Monday, July 23, 2007

The Real Folk Blues

Well! This epic marathon went relatively smoothly, I think. Probably because I had some good momentum coming in. I've watched a good chunk of Cowboy Bebop before, largely out of order, enough to realize how good it is and to recognize its spiritual ties with Firefly, but not enough to really get a feel for the whole arc.

Short summary: it's really good. I'm a bit of a cheat when it comes to anime: with a few exceptions, I don't go out by myself and hunt around for something new; instead, I rely on a few friends who are much more strongly connected with the scene, and so I just get recommendations for the really good stuff. This means that I have an inflated idea of the overall quality of anime, much like we Americans have an inflated idea of how great British comedy is. Did you know that a lot of Britons think that America makes better comedies than they do? That's not because out nations' tastes are backwards; it's because only the best shows of each country get exported. So when we think of British comedy, we think of Fawlty Towers and The Office and Are You Being Served, and not of the dozens of rotten series. Likewise, the British get to see Seinfeld and The Simpsons, but not According to Jim or That 80's Show.

All that to say, when I say that Cowboy Bebop is an excellent anime, it's a much stronger statement than saying it's an excellent show. Even compared with the high quality of most anime I watch, this one stands out.

The first thing that jumped out at me is the music. Most anime shows will have a really good theme, a J-Rock song that plays over the closing credits, and some forgettable genre-specific tunes in the middle. Bebop was incredibly creative and varied. The cornerstone of the show is jazz, and they have great jazzy pieces that both help the story and also stand well on their own. In keeping with the hybrid feel of the overall show, though, the music isn't limited to just jazz... you get some strong choral pieces, folk tunes, heavy metal, and some really excellent rock pieces towards the end. While there isn't much electronic music in there, the one episode that includes a lot of electronica has some of the best music I've ever heard in the genre.

The setting of the show is another strong point. When watching this, I had to remind myself that it was made back in 1998, long before Firefly had brought the term "space western" into widespread use. (Well, "Widespread" among a small group of nerds, at least.) It's even broader than that, though. Besides the western and futuristic elements, there's also a strong hint of 1920's-era speakeasies. The locations and dress of the characters seem to be hailing from the Prohibition era, while they listen to 1950's jazz and pursue an 1850's profession in 2070's world. It's all sort of a mishmash, but for some reason it actually works. After you're a few episodes in, it becomes natural to accept this universe's particular logic, at which point all the different sources just provide more opportunities for great devices and delightful elements.

One particular thing to call out: unlike every other anime I've watched, the English dub rocks. I was a bit skeptical when others insisted I should forego my normal subtitling habits, but they're absolutely right... the voices are right for the characters, and actually done well. For that reason alone, I think I'm more likely to recommend this series to anime neophytes. (I'm also a little curious why there have been so many more mediocre dubs since this came out - one would hope that having one example of an excellent dub would encourage distributors to make appropriate efforts to round up appropriate talent.)

The characters stand out as well. I've always assumed that Spike was the hero, and I guess technically he is, but towards the end of the series I almost felt as though Jet was the real center of the show. Each of the characters is very unique without being too stereotypical. For some reason, Edward irritated me far less on this viewing than when I've watched individual episodes before.

The overall pacing of the story was really good as well. The show sits comfortably between being purely episodic and being a serial: there is an ongoing plot that is carried out through the 26 episodes, but at the same time most of the shows stand well on their own. If I were showing this to someone else, I wouldn't necessarily start with the first episode; I don't think it really gets cranking until the 5th or so. Anyways, that sort of balance was nice. While the characters had strong desires, they also just had to live their lives, and the viewer can get a much better feeling for what the universe feels like via these looks at the bounty and their homes.

In an odd sort of way, the pacing reminds me of Lord of the Rings, or maybe The Hobbit. There's a definite story to tell, but not every minute of the show is slavishly devoted to reaching the incredible climax. By indulging in detours and side jobs, they make the universe richer and more real, thereby giving even more meaning and weight to everything that takes place. It also creates fresh territory for fans to explore and fantasize about.

Wow... I think I'm actually going to finish this review without giving any spoilers. Cool. Bebop was a great side trip of my own, and I'm glad I took the time to see it as a whole. Next stop, Firefly Redux!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Newsroom Cutbacks Mean Worse News

My local paper here is the San Jose Mercury News. It's actually been a fine newspaper in the past, perhaps running a bit behind the San Francisco Chronicle, but with a solid national bureau and dependable local coverage that focuses on the South Bay area.

Or at least it was. The Mercury News was the flagship paper for the Knight-Ridder chain, which was sold off and cut up recently, its remains divided between McClatchy and MediaNews. Anyone could have seen what would come next: relentless cost-cutting at the papers, as local newsrooms are cut to the bone and the content is filled with wire stories or reports from other cities.

That's been disappointing for me. As a relatively recent transplant to Silicon Valley, I've come to rely on the Merc to catch me up to speed on the area's local politics, culture, and history. Frankly, if I want to read national news, I'll be getting it from the New York Times or off the Google News wire; the only reason why I turn to the Merc is to get the stories that I can't read anywhere else, the stories about what's happening in my back yard.

In the last few weeks they've been going through some of their toughest newsroom cuts yet; they recently finished the third round of cuts, this time eliminating about 20% of the remaining newsroom staff. It would be bad enough if that meant less local coverage. No, what this means instead is AWFUL local coverage.

You may not be able to view the story without registration, but check out this article on presidential candidates' fundraising in Silicon Valley. Now, this is just the sort of thing I want to be reading: it contains good information on the importance of the region to national politics, the ongoing trends in political affiliation here, names of some major local players, and so on. Then I get to this bombshell: "Even Edwards, Al Gore's vice-presidential pick in 2000..."

That's it, man. Game over.

At that point, I stopped reading the article. I stopped reading the paper. Because, frankly, if they can't get something simple like that correct - something that most high school seniors probably know - then how can I trust them to get anything else right?

In order for this to have gone into print, two things must have both gone wrong. First, I hate to sound mean, but the author has to be an idiot. Secondly, the editor must not know anything - or else they've eliminated the editors from the newsroom entirely. This is the sort of error that SCREAMS off the page. If a single person with a brain (who hasn't been living in a cave for the past eight years) had read this before it went to press, it simply would have been caught.

So that's a major bummer. I periodically have these crises of faith in the mainstream media. As most everyone has noticed, whenever you read a story about a topic with which you're well acquainted, it's startling how often you'll find information which is misleading or outright incorrect. This prompts you to question how much faith to put in the stories about topics you don't know much about - which, after all, are presumably the reason you're consuming the news in the first place.

But this seems even worse than usual. This is a canary dying in the coal mine sort of moment. I'm a little hesitant to condemn an entire paper based on a single error, but given the error's appearance in the midst of the cutbacks, it's impossible to resist drawing the conclusion that the Mercury News has turned a corner and will descend into the depths of mediocrity. I don't expect it to return.

It's a shame, and honestly, I probably bear at least part of the blame. For the first year I was here I would buy a Sunday copy of the Merc almost every weekend, but ever since the Albertson's closed I've stopped even doing that. I visit their web site regularly - flipping through the local stories is part of my morning routine - but I don't think I've ever clicked on an advertisement in there. I consume their news without providing any money for them, so it doesn't seem fair for me to complain that they're sinking.

It's a sad situation, but one that we'll get through. In the short term I'll probably start hitting the Chronicle much more often and phase out the Merc. The Chronicle has its own problems, though. The future of local journalism probably lies in blogging - they don't make the same claims of objectivity that traditional media does, but at least they wear their affiliations and limitations on their sleeves. It will take a bit more work, but I can see myself getting as good or better news from a well-selected group of active local bloggers as I can from a major daily.

We'll see how it goes.

You know what's especially grating? At the time I'm writing this, about two days after the article was first posted, there still hasn't been any correction. I'm convinced that there's nobody left in the Mercury News newsroom, just a bunch of sad monkeys sitting in front of their typewriters.

In other news: we're pathetic. I used to make fun of Texas for shutting down when they get an inch of snow, but this is way worse. What's really embarrassing is that I'm totally turning into a... Bay Arean? What's the word for that? Anyways, I'm feeling the same shock - shock! - that others are that we (gasp) actually got one percent of one inch of rain in JULY. Amazing!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Personally? I kind of want to slay the dragon.

Phew! Last night I watched "Not Fade Away", the final episode of Angel. This completes my tear through the Buffyverse. It's been a fun trip.

I liked Angel a lot. It established its own identity early on, and was relentless in reinventing itself. I can't think of any other show that's been as fearless in killing off or damaging major characters. The overall plot arc felt very consistent, but that arc took the viewers through some wild territory.

I was struck from the first episodes how Angel would be different from Buffy. Even the editing of the shows is unique, with Angel's rapid, jarring flashback scene transitions. More than that, the overall look of Angel is much darker than that of Buffy - only to be expected when the main character can't come into contact with sunlight, of course. Overall, the series also felt emotionally darker... Buffy wasn't exactly a relentlessly upbeat show, but it seemed to have a greater share of comic characters and situations, while Angel had just enough relief to keep viewers from getting too depressed.

The structure of the story arcs also felt different. Buffy was fundamentally formulaic, although it had a lot of flexibility within that formula: every season had a Big Bad who had to be confronted and stopped. It didn't seem like the first season of Angel even had a Big Bad; each episode was more "monster of the week." Later on, when it got serial, it got VERY serial. Even the most plot-heavy Buffy arcs still felt essentially episodic: you could have missed an episode or two and still been able to follow what was happening. With Angel, though, most episodes contained crucial developments, and you'd quickly be lost if you missed a couple.

  • Favorite character: would you believe Wesley? When he first appeared midway through the first season I never would have thought he'd even be on the short list. That character went through amazing evolutions on the show, becoming almost unrecognizable by the end.
  • Favorite dialog: "What happened to you, man?" "I had my throat cut and all my friends abandoned me."
  • Favorite headquarters: While I have greatest overall appreciation for Wolfram & Hart's building, the coolest design was Angel's original apartment.
  • Favorite big bad: Has to be Drusilla and Darla. The "big bad" thing isn't quite as direct in Angel as it was in Buffy, though.
  • Favorite villain: Skip is awesome.
  • Favorite one-shot villain: I'm going with the evil puppets.
  • Favorite weapon: Wesley's John Woo-style silver-bullet pistols.
  • Favorite crossover moment: Actually, I really like Andrew's appearances in Season Five. Coolest overall would be Faith's return to help battle Angelus.
  • Favorite finale: They were all pretty good. Finale for the third season (Cordelia ascends while Angel sinks) was particularly powerful.
  • Favorite flashback: It's about five seconds long, but I like the one with Spike in Italy during the 1950's.
  • Favorite Ally: The police woman from the first few seasons. I was bummed that she disappeared.
  • Favorite nickname for Angel: "Mr. Bumpy-face."
My thoughts on the final battle: Illyria self-destructs and takes out a huge chunk of the enemies; the rest of the heroes fight valiantly and are about to die when Willow shows up and kicks the crud out of all the monsters. A small Slayer army does cleanup, making the streets of L.A. safe for the first time since Jasmine's reign. With the Senior Partners temporarily disoriented, Angel decides his attentions are best directed elsewhere, and relocates with Gunn to Dublin to open a new front. Spike decides to pursue the Shanshu prophecy and spends the next several years wandering the Earth in hopes of finding the next apocalypse.


Bottom line: I think I might enjoy Buffy just a tiny bit more than Angel, mainly due to its good humor. I think it's interesting that, in both cases, the main title character is one of the least interesting characters: they seem to exist mainly to draw together an intriguing team and to push the action forward.

So where do I do from here? In the immediate future, after I finish with Cowboy Bebop I'm planning on completing my trip through Whedon's oeuvre with another pass through Firefly and Serenity. Long-term, I'm intrigued by the Buffy Season Eight comics, though I'll probably wait for them to be collected before picking them up.

Has all the time spent watching these two series been worthwhile? I'd argue yes. They've been great entertainment, epics unlike anything else I've seen on television. I enjoy the whole mythology they've given me... there's something I find inherently exciting about a wholly-realized alternate world, and Whedon did a great job of pulling it off and making it coherent. Plus, to be honest, the show holds a lot of currency in the nerdy circles I travel in, and it's always gratifying to understand the inevitable references that pop into conversation.

We've finished with the underworld. The next stop is the stars...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Let's do a montage!

One-paragraph book reviews:
  • Just finished Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. It's the first hard science fiction book I've read in almost a decade, and now I want to go read everything else he's written. The person who lent it to me used the word "prescient" to describe it, and I think that's an excellent word. He has some really believable ideas about the growing convergence between the virtual worlds we create and the physical world we inhabit. It's filled with all the sorts of things you'd want to read in a sci-fi book set on Earth: artificial intelligence, fantastic advances in medical technology, an increasingly powerful state that's offset by increasingly powerful terrorists, mind programming, and so much more. Also, he's one of those sci-fi authors who actually knows what he's writing about; I couldn't help chuckling when one character pulls out a computer running an illegal copy of Hurd OS.
  • Before that was Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. This is only the third Gibson novel that I've read, and it's radically different from his cyberpunk books. It's set more or less in the present time, perhaps a few years in the future of its publish date, and is yet another spookily perceptive book. Written in 2002, it correctly anticipated the explosive growth in viral marketing and guerilla online campaigning. The plot of the book is concerned with trademarks and ideas, how movements get started and what sustains them. When I was describing it to a friend they quickly made the connection with The Tipping Point, which I hadn't considered but which is an apt comparison to make. It reads like a mystery, though, with one remarkable woman engaged in a personal and professional quest for the truth.
  • And just for fun, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders. This is the sort of children's book I'd want my kids to read. The drawings are amazing - they're done by the same person who did James and the Giant Peach and The Stinky Cheese Man. The story feels like pure Saunders, without the violence but with the same sense of humor and ear for the absurd ways people relate to one another. It also features what may be the best ending sentence of any English language book out there.
And that's about it, other than way too many great New Yorker articles and thought-provoking New York Review of Books pieces. George Saunders had a new piece a month or so ago in the New Yorker which was brilliant and heartbreaking.

There's no television, obviously, and I'm coping by wrapping up the final season of Angel and - finally! - going through all of Cowboy Bebop in order. I'm hoping to synchronize the two of these so I can transition directly into Firefly, upon which point the two series shall fuse into one and my head will explode.

I saw Ratatoille - I think it's the first movie I've seen in the theater since, oh, maybe X-Men 3. Anyways, it's excellent. I enjoy all of Pixar's movies that I've seen (still haven't watched A Bug's Life or Cars yet), but even by their high standards this one was great. I'm a little curious if I would have enjoyed it as much a few years ago; I'm far from a gourmet, but the idea of devoting one's passion to making great food is no longer as absurd to me. Besides that, though, Pixar scores on all points: great story, gorgeous animation, and a brilliant sense of pacing.

Sorry for taking so long between posts. Work's been super-busy, but we passed a major milestone yesterday and with luck I'll be breathing a little more freely. When I haven't been at work, my time's been more structured than usual. I'm trying to at least post pictures for things that I would otherwise write up, so if you want the scoop you can head over to Timmy's House of Incandescent Sprinkles. There's been a lot going on (well, compared to my usually serene social calendar): a conference in San Diego, a company trip to Santa Cruz, a weekend with my folks driving down the California coast to visit San Simeon, the Fourth of July in San Francisco, a pilgrimate to the Kwik-e-Mart... hey, I may be a hopeless nerd, but at least I keep occupied!

Oh, and this month I crossed over 500 miles on my bicycle this year. Huzzah! That's still far below my father, but not bad for someone just commuting to work. It continues to be a fun and invigorating part of my lifestyle.

That's it for now. Hope everyone's doing well, and let me know when you pick up Civ IV: Beyond the Sword!