Rants Archive

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The Bang Bots of Dawn

Last week the tech world latched on to the story of Pepper the robot. This particular product is a four-foot tall amalgamation of code and plastic. Its main selling feature is the “ability” to ape human emotions. The coming and going of this overpriced toy likely wouldn’t have made any waves were it not for a certain stipulation in the robot’s terms of service, which nobody reads anyway. You could literally include entire pages of Mein Kampf in the iTunes terms and conditions and people would still click, “I agree.”

People who buy the Pepper model have to promise not to use it in any sexual fashion. Robot ethicists, a profession which is actually a thing and not somebody cospaying an Asimov character, were quick to respond to this demand. Some of these aforementioned advocates went so far as to even suggest that humanity should ban the production of any sex robot. After reading those words, I felt a need to review some collective stupidity.

Pepper the robot isn’t Mr. Data, HAL 9000, Jude Law in AI, or any other sort of sentient creature. It’s a pile of code meant to trick people into thinking there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s not a Cylon; it doesn’t have a plan. It’s an $1800 conversation starter for assholes who want to start conversations with, “Have you met my robot? I’m not allowed to have it jerk me off/finger blast me.” Pepper is no more worthy of an ethical debate than the average dishwasher.

But Adam, one day we might have thinking machines, and they will judge us on how we treat other machines.

One, shut up. Two, that’s what you’re worried about? You’re worried about a thinking machine passing judgement on how we treat toasters and coffee makers? If we’re worried about being judged as a species, surely the collected history of human-on-human violence is a more pressing concern. I’m sooo sure the thinking machines will come down on the side of humanity when they get to the fall of Carthage, the German Crusade of 1096, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the holocaust, and Stalinist Russia. All those things totally take a back seat to Dwayne from New Jersey sticking his dick into a mannequin with a vibrating vagina.

But Adam, robots can’t consent, somebody has to speak for them.

Oh go fuck yourself. Literally. I want you to go to a sex shop, because clearly you haven’t been to one in a while, buy an implement, and then see what sort of consent you can get out of a glass dildo or a fleshlight. And if the idea of securing consent from a tool before partaking in some vigorous masturbation seems laughable to you, then you now know how I feel whenever some self-appointed tech guru talks about getting consent from a sex robot. Consent is a non-issue apropos of things; things get used and then run through the dishwasher on pots and pans.

Even if we take the concept of sex bots to the inevitable point of interactive human-form androids, consent remains a non-issue. Assuming artificial general intelligence existed in concert with the capacity for androids that don’t weigh 700 pounds, why would you install an AGI in a sex bot? It would be like putting an internal combustion engine on a toilet. One could do it, and it might make the toilet flush at supersonic speeds, but is it really necessary to make the best toilet? Engineering is about functionality and efficiency. Putting an AI in a sex bot might be functional, but it’s inefficient and over-engineers the end product. Since a masturbatory aid, albeit one in human form, has but a handful of purposes, there’s no need to over engineer it with a sense of self.

The only remotely interesting thing to come out of this debate is the notion that sex robots would be focused on satisfying male pleasure, thus further objectifying the female form. Once again I find myself wondering if the people putting forward these debates have ever been inside a sex shop, or if they’ve spend any time online at all.

Explain to me how access to female sex robots would somehow create more objectification of women. Not only do we have near-limitless access to conventional porn online, but also people on-demand through the “camgirl” economy. Nor should we leave flesh and blood sex workers out of this discussion. If a person wants to watch another person or people, or buy the company of another person or people, then the means to do so already exist. Sex robots are just as likely to increase the value flesh and blood sex workers as they are to diminish it.

Oh, now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve turned a rant about sex bots, something people are quick to get judgemental about, into a rant about sex workers, something people are equally quick to get judgemental about. Isn’t that an interesting symmetry.

I’m inclined to think that the entirety of the “sex robots (will/should) have rights” discourse isn’t really about sex robots. It’s about people having problems with sex workers. Since the governments courts of Western nations are taking steps to ensure that sex workers are actually treated like people, maladroit assholes need a new anti-sex mascot. And what better way to drum up the ire of humanity’s lowest common denominator than suggesting technology, a thing idiots naturally fear, is going to lead to the breakdown of society and the enabling of pedophiles and sex pests.

Sex doesn’t lead to the downfall of society. Masturbation, with or without a robot’s help, won’t lead to the devaluing of people. The devaluing of people by governments, police, and popular opinion leads to the devaluing of people. One need only read the news to see we are doing a fantastic job of that in North America without the help of prostate tickling robots.

And now, a compilation of robots going falling down.

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Catching Fire: A Shaftoe Rant

I like to think that my ability to suspend disbelief is healthy and robust. So long as a author/director/showrunner isn’t completely clumsy in their work, I’ll climb on board with almost anything. Only one thing taxes my ability to ignore fallacies and liberty taking: stupidity. The moment a story treads into the realm of stupidity, a word which I’m going to use as a catch-all embodying a lack of research, deus ex hand waving, and narrative dishonesty, I start mentally checking out. Which brings me to the subject of today’s rant, Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire.

Even though I haven’t quite finished Catching Fire, I could make a pretty strong case against this novel. The pacing is terrible. The protagonist is as utterly unlikable. The plot and dominant themes are inferior to and derivative of Stephen King and Koshun Takami. Yet I could forgive all of those things on the grounds that Catching Fire and the entire Hunger Games trilogy are aimed at a teenage audience and I’m a miserable bastard of a 32 year old. Then I came upon a chapter where Peta, a character who might as well ride around on a white horse in a shiny suit of armour, walks into a force field and dies.

Huzzah, I thought to myself. Collins is finally doing something dangerous. She’s making like George Martin and capriciously killing off a main character. My joy was short lived when another gladiator began performing CPR upon Peta’s lifeless corpse. Thus is Peta brought back to life. Please to note that when Katniss checks Peta’s pulse, she finds him absent vital signs. He’s not a little dead. He’s not mostly dead. He’s functionally dead. He is t-minus five minutes from irreparable brain damage and t-minus ten minutes from full on brain death. There is only one thing, no matter in which post-Roman dystopia a story is set, that will resuscitate a person in Peta’s condition: an electrical charge.

CPR is a stall. It’s a thing that you do to a person to keep their brain oxygenated until such time as a defibrillator can shock the heart back to life. No defibrillator, no resuscitation, end of line.

But Adam, I once heard from my company’s designated first aid person that CPR could restart a person’s heart.

Let me stop you right there and refer you back to my previous statement, this time in bold and with swears. No defibrillator, no resuscitation, end of fucking line. Finnick had a better chance of restarting Peta’s heart by throwing him into the killer force field a second time.

Now at this point you might accuse me of being needlessly pedantic over a tiny and otherwise unimportant detail. Fine, maybe I am, except for two things.

Thing one – When Collins was writing Catching Fire all she had to do was Google “Can CPR restart a heart?” to learn that it can’t. Even if she embraces the Baywatch approach to treating cardiac arrest as de rigueur, it’s hard to believe that nobody on Scholastic’s editorial team caught the mistake. Stupidity. J’accuse.

Thing two – Collins and/or the editors did catch the mistake. Rather than fixing it she/they simply said, “fuck it, they’re kids, they don’t know any better.” and left the novel as is.

It’s been a while since I was a teenager, but back then I knew that Baywatch got CPR wrong – as did every other kid who took swimming lessons, as did all of the dozens of teenagers I trained to be lifeguards when I was in university. So fine, maybe I’m being fussy, but that doesn’t change the fact that the author/editor are either completely ignorant of basic physiology or intentionally sneering at their target demographics’ ability to pick up on fine details.

While I had my issues with The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, those criticisms never entered an area where I saw fundamental stupidity at work within the text. When Peta, against all reason and sense, didn’t stay dead, my suspension of disbelief toward Collins’ world took his place on the reaper’s list. If the author and/or her editors aren’t going to the effort of making sure the novel nails the details in a scene which otherwise alters the trajectory of the plot, why should I, as a reader, bother taking the novel seriously?


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Reflections on 40,000

Reflections on 40k

Today, November 21, 2011, at about 8:20 EDT, I broke the forty thousand word threshold in my NaNoWriMo project: a contemporary zombie survival novel tentatively titled Run-Hide-Survive.

I know, the game isn’t over until I hit 50k, and even then the game won’t actually be over.  From where I’m sitting right now the first draft is going to be “done” at about 65 to 70 thousand words.  I have no doubt that in the subsequent months I’ll polish, revise, edit, and hand wring that up to a nice 80 to 90 thousand words.  Even then the game won’t be over.  I’ll likely spend the next two years soliciting publishers, sending out query letters, getting said letters rejected out of hand, drinking scotch, doubting myself, and then at some point receiving a glimmer of hope that somebody other than me is interested in this story.  Only when I am looking at a printed and finished copy of my first novel, will this game be done.  Then the next game starts.

So why write about this now?  Why invite the hubris of the gods by putting pen to paper when I still have 9,896 words left to write before I can claim to have “finished” the most monumental writing task of my natural life to date?  Because now is the time to do it.

I know now is the time to do it because I used to run.  If NaNoWriMo has taught me anything it’s that writing comes from the same place as running.

During my time as a runner I learned that the hardest part of a half-marathon is the first five kilometers.  If I was going to quit, I would quit there.  By the time I got to the last few kilometers, I always knew that finishing was a foregone conclusion, even if I had to crawl to get there.

To keep my brain occupied through those last few klicks, I would reflect on the day’s run.  How was my pace?   How were my knees holding up?  What did I want to eat when things were done?  How much of the last kilometer would I sprint?  I knew that once I stopped running the essence of those last moments, the connection that I felt with whatever it is that makes a person decide to get up and run, the very flavour of the day, would be gone.  Those moments get replaced with other things.  Praise from friends and family, sore joints, a new training schedule, and a few celebratory beers.  Pride in the accomplishment lingers, but the nuance of the event is an ephemeral thing.

Over the last twenty one days the parallels between marathon training/running and writing have grown all the more poignant.  The feeling of being driven to do something that I didn’t think myself capable of doing is the same.  The desire to keep working if only to test my limits is the same. The fear that taking one day off will ruin my training/work schedule and torpedo the whole project is the same.   The looks of doubt, incredulity and sheer surprise that I get from people when I say that I’m writing 50k in thirty days are the exact same.  Beyond all that though the most important similarity between running and writing is the recognition that I’m not  quite the same person that I was when I started.

Even though the nature of my life is mostly unchanged between now and three weeks ago, I feel different.  For the past 3 weeks this novel has been my mission.  I’ve balanced writing it against teaching, grading papers, going to a con as a panelist for the first time, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.  Not to mention that I have resisted the siren song of The Elder Scrolls V and the release build of Minecraft.  Somehow, I have made it all work.  The race may continue, but I now feel free from the doubt that kept me from taking on a project of this scope for at least the last few years.

At the same time, I find myself reflecting on past “impossible” tasks.  Would grad school have been different for me if I worked on a steady production schedule instead of screwing around for days at a time and then going into insane work cycles that saw me not leaving the house for days at a time?  Okay, maybe I didn’t screw around all the time as a student.  However, what I did back then to earn the letters that come after my name don’t feel quite as grand in scope as what I’ve tried to do over the last three weeks.

Could I have done this without a few key people (you know who you are) cheering me on?  I’d like to think so.  However it’s pretty awesome to have a cheering section.  So to you select few, thank you.  Hopefully I won’t impose upon your respective patience too much as the months to come see me whinging about editing and revision in the finest fashion of Karl Pilkington.

Mostly, I’m excited.  I’m excited because I feel like I’ve turned the corner on something.  I know I should be more articulate than to describe this intangible concept as a “something”, but I find myself suffering from a poverty of suitably precise language for this moment.  I hope that anybody else who has been where I am right now knows what I’m talking about and can maybe explain it to me.  If I can borrow a trope from gaming, I feel like I have just leveled up for the first time in a very long time.

Of course there’s all the doubts and anxieties that my story is cliché crap, that what I hope counts for emotional development will read as maudlin drivel.  But right now, at this moment, they don’t really seem to matter.


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Shaftoe’s Rants: On Other Critics

The Short Version:  As critics we should attempt to maintain a modicum of common sense if not internal consistency in our evaluation.

The Long Version:  One of the first things that I was told when I started writing reviews is that critics don’t criticize other critics.  It’s just not done.  The general consensus seems to be that in criticising ourselves we become the snake that eats its own tail.  Our words will somehow become less relevant if we use our public voice to hold our peers to the same standards of performance that we do movies, books, games et cetera. However, I think that precept is built upon the misconception that criticism is an act of educated opinion rather than an act of evaluation that can be, and ought to be, easily quantified.

Rather than constructing a theoretical framework for criticism, an act which would no doubt drive away more readers than it would attract, I’m going to recap two recent examples of criticism that illustrate a dire need for more thought and less opinion in cultural criticism.

Example 1: A video game review of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A well-established Canadian online publication released a review that scored Skyrim at 10 out of 10.  I didn’t bother with reading the long form of their review since their short form completely invalidated the score and any credibility that I might have attributed the following words.  In sum, if the game is going to get a perfect score then the “Con” section of the “Pros” and “Cons” overview should be empty.  Full stop.  It should not read, “Some frame rate issues as well as occasional bad texturing.”

Frame rate issues speak directly to the ability of the game engine to render sprites with a baseline of consistency.  If there are enough frame rate drops as to merit putting a black mark against the game in the preamble, then the game can’t possibly be perfect.  Even a half-educated reader will look at such an incongruity and assume that Bethesda paid the publication in question to write a glowing review, or that the author of the review is so blinded by their love for the franchise that they can’t reconcile what they want the game to be against what it is.

Example 2: Movie reviews of The Immortals and J. Edgar.

A well-known Canadian film critic considered The Immortals and J. Edgar as both worthy of “3 stars”.

Well and good except for the way in which he justified both movies.  In his words, J. Edgar ought to have focused on a single event in Mr. Hoover’s life rather than aging Leonardo DiCaprio through fifty years.  The critic also said that the makeup job on DiCaprio was outstanding but sub-par on the supporting cast.  He wrapped up his evaluation by saying that we should expect an Oscar nomination for DiCaprio’s performance.

On The Immortals, the critic said that it was a visually stunning picture but utterly devoid of any story.  He said that the people playing the Olympian gods looked like a bunch of kids preparing for a night out at the club.  That was the extent of his qualifications for a 3 star review: very pretty but stupid, very stupid.

I don’t want to get crass with things here, but if a movie is going to get three stars just because it is pretty, I had best leave the theatre with a marked desire for a cigarette and some spooning.  How the hell does a professional critic justify putting a movie that has Oscar worthy acting in the exact same category as sword and sandal puff piece without any observable plot?  It boggles the mind.

Turning to the question at hand, why am I complaining about this?  Primarily because weak sauce criticism from the big boys makes me look bad by association.  The aforementioned incidents make critics and reviewers look like either incredulous and unthinking PR instruments or morbidly stupid fan boys who can’t divine when a product is flawed.

That said, where is the harm in a little internal oversight?  Are critics so thin skinned that they can’t accept a bit of the feedback that they dole out on a regular basis?  Gods know my readers have called me out from time to time, and I for one enjoy not only the dialogue but the motivation to justify what I am saying in a quantifiable fashion.  Contrary to what some believe, there is no divine right of criticism.  It is a responsible relationship between critic and reader wherein the latter extends a measure of trust to the words of the former.  The expectation is that the former won’t use their position to forward anything other than a thoughtful argument.

I know that one editorial-ish rant form one obscure writer isn’t going to change the reality of the entertainment industry wherein critics can become PR flunkies.  Life will go on as usual, and I’ll grumble about it to those unfortunate few who remain within earshot.  Be that as it may, this code of silence among reviewers and critics does nothing other than to further isolate us from the very people we are trying to serve.  Let’s not hide behind arbitrary degrees of professionalism and inaccessibility when it is painfully obvious that some among us are making stupid mistakes.


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Shaftoe’s Rants: MechWarrior Online, Yay! Right?

The Short Version:  I’m glad to see that MechWarrior is back, but I think making this a free-to-play game is a bad idea.

The Long Version:  Today started out on a bright note.  Director and renowned PC gamer Duncan Jones re-tweeted a link to some long awaited news on the fate of the MechWarrior franchise.  This was a welcome surprise as it was in July of 2009 that Piranha Games first announced that they were working with FASA/WhizKids to reboot the long slumbering IP.  As a long time BattleTech/MechWarrior fan (I might have a collector’s edition and original release of the Jade Falcon Trilogy novels on my bookshelf) I was positively giddy when I saw the concept video that Piranha floated around the internet.

Then the rumours started.  The promotional video for the game featured BattleMech designated “The Warhammer”.  The Warhammer, along with a half dozen other classic ‘Mechs that came with the launch of BattleTech as a tabletop game back in the 80s, bore a striking similarity to the mecha of Super Dimensonal Fortress Macross or Robotech to us North Americans.

There’s a long and ugly history between FASA and Harmony Gold, Robotech’s distribution company, that I won’t bother to detail here.  Sufficed to say, gamers and game insiders made the assumption that Harmony Gold cited old grievances and filed a cease and desist order against Piranha Games.  Though Piranah’s development blog claims otherwise, the noticeable absence of the Warhammer from the ‘Mech lineup on their website gives me reason to suspect that legal actions took place.

Officially, Piranha Games states that the delays were due to the big five publishers all passing on their MechWarrior pitch.  Though, they do credit their work on MechWarrior as something that helped the company secure the Duke Nukem Forever contract.  Wow. Duke Nukem.  A muscle bound chauvinist and half naked sprites is so much more fun for me than giant robots set against the politics of the Inner Sphere.

At any rate, the official word came in yesterday when Piranha Games announced MechWarror Online, a free-to-play first person MMO.

Pro: The game is moving forward.

Pro/Con: It’s an MMO. 

Pro: It’s set in late 3049 which means you can bet your ass that the Clans are going to invade the inner sphere.

Pro: Promises for heavy customization as well as the ability to form lances and mercenary corporations.

Potentially fatal Con: Free-to-play.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch in video games unless you’re a pirate or it’s a shareware title.  Innocuous google ads on loading screens and in-game billboards don’t generate enough income for a developer to stay in business.  Unless the boys and girls at Piranha are really working out side of the box, it’s going to come down to micro-transactions as a means of real world income generation.

To placate the angry hordes, the devs have promised that access to better weapons and “game winning” equipment are only going to be accessible through actually playing the game.  Thus, I expect that would-be MechWarriors will be paying for the privilege of driving specific ‘Mechs while the free players will be relegated to their own pool.  As egalitarian as that might sound, I don’t think it will work.  In fact I think there is a fundamental flaw to the concept of doing MechWarrior as a free-to-play game.

I say this as an old-school MWL player from back in the days of MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries. At that time, I was a blood named member of Clan Hells’ Horses at the rank of Star Captain.  Granted that means nothing to most people.  However, I’ll happily expose my nerditude if it establishes my credibility as an expert on BattleTech/MechWarrior.

Part of the fun of playing in MWL was the tactics.  During a league match, battles could take as long as an hour to resolve themselves as the opposing forces played cat and mouse about the map.  Even when a battle ended in ten minutes, it remained a game of strategy and immersion (we all played with joysticks and throttles) with blowing shit up as a fun fringe benefit.  Toss a bit of Space Opera back story into the mix and MechWarrior brought out the most dedicated of PC gamers.  There were no casual MechWarriors; you either loved it, or you didn’t.  A game that evokes such a strong dedication from its gamers is problematic for a free-to-play title.

The very nature of free-to-play gaming is that you want as many people playing as possible.  That means fast paced play with continual feedback and gratification.  It’s the reason why everybody plays Farmville. At most people have to wait a minute before a “winning” event occurs.  That method of manic game play is utterly incompatible with MechWarrior.  If Piranha dares to change the very thing that drew people to MechWarrior, it will create such a shit storm of nerd rage that none of the old guard will go near this new iteration.  Meanwhile the game will have to market itself to the very outsiders who didn’t bother playing MechWarrior when it was popular on the PC from 1989-2002.  Will those folk be willing to pay for the privilege of piloting a Vulture II-C or an IS-Awesome when one giant robot is pretty much the same as the next?  Piranah could pour millions of dollars and the next year of their staff’s lives into making a game that nobody will pay to play.

The smarter move is to keep the format of the game in-line with that which has already been established, and pitch the product as a subscription service game.  PC gamers like supporting companies that give us what we want.  Anybody who ever fought with Microsoft’s “Zone” to find a MWL match or cried into their beer while a private website crashed and took with it the records of a year’s worth of league play, will swear fealty to a company that centralizes all of that into one platform.  In sum: if you build it, we will pay, but only if we are all paying the same amount.


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Shaftoe’s Rants: On Evaluating Television

The Short Version: Based on my current methods of evaluating television, I think I would have written off Star Trek: TNG as a bad idea.

The Long Version: Of everything that I review, genre television can be the most problematic.  It’s not that it is particularly difficult.  Nor is it particularly time consuming.  In fact, as labour intensive projects go, book reviews and podcasts take up the most time and appeal to the smallest subset of my audience. The issue with television is gauging just how much of a show to watch before putting pen to paper.

There’s an obvious temptation to write in the aftermath of a series’ pilot episode.  For a small website like mine, writing in the immediacy of a premiere places my words right at the forefront of the blogosphere.  Granted it’s impossible for me to compete with the big boys, but even the trickledown represents a noticeable volume of traffic.

From a purely critical perspective, it’s best to wait for an entire season to conclude before writing something.  A restaurant reviewer doesn’t write a review based solely upon the starters so why should a television critic do anything different?  The downside is that by the time the season is done, so many things have already been said that it is challenging to come up with something new to offer.  Not to mention the fact that in delaying an evaluation I lose the “I need somebody to tell me if I should watch this” demographic.

To that end, I came up with the “three episode rule”.  A new series gets three episodes to prove its chops before I put pen to paper.  No system, however, is perfect.  Consider my review of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. It got the customary three episodes and I wrote it off as fetish realization in togas.  I’m not sure what primitive part of my psyche kept me watching Spartacus, perhaps the part that moves me to watch True Blood if only so I can rag on its abject stupidity.  Fortunately my desire for titillation carried me to the point where Spartacus got better.  Before I knew it, I was writing a mea culpa review.

After watching two out of three obligatory episodes of Terra Nova, I find myself examining the three episode rule.  In the case of TN, I don’t fear that writing this show off will prove to be a mistake.  It might not be frame for frame plagiarism of Outcasts, but it’s pretty damn close.  More on that next week though.

Still, the utter shite that is Terra Nova got me thinking about how a “successful” genre series would stand up to my critical approach.  That’s when I realized that I probably would have written off Star Trek: The Next Generation as a great idea gone horribly wrong.

Consider the summary judgments of the first four TNG stories.

Ep 1&2 “Encounter at Farpoint”:  Encounter at Farpoint introduced the eighties to a new Enterprise with a new crew and a very familiar villain.  Being the cynical prick that I am, I would have looked at Q (John de Lancie) and probably said something snarky like, “Hey is this Trelane’s older uncle?”  Granted, Q turned out to be a fantastic character, if only for introducing the Federation to the Borg, but that didn’t happen until season 2.  Otherwise all we get from this episode is that Geordi is blind, Data can’t whistle, Troi and Riker used to have a thing, Troi looks good in a miniskirt and Picard is both French, despite an English accent, and a bit of a grouch.  The only genuinely interesting thing to come of this episode is the courtroom of the post-atomic horror.  Too bad the late twenty-first century never really comes up again within televised Trek.

Ep 3 “The Naked Now”:  Hey look everybody, it’s that episode of Star Trek TOS where everybody acts like they are drunk; now featuring damaged blondes having sex with androids.  Also, those of you conscious of things race related will notice that a certain sword fighting Dumas quoting Asian character has been replaced by a drooling moron who likes to play “toss the isolinear chips”.  Great work with the race relations there writers John D. F. Black  and J. Michael Bingham.

Ep 4 “Code of Honour”:  A planet of black people use Thunderdome to settle disputes in their multi-partner marriages.  Christ and Hunter, do I have to draw a picture on why this episode blows goats?  So much for Star Trek as a morality play.

Of course TNG had the benefit of the Trek franchise backing it, and that isn’t something that is easily dismissed.  Though it would take a particularly die hard TNG fan to defend these episodes, indeed TNG’s first season, as a high watermark of genre writing.  More to the point, my current practice of evaluating television would have seen Star Trek TNG tossed in the same bin that I plan on putting Terra Nova. In retrospect, season two of TNG and subsequent episodes in future seasons more than made up for the questionable writing and recycled plots of the show’s first season.  Say it all together now, “There are four lights.”

Thus we return to the point at hand.  Genre television is an oddly biological medium.   Sometimes things that seem destined for extinction undergo a spontaneous mutation, becoming something new and exciting.  In other instances, things that ought to be titans among the genre, gifted with every conceivable tool for success, stumble.  By the time they recover their footing, they find themselves surrounded by an army of smaller predators.  They die not with a roar, but to the whimper and online outrage of the fans.


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Shaftoe’s Rants: Netflix Revisited

The Short Version: Much as I try to like Netflix, they keep doing stupid things that make me doubt if I will give them my money once the free trial is up.

The Long Version:  Well the long version goes a little something like this.  Sunday morning I recorded a podcast with Jane Espenson and Cheeks to help promote their new web series, Husbands.  I won’t lie, that was a good day for me.  Then Monday came along and I had no idea what I would do for a follow up.  I mean, really, do I follow up such awesomeness with a Thundercats recap?

I knew I could spend hours, days even, trying to come up with a way to top that podcast.  Then it struck me, unless Nathan Fillion calls me up and invites me out for beer and nachos, I’m probably not going to beat that interview, at least not right away.  So I decided to side step the whole issue and go with something a little light hearted.

How does this connect to Netflix, you ask?  In light of the fact that a certain movie studio is trying to bring “fishing expedition” copyright lawsuits to Canada, I thought I would see what legitimate alternatives there are for people who want television and movies delivered online without having to resort to bit torrent.  The results of my investigation were not at all impressive.  Sufficed to say the crux of this copyright issue can be distilled down to one simple idea: the content providers need to get their heads out of the 20th century and make their services more appealing and more convenient than piracy.

At any rate, ever since my “Netflix vs The AFI top 25” post, there’s been no short supply of people trying to convince me that Netflix has improved its service to Canadian users and I should be less of a grumpy cynical bastard therein.  At the behest of all the Netflix boosters, I thought I would give the service an honest trial run.

After signing up and completing a survey that took longer than my last census report, I was immediately disappointed.  I told Netflix’s survey that I never watch “Family Friendly” or “Children’s” programming.  The very first thing in my “recommended” stream was Pingu.

Grumbling inaudibly, I typed “Star Trek” into the search bar expecting that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would be an easy hit.  It was not.

As my vision has only just recovered from a case of acute lens flare blindness, I passed on the 2009 Trek reboot.  Then, I came upon…it.  Something so strange that you’re probably going to think I made it up.  A search for Star Trek yielded Time Travel Through the Bible.

“”What the shit is this?  Rebecca, you have to come here and see this,” were my exact words.

The connection between “Star Trek” as a search operator and Time Travel Through the Bible is one Jonathan Frakes of ST:TNG.  Honestly though, how stupid is Netflix’s search engine that it would put those two things together?  I mean Star Trek is clearly science fiction and Time Travel Through the Bible ought to be in fantasy.

Of course it didn’t end there.  I tried another experiment.  Hypothesis: If I search for The Manchurian Candidate it will give me Murder She Wrote because they both feature Angela Lansbury.  Result: The Train, – another John Frankenheimer movie which does make some sense – the remake of The A-Team, and Jackass 3.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Come on, how in the name of Zeus’ asshole does cold war intrigue connect with douche bag idiots being idiots?”  I yelled at my computer screen.

It was the indefinite article “the” in the description of the latter two movies that joined them to Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey.  (Click the above picture to see what I mean)  Netflix, I’m being totally honest with you when I say this, but my university library circa 2000 had a smarter search engine than yours does now.  Consider these three words: powered by google.

I know, it seems like I’m just piss taking at Netflix’s expense, but I’m really trying to give it a chance.  Yet time after time it disappoints me.  It categorized the seminal 80s series Robotech as children’s programming rather than Anime.  I asked for Cowboy Bebop and it offered me Cool as Ice, the much ignored 90s musical comedy featuring Vanilla Ice as a hip-hop motorcycle rebel.  And yes, it was as painful for me to type that as it was for you to read it.  The only saving grace I’ve seen so far is about fifty episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and the complete series of Farscape.

In the final assessment, I don’t think Netflix has improved.  The search engine is as terrible as the selection is limited.  Despite my best efforts otherwise, I can’t get over the fact that if I had a Netflix.com account rather than Netflix.ca I’d have ten times the library to choose from.

Next month, I try zip.ca.  Shaftoe, out.

PS: Feel free to click here for my interview with Jane Espenson and Cheeks.  It’s awesome.


1

Shaftoe’s Rants: Dragon Age Rage

The Short Version: When tech support advises hacking the game to get around digital rights management, it’s time to take a long hard look at modern copy protection methods.

The Long Version: I love video games, but I think I’ve finally reached a bit of a tipping point.  Monday afternoon my copy of Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate Edition went mental and decided that I wasn’t allowed to use the downloadable content that came bundled with the title.  While the core game still worked, I could no longer continue my quest as the save game file was written with functional DLC.  Setting aside the fact that I had already invested twenty hours into this particular campaign, the situation angered me as I’m not one to appreciate machines telling me what I can and can’t do with things that I have paid for (incidentally the same reason why I will never trade my PC for a Mac).

Shaftoe Rage Level = 1

My rage only grew when the EA/Bioware support page said that this was an “ongoing issue” and the company appreciated my patience while they tried to solve the problem.  They wanted patience despite the fact that no information was given on when the issue started or how long it was expected to continue.  Paitence? Patience!  I’m a gamer, that means my patience has about a fourteen second half-life.  Unsatisfied with the “ongoing issue” explanation, I called EA/Bioware support to ask for more details about the problem.  Wherein, one of their support people proved that humans can in fact be less helpful a hastily arranged stack of bricks in diagnosing technical issues.

Support Drone: “At this time I can’t give you any additional information.  You’ll just have to wait until we fix it, we appreciate your understanding.”

Me: “I appreciate that this isn’t something that you, personally, can fix, but your answer leaves me less than satisfied.  Please put me through to your supervisor.”

Shaftoe Rage Level = 2

Having worked in a call center after university, I know that when you ask for a supervisor, you’re not actually getting a supervisor.  What happens is that you get sent to an “escalation” team that is full of people who say they are supervisors.  The only benefit is that if they can’t fix the problem, they are usually authorized to offer some sort of compensation.  In my case, I got a 20% discount off the purchase of my next EA title.  Too bad that discount won’t apply to any purchases made through Steam or Impulse.

Shaftoe Rage Level = 3

At about this point my girlfriend, who is not a gamer but I don’t hold that against her, took notice of my fuming about the living room.  “What you’re saying,” she began after I explained the genesis of my fury, “Is that something is broken with Bioware and you can’t play the game you paid for because of it?”

““That’s right.”

““This isn’t like that Playstation Network thing? Is it?”

““No, this is a single player game that I want to play all by my anti-social self.”

““Well, that’s just stupid.”

Finally, some validation.

Shaftoe Rage Level = 2

The following day I made another call to EA/Bioware support and got hold of a lovely lady named Catharine.  Upon reviewing the details of my grievance, Catharine guided me through a little hack that restored Dragon Age’s DLC to functionality. Moreover, the DLC now works regardless of if I am signed in with my in-game EA account.  All I needed to do was open a file in notepad and change a bunch of 1’s to 0’s.  There wasn’t even any crypto.

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification of a complex issue, but if tech people are guiding legitimate end users through soft hacks of their product’s security measures then it’s time to re-evaluate the purpose and function, or lack thereof, of digital rights management.

In my mind, DRM was created to make pirating software more troublesome than actually purchasing the product in question. Despite the best efforts of digital rights managers, any nine year old with an ounce of tech savvy can download and crack any video game or application that is on the market.  For those who want to steal software, DRM is something to laugh at on message boards.  Given such a market, actually paying for a product isn’t merely adherence to laws that the public rejects out of a Robin Hood-esque sense of entitlement, it has transformed into a personal covenant with the company in question.  When I give my money to a video game developer, I’m making a choice to support everything that goes into their product.  As a paying gamer I now find my loyalty rewarded with wonky security measures that hamstring my gaming experience.  No wonder PC gaming is dying a slow death.  Who wants to put up with all this hassle when they can drop a DVD into a console system?

Perhaps it is time for software companies to abandon this oddly evolved attitude of paternalism in the name of protecting intellectual property.  I don’t begrudge EA/Bioware a right to safeguard their work but when hacks are the only way to make a legitimately obtained piece of software work the way it was designed to, then it’s time to throw out the playbook and come up with something new.  Like I said, DRM was designed to make pirating more troublesome than purchasing.  I offer this experience as proof that the opposite is now true.

The next issue would be for Bioware to stop using DLC as a backhanded justification for releasing three-quarters of a game while tacking on an extra 50%-100% of the cover price over the lifespan of the title for anybody who wants to experience the entire game.  But that’s a rant for another day.

Oh and for posterity’s sake, here are the directions that EA/Bioware support gave me to get around the DRM with Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate Edition.

1. Go into My Documents\BioWare\Dragon Age\Settings

2. Make a backup copy of the file “addins.xml”,

3. open addins.xml in notepad, or any XML editor. (I used Notepad++)

4. Wherever it says RequiresAuthorization=”1″, change that to RequiresAuthorization=”0″. Image: http://i54.tinypic.com/vqjxg2.png afterwards: http://pastebin.com/CDXtnJBX

And then restart the game and check if the all of the DLC appeared to work or not.


1

Shaftoe’s Rant: Arrivederci, Atlantis

The Short Version: Is anybody else afraid that the sun has set on humanity’s ventures into space?

The Long Version:  Sometime between my passing out while reading a Jack Aubrey novel and my cat deciding that his need for breakfast far outweighed my desire for slumber, humanity ended a significant chapter in space exploration.  This morning at 5:57AM ET the space shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida to a crowd of 2,000 supportive on-lookers.  I read this news and couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of loss.

The space shuttle program is only slightly older than I am. As such, shuttle missions have been a ubiquitous part of my life. Now America’s future in space – and Canada’s because let’s face it, when it comes to space exploration we’re a nation of hitchhikers, hangers-on and skilled adjuncts – lay in Soyuz modules, yet to be built American rockets that make me think we should just rebuild the Saturn V series, and free market space entrepreneurs.  In Richard Branson we trust? How very disheartening.

With the American government on the verge of defaulting on its fourteen trillion dollar debt, I can’t find it within me to get excited about NASA’s plans for building an experimental craft that might take us back to the moon.  Cuts to NASA’s budget, just like the space shuttle, have been a constant in my life.  Even in Clinton’s post-Lewinsky years, a time I like to call the “Big Willy’s bulletproof bonanza”, I can’t recall any public rallies that saw massive increases in NASA’s budget.  Hell, NASA is the venerable poster child for doing more with less.  Considering the world in which we live, I find myself hard pressed to put any stock in the timely execution of an exploration program that will require the construction of new launch facilities as well as the crafts themselves.  Too bad space exploration isn’t “good” for the economy.

Oh sure, back in the 50s and 60s, space exploration was great for the economy.  Smarter people than I have already charted the relationship between early space exploration and the birth of consumer electronics.  In the intervening years, however, consumer electronics grew up and moved out of its parents’ basement, so to speak.  Now the processing power that I use to run a game of Starcraft or record a podcast could power ten space shuttles in simultaneous orbit.  Barring the discovery of Helium-3 a la Duncan Jones’ Moon, where’s the fiscal argument that is going to drive the next wave of space exploration?

That lack of immediate and tangible benefit fuels a public malaise about space exploration and the space shuttle mission that vexes me more than anything else.  The refrain always begins with, “Why should I care about space when…”  It started one March Break when lil’ Shaftoe and family were in Florida and he got to watch an actual shuttle launch. When I returned to school and bragged about how I was going to become an astronaut, one of my classmates, a born-again Christian named Kathleena, snarked that people had no business in space because there were too many problems on Earth.  Ever since that day, it’s been the same tired line.

Why should I care about space when people are dying of cholera in Haiti?   Why should I care about space when half the people in the world live without clean water?  Why should I care about space when crack kills people in the inner city?  Why should I care about space when hegemonic governments do nothing to stop people from being displaced from their homes?  In the face of such a negative discourse, how the hell does a person make an argument for space exploration without seeming like a pie-in-the-sky head-in-the-sand altruist/crackpot?

The best answer I can come up with is that space exploration is as much about exploring the Earth as it is exploring that which lies beyond.  Modern climatology, geography, oceanography and countless other fields couldn’t exist as they do without the capacity to look down upon our planet.  These are the sciences that will be essential in helping humanity deal with the fact that we will soon find ourselves living on a planet populated by ten billion people.  Bad as are problems are now, they would be worse without space exploration.  In retiring the space shuttles, I fear that North America is losing a vital tool in its ability to examine itself, its role in the world and how we might be better stewards of this planet.

I recognize the challenges of creating space vehicles for a world where innovations in computing, nanotechnology and human biology are ever present.  The shuttle fleet were analog devices that survived the digital era to sail into aerospace Valhalla on the cusp of the quantum era.  That is no small achievement.  Still, the question remains, does the completion of the space shuttle mission move America into the company of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Spanish and British?  Is America a nation whose reach has finally exceeded its grasp?  If the epoch of American space exploration is indeed at its end then I can only hope for a timely and suitable successor.  The Earth can ill afford humanity turning inward upon itself.

Arrivederci, Atlantis.  Let’s hope we don’t go the way of your namesake.


0

Shaftoe’s Rants: Down with Time Lords?

The Short Version: I don’t think Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat likes Time Lords.

The Long Version: Series writer and show runner Steven Moffat recently told the BBC that Doctor Who’s most iconic villains, the Daleks, won’t be making a screen appearance any time soon.

““We thought it was about time to give them a rest.”

Moffat does raise a bit of a valid point.  The cybernetic children of the planet Skaro are the most regularly defeated enemy in the Doctor Who universe.  However, to this Whovian, there seems to be a larger issue at hand.  In short, I don’t think that Mr. Moffat particularly cares for Time Lords or Time Lord mythology.

I know, it’s an odd accusation to make of a Doctor Who show runner but hear me out.

Since Moffat took over he’s seemingly done everything he can to distance The Doctor from his Time Lord roots.  Consider Moffat’s first episode with Matt Smith as The Doctor.  In The Eleventh Hour, The Doctor wrote off the Time War, the death of his species and the deaths of countless others as “a bad day”.  From that episode onward everything remotely complex gets written off as wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey or spacey-wasey.  Setting aside the fact that this is an oh-so-convenient way to toss causality out the window, it also kills any need for The Doctor to draw upon the wisdom that comes with being a 900-year-old time traveller.  Hell, even his foes don’t seem to care that The Doctor is a Time Lord.  Kindly note, I’m okay with ignoring The Doctor’s lineage when the bad guys are as Torchwood-esque as The Silence – stupid name great concept.

Perhaps this lack of Time Lord flavour is a response to an abundance of Tennant/Eccleston sad face whenever anybody brought up Time Lords or the Time War under Russell T. Davies’ tenure.  On the other hand, Moffat may not want to deal with more practical issue of Time Lord chapeaus which make Princess Beatrix’s head ornamentation seem tasteful.  With the notable exception of Neil Gaiman’s episode The Doctor’s Wife (which was fantastic because I think it was the first time we got to see Matt Smith as a Time Lord, not simply a madman with a blue box) Moffat and the other writers don’t really seem to care about the Doctor as Time Lord.

So how does all of this connect to the fact that the Daleks are going into the vault?  Quite simply, the Daleks and the Timelords are foils for each other.  You can’t have Daleks without Time Lords as each is an essential part of the other’s mythology.  Unless the next Dalek episode undoes the seemingly bona fide resurrection of the Daleks (Victory of the Daleks), an act which would once again make the Doctor a genocidal murderer – although I’m sure they would ethicy-wethicky their way out of any moral quagmire as not to scare the children (sigh) – the Time Lords must come back, in spirit if not in body, to balance the equation.  Given Moffat’s apparent disdain for things Time Lord, that seems unlikely.

Therefore, Moffat’s decision is not just about letting the Daleks rest.  It speaks to an apparent bracketing of his plot arcs from the larger Time Lord/Doctor Who mythology.  I for one like Time Lord mythology.  Consider that one of Matt Smith’s best performances as the Doctor was in Neil Gaiman’s episode.  For just a moment that story let Smith show the audience a little of the hurt that comes with being the last of your kind.  If we are being honest though, Suranne Jones (Idris) was so fantastic as to steal that episode and deposit it in her Swiss bank account.  Either way, Doctor Who needs more writing of that calibre.  Keep the Daleks and Time Lords on ice if we must, minimize references to Gallifrey if necessary, but remember that The Doctor has two hearts and occasionally letting him be a lonely alien won’t ruin the show.

Your thoughts?

Update:  Leave it to Steven Moffat to do exactly what I said he wasn’t going to do.  Ah well, at least I got in a good hat joke.  For fear of spoilers, I’ll skip the details on how Moffat stymied my theory.  It is enough to say that Time Lord mythology is a marginally relevant to the plot of A Good Man Goes to War. Still, I’m not willing to admit that I’m totally wrong on this point.  I’ll save the explanations for my upcoming podcast with Doctor Who scholar J. M. Frey.