Thursday, January 14, 2010

Even in the Information Age, Nothing Beats Getting Carded

100_4156 I write for a blog called TeleRead.org, all about e-books. And as much as I might write there about e-stuff replacing or at least supplementing p-stuff, there’s one paper thing that I use quite often that electronic media has yet to replace: the humble business card.

Those who, like me, first got into e-book reading back in the ‘90s, when the Palm Pilot was at the height of its popularity, might also remember how the infra-red beamer on it was supposedly the latest and greatest thing that was going to replace business cards forever.*

It was the geeky equivalent of a handshake: point your Palms at each other and hold down the “contact” button. Zap! And you could even buy a business card scanner peripheral for your Palm, for those poor benighted souls who weren’t hip enough to have a PDA yet. (You can still get them, but now they’re more useful for cloud-data-storage services like Evernote.)

There was even a silly TV commercial about two people meeting in passing trains and beaming contact information before they were parted.

But it never really caught on—after all, most people didn’t have Palms—and infra-red beaming went out of style when Bluetooth came in. (I don’t know whether current Palm models even have an IR port anymore.)

And although my cell phone will allow me to send contact details via Bluetooth, the other person would have to put his device in pairing mode, and then I would have to find them, and so on.

In the end, it is much simpler just to hand over this simple rectangle of pasteboard.

I suppose it’s the geek in me that thinks of a business card as being like a physical representation of an e-mail .signature (rather than the other way around—I was using e-mail first, after all). It certainly has all or most of the same things on it: the blogs I write for and podcasts I’ve done, my email address, website, phone number, snail address…even my Twitter. Just by handing it over I can instantly give the other person multiple ways to contact me, without the troublesome business of fiddling with syncing electronic gadgets—or even finding a pen and paper to write a number down.

(And it was cheap, too. I went with an on-line printing service, used a pre-made template, and got a couple hundred cards for about $10 including shipping and the ransom fee for not having their advertising stuck on the back.)

Only one electronic thing could possibly replace, or at least supplant the utility of a business card, and that is a system called ENUM. ENUM would map phone numbers to Internet addresses, so the phone number would serve as a means of contact for telephone, instant messaging, email, and so on. Ars Technica has the details.

But ENUM probably will not end up being implemented, at least in the current business environment. It simply isn’t in the interests of the big telcos to provide a means by which they themselves can be bypassed. It looks like Google Voice is going to be the closest we can currently get to one phone number covering multiple means of contact.

Good thing I have my Google Voice number on my business card.


* Infra-red beaming was supposed to replace using cash for splitting a lunch check, too. It's easy to forget, but PayPal started out as an IR cash-beaming app for the Palm—before dropping the app after a few months to ditch the overhead of supporting it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar – Not the Last Airbender

avatar_640_1-thumb-640xauto-10665 There are some movies that are relentlessly hyped for years but when they appear on the big screen are largely a disappointment. The Star Wars prequels, for example.

Avatar…is not one of them. For the most part, anyway.

The problem is that if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen basically the whole plot of the movie. It is Dances with Wolves, FernGully, Pocahontas, every other cliché you’ve ever seen of the Noble Savage rolled together and mixed with the military-industrial complex from the Alien franchise. Rifftrax is going to have a field day.

There are a lot of movies where this would be a handicap, where you would walk out of the theater feeling unsatisfied for sitting through yet another cinematic retread. But Avatar manages to transcend that fate through sheer application of budget and technology. In short, this is the most realistic CGI ever put to film.

Go and see this movie on the big screen for the sheer prettiness. Definitely see it in 3D. The 3D is what makes this movie—which is appropriate given that (James Cameron’s lobbying for proper venues for) this movie was the entire reason we’ve got so many 3D screens now in the first place. It’s gorgeous. It’s hyper-real. (Real enough that some of the aerial scenes gave me a twinge of vertigo.)

Also, it has mecha in it.

It was pretty enough that I happily forgave the lack of originality in the storyline. It was even pretty enough that I forgave it for causing the Last Airbender movie to have to drop the word “Avatar” from the title. On the small screen, even on Blu-Ray and HDTV, it will be just another Dances with Wolves clone.

Now, if only Cameron would get around to making Battle Angel

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Series review: Case Closed (Detective Conan)

CaseClosed_1024a Over the last few weeks, I have become addicted to, and have experienced all extant English-subbed episodes of, a TV series called Detective Conan in Japan, and Case Closed over here.

And when I say “all extant English-subbed episodes,” well, there are quite a lot of them. About 430 of 554 TV episodes that have aired over the course of 14 years, 13 movies, 11 OAVs, and 2 live-action TV specials. And a number of “scanlated” issues of the manga, too.

The premise of the show is that genius high-school detective Kudo Shinichi (or “Jimmy Kudo” in the English dub) witnesses a blackmail deal going down with mysterious gangsters—but the gangsters get the drop on him and force him to take a poison pill. After they leave him for dead, the poison causes him to shrink down from a 17-year-old to a 7-year-old.

Disguising his appearance with a pair of his father’s old glasses, with the help of an absent-minded inventor who comes up with helpful gadgets, Kudo takes on the name Edogawa Conan (from Japanese mystery author Ranpo Edogawa, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and goes to live with the family of his girlfriend, Mouri Ran.

Ran’s father Kogoro is an inept private investigator—and in the hope of coming across more information about the mysterious gangsters who shrank him, Conan starts working behind the scenes to boost Kogoro’s reputation as a P.I. He can’t tell anyone who he really is—even Ran. And so begins 14 years of romantic tension…

As one might guess from the name, Detective Conan borrows a lot of inspiration from the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle. Even the place names are similar; Conan lives on “Beika Street” not far away from “Haido Park”. And if Conan is inspired by Holmes, one of Conan’s occasional adversaries—the Kaitou Kid—is modeled after the original Arsène Lupin.

The first 5 seasons and 2 movies of Detective Conan have been released in bilingual format by Funimation (retitled Case Closed after the Robert Howard estate objected), and the 3rd and 4th movies are coming out December 29th. Most of the episodes, movies, and OAVs after that have been fansubbed.

This is a remarkably good mystery series, and I cannot recommend it enough. The overall storyline is a bit slow to get started (it is episode 130 before Conan gets any real leads on the organization that shrank him), but there are a lot of good mystery stories in the mean time.

For those who are not sure if they would like to commit to a full-length TV series, the movies are a good way to experience the series in bite-size. I especially recommend the 4th movie, Captured in Her Eyes, as a decent encapsulation of the series as a whole.

Amusingly enough, the producers of the Detective Conan anime and the Lupin III anime got together this year to produce a crossover TV special, pitting Japanese animation’s greatest detective against Japanese animation’s greatest thief. The show is pretty funny, but for maximum clarity should probably be watched only after becoming more familiar with Conan.

For more information on the show and where to find it, see Funimation’s official Case Closed website, and the Detective Conan Translation Project website.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Has the potential to be very interesting

This article is about how Google Wave could transform journalism into a more collaborative process. What is interesting to me is how much this echoes what I have discovered in writing fiction with EtherPad – http://www.etherpad.com

The process of writing a story together, with characters owned by respective authors, used to be a morass of writing half the dialogue and sending it back and forth for insertion of respective characters' words, or writing it ourselves and hoping our lack of famliarity with the other person's character didn't lead to us making them act out of character.

With EtherPad (and, presumably, with Google Wave), collaborative fiction writing becomes akin to an act of structured role-playing, where we actually write together at the same time—and unlike normal role-playing, if we decide something came off wrong we can easily go back and tweak it.

Of course, I'm not in the Google Wave trial yet, but I can't wait until I am. It will be very interesting to try it out.

in reference to:

"You may notice that double bylines aren't very common. That's because trying to co-author a news story stinks.
The process usually involves one reporter talking to and researching a few things and another following a different set of sources and finally combining their findings toward the end. This can result in a mess of incompatible and unrelated research that gets either thrown out or somewhat-awkwardly wiggled in."
- How Google Wave could transform journalism | Technology | Los Angeles Times (view on Google Sidewiki)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Harmony Gold vs. BattleTech: The Second Coming?

image I originally wrote this intending to read it aloud as part of a prerecorded episode of my Space Station Liberty podcast—but I then realized it was getting much too long for that. So I’ll go with a much-abbreviated version when I record my next show. But I didn’t see why this background research should go to waste.

In recent days, two different companies planning to release content based on the original BattleTech game have had their efforts stymied, apparently by Robotech-owner Harmony Gold.  This article looks at the history behind the legal enmity. To note, I am not a lawyer, a paralegal, or even a single legal; this is all based on my layperson’s reading of the information I have been able to find.

Back in 1984, roleplaying game company FASA came out with the BattleTech wargame, and subsequently the MechWarrior role-playing game, in which armies of giant robots slugged it out on the field of battle. They had just one problem, though: they needed some giant robots. At the time, it was cheaper to license giant robots that someone else had created than to design their own. So they turned to a model importer, Twentieth Century Imports.

Accounts vary as to whether TCI actually had the rights to license those images. Some people say that TCI did have Import Derivatives Rights; others say they didn't. FASA claimed in one of its filings that Harmony Gold’s license specifically excluded Japanese model kits produced for export—but the judge in that case was not convinced.

Whether they had the rights or not, the mechs used in BattleTech included a number of mecha from several Japanese animated series—one of which was Macross. BattleTech mechs known as the Wasp, Stinger, Phoenix Hawk, and Warhammer, among others, all derive from those designs.

Meanwhile, Harmony Gold licensed the overseas distribution rights to—and indeed became co-copyright-owner of—Macross, and Macross-derived elements such as mecha designs, with Tatsunoko Studios in Japan. This included those Macross mecha designs. In January, 1985, Harmony Gold sent FASA a cease-and-desist letter, sparking "an exchange of correspondence between the parties including numerous cease and desist letters from Harmony Gold."

But FASA kept on using the designs, and Harmony Gold never filed any legal action against them. Probably at least part of this was because of a period of hibernation Harmony Gold went into during the late '80s through early '90s, in which they basically just rubber-stamped any Robotech-related tie-in that came across their desks. This was also when they let Macross II and Macross Plus slip by into licensehood without asserting that they owned the rights.

Fast-forward six years to the early 1990s. In 1991 and 1992, FASA was looking into expanding its BattleTech line—already the subject of roleplaying games, computer games, and novels—into other media. First they pitched a toy line to Playmates, who had been looking for a giant robot toy line. Playmates considered it, but finally decided they weren't interested. Subsequently, FASA entered into an arrangement with Tyco to produce BattleTech toys, and with Saban to produce a tie-in animated show about those toys.

The show lasted 13 episodes, and aired in 1994. BattleTech-the-game fans weren't terribly impressed at the way the cartoon played fast and loose with the BattleTech canon (that's with one 'n', I'm not talking about PPCs) and the toys were described by many as some of the ugliest things they've ever seen.

But meanwhile, PlayMates had came out with its Exosquad line and cartoon, which lasted 52 episodes from 1993 to 1994. Given that ExoSquad had some suspicious similarities to BattleTech, in 1994 FASA filed suit against Playmates, alleging copyright and trademark infringement among other things.

But meanwhile, it was FASA's bad luck that Playmates had buddied up with newly-awakened Harmony Gold, and was selling reissues of some of the old Matchbox Robotech toys under the Exosquad brand name.

So, in 1995, Harmony Gold came to the defense of its merchandising partner and filed suit against FASA for using those Macross mecha designs in its early BattleTech editions. We'll come back to that case later, but let's look at FASA vs. Playmates first.

As FASA asserted in its filing, the Exosquad storyline shares a remarkable number of similarities with BattleTech: most notably, the use of neurally-controlled giant robots by humans to fight an invasion by genetically-modified humans using similar robots. It even used the name "Draconis"—one of the BattleTech houses—for a character. FASA also pointed out that one of the Exosquad "e-frame" mecha strongly resembled a BattleTech Madcat, and the others resembled other BattleTech mechs. And, funny thing, Playmates had several months in which to look over the material FASA sent them as part of its own toy pitch—some of which they never actually returned.

In 1996, Judge Ruben Castillo found "that FASA has established certain protectible (sic) copyright and trademark rights but has failed to prove any facts which establish liability on the part of Playmates." But feeling they brought the case in good faith, Castillo declined to force FASA to pay Playmates's legal bills.

(This did not prevent Playmates's lawyers from filing an appeal to try to get FASA saddled with those bills, but the appeals court remanded the matter back to Castillo, who wrote a hilariously sarcastic fourth opinion in the case noting that if Playmates didn't understand his reasoning, they should have just asked him about it at the time instead of trying to go over his head.)

It's not terribly relevant to the matter at hand, but I think worth noting, that a May 13, 2009 article in the Chicago Sun-Times mentions that Ruben Castillo is on Obama's short-list for Supreme Court nominations. We may very well end up with a Supreme Court judge who decided a Robotech-related case.

Getting back to the other case, that of Harmony Gold vs. FASA, the details are sketchy as I was only ever able to find two documents relating to it in legal-search databases. One of them was a denial of a motion for summary judgment on the part of FASA—they hadn't made a good enough case for that—and the other was a denial of a motion from Harmony Gold asking that FASA return some documents Harmony Gold had mistakenly sent them.

We may never know whether TCI actually did have the rights to sell those mecha designs or not, because in 1997 a FASA representative posted to Usenet that the case had been settled out of court and dismissed. As one condition of the settlement, FASA was not permitted to talk about the settlement. The FASA representative also announced that the mechs under contention had been phased out of the game universe and would not be seen again. BattleTech fans started referring to them as “the Unseen.”

Since that time, FASA has gone out of business, and the BattleTech rights have gone through a number of different hands. The computer game rights went to Microsoft, and the print-game rights went to WizKids, a company founded by FASA-founder Jordan Weisman, and were then transferred to Catalyst Game Labs. Another company founded by Weisman, Smith & Tinker Inc., has re-licensed the BattleTech computer game rights from Microsoft and is making MechWarrier 5 in partnership with another company called Piranha. And this is where things get interesting.

Just recently, Catalyst announced they had reobtained the rights to use original images of the "Unseen" mechs and would be publishing them again—until they were brought up short when an unnamed company contacted them about terms of the confidential settlement which included an agreement "that the sole and exclusive world-wide right to [the Macross] mecha (outside of Japan) would rest with another US company." Catalyst insisted that none of the people it had contacted about the matter prior to this had known of the settlement, but it was complying and hoped to work with the unnamed company in the future.

Meanwhile, a certainly-not-unnamed company, Harmony Gold, has been sending cease-and-desist orders to websites hosting the MechWarrior 5 trailer, on the grounds that it features one of the Unseen—a Warhammer, otherwise known as a Macross Tomahawk or Robotech Excalibur.

When I had Harmony Gold representative Kevin McKeever on my live Space Station Liberty talk show the other day (mp3 download here), I brought up the Catalyst Game Labs issue. This is what Kevin had to say, starting approximately 1:03:30 into the show:

Right now I can only simply say this: Harmony Gold has not been stripped of any rights. We entered into a confidential settlement agreement that I can't discuss. [...] There is one thing I want to point out, that Harmony Gold still continues to enjoy exclusive control of the Robotech property, and imagery contained within it.

I should emphasize that this statement was given in response to the question about Catalyst Game Labs. At the time, I had no knowledge of the MechWarrier 5 trailer issue, though I suspect Kevin's response if I asked him about that would be identical. Smith & Tinker has already told IGN they have no comment in the matter.

I have to wonder what the companies were thinking. At the least, it would seem that both Catalyst and Smith & Tinker failed to do their homework, or what in business is called "due diligence," before embarking on that action. For Catalyst, this is somewhat understandable given that it is a third party to the legal case. But Smith & Tinker was founded and is led by FASA founder Jordan Weisman—and if anybody should know the terms of that settlement, he should.

The icing on the cake is that a legal dispute has been going on over in Japan over the last few years as to who really DOES own the rights to those mecha designs. Harmony Gold's claim that they advanced in the '90s court case comes from their partnership with Tatsunoko Studios, who was one of the companies involved in producing the Macross TV series. However, even though the Japanese courts have given Tatsunoko the "author's rights" to the series, they have given ownership of the character and mecha designs to Studio Nue, the company that designed them.

If this is in fact the case, Harmony Gold would not have a legal leg to stand on when it came to preventing BattleTech from using Macross mecha—in an ironic echo of FASA, they licensed them from a company that didn't have the right to grant them. (Though judging from Kevin McKeever’s “have not been stripped” comment above, clearly Harmony Gold does not believe this to be true.) And FASA has worked with Studio Nue itself; they commissioned Nue to redesign those "Unseen" mecha for the Japanese edition of the BattleTech game.

Update: As I have been informed in comments below, this is not the case after all. I was misunderstanding what the divided rights meant. In fact, they mean that Tatsunoko (in Japan, and hence Harmony Gold outside of Japan) has the exclusive right to distribute and merchandise the Macross show that’s been made already and all elements within it; Big West and Studio Nue have the exclusive right to make new derivative works based on those elements. This could have interesting implications for the planned Robotech live-action movie. (Though it does set up the question of whether the BattleTech game would legally be considered merchandising of the Harmony Gold-owned Macross, or a derivative work based on the Nue-owned mecha designs.)

So, is Jordan Weisman intentionally setting up for a legal rematch with Harmony Gold? It doesn't seem to make sense. Only hardcore BattleTech fans would care one way or the other whether the Unseen mechs come back, and the legal fees Weisman is risking are out of proportion to any possible financial gain. But it seems really weird for a Warhammer to show up in a MechWarrior game "by accident" after the long legal history it's been a part of.

Given the lack of representatives from any of the companies involved to comment, apart from Harmony Gold, guesswork is all we have right now. But I would be delighted if representatives from any of those companies would agree to appear on my show and present their side of the story.

Also, I've posted all the public legal documents from the 1990s cases at http://terrania.us/hg-fasa . There's some fascinating reading in there. Enjoy.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Bent out of Shape

avatar-the-last-airbender There has been a great deal of controversy in recent months over the casting choices for the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The fact that most of the protagonists were cast white and Asians were reserved for the villains has many Asian-Americans and their supporters “bent” out of shape given that the characters were very clearly of Asian ethnicity in the original animated show (although they were mostly voiced by white actors).

I posted my own views about the controversy in my LiveJournal back in January. I thought that the casting directors had just picked the best available actors or actresses for the job, and they had all simply happened to be Caucasian. But since then, my views have evolved.

I’ve seen some evidence that suggested the directors intentionally set out to cast the film Caucasian. For example, the original casting call was for actors who were “Caucasian or any other ethnicity,” which suggests they were looking for Caucasians first and anything else second.

And I’ve heard the song “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies,” from the “Commentary: The Musical” commentary track to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which sums up pretty clearly the state of Asian casting in the modern film industry. An Airbender movie could have been a great chance to change that, casting ethnic Asian actors in leading roles. But apparently it was not to be.

It has come out recently that one of the producers of the Airbender movie, Frank Marshall, has a Twitter account. He has been posting tweets about the production status of the movie. Naturally, some overzealous fans took that as an opportunity to start deluging him with demands for an explanation.

So, today Marshall tweeted the following:

Our vision for the movie is of ONE world, made up of four Nations, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series. This world will have an ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe.

On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable response, all very politically correct. It’s certainly in line with the way that some of the earlier casting calls for extras requested people to show up in whatever ethnic garb they had, be it kimonos or lederhosen. They want to make the show more “ethnically diverse” so that all ethnicities from the real world are represented, not just Asian.

The problem is, the world of the Avatar animated series is not “ethnically diverse” (or at least, not as much so as the real world). It is based strictly on the Asian subsets of our world (with just a few notable exceptions such as those leaf-wearing swampbenders).

In diversifying the ethnicity of the cast for the movies, they are not faithfully adapting the show—and they are getting rid of one of the things that made the animated show so great to begin with. The animated series’s strong focus on Asian culture was one of the things that made it stand out.

It feels to me like the producers made up this “ethnic diversity” stuff to justify the casting decision they’d already made—to have their cake and eat it too. They want to keep the “Asian undertones” but cast white people in the main roles because white people are safe. They don’t want to worry about non-Asians staying away from an all-Asian movie.

Of course there are many white Avatar fans, but the producers have to worry about attracting a wider audience than just fans. They’re pouring $250 million into Airbender. That’s an awful lot of movie ticket sales just to break even.

And in the end, I’m…disappointed. I’ll still go see the movie anyway. I’m not going to protest, or write a letter, or sign the petition, or call Marshall ugly names. But I’m sad that Hollywood couldn’t manage to transcend its usual way of doing business for once and get an adaptation right.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Review: Darkness of the Light, by Peter A. David

I read Peter A. David's new fantasy novel, Darkness of the Light (available through Sunday the 27th as a free ebook from tor.com's downloads page). It is quite a good book—but I honestly can't recommend reading it yet.

The book is a fantasy novel with some science-fiction trappings. The premise is that earth's human population has been nearly wiped out by a massive wave of invasion by twelve temporarily allied alien races. (Smaller waves of these races had come to earth in the past, but were wiped out by the humans of the day. They nonetheless entered legends as monsters such as the Cyclops, Minotaur, fauns, vampires, trolls, dragons, and so on.) These aliens were exiled to earth for some not-too-clearly-specified crime, and their alliance lasted only long enough to conquer the planet—they now do little but fight among themselves. The wardens of this prison world are the mysterious Overseer and his legion of Travelers.

As is necessary for a story, the status quo is about to be disturbed and disturbed big by a series of seemingly unrelated events that are taking place. Without going into spoilers, there are about half a dozen seemingly-unrelated subplots that interweave and touch each other in odd places. There are a dozen major characters—some heroic, some villainous, some tragic—who interact in different ways over the course of the story. David does his usual fine job of deftly keeping the stories moving, switching between subplots to keep perspective fresh without lingering so long away from any we forget what is going on in them.

There are only a couple of problems with the book. One has to do with its genre-bending. For about 9/10 of the book, it all seems very science-fictional. Yes, there are dragons, fauns, cyclopses, etc., but the book very clearly seems to be going for the whole "legends have their basis in greatly distorted fact" thing, with a side helping of "any sufficiently advanced technology (or psionic ability) is indistinguishable from magic." But then, not far from the end of the book, there is a plot revelation that comes right out of the fantasy playbook, and it is a bit jarring because it seems as if it has not been adequately telegraphed—it feels like learning that the starship Enterprise is powered by moonbeams and fairy dust.

The book's other big problem is that it is the first book of a series, and the ending shows it. While I would not exactly call it a cliffhanger, the ending leaves most of its characters in very unresolved situations, and teases a number of important revelations that will have to wait for the next book. And according to Peter David's blog, the next book will not be out until September, 2009. Argh! I wish I had known this before I started reading this one.

And that is why I cannot recommend reading it yet. It will only leave you frustrated, as it is one of those stories that ends where it ends because the writer has run out of space before he has run out of story to tell.

Still, when the sequel or sequels are available, I recommend giving it a shot. David creates a fascinating world, with a number of interesting mysteries. That is precisely why it is so frustrating.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Shadow Chronicles: The DVD Review

Having received my copy of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles yesterday, I decided I would review it. You can find an audio version of this review at my podcast, Space Station Liberty in Prerecorded Show #1; you'll also find this review on ePinions once they get around to approving it.

Packaging:


Something that no pictures or descriptions of the Shadow Chronicles DVD have thus far have managed to convey is that the DVD itself comes in a very attractive slipcover. It is a foil-enhanced slipcover, so that every part of the picture save for Ariel, Scott, and Vince in the center panel, and the title logo itself, is bright and shiny. The effect is particularly pronounced on the earth in the top and bottom panel, the Ikazuchi at the bottom, and the irises of Janice Em's eyes at the top. Very nice-looking, and I bet that it'll make endcap displays of the thing really stand out in the stores.

The plastic keepcase within the slipcover duplicates its front and back; nothing really special about it. One minor point against it is that there is no actual liner insert save a Funimation promotional pamphlet. It would have been nice to have something like a miniature version of the hand-and-pendant promotional poster on one side, a chapter list on the other. Still, it's not like that would be a major selling point in any event.

The silkscreened DVD art is the hand clutching the notched pendant from the promotional poster, with the spindle hole at the center of the pendant.

I give the packaging 4 shiny slipcovers...out of 5. It misses 5 only because, as pretty as the foil slipcover is, they didn't do anything truly spectacular with it, and the lack of an insert is slightly annoying.

Disc Interface:

On insertion there is first an FBI warning, then a Funimation logo. Then there is the standard disclaimer screen that says the extra features are for entertainment only, the opinions expressed don't necessarily represent those of Funimation, et cetera. The odd thing is, this screen is only present for one frame. I had to step through frame by frame just to be able to read it at all. You would think that if they wanted you to be able to read it they would show it to you for longer than that, but who can know the mind of Funimation?

After that is a 2 minute, 15 second trailer for Funimation's remastered Dragonball Z release. The odd thing about this trailer is that though I could use the track skip button to skip past the Funimation logo, and I could even use it to skip past the FBI warning, no amount of mashing of that button would make my default DVD player software, PowerDVD for Windows, skip ahead to the disc menu. (VLC was much more sensible about it, though.) Happily, the "Menu" button did jump me out of it to the disc menu. Still, I consider this sort of thing extremely tacky on a consumer purchase disc. Not good, Funimation, not good at all.

The disc menu itself has a brief opening animation, then a 44-second loop of scenes from the movie with a snippet of Scott Glasgow music accompanying it that plays in the middle of the screen. The Shadow Chronicles logo is at the top, the menu options at the bottom. The interface of the menus is nicely minimalist, with no confusing tricks as to where the indicators go or where you click to set them; the animated backgrounds don't get in the way.

I give the disc interface 3 unreadable disclaimers out of 5. It looks pretty and is easy to use, however that Dragonball Z commercial lowers the score big time.

Video:

Shadow Chronicles is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 1.78:1 aspect ratio, as are the menus and the Birth of a Sequel featurette.

A big advantage of going digital all the way, from production to distribution, is that the source material never hits an analog step. The numbers on their screens never once stopped being numbers on their journey to consumers' screens. As a result, Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles has one of the most gorgeous, clearest digital transfers of any movie I have ever seen. In some places, there was snow that for a moment I thought was a problem with my TV set, but then I realized the movie was showing a video communication panel at the moment, and the snow was actually on their screen.

While their budget was not huge, there is nothing getting in the way of seeing almost every penny of it on your TV. I'd love to see how it looks on an HDTV.

Birth of a Sequel looked a little grainier, as it was shot at a lower resolution (using standard camcorders for part of it) and probably compressed a lot more to give more space to the main feature, but it was all right for what it was and nobody judges a movie by the video quality of its extras anyway.

And so the video quality gets 5 crystal clear images out of 5 from me. As Yellow Dancer put it, "It don't get any better."

Audio:

For viewing Shadow Chronicles, the disc offers a choice between a 448 kilobit per second Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track, and a 256 kilobit per second Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Both of them in English. The one subtitle track—closed-captions for hearing impaired—is English as well; non-English-speaking Robotech fans will just have to wait for a localized release, or a fansub.

I watched the complete movie in 5.1 on my Logitech speaker system, and sampled parts of it in 2.0 on my headphones. The 2.0 track is great for those not blessed with a surround system; the sound is crisp and clear and there is good directionality from left to right in scenes that involve directional effects.

However, the 5.1 track is what really shines. There is good use of the surrounds, especially in battles where explosions can seem to come from ahead, behind, or all around you. It showcases the music of Scott Glasgow and the voice acting of the Robotech crew very well. The sound was always crystal clear.

The audio on Birth of a Sequel is a somewhat tinnier-sounding 2.0; it doesn't really matter much since it's an interview documentary rather than a feature film.

5 audio channels out of 5. And what the heck, I'll throw in the extra point one, too.

Extras:

The big extra on this disc is a 45-minute featurette called Robotech: Birth of a Sequel. Considerably meatier than the fluff pieces that are usually what is meant by "featurette," this goes into detail about what it took to produce Shadow Chronicles, including interviews with fans, production staff, voice actors, and so on. Scott Glasgow's musical composition gets its own section. It does gloss over some matters, such as the change in voice actress for Ariel, but there's only so much detail it could go into.

Incidentally, those who have seen the segments of this documentary that were shown at conventions or theatrical screenings will want to watch those parts of this show anyway; the on-line versions were missing a few key scenes from those segments.

The two-minute Shadow Chronicles teaser and a number of Funimation trailers round out the extras on the disc. Notably absent are any sort of commentary track, deleted scenes (which had been mentioned as a possibility by Tommy Yune in interviews), or even the Shadow Chronicles United Nations public service announcement that is even specifically mentioned in the documentary. I suppose it's just as well; every extra piece of something on the disc would make the main feature that much more compressed.

I give the extras 3 documentary segments out of 5; what's there is excellent, but what could have been there would have been excellent too.

Content:

I first saw this movie at a screening in St. Louis. I had to rent a car to drive up and back. The video was a bit too dark and the sound was off, but it was still a marvelous experience.

If you read reviews of it on the robotech.com forums, you'll see a lot of belly-aching about how the CGI was too artificial, the character animation too stiff, and so on. But I'll be honest: I didn't notice all of that. Once the movie started, it was like I was right back in 1985, in front of my TV set seeing Robotech for the first time. For the next hour and a half I was mesmerized by the action and the drama, seeing old favorite characters and interesting new characters for the first time. It was a delightful experience, and well worth the hassle of getting up there to take it all in.

And now that the DVD has arrived, and I've had a chance to watch it again, make screengrabs, and go frame-by-frame through various bits, I have to say I like it even more.

But that's not to say it was perfect. There were a few little annoyances.

The big one comes in the way the movie covers the events of the last two episodes of Robotech. The first part of the movie occurs simultaneously with those episodes, taking the point of view of the returning fleet rather than our heroes on the ground. The thing is, there are some changes made in the way it covers those episodes. To go into more detail would spoil it, but suffice it to say that the order of some events is changed around, and the meaning of some dialogue is altered and expanded. Also, only Ariel and the Regess are ever shown inside the Hive, despite Scott, Rand, Lancer, and the others having been in there with them at the same time in the original show.

Harmony Gold's position is that the changes are more in the nature of "selective editing"—just picking camera angles and moments of dialogue that didn't have anybody else in them—to tell a different side of the story and keep new viewers from getting confused—but the changes are a bit more extensive than that alone could explain. About the only way to explain this degree of difference is to look at the different episodes as being like the separate stories in the movie Rashomon, the same events seen from two different points of view that saw and heard different things. This may not sit well with some of the older fans, who are used to events happening the way the TV show said they happened.

But by far the greatest flaw of Shadow Chronicles, and the only one really worth discussing in detail, comes from its length. Shadow Chronicles has less than 90 minutes—about 4 TV episodes' worth of time, when you consider commercials—to introduce all its characters to new viewers and set up the story for successive chapters in the Robotech saga. There are about a dozen important characters to introduce or reintroduce, and half of these are major characters who need more time than usual to tell their stories. In the end, a number of the new characters get short shrift in terms of characterization, and when some of them are killed off it lacks the impact of, say, Roy Fokker or Ben Dixon's deaths in the original show.

I find myself wishing they had been able to take twice the length of time to tell this same story—say, as eight episodes of a TV series. That would have allowed us to see more of the new characters and get to know them in more detail, with less exposition necessary, and the deaths could have had more of an impact.

That being said, Shadow Chronicles was by and large quite good, and a worthy successor to the Robotech name. The story doesn't seem to have any major plot holes, or plot elements that were too hard for me to buy. The explanation for what happened to the SDF-3 is believable—much more so than the mysterious spacefold to another universe from End of the Circle—and the interactions between characters make sense. I like the way that shadow technology has been expanded into a story element of greater significance than simply "the edge we need to win against the Invid." And the new adversaries are ominous and spooky.

When you think about it, ominous and spooky enemies were one of the major elements missing from every attempt thus far to continue the story after the end of the Robotech saga. For the tale to be gripping, the heroes have to be challenged by an adversary who stands a serious chance of winning the war. Nobody's really been able to do that so far. The most that the RPG could manage was to have the Invid change their minds and come back, and the enemies in the End of the Circle novel—Robotech's last attempt at a post-series sequel—were more like those from Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama books: aliens who are more weird than menacing. You get the feeling they don't even care about humanity, as long as it has the sense to keep itself out of the way. However, the Shadow Chronicles's "Children of the Shadow" don't have that problem. From what we see of them here, they look like a force to be reckoned with, they definitely have plans that involve erasing humanity, and the REF is going to have some tough times ahead of them.

Moving on to the technical details: the CGI for the mecha combined with the digital ink-and-paint for the character animation work all right together. Not perfectly, but a heck of a lot better than in earlier movies that tried it, like Golgo 13 and Lensman. Still, in a few places, the animation does show its budgetary limitations. Shadow Chronicles really is more of an OAV or a TV movie than a theatrical feature, the various theatrical screenings to the contrary.

Even so, the score by Scott Glasgow was top-notch, bringing a much more theatrical feel to the soundtrack at least. Unlike the old Robotech TV score, it doesn't repeat itself frequently; even when the same themes are used, they appear in different forms. Themes start out subtle, and grow over the course of the show. I will be looking forward to the soundtrack release.

The voice acting is mostly top-notch. Some of the actors' portrayals have changed over the years, as their voices change with age or else they lose track of how they originally voiced the characters. The only really jarring change is that Alexandra Kenworthy voices the Regess a bit too softly, in my opinion; she lacks the harsh, strident tone that she had in the TV show. This Regess sounds altogether too kindly, even when she's talking about the Invids' vilest foes. It's somewhat annoying that Marlene/Ariel's voice was recast, though there are a number of good reasons for it—chief among them being the need to differentiate Ariel from the deceased Marlene to avoid viewer confusion. Kari Wahlgren does a good job, and perhaps it's for the best that she sounds so different now that she also looks different; it might be hard to get used to Melanie MacQueen's voice coming out of that new-looking face. And Melanie MacQueen is not entirely forgotten; she at least gets a couple of cameos as the voice of the deceased Marlene Rush.

In the end, I give the movie itself 4 Neutron-S Missiles...out of 5.

So, to sum up:
Packaging: 4 out of 5
Interface: 3 out of 5
Video: 5 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
Extras: 3 out of 5
Content: 4 out of 5

Overall: 4 out of 5

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Starring Jeff Bridges as Jon Katz...

(I just submitted the following as a story to slashdot.org. I don't know if they'll run it, but whether they do or not, it was too good not to repost here. Mad props to my friend Matt Gerber for originally pointing out the CNN.com article to me.)

Long time Slashdot veterans will remember Jon Katz, the editorial writer whose Slashdot articles invariably became hotbeds of controversy. It appears he may have the last laugh; how many of the Slashdot posters who ridiculed him went on to be played by Jeff Bridges in a movie?

In his new book, "A Good Dog: The Story of Orson," Katz chronicles the life and death of the lovable but troubled border collie that transformed his life. It continues the story begun in Katz's last book, "A Dog Year," now being made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges as Katz.
Katz critics may get a chuckle out of the plot synopsis for the film: "A man having a mid-life crisis has his life turned upside down when he takes in a border collie crazier than he is." Further amusement comes from this article about the movie's filming, with this quote from the owner of the house used to double for Katz's:

Mercaldi said she was looking forward to seeing the film, with her home of 13 years as a co-star, "especially since they trashed it," she said. "The character was a real slob, so it doesn't look like our house."
The film should be released "sometime in late 2007."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

G.K. Chesterton was right

G.K. Chesterton was a very perceptive man.

In "The Bottomless Well," one of the stories that makes up his book The Man Who Knew Too Much, the titular character explains to a companion, in the process of laying out the solution to a mystery:
"You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority."
As long ago as Chesterton wrote it, it still holds true even today. How many things that we're told that seem to go against conventional wisdom do we take for granted without even bothering to investigate them, solely because they seem to go against conventional wisdom?

This quotation was brought to my mind today by a case in point. Every so often on the Internet, you'll see someone mention Shakespeare's famous "kill all the lawyers" quote, often in regard to some particularly outlandish court decision or lawsuit. Inevitably, someone will pipe up, "Shakespeare didn't mean that lawyers should be killed, those were bad guys and they wanted to kill the lawyers because they knew that lawyers would stand in the way of their proposed tyranny." And people nod their heads and accept this, without looking any further into the matter. Why? Perhaps partly because Shakespeare used such arcane language, they can't be bothered to go back and puzzle it out for themselves. But largely because, as Chesterton said, it "sound[s] rational, though it is unsupported by reason." The very fact that it goes against the apparent meaning of the quotation actually makes it easier to believe.

But the interesting thing is, Simson Garfinkel did go back to the original context—and found that the meaning of "kill all the lawyers" is very different from what these responses claim.

Garfinkel writes, "A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be 'When I'm the King, there'll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot' 'AND NO LAWYERS.' It's a clearly lawyer-bashing joke."

He supports this using examples from elsewhere in the play, and from places in Shakespeare's other plays as well.

And here's another example of Shakespearian dialogue not meaning what people think it does. Hamlet at one point famously tells Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery." There's a very widely-believed explanation going around that what Hamlet meant by "nunnery" was a "house of ill repute," which is to say, a brothel. For example, "Take Our Word For It" explains:
When Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery," he meant a "house of ill repute", but the word had only recently been recorded with that meaning. Prior to then it had referred to a community of nuns since at least the 13th century, having come to English from the hypothetical Anglo-French *nonnerie, from French nonne "nun".
Except…if you look at the context, it's not quite true. Random House's "word of the day" column says in part:
In Hamlet, the "nunnery" exchange happens just after the "To be or not to be" speech. In the space of thirty lines, Hamlet tells Ophelia five times to go to a nunnery, in slightly different forms. While it is a matter of interpretation, an honest reading strongly suggests that Hamlet is using the literal sense here. He speaks against having children ("Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners" [some critics feel that this should be punctuated as "Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners," with the "Why" an interjection, not an interrogative]), tells her to distrust men ("We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us"), tells her not to marry and disparages the institution of marriage ("I say we will have no moe [more] marriage").

It makes perfect sense, under the circumstances, for Hamlet to be telling Ophelia to go to a convent and remove herself from the fleshly world. To assume that Hamlet is really referring to a brothel would go completely against the character of everything he is saying.
And the Shakespeare Online Hamlet FAQ declares:
Is "nunnery" a euphemism for a brothel in Hamlet?
It is true that "nunnery" had two very different meanings in Tudor England. Modern dictionaries only list one definition of the word, which is, of course, a convent. However, if you look up "nunnery" in a dictionary of archaic words and uses, you will see that "nunnery" did mean both a convent and a brothel in Shakespeare's day. Its meaning as a "brothel" was colloquial, though, even in Tudor England. Despite the use of "nunnery" as "house of ill repute" in Shakespearean England, there can be no question that Hamlet is referring to the standard definition of the word – a house of meditation for women who have devoted themselves to God. Only by entering a nunnery can Ophelia ensure that she will not procreate and become a breeder of sinners. As is pointed out in the Oxford edition of the play, "The injunction makes it clear that nunnery is not being used here in the sense of "brothel", as it is in "Christ's Tears Over Jerusalem" [by Thomas Nashe], for example, where a nunnery is synonymous with a college of courtesans (Nashe, II. 151-2)." Hamlet is indeed disgusted by the behavior of his mother, and takes his hostility out on innocent Ophelia, but he does not call her a whore in this particular line.
And yet, people continue to accept and promulgate the "brothel" theory, without even looking back at the original play. Why? Because claiming that the word means exactly the opposite of what it appears to mean somehow seems more rational and logical than claiming it means exactly what it says. We're predisposed to accept it because it goes against appearances.

Or, as Chesterton put it, "Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority."

Think about that the next time you hear something that seems to make sense because it goes against conventional wisdom.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Doing the Cha-Cha

Is having your own personal reference librarian for the Internet an idea whose time has come? chacha.com certainly hopes so. The premise behind this unusual search portal is that you search on a term, then are put in contact with a guide who will run the search for you, pull up the most likely results, and help you refine the search to find more of what you need. These people are paid as contractors, earning $5 an hour (or $10 an hour if they build up a really good record as excellent searchers) plus recruitment incentives for the searches they run—though a big difference between this and other pay-for-contributions sites such as the late lamented Themestream or ePinions is that guides will have the option of being paid instantly via a transfer to a debit card (with a $2 fee per transfer).

The site was only started earlier this month, and there are a few questions as to whether it will last very long. The premise reminds me a good deal of Themestream, a site from just prior to the big dot-com bust that paid writers for blogging before anyone even knew what blogging was. I actually managed to make a couple of thousand dollars from that site, due to writing two articles and getting them slashdotted. But Themestream burned through its venture capital and fizzled like a meteor hitting the ocean. Is Cha-Cha going to do the same?

Also, the search interface is slightly clunky. In order to get a guide, you should probably search on a very broad and general term, then ask the guide to refine it for you. (i.e. if you want a plot synopsis of Naruto, search on "anime" and then ask the guide for the synopsis.) The software interface for guides is a little clunky, too, consisting of a currently-Windows-only Java application that serves as a chat tool and wrapper for Internet Explorer. It's a little tricky to work with.

On the other hand, the idea of having, or serving as, an Internet reference librarian on topics of interest to oneself is a remarkably cool idea. And if $5-$10 an hour is chickenfeed, it's not bad for sitting-at-your-computer-anyway money. I'm definitely going to ride this rocket until it flames out, while hoping the idea catches on.

Incidentally, if any of my readers (yes, both of you) would like a guide invitation, please drop me a line and I'll be happy to shoot one off to you.

Edit: Also, ChaCha just appeared on Good Morning America—though it did so in the time slot that my local station pre-empts for its local news segment. Oh well, at least I can read their article about it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

MP3 Commentary Track for Robotech: "Enter Marlene"

Here is a new audio commentary track I have recorded for viewing with episode #70 of Robotech, "Enter Marlene." It is an 11-megabyte 64 kilobit mono MP3, timed for playing with the NTSC version of the Robotech Remastered release of this episode. (I suppose if you have the original DVD release, you could watch it with that also, though the timing might be a bit off for some things; if you've got a PAL DVD, you might want to use an audio editor such as Audacity to speed the track up by 4% to sync it to your disc. Or Sharecrow may actually be able to adjust the speed itself if you edit the .crow file; I'm not sure.)

To watch it, simply start your DVD player (that is, select "Enter Marlene" from the main menu and it will start playing automatically) and your MP3 player or iPod at the same time. Or you can use the Sharecrow mp3/DVD player if you watch DVDs on a Windows computer. Simply right-click the links and select "Save" to download the audio file and the .crow configuration file, save them in the same directory, then load the .crow file once you start playing the disc. When you select "Enter Marlene" from the menu, the commentary track will start playing automatically.

Audio file: here or here
.crow file: here or here

Update: I have just finished an update to this commentary track, so it is now current as of 11/14/06. The main changes were to clarify some things about the relationship between Ariel and Marlene Rush, based on what I learned by talking to Tommy Yune at the Shadow Chronicles screening on November 11th. You can actually hear the sections I changed in their original form in the commentary track excerpt segment that I did for RDF Underground episode #51.

Here are some links to things I mention in the commentary.

  • Stan Bundy's "Early Return" essay, "Palimpsests"
  • Peter Walker's "Late Return" essay (updated slightly by me, with his permission)
  • Rook Bartley's red Alpha, with Jupiter Base logo visible on wings
  • Saturday, August 19, 2006

    New entries elsewhere: Teleread, Codex

    Recently, I was extended an invitation to join the staff of the Teleread.org blog. This morning, I was struck by a sudden inspiration and sat down and wrote my first entry, entitled "E-books: The peer-to-peer dichotomy." If I hadn't posted it there, I would have posted it here, but I figure that this way it will get a little more exposure than it otherwise might have.

    In other news, I have written a review of a PDF role-playing game that interested me, and submitted it to RPG.net to go with my other reviews on the site. It has now shown up there, so please do go and read my review of Codex: Story Gaming for Creative People.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    The fourth bus book

    And here's a review of the last bus-reading book from my GenCon sojourn.

    Burden of Proof by John G. Hemry

    The second book in a series, this space naval courtroom drama nonetheless contains sufficient explanation of what happened in the prior book that it can be read without leaving the reader lost.

    Lt. JG Paul Sinclair, legal officer on the starship USS Michaelson by dint of a 2-week elective Academy course, is experiencing some ups and downs. A close friend is being promoted off of his ship, and the too-slick officer who replaces him (who happens to be a high-ranking Admiral's son) is not pulling his own weight. His relationship with his girlfriend's father gets off to a rocky start. And then there's a fatal accident onboard the ship with some questions remaining as to its cause, and Sinclair cannot in good conscience stay silent when he finds some evidence that the investigation into it missed.

    There are plenty of space-naval dramas out there, David Weber's Honor Harrington being the best-known example. There are also many realistic courtroom dramas. What's rare is to find a book combining the two genres. In Burden of Proof, Hemry does an excellent job. Of course, there is nothing really requiring this book to be set in space; it could just as easily have been transposed to modern-day Earth in almost every respect, right down to replacing the "Greenspacers" who interfere in a military weapons test with modern-day Greenpeace protesters doing the same thing. But the SF elements are handled ably and well, and do not feel like window-dressing the way they could have in such a book.

    The courtroom drama, though it only occurs relatively late in the book, is also handled well. By presenting it from the point of view of the inexperienced Sinclair, the reader gets to learn about elements of legal strategy as Sinclair learns, rather than simply being presented with them as in the average Matlock or Perry Mason episode. Although Sinclair insists that he does not want to become a lawyer, there are signs that his fascination with matters of law may lead him down that path despite himself.

    Of all the books I read on the bus last weekend, I think this is the only one for which I will actively seek out other books in the series (which currently contains four books in all). I'm glad that I bothered to pick it up in the dollar store after all.