of the coolest (OK, cool is a relative term, no?) devices available to me was the tape recorder. I have memories of recording the sound of A Charlie Brown Christmas on a portable recorder stuck next to the TV's speaker. It was a kick just to be able to listen to the show played back like that (needless to say, I was all over the VCR when my Dad brought home our first Betamax!). I and my brother were recording our own original tapes before long; they were crude, even compared to the ones I'm going to talk about here. But we had a great time.

Another thing to keep in mind: my older brothers are Firesign Theatre fans and got me listening to their LPs at an early age (warped sense of humor formed early). I managed to spread this appreciation to some friends and this undoubtedly had some influence on the tapes. Fellow (kids?) taping veterans, perhaps you will correct me, but one of the reasons we were driven to do these things in the relatively elaborate manner in which we did them was because of those Firesign LPs (oh yes, we also were geeky high school guys with no girlfriends...well maybe Phil had one). I was always impressed at the level of detail that those guys put into their albums and we tried to do that in our own small way. We spent a lot of time on these tapes and considering the fact that we had very crude technology at our disposal, I think we did rather well. On that note, let's get into what we were working with:

And now, some old tech!

These recordings were the product of purely analog technology. Digital audio recording was around then, but not at all accessible to your average teenager. Yes, this was the 1980s and we were cookin' with tape; analog 1/4" tape. Here's a picture of the model of recorder we primarily used:


No, that isn't the machine we actually used, but the same model (I guess I'm too lazy to dust off the old beast--yes, I still own the thing!--for a picture). It's a two track stereo deck. The real feature that made this kind of deck so useful for us was the fact that it could record on a channel by itself and would mix the microphone and the line inputs together. What this meant was that we could use background music/effects and do the old Beatles "track bounce" trick where you re-record a track and keep combining it until you get a multitrack recording on the cheap. We made ample use of this feature as well as the variable echo feature.

We had a pair of cheap Sony mics that we borrowed from our old friend Jeff (and, IIRC never gave back!). We had a pair of homemade small stands for them that sat atop a music stand (no shortage of them in my house growing up!). The mic setup was not unlike an old time radio program setup where the performers come and go to the mics, sound effects and everything. I had all sorts of sources for music and other noises; pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. After we'd done a take of a scene, someone would have to say, "let's listen to it!" My only technical regret is that I didn't get adventurous and do some real razorblade editing. Then again, tape was expensive and not easy to find, so...

So, that's the background and I'll end it there for now. I'll be back with another installment where I'll get into the actual tapes. Bye!!!

November 17, 2006

"Why, honey, of course there's gonna be a war."

Now that Sony has shipped their Playstation 3 (it came out in Japan earlier), the HD disc format war has really begun. Blu Ray didn't really have a strong product on the market until recently and by most accounts, the PS3 is going to be the standard bearer for the format for the mainstream (if you can call a $600 console "mainstream"...but then again, it's the cheapest player on the market as the others start at $1,000), going up against Microsoft's Xbox 360 which recently got an HD-DVD drive (as an optional add-on). The Nintendo Wii can only play standard definition DVD. For an overview of these three rivals, click here. The PS3 launch is truly a big deal for Sony who is betting the farm on the PS3 both as a console and as a jumpstart for the Blu Ray format. Along with all the reporting on the new systems comes the wave of speculative articles on the upcoming death of physical media. More specifically, the opinions that by the time either HD format wins, people will be abandoning discs as a method of getting music and movies. Slate has an article on this, which can be found here.

I'm not sure the author is wrong, necessarily but I'm also not sure downloads/video on-demand will take over as fast as he and some others predict. Some of this depends on the tech and content companies figuring out how to do this in a consumer-friendly fashion as well as broadband speeds that can deliver it quickly. I think if HD discs fail, it will be due to lack of interest by the general public. The bad part of this would be if lower resolution downloads take over and there is no option for really good HD. The new formats have their issues, but one thing they have going for them is very high picture and sound quality (the video data rate is higher than broadcast HD).


I also read an article declaring VHS dead, which can be found here. Generally, I am not really sorry to see video cassettes go by the wayside. The quality was never great and the mechanical complexity of the VHS (or Beta for that matter) transport was always a liability. I have generally had better luck with DVD, even though video cassettes are more sturdy than optical discs. I still remember having tapes stuck in a VCR, having to partially dismantle the deck, and if the tape was valuable, taking the cassette itself apart to splice the broken tape. God, how I do not miss that feeling: wondering whether the tape would come out of the VCR intact when I pressed the eject button. On the other hand, VHS was simple and usually worked (it's just that when it didn't, it was a real mess). Aside from the stereotype of folks not knowing how to set the clock, it was something that was easy to grasp, far easier than DVD recorders with their multiple disc formats and write once/write multiple times business.

The real issue for me, as far as VHS dying off goes, is that there is a large amount of material that was available for the format that has not been replicated on DVD. This issue is becoming less relevant with mainstream movies, but with more offbeat programs and educational videos, it's a real problem. Academic institutions have large collections of these videos and even if they could get everything on DVD, they don't have the funds to repurchase everything. The first solution would be to digitize the analog material and burn it to DVD or better yet, put it all on a server so students can access it remotely. But this is where things get sticky since copyright issues abound and we have our old friend the DMCA which rears its ugly head whenever we get into anything digital.

Another issue that nags at me is the fact that I don't trust the content companies. Sure, I would be OK with many forms of entertainment I enjoy being offered to me as some kind of download or on-demand, but for movies I really like, I want to be able to own a copy. The way that rights management technology works allows the content owners to cut me off if they, for whatever reason, don't want to make the content available anymore (like a legal dispute over music). If I only have access to Jackson's Lord of the Rings via on-demand or a DRM-controlled computer copy, I could lose it or be forced to pay whatever fee the studio wants. If I have the disc sitting in my home that doesn't require crummy activation schemes to play, such as the current DVD, I still get to enjoy the content that I purchased. If it goes out of print due to legal issues, I still get to watch it as long as I had the foresight to purchase it. So color me skeptical as far as physical media going away. The companies are going to try and sell non-disc media as more convenient (and it can be) and Internet-activated discs as offering more "interactive" content (am I just old and crusty or is a lot of this so-called interactive content a bunch of BS?) as the benefit of a requirement to "activate" my movies (just like software). So where does this all lead? Back to the days where movie studios charge you each time you see something and they control how it gets seen. Back to the pre-home video days. A lot of companies salivate at this prospect, but it ain't going to be that simple. How it plays out, no one really knows, but it's bound to be interesting.

October 5, 2006

"Whoa! This isn't woodshop class?"

So what the heck is going on these days besides all those new DVDs I wrote about on Monday?

Well, let's see, Tivo introduced its long-awaited Series 3 DVR, which supports CableCard and HD (either over the air or via cable). Since I have had an older Tivo, this is pretty sweet, except for:

1) The price: $800 for the box alone. To use the thing, you have to subscribe to Tivo service (and that doesn't include the dough you pay out to the cable company). Since I've got a Tivo with a lifetime subscription, I can trade up to the new box for $200. So, I'm out a grand for this thing (and anyone without an existing lifetime sub will pay more).

2) Tivo To Go, which allows you to transfer shows off the box onto a PC (they don't like Macs, natch) over your home network, isn't supported on the Series 3. I like this feature since it allows me to archive programs. The main reason is that the studios don't want pure digital copies transferred easily onto PCs (the older Tivos are analog-based). Sure, it can probably be hacked, but if I'm shelling out $1,000, I ought to at least get all the functionality of the machine I've had a few years. This could change, but I'll be surprised.

3) This is the definition of an early adopter product if I've ever seen one. No doubt the prices will fall and the capabilites will rise. And there are those new product bugs.

So, as much as I love HD, I don't think I love it enough to make this kind of investment to watch TV in high def. I'd sooner invest in an HD-DVD or Blu Ray deck. However, one of the strong points of the new Tivo is its capability to record over-the-air HD, which is free. If I didn't care about cable channels, this thing would get me set for a long time with no monthly fees. Anyhow, I'm thinking the time isn't quite right for me to jump, as cool as this machine is.

Oh, and tomorrow night, the new season of Battlestar starts up. I'm very curious to see where things go at this point. I've really enjoyed it so far so don't screw it up guys!

We've also been watching Studio 60 and Gilmore Girls. The former is very good so far and the latter, just OK. I still like it, but think it's running out of gas.

And one more thing, I was reading this article in Wired about the guy who's taking over Bill Gates' job. It's all very fun/interesting, but this quote gave me pause, "Cell phones, BlackBerrys, and PDAs are now arguably the primary way we check email..."

I really don't do that. I know a few who have their Blackberries permanantly attached, but at this point I use my cell for a phone, don't have a Blackberry, and have a PDA with a cracked screen. You know what, I haven't missed the PDA. Maybe I'm just an old/crusty/benign guy who is SO stuck in the dark ages schlepping around a computer that he uses for email (among other things). Then again, maybe this article is full of it and I'm not so primitive. I just never really liked checking email/web surfing on the PDA (and my cell phone would be even worse). And I don't watch movies on my iPod. OK, I'll shut up now and go read Slashdot...

September 1, 2006

"Scotch was invented by a little old lady from Leningrad."

Speaking of altered history, here's some interesting stuff for any Star Trek fans out there.


Paramount is pulling a George Lucas and "improving" Star Trek: The Original Series. Here's the short version:

The shows are being re-done with new CGI effects in HD and will initially be broadcast by CBS (shares corporate parent with Paramount, natch) starting 9/16. The shows will be done via syndication so it will air at different times depending on local stations. For a more complete scoop, click here. The series will not be broadcast in production order or original air date. Supposedly the order is being dictated by some kind of fan polling. The first episode will be "Balance of Terror."

So here's another way to re-package the show. No doubt it will be released on some form of HD disc down the road. I will check one out to see what it looks like, but I doubt it will ever replace the old show, which I grew up watching. The old 1960s models and matte paintings (don't forget plastic boulders!) have a certain look that still sticks in my mind. So as long as they keep the originals in circulation, what the heck.

March 22, 2006

"Imagine me with no head - and don't say that's an improvement."

The other night I watched the first episode of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who. This is old news to the true Who fans who have most likely already seen the show over the 'net; the new show has been on in the UK for over a year and is going to be starting a second season. But for the rest of us, this is a chance to check out the show or revisit it. I was never much of a fan of the original even while recognizing why it has such a devoted following. The old show had such deep and convoluted story arcs with a dose of sci fi geek extreme characters mixed together with a decidedly British sensibility.

While appreciating the show on one level, I could never really get into it, partly due to the ultra cheesy special effects and, well I don't just never really grabbed me I guess. In any case, I am hardly in a position to evaluate the new show in more than a cursory way. I can tell however that they have strived to keep a link with the old while giving it a newer look. So here are a few observations based on the first episode:

The effects are, for a show in this day/age, still pretty cheesy, perhaps deliberately so. The first episode, "Rose," features some corny animated plastic zombie-like baddies. Perhaps this was their way of a zombie movie sendup (some of the scenes seemed right out of a Living Dead film), but these plastic fantastic monsters made me chuckle a bit; the scene where Rose's boyfriend gets swallowed by a trash can was amusing.

The guy who plays this version of the Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, is really good with a nice blend of anti-hero and witty mysterioso (whatever that means!). I was bummed to hear that he left the show recently.

Billie Piper, who plays Rose, the new Doctor's...oh, what is it called, companion? Assistant? Anyhow, I'm sure someone will correct me; she's OK. A bit whiney at first, but she has to spend the first episode reacting to all the new weird Whovian stuff going on around her so I'm looking forward to seeing how she turns out as a character.

My reaction to the music ran between amusement and irritation. Some of it was like bad 1980s dance electronica. Speaking of the music, they've kept the old theme song for the show with a newer sound for it. Good move.

The Tardis is pretty much the same as far as I can tell with its distinctive police call box, which looks more out of place now that they don't seem to be common in the UK these days.

So, maybe I'll check back after I've seen more episodes, but so far I like it well enough to stick with it for a while at least.

February 8, 2006

"I wouldn't trust this overgrown pile of microchips any further than I can throw it."

Today, it's time for an update on what the heck I'm pondering in the world of DVD fun.

Don't get too excited...

As many of you know, HDTV is here and here to stay. Standard DVD doesn't have the resolution that HD does so we're about to have new discs coming to market that should take full advantage of the new TVs everyone's been buying. When HD sets came on the scene, just playing standard DVDs on them looked pretty nice; it was a real step up from analog displays. Now that I've seen how good broadcast TV looks in HD, I'm looking forward to having HD movies to play back. Since I was an "early adopter," I don't get to watch these new HD discs in their full HD glory on my set I bought five years ago. My older HD set doesn't have digital connections to enforce copy protection systems to make the MPAA sleep at night, so any HD disc (HD-DVD or Blu-Ray) player I buy will "dumb down" the picture when used on a HD set such as mine. For more info on this issue, check this page out.

OK, so I'm out of the HD disc game for the moment, but sooner or later I'll have a TV to take advantage of the new discs. In the meantime, the question looms ever larger: do I wait on buying films on "old" DVD so I don't end up re-buying the titles on HD format? Have any of you thought about this? I know some don't care at all about it: if you don't own a HD set and don't plan to buy one in the near future, this may seem moot. But right now, some studios are already announcing regular and HD titles at the same time. Here's one example: Warners recently issued a new DVD set of The Wizard of Oz which had a new film transfer. According to restoration expert Robert Harris, the HD transfer of the film (there's no HD announcement for this one at the moment) is a real improvement over the previous DVD. However, the previous DVD was actually pretty good and he said that you'd need to see the new transfer in HD to notice much difference. So Mr. Harris made my buying decision for me, but most aren't that easy.

I certainly don't plan on re-buying everything I own (even if I could afford it), but there are some titles I'd either re-buy or wait on; Lord of the Rings would be a must-have in HD for example. I don't know....I was just curious if anyone else was thinking along those lines. If so, leave a comment. Or even if you don't, feel free to comment!

October 21, 2005

"It's the *pictures* that got small."

All right kids, let's talk some tech, shall we?

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Apple has introduced a new iPod that plays video. Fairly or not, Apple's getting a lot of press over this new Pod. Sure, they're certainly not the first to put video playback on an mp3 player, but since they command about 70% of the market, they get the press...that and Steve Jobs' being the celebrity that he is. Check out this review of the 30 gb model. They seemed pretty happy with the results, video-wise. The new iPod's screen is sharp enough that stuff looks decent on it even if it may suffer when played back on a standard TV (using an adaptor cable) or on a computer. Besides the new video feature, we also get a larger hard drive on the low end model (30gb up from 20) and a skinnier form...oh yeah, they also offer it in black, which floats my boat. Up close, the new Pod is very cool. It looks larger than the old one, but isn't. This is mainly due to the larger display. They also dropped Firewire from the new iPod; USB 2.0 only.

I guess besides the cool fact that the new Pod offers more bang for the same buck, is the question of whether one wants to watch video content on a deveice such as this. I don't have one of these to try (yet) but I can't imagine the experience of watching anything significant on this thing to be a good one. Maybe if you were on a treadmill or something and had this thing right in front of you with a sitcom...that might work. Movies? Sounds pretty silly to me. The other issue is that battery life is limited to 2-3 hours when playing video (14 hours playing music). A portable DVD player or laptop would seem to be a better option for those who spend their lives airborne.

Another bit of interest surrounding this is Apple's move to offer TV show downloads via iTunes, $1.99/show. There isn't much there, just a handful of titles, but it's an interesting first toe in the pool. I could see this business model's's an example:

A couple of weeks ago, we had a huge rainstorm and during it, we lost our satlellite TV signal for a bit. Alas it was during Gilmore Girls, a show we normally record with the trusty Tivo. That night we didn't get the episode and would normally have to wait until some unknown point in the future to catch it. Luckily we did get to see it the next day, but I had to go seek it out on the Internet. Sure, I got it but it was a minor pain in the butt and if I could have easily downloaded it from iTunes for $2, I would have done it, no hesitation. Sure, I usually wouldn't do it (that's what the Tivo is for), but for those times when you just have to have it, it would be really nice to do so. So we'll have to see how far this goes. Will people download shows for $2 that they aren't allowed to burn to DVD (annoying limitation, IMO)?

For right now, it makes far more sense to buy a TV show on DVD than download it. Better quality and features make it worth it if the show is important to you. But what if you could download the whole season of a show at high def quality with the same features for the same price? Sure it isn't here today, but it isn't too much of a stretch to see it coming...if the networks and studios are willing to go along.

September 15, 2005

"Only grown-up men are scared of women."

I was going to write a rant about broadcast flags and Tivo, but this came up...

Veteran director Robert Wise passed away this week at age 91. If any of you don't know who he was, go look at his filmography and I'll bet you'll find something you know.

Wise, like many directors did some good and bad films over the years. One of the remarkable things about Wise was the sheer variety of material he did. His films ran the gamunt of genres from musicals (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) to Science Fiction (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still). Heck, he even did a horror film.

When I think of Wise, the big-budget musicals come to mind, but also the stuff he worked on during his time at RKO in the 1940s. He was editor on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He has some notoriety with the latter film since he was the one who, at the studio's insistance and over Welles' objections, severely cut the film and tacked on a happy ending. I don't think it's appropriate to blame Wise since he was an employee of the studio and probably needed to keep his job. And if he'd refused, someone else would have done the deed.

Wise was never an "auteur" director since he rarely had total creative control over his projects and didn't write his screenplays. He did however seem to often pick material that was good and delivered it in a way that served it well. I guess I would describe him as more of a film craftsman rather than a film art genius. The work he did was consistantly good even if the material he was directing didn't always hold up.

Luckily he was willing to do interviews and DVD (some were on Laserdisc) commentary tracks. Among the tracks he recorded were those on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Sound of Music (soon to be re-released), and The Sand Pebbles.

August 17, 2005

"This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it."

And what is this mission? Why the mission to bring the wildly successful DVD format into the HD age of course!

I'm sure most of you are aware of this even if, god forbid, you rely on me for your home entertainment technology information!

But just in case, let's recap shall we?

Hi Def TV has been around for a while now, but there still isn't a good way to watch HD movies in your home on a packaged media (OK, smarty pants, there is DVHS and DVD is nowhere close to HD in resolution). That's where the upcoming HD DVD and Blu Ray Disc come in. They're the competing HD disc formats that are going to arrive here starting this holiday season and into next year. They're technically different and incompatible with each other. No one knows who's going to "win" (or neither) since roughly half the movie studios and electronics companies are behind each format; both have major industry players involved and the stakes are high. Of course there's always the possibility that by the time all of this gets sorted out, electronic delivery of HD movies will crush them both like bugs, but since we don't yet know how soon this will arrive on a large scale, it's off the table.

And this is where the "jeopardizing" comes into play. The movie studios have a great fear that if HD copies of their films get onto the Internet unprotected, they'll be screwed. And they believe the easiest way for such copies to get out there would be from people feeding an analog (component video) signal to a computer and that would be that since it's pointless to digitally encrypt something that eventually goes analog. Their solution? Force the hardware companies to nix the analog output all together (aka "the analog hole") or make the HD player dumb down the video to plain 'ol DVD resolution. Thus, the only way to get HD out of these new players (and both formats are more than likely going to adopt this method; the HD DVD camp has basically admitted it), you need a HD display that includes the HDMI connection, this is pretty much going to be TVs made during the last year or later. So I have two HD-capable TVs at home, neither of which will display HD on disc for me because of this inane, paranoid decision (there are about 10 million others out there like me).

A good article getting into this better can be found here and is worth a read if you're interested in this.

This may sound like sour grapes, and it is to an extent, but I've been looking forward to watching HD content, something besides Jay Leno, on my sets for a while now and basically I'm SOL. Thanks. Maybe I'll just sit this one out and wait until the iTunes equivalent for HD movies arrives.

July 5, 2005

Hello, I Must Be Going

I know you're all terribly disappointed, but I'm on vacation this week so I'll have to get caught up next week...try not to despair and we'll all give DVDs a rest for the week. Have fun.

June 21, 2005

"The French Love This Film Because They Can't Understand It"

Another post in the "what I've been watching" category.

Last night it was Incubus (1965). A few of you have already seen this almost forgotten cult film, but if not, go check out the DVD Savant review of it here.

Hmm, I could say that you haven't lived until you've seen a film in Esperanto starring William Shatner but I don't know...I couldn't even convince Shades that it was worth 75 minutes of her time. No argument there since, let's just say that listening to Shatner talk Esparanto for an hour is an acquired taste!

Shatner, if you can stand him, is actually somewhat subdued (for him) and is obviously making an effort to extract a performance in this bizarre film. The cinematography is the real standout in this film, shot by Conrad Hall. Hall got his start with Leslie Stevens working on The Outer Limits. He went on to work in feature films, even winning an Oscar for American Beauty. The guy got some interesting and creepy looks from the low-budget shoot. Much of the dialogue seems disjointed and delivered with an odd tone. The thing works as a curiosity and if you can get your mind around an "allegorical" story shot somewhat like a Bergman film. The review summed it up best, but if you're curious, it's worth a look for I've never seen anything quite like it.

The DVD, sourced from the only print of the film known to exist, is a bit rough, but watchable. The bonuses include an interesting interview with some of the people (those not done in by the so-called Incubus Curse a article), an audio commentary with the same guys, and a commentary with Shatner.

Shatner has some interesting things to say about the film, such as the fact that Gene Roddenberry considered doing Star Trek in, that would have been interesting! Shatner also has things to say about the other actors and admits that no one really knew what they were saying when they spoke the lines. The commentary has some real gaps, so it would have been nice to have had it edited in with someone else or shortened. One amusing thing he says, after talking about the difficulty of languages and some Bushman tribe in Borneo that speaks in a "clicking" language, is this: "A bushman version of Incubus would be a very interesting picture to see...only if I could direct it!" He then laughs out loud. Indeed!

June 9, 2005

"At last, your family can be protected from the heartbreak of gorilla invasion."

First, a couple of items for you Henson fans.

At long last, The Muppet Show - Season One is on the way: 8/9. No doubt it will be nice to have them all in season sets instead of the "best of" DVDs that have been available so far. The Muppets material has changed hands not too far back and now the show's video rights seem to lie with Disney, who's releasing this set. The only features known so far include, Henson's original pitch reel, the show's original pilot, as well as some other goodies - including a gag reel. No word on if the Brian Henson intros on the old discs will be present. Also coming soon is The Muppets' Wizard of Oz; it sounds like it wasn't so great, but it'll be on DVD on 8/9 as well.

Warner has Gilmore Girls: The Complete Fourth Season coming on 9/27.

Roger Ebert adds Howards End to his "Great Movies" collection.

And remember yesterday's post where I talked about movies being released on the UMD (Playstation 3) format? Well, you just know if was a matter of time, but there are now two porn publishers who are going to be start releasing their stuff next month on the format. Gee, maybe this format will really take off!

Finally, there's some word about more Star Wars DVDs on the way. If you're just dying to see Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith on DVD, you'll get the chance on 11/1. AND, they'll have a new 3-title box set of the prequel trilogy and a 6-title box set of the complete saga at the same time.

Speaking of the latest film, I never did mention what I thought of the latest here goes; consider yourself warned (there may be a spoiler or two as well).

I suppose I should begin by saying that my relatively low opinion of the last two films has colored my view of this one. I went in with pretty low expectations, certainly lower than I did for Episode I. I figured that if I counted on bad writing and direction, I could better enjoy the things this film does well: the effects and action sequences. So let's just get this out of the way; the dialogue is as bad as ever and the acting is usually wooden. I attribute this not to the actors themselves, but to Lucas' direction (or lack thereof) and the fact that the bulk of the scenes are done in front a blue screen. I'd guess it would take some skillful direction (some good writing would help too) to extract good performances from people standing around in front of screens with the sets "to be added later." Obviously by now Lucas knows what he likes from movies; there's no one around to tell him otherwise. If the love scenes are giggle-inducing, he's OK with it.

Believe it or not, this isn't what really bothers me the most about this movie. The thing that really doesn't work for me is the character development. Cheesy dialogue is somewhat easy to overlook in an action film, but character development, when it is pivotal to the story has to be there. Truth be told, I never cared why Anakin chose the Dark Side since he came off as an annoying jackass in the last film; Lucas never built up enough complexity in the character for me to give a damn why he "changed." And speaking of that, thinking back to Ep. 2, Anakin was blathering on about democracy being too "messy" and "imposing order" so you tell me: why should the Padme character, who was much more interesting and less clueless in the last film, be at all surprised that he went off and joined the scenery-chewing side of the Force? Speaking of chewing, Ian McD, who plays Palpatine/The Emperor gets one of the two funnest roles in the film. He gets to be all snarky as the scheming politician AND fight with a light sabre, complete with lightning shooting out of his hands. Sure, he's a bit over-the-top, but it doesn't seem out of place here. By the way, was I the only one who thought, after he has the big showdown with Samuel L Jackson, that he looked like some vampire lord from Buffy? The other fun role has got to be Yoda. He gets to deliberate with the clueless Jedi Council (how could they not see this coming???) as well as do some kick-ass fights. My only complaint about Yoda is that every line he has is done in the pseudo-backward speak, which gets old fast. It was much more effective in Empire when it was just every few sentences or so.

So that leaves us with the effects and action. For the most part, the show looked amazing, better than the last one. Sure, the final fight looks a bit like "Showdown at Mt. Doom," but they've outdone themselves this time. I found the film worth seeing on the big screen worth it just to get a good look at the CG set pieces. The things that bothered me about the effects were minor: clutter. It seems as though every interior scene had to have either a huge balcony or windows where you could just stare at the thousands of ships and junk flying in the background. Admittedly, it was nice to have distractions during certain dramatic moments, but it smacked of doing it because they could. And how many times do we have to watch another ship setting down on a landing pad with the struts making those oh-so-minute adjustments? I'm sure the guys who coded that worked hard, but by the end of the film it was silly (maybe I'll keep track next time I see it...drinking game???).

The thing I go back to again and again is the plain fact that Lucas has the power and talents (certainly the people who work on his films) to make great space-action-operas. I'm not looking for high art here; it just seems that it wouldn't take that much to make the last few SW films into decent examples of the genre. Would it kill George to put a small amount of humor in there somewhere? Quoting the old movies, "I've got a bad feeling about this," just seems kinda sad.

And the best part of all? Jar Jar has no lines!

June 7, 2005

"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"

Today I'm going to hit some bits and pieces that I haven't had time to cover so expect some random stuff...

First some upcoming DVDs:

Warner has officially announced the release of the Ben Hur: 4-Disc Collector's Edition (1959) for 9/13. The film has been carefully remastered from the original 65mm film elements. You'll find that on Disc One and Two of the set, in anamorphic widescreen video (2.76:1 aspect ratio) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. These first two discs will also include audio commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher (with scene specific comments from actor Charlton Heston), a music-only track showcasing Miklos Rozsa's score, screen test footage, a vintage newsreels gallery, film highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony and a theatrical trailer gallery. Disc Three will include the 1925 Silent Version of Ben-Hur, presented in the Thames Television Restoration, complete with stereophonic orchestral score by composer Carl Davis. Finally, Disc Four will include a new documentary Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (featuring interviews with current filmmakers like Ridley Scott and George Lucas reflecting on the importance and influence of the film), the 1994 documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic hosted by Christopher Plummer, the 1986 Directed by William Wyler documentary (featuring the last interview with Wyler before his death) and Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures ( a new audiovisual recreation of the film via stills, storyboards, sketches, music and dialogue). All told, the 4-disc set includes more than 10 hours of bonus material. Of course this film has been out on DVD for a few years, but this new one should be an improvement as the current one is a double-sided disc (dual side/dual layer), is supposedly framed incorrectly, and has a so-so audio mix. The Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic docu that's on the new set is on the current DVD (and is a good docu actually). So, if the 4 disc Gone With the Wind DVD is any indication, this should be really good (and having the 1925 version is a nice extra).

Universal has announced The Office: Season One for 8/16.

Kung Fu Hustle will be out on 8/9

Paramount has the Airplane: Don't Call Me Shirley Special Collector's Edition coming on 11/15.

The much-overrated Gladiator will be reissued on 8/23 as an "Extended Edition." Apparently Russell Crowe has recorded a commentary track...where he throws a phone at the microphone!

Disney is going to reissue Chicago as a 3 disc SE. It will include the film in anamorphic widescreen video with both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 audio, audio commentary with the director and screenwriter, extended musical performances, song rehearsal footage, a behind-the-scenes featurette, the deleted musical number Class performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah, a VH1: Behind the Movie episode, 5 new featurettes (including Chita Rivera's Encore, From Stage to Screen: The History of Chicago, An Intimate Look at Director Rob Marshall, Academy Award-winning Production Designer John Myre and Academy Award-winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood)

I just read an interesting article from the NY Times about how theatrical movie ticket sales are in decline. The reasons stated are the usual: crappy movies, the Internet, video games, Tivo, and of course, DVD. While the theatrical moviegoing experience isn't always great, (annoying people, rather than techincal problems are my peeves) I would miss it if it went away. I have an OK home theater system, but it really isn't the same as seeing a film on a huge screen. Sure, a lot of stuff is served just fine by a good DVD but there are still movies that really benefit from the theatrical showing. I'm sure this will even out at some point; probably involving fewer theaters. Let's hope that the ones that survive are decent.

Robert Harris has a short new column where he gripes, with reason I think, about the quality of extras on many DVDs. Worth a read, find it here.


The Digital Bits site has a short piece on the movie discs available for the new Sony Playstation Portable (PSP). The piece can be found here. These movies, on what's called a Universal Media Disc (UMD), allow you to watch full length movies on their PSPs. Apparently the movies look OK, if not quite DVD quality and have stereo sound. Now I don't doubt that the PSP is a cool little device and is probably very fun for games, but I just have to wonder: is there much value in watching movies on a 4.3 inch screen? I have a PDA with a color screen and I don't really like web surfing on it, never mind watching a movie. Maybe if you had some cool video goggles that simulated a giant video screen, this would be more attractive, but for now it doesn't seem like more than a novelty (the movie part that is). And Bill Gates thinks we're all going to be watching movies/TV on our cell phones? Uh, yeah...

April 26, 2005

"Did Doogie Howser just steal my f*#@ing car? "

The end of a workday and a few extra minutes to blog about whatever comes to mind...

First off, the other night we watched Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle on DVD. We both liked it quite a bit, I perhaps a bit more than Stacie did. Perhaps I was just in the right frame of mind for this hybrid stoner-road flick (you could argue that they're one and the same), but I feel it was very well done with a string of jokes and odd situations that were consistantly funny for the most part. Granted, this film is not for everyone; I know several friends whom I'm quite certain wouldn't find it that amusing. But if you can deal with the language, bouts of crude humor, and the drug jokes, you just might enjoy it. The cast is really good, the screenplay pretty well-excecuted, and even if a few of the gags fall flat, the film moves along quickly enough to make you forget about them in short order. In a sense, this resembles a Kevin Smith film, but is, IMO better than most of his work to date. The film also has some interesting racial/social commentary and satire. I liked it enough that I might buy the DVD, which has some amusing bonuses, when it drops in price.

Before I sign off, have you ever stumbled upon random strangers' iTunes shared playlists? I've been writing this here on the U of MN campus where when I fired up iTunes on my laptop, it found more than a dozen other playlists. I always find it somewhat interesting to see what other people are listening to or watching so this is kinda fun. I don't know if they all knew anyone on the same network who had iTunes running would see and in most cases listen to (this feature can be turned on or off and is off by default) their playlists, but I certainly wouldn't have a problem with it. One of the lists I sampled had a lot of the same music that resides on my home music server. Since this was probably a student, it reinforces the slight illusion that I'm not as old and crusty (or crusty-but-benign ) as I think I am.

April 2, 2005

"This show has more scenery than Yellowstone National Park!"

This morning I'm just doing another quick entry about stuff we've been watching. There isn't a lot of earth-shattering DVD news right now and not much new in the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD war.

It's always fun to see a film you aren't familiar with and have it be as good as this: The Bandwagon (1953). This is another example of the Freed Unit at MGM at the peak of its powers. Made just a year after Singin' in the Rain, this one is really in the same league if perhaps a notch lower then Singin'. If The Bandwagon lacks the great concept of Rain, it one-ups it in the ballet sequence, which seemed like an obligatory addition at this time, a trend set off by The Red Shoes perhaps. No offense to Gene Kelly fans, but this film might be better than An American in Paris (1951), another great Freed Unit film.

A few things I really liked about The Bandwagon: It gave us the song, "That's Entertainment", which is an old standard, but I'd forgotten how funny some of the lyrics are. Cyd Charisse (hey, did you know she acted in a film called Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood?!) turns out to be a great partner for Fred Astaire. Speaking of Fred, besides the great performance, I was amused at the jokes in the film at his expense. Besides the character he plays being a has-been Hollywood musical star (Astaire was in semi-retirement at the time), there's a scene at the beginning where his costumes from earlier hits are being auctioned, such as his "Top Hat", and the interest is virtually non-existant. Another funny joke on Astaire is a reference to an earlier film called, "Swinging Down To Panama", a play on the real Astaire film, Flying Down to Rio (1933). The supporting cast is excellent including Jack Buchanan, another film star of the 1930s. The musical numbers are great, some like "Triplets" are odd but really funny. The "show" they put on at the end of the film seems to have no plot whatsoever, perhaps a jab at musicals in general, with the songs seemingly having nothing to do with each other at all. So give this one a rent if you like musicals. BTW, the DVD is apparently really good, but we caught this one on cable.

DVD Savant has a good review of the DVD here. He also wrote an interesting review of Brigadoon (1954) which just had a DVD re-release. Ardent fans of the film may or may not want to hear what he has to say, but in general I think he gets it right. This one is better on the stage and besides containing a couple good musical numbers, doesn't really work for me. Part of the problem is that by 1954, MGM was having financial problems causing productions like this to have their budgets slashed. Filming this one on location wouldn't have corrected everything, but the fakiness of the production kind of belies the production quality, which was definately a step down from earlier MGM films. And if you are a big fan of the film, the new DVD is worth getting even though they don't include the seperate "flat" version of the film. This one, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, made the same year, was shot in both Cinemascope (new at the time) and conventional flat becuase most theaters didn't have the gear to project the new anamorphic format. Apparently the seperate versions are slightly different as they were actually different takes.

April 1, 2005

"Let us be crooked, but never common."

Since we've been on a Preston Sturges kick, we watched The Lady Eve the other night. Palm Beach Story was really good, but this one is great. Roger Ebert writes about this film better than I could here.

Next up: Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which isn't on DVD yet but I have a copy taped from cable TV.

Those of you who use Netflix are probably familiar with sites that have you assign ratings to films and suggest titles based on your ratings. I just started looking at Movielens which is run by people here at the U of MN. Check it out. I find it to work pretty well and anyone can use it.

March 28, 2005

"What you're needing more than a horse is a good dog."

Before I get into posting about this week's DVD info, I wanted to take a moment to write about the passing of my family's dog, Sam who had to be put down last week.

Sam was a wire-haired dachshund mutt who came from the animal shelter. We were never quite sure how old he was, but it was estimated that he was 4 when we adopted him (I was in Rapid City at the time) so he was probably 16 or so when he died.

This was one of the most interesting, unique dogs I've ever known. He was smart, very friendly to people (though he was untrusting of children and avoided them), and had an alpha dog attitude that he would use on dogs much larger in stature than he. When we brought Sam home, we also adopted a black lab pound dog, Siggy (he's been gone for a few years now), who was a lot larger than fiesty little Sam. Once they got used to the new surroundings, Sam decided he was going to be the "top dog" and seemingly with will alone, asserted himself to be alpha.

Sam had some things he was especially known for. Tennis ball chasing: this was a dog who lived to chase tennis balls. Granted, this isn't that unusual, but Sam pursued it with a doggy-religious zeal. When Siggy was around, the two of them would play. It usually involved the following: Human throws ball, Siggy, being the faster (though Sam could zoom around the yard much faster than you might think, given his stubby legs) generally got the ball first. Siggy wasn't much of a retriever. He'd go after the ball, but not return it (sounds like another dog we know ). This tends to stop the game. Sam wouldn't allow this and ran up to Siggy, who usually just sat there holding the ball in his mouth, and would try to wrest the ball from the goofy lab's jaw. At first, Sam had little difficulty with this, but soon Siggs figured out ways to keep him at bay. Like standing on the edge of the backyard deck holding the ball over it out of Sam's reach. Sam would stand down there leaping into the air trying to get the ball, unable to snatch it. Siggy generally got tired of it, let the ball go, and Sam brought the ball back to the human allowing the cycle to begin again. I probably don't do this routine justice, but it was quite the canine spectacle to observe! Alas, once Siggy was gone, the poor dog's heart just wasn't in the game. Those two had a relationship, such as it was and playing ball alone wasn't much fun. He still chased, but it wasn't the same.

Dig it, the dancing dog.

Some dogs beg by barking, sitting, and so forth, but Sam stood up on his hind legs and danced back and forth. This always seemed like quite the feat for a small, short, long-bodied dog and he would do it for quite a while and was a sight to behold.

"I measured the width of Sam's skull!"

This was when my Dad said when he had to changed the planks under the deck due to the fact that Sam kept chasing balls underneath and couldn't get out. The plank's with was matched to his head...had to be there I guess!

Sam already had his name when he was adopted, but sure enough, it wasn't long until he picked up some alternate names: Samuelson, Sam-Well, Stinky (he had chronic bad breath), Teemster, Samwise...I'm sure I'm missing a few.

He had a salt/pepper beard.

So, I thought the lil' guy deserved at least a blog entry to mark his passing. He will be missed. So long, Sam.

[update] I did indeed forget the name, Samsonite! AND, speaking of his swimming abilities, which were considerable, I've included a couple of pictures from the 2003 MGROE retreat.



March 24, 2005

"Captain, please don't..."

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don’t you dare dig for that “cool” or “intellectual” book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

"When the Tellarite ambassador, Gav (John Wheeler), is murdered on board, suspicion is directed toward Spock's father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard). Altman (****): A triumph of diplomatic skulduggery, filled with classic Star Trek moments, including Spock and father Sarek's incessant bickering and McCoy's final rebuff of them both ("I finally got the last word"). Kirk's battle with an Andorian and his stubborn determination to remain on the bridge despite his injuries when Spock refuses to give up command is exceptional writing." -- Trek Navigator: The Ultimate Guide to the Entire Trek Saga, Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross

So now who's geekier....hmm, maybe Shades is!

February 11, 2005

"Mephistopheles of the cathode ray, big brother to the ungrateful dead."

This is just a quick follow-up to my post yesterday about TV 'n stuff.

Some people think we Tivo owners are a bit obsessive about them. That's kind of right, but I don't think you can understand it if you don't have one! So, with this in mind I found this "Tivo FAQ" pretty damn funny. The article can be found here, but I just have to post it as well.

Questions Frequently Asked About TiVo, Answered by Someone Who Loves TiVo Too Much

What’s that? You still don’t have a TiVo? Ahh, you must have some questions about the technology before you take the plunge. Lucky for you, John Warner is here with a stack of answers and a filled baptismal pool.

Q: What is the proper term for a lover of TiVo?

A: A lover of TiVo is a “TiVotee” (rhymes with “devotee”).

Q: Will I watch more or less television once I have TiVo?

A: You will not watch any television whatsoever. You will watch TiVo. Television has commercials. TiVo has only magnificent moving-picture programming filled with people you recognize and love because they are famous—not anonymous acting drones who have acid indigestion and limp penises and need life insurance.

Q: Will TiVo change my life?

A: No, TiVo will not change your life so much as He will destroy your previous life, permitting a new and improved life to rise, phoenix-like, from your ashes. Switching from cable television to satellite is “change.” Moving to TiVo is closer to rebirth.

Q: Is TiVo expensive?

A: This question makes no sense. In a future world, where mankind has destroyed its remaining clean air and drinking water and such necessities require payment, will you be asking how much it costs to draw breath? I didn’t think so.

Q: Is TiVo male or female?

A: TiVo is commonly referred to as “He,” though this is a mere convenience, as TiVo encompasses all things, living or no. TiVo is the heavens and the earth and anything that might be beyond the heavens—like bigger and even more sophisticated TiVos. Expert linguists have been working to develop a pronoun that more accurately reflects the universality of TiVo, but as of yet all attempts are unpronounceable in every language except Fortran.

Q: How does TiVo know to record programs for me that I might like?

A: The long answer the TiVo marketing executives would like you to believe is that TiVo uses a sophisticated algorithm that compares your viewing habits to the behavior of other TiVo users, but the truth comes in a one-word answer: druids. Druids have spells, magical spells that they cast to determine your deepest wishes and desires when it comes to television viewing. Do not be afraid! Druids engage only in friendly, white magic. Wiccans (i.e., lesbians), on the other hand, are a different matter. They should never be allowed to own—or program—a TiVo.

Q: Will TiVo work if I only have broadcast television?

A: Yes, TiVo will “work.” TiVo would work if you only had one channel that showed Balinese folk dancing 20 hours a day and that infomercial with Chef Tony and his knives for the other four. The larger issue is that if you have only broadcast television, your TiVo will be very, very sad. You see, TiVo exists in order to bring pleasure to His owner, and His level of pleasure is directly correlated to the number of channels He has to choose from. To not have at least 75 channels for TiVo to monitor and peruse in His unceasing desire to please is tantamount to cruelty or neglect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to kick a door down to take an underutilized TiVo away from a family that’s heartless enough to have only basic cable.

Q: When I go on vacation, should I have someone watch after TiVo?

A: Unlike your children, your mother, or your spouse, TiVo will not make you feel guilty for leaving Him behind when you take that vital jaunt to Branson to catch a week of Yakov Smirnov sets, but once you own TiVo, you will lose the urge to do anything except lay completely nude on the couch in front of this blessed machine.

John Warner is the author of the forthcoming book, Sleeping with Oprah and Other Routes to Achieving Fame, Fortune, and a New York Times Bestseller to be published in September by Writer’s Digest Books.

February 10, 2005

"There's been a little complication with my complication."

A couple of tidbits this time...

OK, so pretty much everyone knows Shades and I have owned a Tivo for a while now and consider it one of the most valuable pieces of home electronics we own. So people sometimes say, why go to the hassle of buying/setting up a Tivo box that's seperate from my cable/satellite box, paying Tivo for the serice on top of my cable/satellite bill when the cable company will rent me one of their PVRs for a low monthly rate that does almost everything that Tivo does?

1. Well, for one thing, as far as I know nobody's PVR has Tivo beat for its user interface.

2. The standard Tivo box can be used with cable (analog or with a digital box), satellite, or even old fashioned over the air TV.

3. The Tivo box isn't controlled by your cable/satellite company. Why does this matter? When the content provider controls the whole widget, so to speak, they can restrict its use any way they want to. This is the whole idea behind the upcoming broadcast flag that will be, as of June 1, mandatory on all consumer video gear that does digital TV. [Update: it will apply to computers as well so get those capture cards while ye can!] For a good explanation on what this means, check out this article on it.

So back to the cable companies and their DVRs. In theory, Comcast can, at will restrict what shows you can save to the unit, how long a show can be kept, and even whether or not you can fast-forward through commercials. OK, you're thinking, "oh they'd never do that! People wouldn't stand for it." Would they? It looks like we may find out. According to reports like this, Comcast may already be testing something like this. A number of Comcast DVR users have reported not being able to fast-forward through ads on the shows American Idol and 24.

I've been very glad to be slowly ridding myself of the VHS tape format, but if this kind of crap becomes common, I'll go back to tape so fast it'll make your head spin...or get away from TV all together.

And now something else:

Remember that DVD format called EZ-D? You know, the DVD that self-destructed after 48 hours once the seal was broken on the package? Well, Disney was test-marketing it and they ended the test without any announcement of further promotion/roll-out. Apparently it didn't do so well...gee, I'm shocked! has a story on it here. It seems to me that if people want something like this, some kind of video on-demand (already in use on some cable systems and coming soon to satellite) system would be better, cheaper, and without the side-effect of all the used EZ-Ds piling up in landfills.

Finally, Shades and I went to the Lyle Lovett/John Hiatt/Joe Ely/Guy Clark concert last night and it was one of the best non-classical concerts I've been to in a long time, maybe ever. For some good details on the concert, check out her entry here.

February 3, 2005

"Better on T.V. than on the streets."

And now, faithful readers comes another obligatory "what's the Doc been up to lately?" post. At least with regard to the part of his life devoted to film/tv/DVD watching.


As I was putting together yesterday's post and grabbing the links for the DVD releases, I was struck by how many of them hadn't been released on DVD before. Heck, it looked as though some weren't even on VHS. Now I don't know for sure if a title was ever released on home video before, now that I think of it as I don't have a good resource available to verify it. I figure that if none of the Amazon stores in the various countries have it, it probably hasn't been out for a while or ever. In any case, it's very cool to have the lesser-known classics come out.

One of the things I've been doing off and on has been transferring a bunch of my Dad's old Beta tapes. This is all films he recorded off cable tv throughout the 1980s and early 90's. We recently went through them and pulled out the ones that had films not available on DVD. I've been transferring them onto my Mac and burning DVDs of them, giving priority to the ones that seem less likely to show up on disc. Recent titles include Bedlam (1946, with Boris Karloff) and Hangover Square (1945, with a great Bernard Herrmann score). I'll bet none of you have seen or perhaps even heard of these two films. Yes, the quality isn't great but it's watchable and for now, the only way to see them. There's always the chance the stuff I'm working on will get onto disc, but I'm sure it'll be a while.

Alas, our Netflix queue has been languishing of late. We've made little progress these days, partially due to being busy, but also watching more TV. Somehow, Shades and I have gotten into certain cooking shows. Which ones?


There's always good old Iron Chef (the Japanese version, natch), which we have watched off and on for some time, but you don't really watch Chef for its culinary enlightenment. Sure, you see some interesting stuff, but it's really consumed as entertainment for us. I've also watched some of the new Iron Chef America (not the old UPN version with Bill Shatner). It's pretty fun and the food is obviously easier to relate to, but the guy who plays the new Chairman is weak and they will never match the sheer cheesiness, oddity, and wonderful pomposity of the old show. The chefs are interesting to watch though and commentator, Alton Brown, who is the creator/host of another show we've gotten into, Good Eats is really good at explaining what's going on.. See this posting for more on that show.

Another show we've stumbled across is Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. For a good description of it, check out this Slate article. Of course we're still watching The West Wing (although we've let them pile up on the Tivo lately) and Gilmore Girls. I continue to stick with Star Trek Enterprise even though many I know have given up on it. This show still isn't up to the level of some previous Trek series, but I feel it has made some improvements both in writing (deperately needed) and the overall direction of the show. Some elements of the cast are still weak, IMO, but as a Trek fan, I find it worth watching. [update: I heard today that Enterprise has been given the axe by UPN. Too bad really, the show was improving and it was better than most of the dreck on TV right now--not saying much I know. Maybe next time they'll know better than to build a series on recycled plots and nude rubdowns!]

Stuff I'm intending to get to:

Oscar nominated stuff of course, several TV series (via Netflix) I haven't watched including 24, Alias, Firefly, Farscape plus finishing/catching up on The World At War, Buffy, and The Sopranos.

January 11, 2005

"This is just like television, only you can see much further."

This morning I find myself hanging out at the Lexus dealer waiting for my car to be finished. Ah, the wonders of technology where I can sit here blogging while I wait for my surely over-priced car repair (air flow sensor anyone?)!

No new DVD news of note today (though DVD Savant has a good review of the new Random Harvest DVD, found here) so I thought I'd veer off into a couple of tangents, somewhat related to TV.

PVRblog has a link about hooking a certain HDTV cable box to a Mac (via Firewire) to do recording, DVD burning, or whatever, whithout any hacking of hardware or software. This is quite cool for those of us who choose not to do the Windows thing at home as most of the action in the PC/TV area has been centered around the Wintel platform. Yes, I am a Tivo fan, but they don't really have a product to do HD outside of their box for Directv. This solution allows you to actually save HD content via cable to your Mac where you can exercise your fair use rights till the cows come home. Tivo does offer Tivo ToGo, which allows you to transfer shows off the Tivo (over a home network) to a PC where it can be archived to DVD. The problems with this are:

A) It's Windows only; this is probably due to the fact that they use Microsoft DRM to allow the media companies to restrict how you use the content.

B) It can't do HD; the Directv box doesn't work with TivoToGo.

C) You have to buy a commercial DVD burning package to burn discs (it has to do with the DRM again).

Yes, using Tivo is a lot nicer than a computer hooked to a cable box, but it does have advantages as long as the cable companies don't cripple the technology down the line. The actual article can be found here.

I am now going to break one of my own rules and mention politics here, so feel free to tune out now...

As you probably all know, I'm a bit of a leftie (no!) and after the disaster of 2004 (aka the election), I have steered a wide course around TV news, finding it inadequate and biased too much in favor of the Administration. I still keep up with the news, but choose to get if from alternative sources such as public radio, the internet, and leftie talk radio (sorry, I need my bitter, angry leftie talk these days!). Since Shades and I have satellite TV, we have a lot of other things to waste our of the things we've been watching, perhaps taking the place (at least for me) of bad TV political coverage has been stuff on Food Network. Sure, I've been watching staples such as Iron Chef (the original, thank you very much) for a while now, but some of the other stuff has been amusing to watch. Our current favorite is a show called Good Eats. It's a show that centers on a particular dish or ingredient where the host goes into the background...oops, car's ready...back in a few....OK, back at it after forking over a large chunk of change, ouch! So he goes into the background of the food and ways to prepare it, often with really dorky skits, examples, and a good dose of somewhat scientific mini-lessons about why certain food ingredients behave like they do. What I like about the show (it grows on you) is that it aspires to culinary heights without being pretentious. Also, much of the stuff that's prepared could realistically be made by people like me and his advice about kitchen tools/appliances is about as realistic as possible on a cooking show. Even if you're not a cooking fiend, I suggest giving it a try. Another show we like well is America's Test Kitchen. This PBS show is also pretty practical, though not as entertaining as Good Eats, it has great advice and recipes (it goes along with a print magazine). So yes, there's always something to watch if you want to take your mind off current events....oh yes, another very fun time-wasting show we caught over the weekend was VH1's 40 Most Awesomely Bad #1 Songs; the songs are bad and the videos even worse. OK, enough random I'm going to try and get my Netflix queue to display like this guy did.

December 15, 2004

"Feed the birds and what have you got? Fat birds."

Nothing terribly exciting going on this week in DVDland other than the normal holiday buying frenzy. Everyone's pretty pumped about the new Return of the King 4 DVD set that came out yesterday. I'm planning to pick it up very soon and would suggest that if you're planning to get it, do it before the week's out as the price will be higher. I haven't seen the first two extended versions drop much below the $30 mark since they were released. You could wait for the inevitable next versions to come out, but it will probably be a while as Peter Jackson has a number of other things on his plate. And, the current versions are all I really need as the supplements are huge and the picture/sound is as good as we're going to get on the current DVD format. All I need, that is until the HD versions are relased; then I'll buy them again, but until then these are the way to go and, IMO a tremendous bargain.

As I mentioned the other day, I'd been curious to compare the new Mary Poppins DVD (DVD Savant has a good review of this disc here) with the "Archive Edition" laserdisc. I don't have the new DVD yet, but Shades and I watched it the other night so I thought I'd share a few thoughts.

First the picture: This LD looked quite good, even on a large screen with the usual lack of sharpness compared to a good DVD image with very low amounts of analog video noise. The color was perhaps a bit muted, but I can't say I know how this film is supposed to look. Needless to say it looks better than any previous version I've seen. The DVD is supposed to be an improvement, but some have said it is a bit too much "enhanced". The LD is a good approximation of what a theatrical print would look like (a good one). What I mean by this is that it doesn't look clinically clean, but it does have some dirt from the source element, which bothers some (not me, I accept it as part of the film experience). All in all, quite watchable even if the DVD probably betters it.

The sound: Good old uncompressed PCM! Even though I don't have the new DVD to compare, I have a hard time believing that it will beat the LD for sound. This track isn't flashy, doesn't have earth-shattering bass, or whizzy directional effects, but it does sound *right*. Right means the dialogue is clear, but not edgy or unbalanced. The music sounds really nice on this track with a fairly organic quality to it. There's plenty of detail in the mix but it doesn't call undue attention to itself and the high frequencies aren't screechy or fatiguing at all. There's some tape hiss present (pretty normal for 1964), but nothing big and perhaps there could have been more bass, but it sounds like this is what the film's track contains.

One of the interesting things I noticed while watching was how the sound of the actors' voice tracks changed between the spoken dialogue and the musical numbers. It does indeed sound like the voices were recorded on the set (this isn't done a lot these days--it's usually re-dubbed) and the songs done in a studio as you can hear a distinct difference when the track goes back and forth. It didn't bother me, but it does make me wonder if Disney took this LD soundtrack from multiple sources such as the session recordings for the music as opposed to a straight-off transfer from a film print.

So, I'll have to post again when I see the new disc, but I am quite glad to have this version to listen to. And one other thing I never noticed about the film: The bird woman in the "Feed the Birds" song was played by Jane Darwell (her last film) who won an Oscar in 1941 for her performance in The Grapes of Wrath.

November 17, 2004

"This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it."

Going a bit off-topic today and veering into the world of PVR (personal video recorders) and consumer rights. I'm posting about this due to two different developments that may effect the PVR and perhaps DVD.


The first is an announcement by Tivo that it would make changes in its software to insert banner ads when you skip past the ads on shows. The idea is that you would be compelled to hit the select button (the Tivo equivalent of the mouse click) and it would show a specific ad or something directly targetted to you. An overview of this can be found in this LA Times article.

I personally find this to be a bad thing, but I'm not ready to condemn it as the end of the Tivo paradise like some have, until I've seen it in action. However, if this is the only way Tivo, who is the best bar-none at the PVR game, can stay afloat (they have yet to make a profit) then I will grudgingly accept it and hope it isn't too annoying. I've seen the ads that populate the screens of my folks' cable box menus; Tivo will have to work pretty hard to get as bad as that., where I got the sad Tivo graphic, has some good commentary on this as well.

The other thing that's going on is a bill in the Senate right now that could have some really disasterous effects for consumers. Wired has an article on it; go read it. How about these apples:

"The bill would also permit people to use technology to skip objectionable content -- like a gory or sexually explicit scene -- in films, a right that consumers already have. However, under the proposed language, viewers would not be allowed to use software or devices to skip commericals or promotional announcements 'that would otherwise be performed or displayed before, during or after the performance of the motion picture,' like the previews on a DVD. The proposed law also includes language from the Pirate Act (S2237), which would permit the Justice Department to file civil lawsuits against alleged copyright infringers."

I would like to think that most people would find this bill to be utter nonsense, but enough politicians are being paid by the media companies that it is being seriously looked at. OK, Mr. President: you guys hate Hollywood so much? Veto this piece of legislative garbage and put your money where your mouths are. This is an area where I think the Democrats, which I am normally proud to include myself as one, are on the wrong side. Do they really need the payola from these guys that much? Isn't it possible that they could score some points with the public by standing up to these companies? I'm probably expecting too much...

September 10, 2004

But the doggone gal turned sour on me!

(yawn)...As Stacie mentioned last night, we like to stay up late and while she was plugging away at her blog, I was doing more audio transfers (how geeky can you get?!). Last night's batch included a couple of transcription discs I did for my Dad. These records were cut at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Dad had a friend who was a recording engineer in the area. I'm not sure how he ended up doing these there (this studio was where a lot of huge hits were done including many Elvis singles in the 1950s), but it's pretty cool to have a disc cut at this place in your hands with the label intact (here's an example which is about the same as the ones I've got):


These records are disc cuttings of open reel tapes my Dad wanted to save or have good copies of (I don't think he's got the original tapes). One is of a Dixieland combo he played bass in (and sings on one song!); this is from ca. 1954. The other one is from a recording of the Coast Union High School band, which he conducted; this was from 1956. The odd thing about these records is that while they run at a standard 33 1/3 rpm, they were cut with a larger size stylus typically used for 78 rpm discs. So while I have so much obsolete tech to play this kind of thing back, my Dad hasn't been able to listen to these so it was good to get them on CD. Nothing of real value musically, but worth preserving for sure (and perhaps the only recording of Dad singing!).

I also did a jazz lp from the 1950s called Jazz of Two Decades; a sampler lp from the old Emarcy label. (part of the Mercury label). This jazz "variety pack" dates from the mid 1950s and has some great stuff on it. I also took some stuff from an lp I bought in Russia back in 1989, a Greenpeace benefit lp called Breakthrough. A double lp pressed in the USSR by Melodiya (then the state-run record label), it's lots of pop hits from the mid to late 80s from a number of rock/alternative artists. Some fun stuff and it has this huge booklet in Russian. Again, nothing you can't elsewhere, but a fun curiousity. Ah, more food for the ever-hungry Trowles Music Server!

August 30, 2004

"There is a big, knappy hair in my sundae."

Well now, here that I have this new peachy category to throw stuff into..

I present the obligatory, "here's what I've been doing lately" part of the program. Just so no one, like my Mom, concludes that all I ever do is watch/transfer/talk about movies/music, I DO indeed have other things going on, but I'm still going to focus mainly on the media part of my time. Oh joy.

The other night, Stacie and I watched The Awful Truth (1937). As is pointed out in the review, this film is a stereotypical screwball comedy and may even be (the genre, that is) the ancestor of the modern sitcom. This one is quite good if not one of the best I've seen. Still, it's hard to go far wrong with Cary Grant and this one is really fun. The DVD is passable, image-wise and the DVD is bare-bones. Very well worth a rent and perhaps a buy if you like it well enough.

Lately I've been transferring a number of analog videos to DVD using my trusty Canopus ADVC100 converter box to get the VHS/Beta/LD material onto my Mac where I can edit and author DVDs. I have a huge pile of stuff, which seems to grow larger every week, to transfer including a big bag 'o Beta tapes from my Dad containing old films that have never been released on VHS, let alone DVD before. It's time (and hard disk!) consuming, but worthwhile as these obsolete machines won't run forever and let's face it; once I went over to DVD, I almost never feel like firing up ye olde Betamax to watch something I recorded off-air 10 years back. Of course the thing I really need to get to soon is the unadulterated Star Wars films I have on LD. Another cool thing about this is that I am able to transfer old Knowles family home movies onto a more convenient and (hopefully) more durable format; there is some question about how long burned optical media will actually last, but it's pretty easy to burn new copies once it's been digitized, so I'm probably still ahead of the game.

What have I worked on recently? Here's a bit: Greed (1925), the four hour reconstructed version that was done a few years back. This may well come out on DVD, but there's nothing soon and TCM ran it so I had a clean shot. Dr. Strangelove: I had a VHS of the Criterion LD which has a lot of supplements. Why would I bother doing this with, as of November of this year, no less than three versions of this film on DVD? Because with few exceptions, Criterion never licences its original content so I'm trying to keep some of it. This particular one includes the infamous, Duck and Cover film plus My Teenage Fallout Queen, an example of the Scopitone film (a 1960s "video jukebox" that had self-contained 16mm projectors and screens).

I also transferred the VHS tape I recieved from the McDonald's Band (high school). This tape had all of the TV appearances the band made that season; Today Show, Rose Bowl Parade, etc.

Next, David Halberstam's The Fifties, which may never make it to DVD...but as these things go, it'll be announced the day after I finish transferring all 6 hours of it! Maybe I'll do some Star Wars soon as well.

"We need to talk about your TPS reports."

OK, so I'm finally getting around to putting some categories on my lil' ole blog. So from now on, "DVD Dregs" is pretty much the same stuff I've been posting, ya know, release lists, reviews, stupid comments and the like. "Dregs 'N Ends" will be a catch-all for everything else I feel like spewing out on the 'Net. It will pretty much be movies/media-related, but who I'll be continuing to send notifications for the DVD stuff, but not the rest...if anyone really gives a rip.