Friday, November 30, 2007

Numb3rs & Comics

This entry is a week late but the 11/23 episode of the CBS show Numb3rs revolved around comic books and a convention. The writers knew their material.

For those who never saw it (this was my first time), the show is about a pair of brothers. One is a typical FBI agent. The other one is a math genius who uses game theory, auction theory, etc. to help solve the crime.

In this case, a comic book investor announced that he had discovered the rarest of comic books - an ashcan edition of a 30+ year old favorite. Ashcan editions are cheap, black and white copies often printed on smaller than usual paper. They are only produced for copyright purposes and often the entire print run is thrown away (hence the name).

No sooner was the comic unveiled then a masked gunman appeared, shot a guard, and stole the comic. Later, dozens of fake copies of the comic appeared.

The show touched on several issues dear to the comic collector's heart. One was benefits for the creators. In this case, there was a possibility that the rare comic had been stolen from the creator's personal collection. He wanted to leave it to his wife to provide for her retirement after he died. This echoes a campaign in the 1970s and early 1980s for DC to provide benefits to Superman's creators.

The person who unveiled the comic was a collector, not a fan. All he cared about was the value of his collection. Fans hate this sort because they run up the price of back issues, keeping them out of the hands of people who want to read them.

The math angles included looking at how much ink seeped into the paper on the theory that forgers write slower, allowing more time for the ink to sink in, and an analysis of the forgeries which turned out to have a mathematical code buried in them.

The comic creator was played by Christopher Lloyd who has played an animated character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The guy who played "Henry" in Eureka was also in it but I forget his name.

I preferred the comic convention episode of Psych (which I never blogged about) but this one was good for network TV. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to get your on-line fix

I got a comment asking for the best way to get comics on-line. Good question. I don't have a definite answer, just alternatives.

First, the Kindle doesn't do comic books. It is text-only. The same is true for Sony's reader.

The iPhone has wireless connectivity but it is slow and the display is pretty small. Also, you are still very limited on what you can store internally.

There are some PDAs running a version of Windows. Many of these support WiFi and some support wireless. They still have tiny screens.

If you search around you can get a laptop for the same price as the Kindle and it will have a color display. Most laptops sold now have WiFi.  This also gives you the option of downloading comics from the web for later reading or getting one of the CD-ROM collections. I have the X-Men CDROM. It has each issue in a separate Adobe file, complete with ads and the letters page (old Marvel letters pages were great). This is not the friendliest format but it would take days to read everything. Of course, current comics are not included and only a few titles have been released this way.

If money is no object then get a tablet PC and a wireless card. I have a wireless card for my work PC and response is pretty good.

On the low-end, new PCs are coming out to compete with the One Laptop Per Child. These have a small display but are cheap and durable and come with built-in WiFi.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon's Kindle

Amazon announced a new e-book called the Kindle. E-book readers are nothing new. The idea is simple enough - build a small, light device that can display text and use it to store and read books. Science Fiction author Ben Bova wrote a humorous novel called "cyberbooks" around the idea in 1989.

So far the concept has fallen flat for a few reasons.

1) The reader is not good enough.
2) The e-books have DRM tying them to the reader.
3) Cost.

The technology on the readers has advanced. The current ones including Kindle are supposed to be very readable in good light, even sunlight. They are not backlit, though, so they cannot be read in poor lighting conditions.

The DRM continues to be an issue. Kindle promises that you will always be able to retrieve your book from them. Don't count on it. A couple of video download sites reneged or had technical problems on files that were only a year or two old. Further, they might well change the format forcing you to upgrade your reader. Microsoft does that every time they release a new version of Office.

But the real issue is cost. These things are expensive. The Kindle is $400. For that you get the ability to buy books, newspapers, and blogs over wireless (not Wi-Fi). The nearest competitor requires that you sync with a PC but still costs around $300.Keep in mind that you can buy a usable laptop PC for $400. For that much money you can buy a One Laptop Per Child PC for yourself and donate one to a 3rd world child. And you get a color display. Or you could buy an iPod Touch with money left over.

Then there is the cost of the book itself. The paperback I'm currently reading cost $7. If I bought it through Amazon for the Kindle it would cost $10. Presumably I'm supposed to compare the price to a hardback which would cost more. On the other hand, with a hardback I have a real, solid book. I can read it again or lend it to someone else. I'll bet that you can't lend an e-book.

The paperback is a better comparison, anyway. Most novels sold are paperbacks. They are cheaper to produce, ship, and store. They can be carried with you and they don't cost so much that you mind giving getting rid of them when you finish reading them.

E-books are even cheaper and easier to produce and ship. There are no overruns and no reason to do second printings. The publisher produces as many as there is demand.

So why don't they cost less?

The short answer is greed. The long answer is that publishers don't want to come up with a new business model. They prefer running the one they have now into the ground.

The music industry is being forced to change its business model because it is so easy to rip a CD into an MP3 file. If books could be scanned as easily we would already be seeing real choices.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ira Levin

The writer Ira Levin just died. While not a prolific writer, he was influential. His novel Rosemary's Baby started a national fascination with the occult that lasted more than a decade. The Stepford Wives triggered protests by feminists that anyone would suggest that some men might be dissatisfied with Woman's Lib. The Boys From Brazil was the first that many people heard about cloning.

All of these were fairly light novels - quick reads. They almost read like movie adaptations.

In my opinion, his best novel was one of his more obscure ones - This Perfect Day.

This is a dysfunctional Utopian novel, something like Brave New World but with a background closer to 1984. It features a world from the John Lenin song Imagine. There is only one country and it is run by dispassionate computers. The population has been cross-bred until there is a single race of people with brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes. Everyone dresses alike, eats the same thing, and even has a similar life expectancy. Religion has been condensed into a single belief with four prophets. The title comes from the chant, "Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei led us to this perfect day."

Like Brave New World, this world is not kind to outsiders. In this case, it is the few people with recessive genes. Having green eyes or pale hair or large breasts makes you an outcast.

It is a cautionary take on what the world would be like if political correctness took over completely.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

War Movies

There has been a spate of recent war movies and they have all tanked at the box office. The most recent one, Lions for Lambs, opened at number 4 with around $6.7 million despite big names like Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford who also directed.

There has been a lot of speculation about this. Is it because Iraq (and Afghanistan) are too fresh? Is it because these are really political movies about the war? Is it because these movies amount to anti-American rants from spoiled Hollywood celebrities?

All of these are undoubtedly factors but they overlook the performance of war movies in general over the last few years. Last night I watched Valiant, a British CGI movie about carrier pigeons during WWII. It was not a great movie but it was entertaining and child-friendly. It did very poor business in the US. A bit over a year ago Fly Boys was released. This was a traditional war movie about WWI fliers. It was really good but it spun out at the box office.

In he Summer of 2005 The Great Raid was released. It was a movie about the rescue of POWs during WWII. This didn't make any money, either. (Side note - the last surviving combat veteran from WWII was one of those rescued in the real-life event.)

My conclusion is that war movies just aren't very popular right now.

There are different types of war movies. The original ones were retelling battles from WWII. During WWII they were meant to inspire the audience to help with the war effort and to make them feel more in touch with
the war itself. After WWII ended there was a big market for any movie with a war tie-in. After all, a huge portion of the population had served in the war. Those who were not veterans were likely related to a vet. It was the shared experience of a generation.

A much smaller portion of the population went to Viet Nam. Between that and the war's unpopularity there were few war movies about Viet Nam until the war was over. These were mainly anti-war movies.

The conflicts in-between have been too short and too limited to count as a generational defining point. I doubt that most people even remember the invasion of Grenada. The same is true for the first Gulf War - it happened fast with little American sacrifice.

Today it is impossible to imagine a pro-Iraq war being made. Hollywood hates the war and the president so all that comes out is anti-war. Even that doesn't seem to be any good so there is nothing to attract audiences. At the same time, most people are against the war according to polls but they don't feel strongly enough to take to the streets. Recent protests keep getting smaller and smaller. That doesn't leave much of an audience for bad anti-war movies.

Happy Veterans' Day.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The TV Season so far

Sweeps month has started. How is the TV season holding up?

Heroes is doing ok. It got off to a better start than in the first season. Still, it is lacking direction. Last year the characters seemed to cross paths more. Also, we knew that the big goal was to stop New York from blowing up. From the last few minutes of the most recent episode we might have the same sort of plot arc developing except with a plague. If so, it took long enough to tell us. Also, the mechanism - a character teleporting into the future and finding a devastated New York - seems a bit familiar.

On either end of Heroes we have Chuck and Journeyman. Chuck is ok although it seems like it could be better. By next season they will need to come up with a new premise. The current one - a nerd has a lot of secret files in his head and two rival spies are undercover with him at a Best Buy-type store - will only work for so long. Following Heroes we have Journeyman. I watched a couple of episodes but they left me cold. They seem to be taking their time explaining the premise but neither the plots nor the characters are engaging enough to make me keep watching long enough to find out what's going on.

I can say the same thing for the Bionic Woman. The show is going in two different directions at once. On the one hand they are trying for gritty realism with a woman who suddenly gains super powers and the limits that they have. On the other hand, the powers themselves are way into science fiction. They would have been better served by keeping to the original show's bionics rather than using nanites. The treatment doesn't interest me much.

I've only seen one episode of Reaper. It seems like a cross between Chuck and Pushing Daisies and would seem a lot fresher if neither of the others was on. It has its moments.

I've only seen a couple of episodes of the vampire detective show Moonlight. The premise has been done before and the writing is really bad. In the pilot I knew who the killer was within a minute of when they introduced him - not because of any clues, he was the obvious suspect's assistant and the hack writers wanted a twist.

There aren't many "regular" shows I watch. Boston Legal is one of the few. It seems a bit off. Shatner's character was always the highlight of the show but they toned him down this season. He is still over-the-top but not by much. The same thing happened to the rest of the characters. They've all been toned down.

Pushing Daisies continues to be the best show on. After five episodes they moved beyond the initial premise into weird crimes. With strong but subtle continuity and a narrator tying everything together, the best description would be Tim Burton meets Arrested Development.