Saturday, February 28, 2009


I don't have a whole lot to say about Dollhouse, the new sci-fi television program by Joss Whedon, other than that its first episode was really boring.

I've never been a Joss Whedon fan, though I wouldn't say I've been one of his detractors either. I would say I'm aware of his existence and that's about it. I remember trying to watch a few different episodes of Buffy back in the day, but always failing because they were, in my opinion, unwatchable. The dialogue always seemed really hokey and the acting was bad. But, again, I never made it through more than, say, twenty minute at a time so take my opinion lightly.

Then there was Angel (I think), which I never watched but a friend of mine used to love. I never gave it a try because it was a spin-off of Buffy. Also, I just never seemed to be around whenever it was on TV, if it was ever on TV. I've heard people talk about it, but I've never actually seen any proof that it was ever on, let alone for a few years.

I did enjoy Firefly, for the brief few months that it stayed on TV. It wasn't as brilliant as a lot of people would have you believe, but it was a really funny, really entertaining sci-fi western hibrid that deserved better than Fox gave it. Had it lasted long enough, it probably would've have grown into something as brilliant as a lot of people would have you believe. Or maybe not, since Whedon's film version Serenity was pretty mediocre, in my opinion. But I did like the show.

All of this has nothing to do with Dollhouse, other than that it seems to be another show in which I have very little interest.

Basically the premise of the show is that Eliza Dushku has really nice legs. That got me through the first episode, but they aren't good enough to get me to come back for any others. Life is too short and boring TV shows seem too long.

But if you liked all those other shows I mentioned, maybe you should give it a try.

Battlestar Galactica

Yes, I am a fan. In case you're wondering why I haven't reviewed last night's episode, or the previous week's episode, or the week previous to that, etc, it's because I'm waiting to give my thoughts until the final episode has aired and the entire storyline has had a chance to unfold and come to its denouement.

But last night's episode was very good, or, at least, the last ten minutes or so were.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Philp José Farmer, 1918 - 2009

File this one under the "I thought he was already dead" department, but Philip José Farmer, the best and most important science fiction writer you've probably never heard of, died yesterday. He was 91.

Farmer's novels were delightfully insane, with subject matter so full of honesty about human (and alien) sexuality and religious beliefs that his works would be considered shocking and innovative even by today's standards. But nothing he ever wrote was gratuitous, nor was any of it ever boring or predictable or ordinary or the least bit lacking in imagination, entertainment value, and integrity.

Even better than his science fiction and fantasy novels, in my opinion, were his love-letter-like novels about the pulp heroes that paved the way for his own work. His fictional biographies of Tarzan, Doc Savage, Phileas Fogg, et all, are three of my all time favorite books, and every bit as engrossing and fun as the original novels by the characters' original creators.

Philip José Farmer. Even though I thought he was already dead, he'll still be missed.

Heir to the Empire

Well, this is why my fans keep coming back to my blog: to read my opinions on Star Wars novels that were originally published 18 years ago. Give the people what the want, that's my motto.

Anyway, long story short... this novel was terrible.

"What," you're probably asking yourselves, "You were expecting maybe... Tolstoy?" Well, no, but considering how much I loved it when it first came out (when I was 14!), and considering how much praise has been heaped on it over the years by my fellow Star Wars fans, I was expecting something special. Or, at the very least, something that wasn't, well terrible.

And, no, I don't think I was expecting too much. There is a stigma against licensed novels, but it is one that isn't necessarilly fair in the case of the "Expanded Universe" of the Star Wars novels. Unlike most licensed novels, the publishers of the Star Wars books actually hire a lot of well respected, established writers, which tends to give them a literary (or at least entertainment) value that would otherwise be lacking. Some of them are actually very good and compliment the films very well. And Heir to the Empire, the first in a trilogy by Timothy Zahn, should have been one of those good Star Wars novels. After all, Zahn was one of those well respected, established writers. He had already written a dozen or so science fiction novels, and had even won the Hugo award for best novella in 1984.

So why did he drop the ball with this novel? Some of its problem may have had to do with the fact that he was already an established science fiction novelist. After all, Star Wars is not science fiction, it's fantasy, and that is a problem many writers have had trouble resolving. Star Wars takes place in space, sure, and features technology and science concepts far advanced from our own, but it is told with a sense of mystery and magic and, well, fantasy, that makes it closer to Tolkien or even mythology than Asimov or Heinlein. Zahn doesn't understand that, and in fact seems to rebel against it. There is even an animal in this novel that is somehow able to repel the Force, almost as though Zahn is telling us that the very concept of the Force is silly and unneeded.

But we can't blame Zahn too much for inconsistencies in tone from the original trilogy of films, because this book was written almost ten years after Return of the Jedi was released, during a time well before the Expanded Universe of Star Wars novels really exploded. In fact, Zahn's novels helped to create that Expanded Universe, which brought the films back into popularity, which helped to generate the excitement that led to the release of the Special Editions and the Prequels. So the impact and importance of Zahn's novels can't be denied, but that still doesn't mean they're any good.

The humor from the films, for example, is something Zahn tried his best to translate to his books, but with little success. The films are very goofy and funny and silly, so Zahn attempted to add some levity, like in the scenes where 3PO is given Leia's voice to trick people over the communications link, or when Luke makes a big deal out of some new drink, that's called Hot chocolate. Hot chocolate? I'm willing to believe that such a drink exists in the Star Wars universe, but its existence shouldn't be used as a punchline to a joke. There is a chapter where Luke is said to be drinking some exotic beverage that Lando told him about. He keeps sipping from it, and then, finally, somebody asks him what it is, and he replies that it is called hot chocolate. I can't quite explain why this was so annoying and weak, but I bet you can kind of understand.

Then there are the huge, ridiculous plot contrivances. There are three huge coincidences in this novel that completely ruin any kind of plot or story flow. There are actually three instances where Luke in his X Wing and Han in the Millennium Falcon independently decide to visit some such location, at the exact moment when the Empire decides to launch an attack. Three times. Three. Once was annoying but forgivable, two was a sign of bad writing and poor editing, but three made me want to chuck the book across the room into the garbage can.

And, lastly, we have to discuss Thrawn, who was unjustly become something of a fan favorite villain amongst Star Wars fans. I saw unjustly because he's actually a really boring, ill-thought out character. To begin with, he has no real personality or defining characteristics beyond his blue skin. We're supposed to believe he's some kind of military genius, but not because we see him do anything remotely logical during battle, but because the writer has characters describe him as such.

But wait, you might be asking, what about his ability to understand the weaknesses of any race by completely studying their art? What about it? It's completely moronic and makes no sense. You really think that an alien culture could defeat Earth in a massive space battle simply because they studied the works of Picasso? It's a cute idea to be sure, and one that amost seems clever and smart, but it falls apart after even a three year old gives it two minutes of thought. Thrawn sucks.

And so did this book.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Halo novels to read.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Memoriam

I didn't watch the Oscars this year, much like I didn't watch the Oscars last year or the year before. Usually I tune in here and there during the commercial breaks of whatever else I happen to be watching, out of morbid curiosity or just in hopes I might get to see Cate Blanchett. But this year, zero interest. Maybe it was because I haven't seen any of the films up for any of the major awards, except for that Batman movie (if you can call best supporting actor a "major" award), but I didn't like that very much. Or maybe it was because I already knew that the best film of the year was Wall-E, which wasn't even up for consideration. So whatever.

But what I do usually enjoy, other than the montages showing clips from better films than whatever happens to get nominated in the current year, is the "In Memoriam Reel." It's always a well done, tasteful montage of noteworthy names who died in the previous year. They always leave important people off for whatever reason, but it's still worth watching and always makes me misty... not only because of the passing of so many wonderful, talented people, but because Hollywood used to be filled with so many wonderful, talented people.

Anyway, here it is:

Monday, February 23, 2009

iPod Touch

Here I am, blogging from my iPod Touch. This totally blows and I doubt I'll ever do it again.

Site Changes

I changed the layout to a different blogger template. The white was starting to hurt my eyes. Minima is clean and I like that, but some of these others are a little easier to read when all you have are long, blocks of text. Minima with a slight outline or box around the posts would be perfect. Get on that, somebody.

Also, why can't you modify the width of the columns in these blogger templates? I guess I could always go back and write my own page like I did with my last blog, but it's more trouble than it's worth trying to force blogger's weird code into straight html. At least, it's more trouble than it's worth for me, because I'm not that good at it.

Here's another thing that's annoying: Somehow, blogger, yahoo mail, and gmail are all linked, so when you log into one, the browser thinks you want to log into all of them. So if my gmail, blogger, and yahoo accounts are different, I have to log out of each one and re-log in each time. It makes no sense and it's really annoying and pointless. Why do I have to be logged in to gmail and blogger with the same account during the same web session? Fix that already.

Watching TV and Movies Online

Why pay for Cable? With so many options for watching movies and shows through your computer, only a sucker would still shell out the big bucks to the Cable companies. Well... maybe not quite yet, but the online TV/film revolution is coming, and lucky for you I've had nothing better to do these past few weeks than watch a lot of movies and shows on the various online offerings.  

I've whittled the choices down to the four best and most popular: Hulu, Netflix, the Itunes music store, and Surf the Channel. I'll give you my thoughts on each, and also ranking them in four main categories:

1. Content: In other words, do they have a large library of programs worth watching? 

2. A/V Quality: How do the programs look and sound? 

3. Interface: How easy to use is the service? What's the format like? Does the search feature work, etc.

4. Pricing Structure: How much does it cost? And is it worth it?

Anyway, let's get to it:

Overview: Hulu is owned and run by NBC, but don't let that scare you away, since their library contains shows from most of the major networks. 

Content: If all you want is to watch current TV shows, Hulu can't be beat. Since it's owned by NBC, all of their shows are on there, but most of the biggest shows from their competitors are as well. Most new shows are updated the day after they originally aired, so as long as you don't mine waiting 24 hours after everybody else, it works. They also have a fairly respectable library of older TV shows, which grows everyday as they continue to add more and more content. 

Movies are another story, however, and at these point seem like more of an afterthought or "bonus feature" than anything else. Sure, there are some good movies on there, but you really have to search for them, and none of them are exactly Hollywood blockbusters. But if you really love old B movies like Smokey and the Bandit III or Any Which Way You Can, you'll enjoy Hulu's movie library.  
Score: 8 out of 10

A/V Quality: Not bad, not great. The shows and films look pretty good -- certainly good enough to watch -- but where's the HD? Ever since they first came online, they've had a tiny "HD Gallery" touting the power and quality of HD programs, but they have yet to follow through. As it is now, most of their shows and films can be played in 480P, but it doesn't really look like it. I can't tell a difference between their "high res" and their "low res" options. But both look pretty good, all things considered. Also, playback usually runs without a hitch without almost any lag or choppiness.
Score: 8 out of 10

Interface: Here's where Hulu gets a little annoying. First of all, their search feature is actually too powerful. Search for something like "Heroes" and you'll get 3,000 hits with that word in the title, description, or footnote somewhere way on the bottom of the screen. Also, it isn't very good about filtering between actual programs or just trailers or clips. And when you click on the tabs for films or TV, then do a search, it will always seem to search the entire site instead of just the section you want. 

Watching the programs is fine, though jumping around or fast-forwarding and rewinding can be annoying. First of all, you can't move through the progress bar in full screen without pausing the video or shrinking the screen. Also, because of the mandatory commercials (more on that below), you can't jump too far without being forced to stop and watch the ads. But none of these are deal breakers, but the entire thing could be streamlined and cleaned up.

Hulu does make it easy to share and embed clips on the web, which is pretty cool:

Score: 7 out of 10

Pricing: Hulu is completely free! You just have to sit though a few, very short ads during the programs. This isn't so bad, but it is kind of weird how each program has only one sponsor. So if you sit down to watch, say, an episode of Psych, be prepared to watch four commercials for the same product. 

But free is free. In my opinion, they all should be free. Kudos to Hulu for getting this one right.
Score: 10 out of 10

Overall score: 8 out of 10

Overview: Everybody has heard of Netflix, the website that pioneered renting movies online. They have since expanded into the realms of streaming to your TV and computer. 

Content: If you're a film-lover who wants to rent DVDs through the mail, Netflix is a godsend. Pretty much, if it's on DVD, it's in their library. That goes for TV shows on DVD as well as films. They also offer Blu Ray, but since I don't have a BR player, I can't speak for their selection. But I would go so far as to say that they have the best, and most complete selection of DVDs for rent in the civilized world.

Online-streaming content is another story, however, but it's still pretty good. I can't really figure out any rhyme or reason as to why some films are available for online-streaming and some aren't, but it's probably a rights issue. Their film selection is actually really good, with more and more popping up every day. Everytime I take a look at my DVD queue, I notice that there are a few more that are suddenly available to watch instantly on my computer. That's cool. TV isn't quite as good, and the content is pretty much restricted to what is already on DVD. In other words, there are no current episodes or seasons to be found. If you want to watch the entire run of Quantum Leap or Miami Vice, no problem, but you'll have to go elsewhere for last week's 24.
Score: 9 out of 10

A/V Quality: Honestly, the quality here is pretty much identical to Hulu, which is to say it looks pretty good. However, their streaming is a real system hog so there can be a lot of lag and choppiness, especially when you are in full screen and have too many programs running. It's watchable, but close your other programs and hope for the best. And, so far, there's no options or mentions of HD content.
Score: 6 out of 10

Interface: Using and searching and watching programs on Netflix is a breeze. The search feature is intuitive and powerful, allowing you to search by genre, format, director, actor, etc. It easily lets you know what can be viewed online and what is only available by DVD, and it even lets you set up two queues for both formats.

The section for user comments, ratings, related films, and other recommendations is probably the best I've seen on the internet, with suggestions that actually seem to make sense. I've found a lot of films by just surfing through the suggestions and related films tabs. The only real problem I've noticed is that the screen ratio format listings are for the DVDs only, so there is no way to know if the streaming content is in full or widescreen until you actually start to view it. That's lame. Why are any of these films not in their original aspect ratio? 
Score: 9 out of 10

Pricing: Online streaming is free with any Netflix subscription, so you could sign up for only $5 a month. You have to pay a lot more than that if you want more DVDs out for longer periods of time however. As far as online DVD rentals are concerned, Netflix is cheap and well worth whichever plan you decide is right for you, but at this point, watching programs online is more of a bonus than anything else, and probably not worth paying for on its own. If you have a Netflix account already, you'd be insane not to take advantage of this service. But as it stands now, it's not worth it by itself.
Score: 6 out of 10

Overall score: 7 out of 10

Overview: The iTunes Music store is the online depot for content that you can download to view and hear on itunes or on your ipod. Do you have a Mac or an MP3 player? Then you already know what itunes is. 

Content: Pretty good. Their selection of current TV shows is right up there with Hulu, if no even more expansive, though their catalogue of anything older than a few years ago is sorely lacking. Movie selection is really good as well, with most things available for rent or purchase. 
Score: 9 out of 10

A/V Quality: Programs purchased from the iTunes store look and sound great. And they actually have a lot of HD content! The HD programs are limited to just TV at this point, but they look fantastic. In my opinion, HD should be the norm at this point, and iTunes definitely delivers, more than doubling their HD content than they first had just a few months ago.
Score: 10 out of 10

Interface: Itunes is a great, easy to use program. The music store itself is really buggy and goes down a lot and gives the occasional error when you try to download something, but most of these are fixed with a simple program restart. But it can still be really annoying when all you want to do is download a song or TV show. Also, nothing is streamed, so downloads can take a while and take up a lot of space, especially for the HD stuff. So be aware if you set up an entire season to download automatically each week in HD. It'll eat up your memory faster than you think.
Score: 7 out of 10

Pricing: Way, way, way overpriced. Seriously, I have to pay for TV now? Sure, the selection is great and the programs look fantastic, but I still have to pay for every episode? And entire seasons cost almost as much as they would on DVD. Why is there no option for a monthly subscription fee for all of their TV or movie content? Also, who is buying movies on itunes? Renting may, though I've never done it, but purchasing them? And they're not even in HD?

Get with the program, iTunes. Lower your prices or at least have them make more sense for loyal customers. I would be perfectly willing to watch ads in my shows if they were free, or even cheaper. 
Score: 4 out of 10

Overall: 7 out of 10

Overview: Surf the Channel is a website that just provides links to TV shows and movies. That's all. No more, no less. The website claims its perfectly legal, but I'm not sure how. I guess because they don't host the content, just link to it, and maybe it's all on servers in different countries. I dunno. 

Content: How about every TV show and movie ever made? Ok, it's not quite that all-encompassing, but it's close. Chances are good if it's somewhere online, it's going to be found on this website. And everything is online. 
Score: 10 out of 10

A/V Quality: Because the programs aren't hosted on one website, they vary in quality. But one thing is consistent: It all looks awful. The bit rates are low, the picture looks like crap, and a lot of them have weird, Asian subtitles covering much of the screen. They're watchable, I guess, but most have the same quality as a youtube video. 
Score: 3 out of 10

Interface: There's no bells and whistles here, folks. Just search for a program then pick the link you hope will work. Most won't, and those that do won't look good. A lot of trial and error is involved, since you'll be following dead links most of the time. I also wouldn't recommend using this site without a good pop-up blocker and virus program running. I wouldn't trust most of these websites not to be malicious in some way.
Score: 4 out of 10

Pricing: It's all completely free, and you definitely get what you pay for. But unlike Hulu, there are no ads to support the site or to keep the production levels in check. But, you know, it's free. If you've absolutely looked everywhere else and can't find that missing episode to Car 54 Where Are You? you may as well look here. I bet they've got it.

Overall: 5 out of 10

Overall Winner: Hulu