Saturday, May 7, 2005

Too Many Choices

Yesterday I fell ill. It started with repeated trips to the restroom. By afternoon I was chilling even though it was eighty degrees outside. I also developed a low grade fever. I feel better today although I am still not quite up to snuff. At the same time I am a bit worried about a beautiful, blonde ladyfriend of mine who is in the process of moving. This Monday she has an eight hour drive to make. I just hope she has a safe journey. I really don't want anything to happen to her. Of course, I am still bummed about Al's death. At any rate, if this entry is not quite up to snuff, it is becuase I am a bit ill and I have other things on my mind.

Today I was just thinking of the choices in home entertainment I had growing up. For most of my life we had only one TV set, which was black and white (we got colour sets when I was older). For the most part our TV sets could only pick up the local channels, although on a good day we might pick up some of the St. Louis or Kansas City stations. When I was very young we had a simple, monophonic record player, although as I got older we did get a stereo. The stereo played what were then the most advanced media in sound recording--vinyl records and cassette tapes. We also had various radios. None of this was unsual, as most people only had TV sets, stereos, and radios. There just wasn't any other home entertainment available.

All of this began to change in the Seventies. The VCR (short for Video Cassette Recorder) was introduced to homes. Home video game systems were invented. And as far as television goes, cable TV saw unprecedented growth. Late in the decade saw the itnroduction of the home computer, although the World Wide Web was still more than a decade away. As far as home entertainment goes, my life is very different from what it was when I was growing up. My TV sets (all of which are colour) are hooked up with cable, which can pick up a good deal more than the six local stations (the number of TV stations in the area also doubled...). My stereo plays Compact Discs rather than vinyl records. I own both a DVD player and VCRs. I have a home computer that not only allows me to connect to the internet, but to play computer games if I choose to. About the only thing I lack is a PlayStation. Things have changed a great deal.

I have to wonder, however, with all these choices in home entertainment, have things really improved? I remember when I was growing up, in the days when most homes did not have cable and many areas only had two or three local TV stations, there were many who thought that television distracted people from more important things, like talking with their family or enjoying the great outdoors. I don't if this was really true, as I never saw television as impeding my family life any, but what if it was? With the number of choices in home entertainment so greatly increased, it would seem to me that there would be even more that would prevent a family from sitting down and chatting or going to the park or whatever. It seems possible to me that with the many choices we now have in home entertainment, that communications in families could have reached an all time low.

Of course, all of this depends on whether it is true that such things as television, CDs, the internet, and so on, distract from families talking with each other or enjoying each other's company. As I said, I don't know that it is. Growing up, I remember talking a great deal with my parents, playing with my brother, doing things with my family. And I can honestly say I watched a lot (maybe too much...) of television. I rather suspect it all comes down to this: home entertainment distracts from communicating with one's family or doing things with one's family only if he or she lets it do so. Of course, I suppose this only points out the obvious--being part of a family is hard work. Children don't raise themselves and spouses do need attention. It is then up to the individual to insure that TV, CDs, DVDs, and everything else out there does not interfere with his or her family.

Or maybe this whole entry is just the product of a fever wracked brain and hence is free to be ignored....

Friday, May 6, 2005

The Beatles (Unseen Archives)

A few days ago I checked The Beatles (Unseen Archives), compiled by Tim Hill and Marie Clayton, out from the library. The book is a collection of previously unpublished photos of The Beatles. drawn from the archives of the Daily Mail and taken by Associated Press photographers. Some were from negatives that had never even been printed.

The photographs in The Beatles (Unseen Archives) are for the most part arranged year by year, the exceptions being "The Early Years (The Beatles before 1964)" and "After The Beatles (after the group had broken up)." Each chapter includes a summary of what had happened with regards to The Beatles at that time, as well as a timeline of events. Although The Beatles (Unseen Archives) is a collection of photographs, it also serves quite well as a primer on Beatles history. Each photograph has its own description, often not only telling what is happening in the picture, but various bits of trivia as well. Many of the pictures were taken while The Beatles were on holiday or at special events, giving the fan a behind the scenes look at the band. There are several photos from the sets of both A Hard Day's Night and Help!.

I find very little of which to be critical with regards to "The Beatles (Unseen Archives). Off the top of my head I can only think of two things. First, it would have been nice to have seen more photos of The Beatles at work--that is, it would have been nice to have seen more shots of them in the studio or performing in concert. Second, there are no shots of John Lennon in the chapter "After The Beatles," although there are plenty of the other three Beatles. I can only guess that as John had moved to the United States in the Seventies, not many pictures of him were being taken in England and so not many photos of John were in the archives of the Daily Mail from the Seventies.

I would say that The Beatles (Unseen Archives) is worthwhile for any Beatles fan. Most fans will probably already know much of the history and trivia about the band related in the book; however, it is very interesting as a photograhpic chronicle of the changes the band went through over the years. And the photos are quite enjoyable, giving fans yet another look at the band.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

My War with Amazon

One of my favourite web sites is Amazon.Com. As an individual living in a small town, who doesn't always have the time to go to Barnes and Noble in Columbia or the money to pay their prices for that matter, it is an invaluable resource in getting many books and DVDs I want. One of the best things about Amazon is that they allow one to select his or her own Favourites with regards to their shops (in my case, Books, DVDs, and Music), as well as the various categories within those shops and subcategories of those categories (for instance, the Rock category of Music and the Power Pop subcategory of Rock). Amazon uses these Favourites, as well as the stuff one already owns, to make Recommendations as to other books, DVDs, or albums one might also like. For instance, if one owns DVDs, of On the Town and Singin' in the Rain, then Amazon might recommend An American in Paris to that person (for those who don't know, all three are Gene Kelly movies). Now for the most part Amazon's Recommendations are fairly accurate. It was through their Recommendations that I learned that both The President's Analyst and The Assassination Bureau, two movies I dearly love, are available on DVD. Unforutnately, there are those times when Amazon's Recommendations are way off base.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this happpened not long after I opened my Amazon account. Every time I checked my music recommendations at Amazon, there would be several Country music albums listed. Allison Krause, Tim McGraw, you name it. Now I like Country music about as much as I like getting root canals. I rated each of these albums "not interested." If that wasn't bad enough, for a time Amazon decided to recomend varoius Rap albums to me. 50 Cent. Eminem, so on and so forth. Now I like Rap music even less than Country. Given a choice between the Chinese water torture and listening to a whole 50 Cent album, it would be a very hard decision for me to make.

Of course, Amazon's errors in recommending material to me has not been confined to music. As far as books go, they actually recommended Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right by Ann Coulter to me, desptie the fact that I like Conservative Republican politics about as much as I like Rap music. They also insisted on recommending various weight loss books to me (including French Women Don't Get Fat, even though I am not French, a woman, or fat), despite the fact that I am one of those unlucky people who actually needs to gain weight! And then there are those Business and Investing books they kept recommending me (if I want to lose money, I'll do it at a casino, thank you...). I have consistently rated all of these "not interetsed."

Of course, I would not mind the mistakes Amazon makes when it comes to Recommendations if they would simply leave my Favourites alone. Unforutnately, they sometimes insist on adding Favourites that, well, are not exactly my Favourites. As I said earlier, I have consistently rated "weight loss" books "not interested." Despite this, early last month I went to Amazon.Com to find that "Weight Control" had been added to my Favourites under Books! And while I have also consistently rated "Business and Investing" as "not interested," at one point "Business and Investing" was also added to my Favourites under Books. Of course, in both cases I promptly removed them from my Favourites. Amazon has also meddled with my Favourites in Music. Remember those Country music albums and Rap albums I kept marking "not interested?" Well, both Country and Gangsta Rap wound up under my Favourites on music at different times! I promptly removed both.

As near as I can tell, these sort of errors with Amazon's Recommendations and adding things to one's Favourites that one may not necessarily like arise from the fact that Amazon tries to determine one's tastes in Music by one's tastes in DVDs, one's tastes in Books by one's tastes in Music, and so on and so forth. At Amazon.Com one can click on a recommended album, DVD, or book and it will often tell one why the album, DVD, or book was recomended to him or her. In the case of those Country music albums it was always recommending me, it was apparently because I love John Wayne's Westerns! As to Gangsta Rap, apparently it was because I am interested in Everquest! Now I know plenty of people who like Westerns but do not like Country music (gods know, I am one of them). And I know of no one who plays Everquest who listens to Gangsta Rap (if you're out there, please speak up). I think that is the flaw in Amazon.Com's system for generating Recommendations and Favourites. One simply cannot use one's tastes in books to figure out one's taste in music, or one's tastes in games to figure out one's tastes in DVDs. Simply because someone loves the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow does not mean he or she is going to love electronic music. Simply because someone loves Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories does not mean he or she is going to like ragtime.

Of course, there are those changes to my Favourites for which I have no explanation. A few months ago I went to Amazon to find that they had added Baby to my Favourite shops. Now I love babies. They're cute and cuddly and fun to play with. But I don't have a baby of my own and, unless I get married in the next six months or something has happened, I doubt I'll have a baby of my own very soon. Amazon's Baby shop is then of little use to me. I am not exactly going to be buying a pram or tons of diapers. I then doubt that it could justifably be counted among my Favourites. To this day I am puzzled as to why they added the Baby shop to my Favourites!

For now it seems as if Amazon.Com has decided to leave my Favourites alone. They have not altered them in the past month. Perhaps after removing things they have added such as Business and Investing, Country, Gangsta Rap, and so on, they've realised it is best to leave well enough alone. Still, I am on my guard as to what they might possibly add next. With any luck it won't be Salsa music....

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

The Passing of a Friend

"Remember no man is a failure who has friends." (Clarence from the movie It's a Wonderful Life)

Today I am going to violate my rule of writing anything pertaining to my personal life beyond a few brief references. I think this exception is warranted as it is fairly important, I am fairly upset over it (to put it very mildly), and in its own way it touches upon pop culture (the reason behind this blog). At any rate, today I still find myself in a state of utter shock.

I just got word last night that my friend Al took his own life. At the moment details are sketchy, but I do know that he was going through a divorce. I can only assume that was at least one of the reasons he did it, if not the primary reason. If that is the case, then he is the second person I know who has killed himself over a woman (strangely, the other was also one of the biggest Star Trek fans in the area).

I met Al when I was only about 8 or 9 years old. He was one of my ex-brother in law's friends, as he was to this day. As it turned out, my brother and I probably had more in common with Al than my brother in law. We were all science-fiction and fantasy buffs. We were all huge Star Trek fans. In fact, Al was at least partly responsible for introducing me to both Tolkien's works and the Society for Creative Anachronism. He was fully responsible for introducing me to Vampirella and the works of Frank Frazetta. To give you an idea of how much Al was into sci-fi, one of his projects in recent years was to build the interior of a life-size spaceship in his basement (I must say I was impressed)! He and later his daughters were fixtures at all the local sci-fi conventions. Al was one of the few Baby Boomers that I had a great deal in common with beyond similar tastes in music.

First and foremost, Al was probably the best science fiction and fantasy artist I personally knew. His style was definitely drawn from comic books. In fact, his work vaguely reminded me of Gil Kane. I wish I had some of it to show you, but all of his art is packed away and I lack a scanner. But, trust me, if you saw his artwork you would be impressed. I never could understand why he did not turn professional.

He was also a skilled martial artist. He was skilled with European swords and in the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu style of Japanese sword fighting. He was also a great archer. He was a deadeye shot with an English longbow.

As I said earlier, I am in a state of shock. If there was one person whom I would not have thought would take his own life it would be Al. Al was a tall slender fellow who never looked his own age (the running joke the past few years was that he never aged--in his mid-Fifties he looked younger than either my brother or me). He was always good natured and happy go lucky, hardly the sort of person one thinks of as committing suicide. Al was one of those people who played an important role in my life when I was growing up. Al and his then wife babysat both my brother and me at times. When my brother and I got older we returned the favour, babysitting his two daughters. They grew up to be sci-fi fans themselves, not to mention two lovely young women (gods, I feel old...). He'd moved away a few years ago and we had lost touch, but I was always guaranteed at seeing him at the local sci-fi conventions and when he'd come back into town from time to time.

Tonight I will drink to Al's memory. My brother and I will probably exchange reminiscences about him. And I will mourn losing him. I suspect a lot of people will. In fact, I imagine at a lot of the local sci-fi conventions they will be holding a moment of silence in his honour. Al was one of the best people anyone could know.

Monday, May 2, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Before there was Red Dwarf, a radio show called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy combined comedy and science fiction. The radio show was followed by five books, a television series, and a computer game. Now The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become a major motion picture.

Faithful fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will be glad to know that the movie is fairly faithful to both the radio show and the first book. In fact, this does have its downside. If one is familiar with either the radio show or the book, then there will be very few surprises in the movie for him and her. The movie does depart from the radio show, the books, and the TV show in adding a romance to the mix of aliens, the Ultimate Question, and everything. For me, at least, this adds to the story rather than detracts from it, making Everyman Arthur Dent even more human.

The movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does take a while to get started. This is largely a flaw shared by the first book as well. Once the movie does get started, however, the laughs are non-stop. This is one of the funniest movies I've seen in theatres in literally years.

The comedy is aided by nearly perfect casting. Martin Freeman is exactly as I pictured Arthur Dent, the hapless Englishman launched into interstellar adventure. Mos Def proves that hip hop stars can act, capturing the personality of Arthur's alien pal Ford Prefect very well (and, yes, he is named for the car). Best of all are Sam Rockwell as galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox and Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Rockwell looks and behaves exactly as I always pictured Zaphod. It is as if Rockwell was conjured directly from the mind of the late Douglas Adams. As to Alan Rickman's vocal performance as Marvin, I never realised how depressing his voice can be until now! The film is greatly enhanced by the narration of Stephen Fry, whose voice makes an already very English movie even more so.

I have to add that the look of the film captures the spirit of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy perfectly. This movie has some very good set design. The spaceships and architechture are suitably sci-fi kitsch. And the Vogons look almost exactly as I had always pictured them.

Fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (myself being one) will be relieved to find that the movie does not make a mockery of Douglas Adams' multimedia creation. In fact, they will probably find themselves enjoying what is a fairly loyal adaptation of the radio show and the first book. As of everyone else, if they appreciate great comedy (particularly that with a very British bent), then they will love Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is one of the most delightful comedies to come out in years.