Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stupid Television Tricks

So I mentioned Farscape last time, a science fiction show that spent four years on the Sci-Fi Channel (there was supposed to be a fifth, but Sci-Fi pulled the plug unexpectedly after a season-ending cliffhanger episode. Brutal. They settled for wrapping things up in a movie-length production called The Peacekeeper Wars.).

I discovered the show after a surgical procedure gone wrong left me bedridden for eight months. One of the side effects was an amazing inability to sleep, so I finally watched an episode at something like three in the morning. I'd seen commercials prior to that but I mean, hey, there's a character that's actually a puppet in there. Clearly I wasn't as broadminded as I'd always told myself and since have come to regret my unfounded prejudice. 'Cause the show is really good, and it has one of the best over-the-top villain of all time, in any show of any kind: the half-breed Scorpius, with his leather bug suit, a cooling system installed in the middle of his head, and an oily, upper crust British way of speaking that makes him really, for such an awful being, really appealing.

The show is one of those whose sum is greater than its parts. While certain episodes can be really, really well done, the show really shines in its multi-parters. I think, though, the real appeal is the growth and the change of the characters throughout its four year run. In that way the show reminds me of Dead Like Me, a non-science fiction show about a dead girl that is stunning in the development of its characters, the main ones and the role players (which makes it even more unusual).

Anyway, the point I'm trying to get to is really this: why does every science fiction show do episodes with the same themes we've seen since Philo T. Farnsworth?

Let's see, we've got an episode where the characters suddenly advance into old age (and once they figure out what's going on, they don't just stop the process, everyone becomes young again); we've got one where the characters swap bodies/minds; we've got the old crew member is guilty of murdering some local citizen somewhere; and my LEAST FAVORITE RECURRING THEME IN ALL OF TELEVISION:

The one where the characters are trapped in a video game.

Who the hell ever thought this was a good idea? The other examples (and there are plenty of others) have been showing up since Captain Kirk was helming the Enterprise in the original Star Trek. And they were repeated in all of the following Star Trek incarnations, and even in the X-Files, only tangentially science fiction. Yes, Mulder found himself trapped in a video game.

Now look, Farscape may have been on its way to jumping the shark. After all, the male and female leads were having a baby during season four. Introducing babies among the main characters has never been a good thing. It just changes the show's dynamic too much and rarely offers any sort of improvement. But trapped in a video game? Other than my earlier irrational distrust of puppets, I can say with confidence that this is an incredibly stupid concept, borne out by the actual episodes of the various lemming-like shows.

At least its the only one on my list that wasn't used in the original Star Trek. I used to watch reruns on a UHF channel with one hand on the antenna, trying to follow the action through the snowy picture. And thankfully, James T. Kirk and First Officer Spock never found themselves in the absurd predicament of existing within a virtual reality, let alone a freakin' video game.

But it was the sixties, though, and video games weren't video games back then. If Roddenberry and crew had attempted this nonsense, they would have been forced to drop Kirk and Spock into a Pong game. I have no idea what that would look like, and I'm not sad.

Friday, February 25, 2011


We did the deed two weeks ago: we cut the cable with Time-Warner. So now that we're saving eighty-some dollars a month (and rising), we lost 50-some channels as well (which were shrinking). We tried a digital antenna, which works really slick (great picture, sound) but only gives us five channels. Which is better than it sounds, since they are all PBS channels and four of them are actually two sets of duplicates.

So we went the Netflix route. On the day I ordered a Roku box, my wife came home with a Wii from the company holiday party. There's something to be said for being able to out-Hula Hoop the entire organization (or at least those bold enough to try). In any case, I set up the Wii and installed the Netflix app, and damn skippy, what a slick deal.

Now instead of watching acres of crap from Time-Warner, we can pick our own crap and, here's the real beauty, not have commercials. None. Those volume jumping, obnoxious (why does every car commercial have to have a metal soundtrack these days?), jarringly interrupting wastes of human attention are gone.

The second really cool thing about Netflix is that you can stop a show, turn your device off, come back whenever, and the show will start again at the point you stopped it. Brilliant!

I was finding it harder and harder, nearing impossible, to watch an "hour-long" show on cable. With only a forty two or forty three minute show time, almost a third of the hour is made up of commercials. Whether you mind those damn things or not, the effect on the story being told is enormously detrimental. As soon as I'd start getting involved with what was going on on the screen, Bam!, a three or four or five minute commercial break. Could you imagine making Mission:Impossible or Perry Mason or any of the classic shows of the 70s (or whenever they had an extra ten minutes per episode) like this? It makes me wonder how many shows fail simply because the power to capture individual users is lacking in these abbreviations.

There wasn't a single show I watched on cable. I think the last was Farscape, otherwise I'd turn the TV on while I was eating. I can't watch the news without my blood pressure turning my eyes red, so I don't miss that (I still read whatever I read on the internet), and watching sports was largely ruined by again, loud, jarring commercials.

Seriously, I love watching baseball but the breaks are so at odds with the game that it just became unpleasant. I'd find myself watching the games with the remote in hand, thumb on the mute button, and that's no way to be.

Not having baseball is actually the biggest blow, at least at this point in time. I sent an e-mail to about their package (you can subscribe and watch games, including spring training, over a Roku box) asking if they aired commercials. Sadly, they do. You pay for your device, you pay for your internet connection (and your router, etc.), and then $130 for a year's worth of baseball, and you have to watch their commercials. Argh. Yes, there's a way a savvy networker can disable the commercials on the computer but I'm not sure you can do so with the Roku box. Nothing comes to mind, anyway.

Having grown increasingly pessimistic over the years, someone will screw this up somehow. I'd hope enough people would "unplug" and force the cable companies to offer a la carte programming (you pick which channels you receive), or even better, the government forces the cable plant owners to lease their lines to other companies (and introduce competition). But the cable companies are trying to get Congress to go along with surcharges on Netflix traffic, waving the annual "we're going to run out of bandwidth" pirate flag up the pole.

Right now, though, my kids aren't exposed to inappropriately racy prime time shows, no Melrose Place type dramas taking place in junior and senior high schools (in other words, nothing like Glee), and a much larger measure of peace and tranquility is taking hold in my family room.

Which is nice, but I still miss baseball.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Bit of Venting (with apologies in advance)

Following our government and their actions may be our civic duty, but it should stop short of putting bullets in our brain. Unlike yourselves, this is the feeling I get when I watch/listen/observe too much of it.

So no, I don't talk about it here. I don't want to talk about it at all, usually, or really even think about it. Depression abounds enough. Our little town here is run by people who don't want to pass a budget based on revenue, they do them based on the "level of service" they feel the town ought to provide. It doesn't matter that the town's population is shrinking, that school enrollments are down, or anything else. When that fire truck has its third birthday, they need to get a new one, dammit. I'm sure it will go a town with more frugal management and hopefully serve them for many years to come.

Next month the town will vote on whether or not to go with the selectmen's budget or one that was revised lower. Apparently the lower one has already been voted on and passed and the next vote is some kind of finalization deal. Meanwhile the town is going ahead with their plan to implement sixty-five thousand dollars in raises this year.

Reality seems to work differently here.

In any case, in this, my once every very blue moon political post, here's a link to a set of eight charts that should mean a lot to all of us. Until the day that politicians from both parties see their jobs as sitting down and improving the country as opposed to promoting their own interests and keeping their parties elected, that is. Anytime now...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quick "Silent Wall" Update

The lovely people at Amazon, following whatever impossible to follow pricing algorithm (or perhaps merely skilled at picking series of random numbers), have Peter Rabe's The Silent Wall/The Return of Marvin Palaver for the trifling sum of $13.57. Two weeks ago it was at $19.95. For a time it was at $15 something. Logic dictates that waiting a month or two may yield a free book but I don't think publishing's that poorly off yet.

Click the link of Rabe's name to get to his Wikipedia entry. It may not be hip, witty or erudite, but I wrote it anyway. And the book itself, as I've pointed out before, has an introduction that too is not hip, witty or erudite, but I wrote that, as well. And did other stuff with the book but that's another story for darker places. (I just said that because it sounds spooky.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You (don't) Have Mail

My e-mail has been down for days. How many doesn't matter, since one feels like weeks when you don't like telephones. So if you've sent me an e-mail recently, chances are I'll get it one day soon. Shortly thereafter I'll get set up with an ISP and hopefully the recurring e-mail issues I've had will evaporate.

And there's nothing I like better than futzing with stuff that should just plain work, but on the other hand, after many years in IT, Microsoft and their ilk have made it clear that not a whole lot's going to change. I think this is true no matter how many times they want me to upgrade OSs. Then, with another new computer to run the new version well, I can ignore the new set of issues (bugs, driver updates, no longer supported peripherals) and keep the giant wheel of tech consumerism rolling along.

Bitter much? How come sunny days in the winter can be such downers? Cold temperatures and feet of snow on the ground beg for beautiful grey steel low-hanging clouds. I'm considering moving underground, perhaps a cave or an abandoned mine. We'll see how things shake out with e-mail servers first.

See, I'm rolling on my own damn wheel. Evening's coming but there's a giant spotlight for a moon coming around shortly. There'll be enough light to shovel by.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Go Get One!

The new Peter Rabe book I've pushed here came out a few weeks ago. Everyone should own at least one copy. Not only would that make me happy, and the publisher ecstatic, you would be getting a really excellent volume of novel/novella/short story by a master.

The reviews I've seen so far are here:

Somebody Dies
Pulp Serenade

I did a lot of work on this book, including contributing the introduction, and of course I'm hoping the book does well. If you like popcorn reading like James Patterson, this ain't it. If you like longer, slowly paced fiction like John LeCarre, this ain't it, either. It's Peter Rabe, for god's sake, and as with anyone as much a stylist as he is/was, the masses will never find favor. For fans of flat out good writing, fans of hard-boiled crime stories, and even (in the case of Marvin Palaver, at least) wickedly wry humor.

If I'd had no hand at all in the production of this book I'd have been first in line with a pre-order as soon as it was announced. And after reading the material more than a dozen times, I can safely say that I certainly was not disappointed. And I don't think most of you would be, either.

So don't wait, be the first on your block, complete your Peter Rabe collection, impulse buy, whatever. Just do it already. If nothing else, set it on the shelf and admire the cover, why don't you...

Thursday, February 03, 2011


Yes, we did it. We canceled cable. The tides of our monthly bleeding to good ol' Time-Warner have been bottled up for good. Being too old now to not have problems with just about everybody, I remember how expensive T-W cable was down in Florida. Magically, Knology moved in and planted their own green box on our boulevard, right next to the T-W green box, and suddenly the cable prices were cut in half! Unfortunately the magic didn't carry well over water and Tampa, with only T-W to play with, stayed twice what we were paying in St. Pete.

And yes, we went with Knology the second they went live. Their cable modem service was tremendously more reliable than T-W's RoadRunner, too (where I had to call them frequently, BS my way past the first level of "tech support," and then speak with someone who could fix what I already knew the problem to be).

Now that we live in tiny little town closer to Canada than to an actual city, we found ourselves right back in T-W Land. Not surprising to anyone, they still suck on the TV end, but the cable modem has been refreshingly problem-free. So every month our bill would go up by one or two dollars, and in December a whopping eleven or twelve dollars (a huge percentage jump), they would drop channels from the lineup (without any notice), and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight.

These increases aren't all their fault, of course. Fox and others who demanded fees for carrying their over-the-air broadcasts isn't helpful, nor are the networks who simply feel they ought to get more. But in a world (or country) where just a few networks own all the channels, where nearly one third of an hour's programming is commercials (and where said commercials are loud and jarring, I suppose to get noticed), and where each channel now seems to show multi-hour blocks of the same show. You know, not everybody loves Raymond, and certainly not for three hours at a time.

In short, we were part of a captive audience in a pool of not only shrinking channels, but shrinking programming options. I don't think they could give me a stronger impression of giving the lowest value service they could. The networks get money from the cable companies just for showing up; they get money for the ever more increasing commercials; they pay less for programming because they show two, three, or like SyFy, eight hour blocks of the same show; they show the same movies several nights in a row; and on and on.

As a consumer I am very unhappy. When I don't have a choice of services, when there's no competition, cable TV is a clear example of how we all lose. Until the Feds require the companies with the cable plants to allow others to use them, we're stuck. And no, I don't want satellites on top of my house (or their set top boxes at each TV), and I don't want to deal with their inevitable rising prices, either. Bottom line, I don't think I should have to pay a hundred bucks a month for television. De-regulation was a good thing for consumers for a good five minutes or so. After that, corporate interests seem to drift away from the rest of ours'.

With an antenna and a digital converter (you remember analog TV's) we can pull in seven channels. Two of them are duplicates, and four of them are Vermont public television channels, but the picture is nice. There's not a network in the bunch but we're so far away from the nearest city (Burlington, VT, Portland, ME, Manchester, NH) it's not really a surprise.

Soon, we may join NetFlix. We could even get a Roku box one day. On the other hand, we may just not bother.