Tue, 06 Nov 2012
Cast Thine Ballot Upon the Waters
I voted today. Yeah yeah, yay me and all that, but it was a miserable affair all told. When I voted in 2008 it was quick, easy, zip zip, in and out, done. And in 2010 I availed myself of Arizona's early voting, and it was also painless.
This time made up for both of those. First, my polling place was in an apartment complex, their central staffroom or some such. Not the same place as I voted in 2008, or 04 or 2000 or any time before that. I have no idea how they select polling sites; maybe it's a competition like hosting the Olympics, presumably with the corresponding graft and corruption. Maybe it's state law that they can't have repeats. I have no idea. All I know is, I've never been to the same place twice.
Anyway, myself and a crowd of mostly friendly folks stood outside chatting for about a half hour. Then we stood inside for another thirty minutes or so, until I was able to worm my way up to the proper desk. The place was packed cheek by jowl, and movement was further impeded by spectacularly stupid path layout, which seems to have been intentionally designed to be as slow and uncomfortable as possible. Stupidity like that doesn't happen by accident.
When I finally arrived at the proper desk, the very nice ladies there looked me up in the voter-rolls book and found me straightaway, but ... oops, I couldn't produce anything with my physical street address printed on it. That's because I never use it: all my post comes to a PO box, which is on my driver's license and every other piece of documentation I carry. Since I've been paying my bills online, I don't think I even have anything with my street address on it.
Unwilling to deny me my right to vote, they sent me to the provisional-ballot line, where I stood for another half hour or so. When I got to the front of it, thank the gods of democracy, there was a poll worker there who, bless her heart, knew that the ladies at the desk were idiots and big ol' meanies, and since they did have my PO box recorded on the rolls, and since it was clearly printed on my picture ID, I was all set and should be able to vote like a normal citizen. So she took me by the arm and we bulled our way to the front of the line at the original desk, smartly clouting those folks who'd stood in it for their own hour and felt they had the right to be next, and explained to the poor underinformed senior citizen running the desk that yes, I could indeed vote.
That cleared up, I was given a purple ballot (apparently indicating which precinct I lived in, not like those nasty subhuman green-ballot people) and sent to a "booth", euphemism for a cardboard folder about a foot high that ensured my ballot markings would be hidden from the fevered gaze of my neighbors. Since I'd been standing in that roasting-hot jam-packed room for at least an hour and a half, I was sweating profusely. So of course I dripped a drop of sweat onto my ballot, which smeared the felt-tip marking I'd made indicating my displeasure at some judge whose name I'd never heard before. (My policy on judge retention is, unless I know their name, throw the bastards out.)
That then led the electronic reader machine stationed at the exit to reject my ballot. At least that's the conclusion reached by the lady who was staffing that location, after she reviewed each and every selection I'd made. Thank goodness we have a secret ballot! She asked if I wanted to fill out a new ballot, or if I was willing to just go with skipping the vote on that person. I told her I'd rather have my eyes gouged out with a felt-tipped pen than fill out another ballot, and yes, she could go ahead and reject my marking for that hapless judge. Not very civic-minded of me, I admit, but by that point I just wanted to flee.
So she fingered some mysterious control at the lower rear of the reader machine, which seemed vaguely kinky and erotic, and which caused it to accept my otherwise-faulty ballot and allowed me to get my "I voted today" sticker and get the hell outta dodge. So yes, I voted, and I'll do it again, probably in two years, but I wasn't a happy camper by the time it was over. Pity me!
Next time I'm voting by mail! Or whatever futuristic method they will have developed by 2014. Ion plasma smoke signals, hell I dunno.
Tue, 23 Oct 2012
A few people have been scandalized by my little caracal logo up there at the top of the page ... this thing:
They assert that it looks like a, um, penis. Now, this being the Internet, I'm not going to suggest that such folks have their mind in the gutter. Here on the net, home to the goatse guy and two girls, one lemon party, you sorta expect that just about everything is sexual, filthy, offensive, or in some way trying to sell you something. Often all those things at once. And I can see what they're talking about, I guess, though when I first drew it, nothing of the sort ever entered my mind.
No, what it is intended to be is a stylized caracal's face. Supposed to suggest this guy, more or less:
So I apologize to anyone who was offended, or thought I was trying to portray anything sexual at all. I'd like to think that if and when I set about drawing dongs on my blog, there will be no question about what you're seeing.
Also, as an aside, I recently noticed that comments were disabled on this new machine, turns out through my own stupidity. I believe they're enabled now, so comment away! Not that I expect many: I went through the couple hundred I've gotten so far, before they got broken, and out of those, exactly one looked like a legitimate comment and only that one was approved. If you've tried to post a comment and haven't seen it show up, I apologize both for having them disabled and for PyBlosxom's brain-dead behavior of silently dumping them into the crapper with nary a peep. When I write my own blog software you can rest assured it certainly will not do that!
If you posted something offensive (to me), or an advertisement of some sort, or a picture of a dong, don't hold your breath.
Mon, 22 Oct 2012
RSS changed my life. Okay, not in an epiphany voice-of-God twelve-step way, but it did streamline my morning routine. My web browser's old start page was a big matrix of icons, laid out mostly in the order I usually viewed them. In the morning I'd brew up a pot of coffee or tea, open my browser, and start reading what was up in the world. News, the latest political scat, humor, comics, whatever I deemed worth reading of a day.
Now, I bring up my RSS reader instead, and just scroll through the list, checking headlines and discarding most of them, opening a browser for the ones that catch my eye. The reader I use, in case anyone cares, is liferea, an excellent and maddening program. Excellent, because it does almost everything I want in the way I want it done, maddening because it does almost everything, but not quite.
So a couple days ago I'm zipping through my feeds and there, in the middle of a cooking blog I like, is a bunch of vacation snapshots. Now, if it were a "general" blog, some sort of accounting of some person's life, I could understand. But day after day, post after post, it's just recipes. Until now. A few items later, and here are a bunch of vaycay snaps in the middle of a comic blog I read. Day after day, comics ... today, snapshots of what the author did over her summer.
Not that there's anything wrong with that—if you have a blog, it's yours to use as you wish. But it seems to me that, as cheap and easy as it is to start a blog, those with themed blogs might consider starting a personal blog to handle such life overspill. If I should start a themed blog, I hereby invite anyone reading it who comes across a batch of off-topic garbage to come here and shoot me straight in the head. Aim true, please: I don't want to spend the rest of my life with half a jaw, drooling into my oatmeal.
Wed, 17 Oct 2012
Late at night last Saturday, the 13th of October, or possible early in the morning of Sunday the 14th, hard to tell, a friend of mine posted a link to one of my blog entries on Reddit. His intent was to generate more stories about how people came to use the Ada programming language.
Within about an hour, my website went offline.
But it had nothing to do with his Reddit post. My outage was directly related to an ancient Western Digital Caviar hard drive deciding its life was over and that it was time to move to the great disk graveyard in the sky, or in my back room, whatever. This is not to disparage the Caviar, which was a fine drive and which lasted ten years or more before the first hint of trouble. After a bit of scuffling and screw-twisting, I managed to revive my website, though on another machine entirely. And it will get another revamp shortly, so don't get used to it.
But it has come to my attention that now people I don't even know are reading my half-assed blog, so as my friend noted, I maybe ought to write something new. It has also come to my attention that Pyblosxom, the blog software I'm currently using, supports RSS without any additional setup. So now I have people subscribing to my blog, the poor devils. I never even looked at those sections of the docs, so I have some fiddling to do over the next few days to try to make it not suck; please bear with me. And I will try to ramp up my output, unless and until there is public outcry to the contrary. I should clarify: I'm going to try to improve the formatting and delivery; the content will remain at the same level of quality.
Incidentally, the sudden and coincidentally-timed disappearance of my web presence freaked my friend out quite a bit, leading him to think he had invited folks to slashdot my site into oblivion. Bless him, his intentions were pure and no harm came from his actions. He may have overestimated the level of interest the general public has in Ada, I dunno. Maybe the few hours of distress he felt before I got back online will teach him to warn people before posting links to their sites on places like Reddit! Nah, probably not.
Wed, 18 May 2011
Shall We Play A Game?
Just watched the clip on YouTube, and while the famous line from the 1983 movie Wargames is usually quoted as "Would you like to play a game?", what the computer actually asks is "Shall we play a game?"
And yes, like David, the young protagonist of that movie, I'd love to. Specifically a computer game, since that's all the rage nowadays, and I've loved them ever since I saw my first one, probably "Pong" back in the 1970s. I've played endless games on computers of various kinds, written extensions for existing games, written entirely new games, and just about everything along the spectrum.
I'm in kind of a slump right now, with no game I have available really sparking my interest. And I began to analyze that state of affairs, and ask myself, what is it I really want in a computer game? To answer that, I had to cast my mind back over the years, and over my current roster of games, to get an idea which ones I liked and why. Here are my random thoughts and observations. Note that my gaming these days is entirely done on Linux, so any crossover to MS-Windows or Mac or DOS or mobile game apps will be purely by accident or for historical reference. I'm also not a player of online games or MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or EVE; just never got into any of those. I realize this puts me in a clear minority.
First off, while I enjoyed Pong in its day, and after playing enough of it became quite good at it, these days I tend to shy away from such games. Call them realtime, action, "twitch", or whatever you'd like, I cannot any longer enjoy a game that depends entirely on my reaction time. One genre I enjoyed a lot and still do is flight simulators, which definitely are realtime and depend on swift and accurate reactions, but they also have intervals where you have to think, not just act, and that's what I prefer.
One game I talked about online a few days ago was AV-8B Harrier Assault, a lovely game published in the early 1990s by a company called Domark. I played it for hours, and never got tired of it, and one of the reasons was that it was part strategy game and part flight simulator: You planned your assault, set your missions, allocated your resources, then went and flew the missions, and the outcome of your flight factored back into the strategy portion. For me, that's just about perfect, and any game I play, or design, will, I hope, have the same mix of thought and action.
I like a few simple games, like xmahjongg (a solitaire game based on the tiles of the ancient Chinese board game) and xjig (a wonderful and very configurable jigsaw puzzle, more of a "toy" than a game I guess), but those can hold my attention only briefly. Thus, another of the criteria I have for a "good" game is a certain degree of complexity.
But it can't be too complex, or I won't enjoy beating my head against it. Ideally, a game will have an adjustable level of difficulty, although in many cases the "easy" setting is some game expert's idea of "easy", and turns out to be quite hard in itself. If I really get into a game, to the point where I actually become good at it, I'll probably want to adjust it to a more challenging setting, but when I'm starting out, I want it dead easy, with opponents falling over if I just blow on them hard. Finding the balance between "easy for beginners" and "enjoyably challenging for experts" is hard, and I've never yet found a game that gets it right; in the vast majority of cases, the "easy" setting is just too hard.
I will readily admit that I suck at most computer games, so what's "hard" for me might be boringly easy for others, maybe even most others. But hey, let's give the handicapped a break, and have an "ultra-easy" setting or something, for those of us who find "easy" a bit too challenging. Many games don't even bother, figuring you just need to jump in and figure it out, swim with the big fish as it were, and many of those games I just pass by after trying and failing at them enough times.
Another thing I like in a game is the ability to pick it up and put it down easily, play for a few minutes or a few hours depending on my situation. Let's talk cases: One game I've played a lot in the past few years is The Battle for Wesnoth, one of the best free games out there. It's a delightful swords-and-sorcery game, with orcs and elves and mages and knights and all that, intriguingly complex, gorgeous graphics, just about everything you could want in a game. But one big problem I have with it is that once I get started in a scenario, I really can't "put it down" until I play it to its conclusion. I can't fault the game itself, it's all me. Each "campaign" is broken up into several "scenarios", and mechanically the app has an excellent saving and reloading capability, so I could put it down after only a few minutes. But I lose track, forget my battle plan, so whenever I pick up Wesnoth, I normally prepare for a couple hours with it at least.
Contrast that with another game I've become addicted to in the last several months, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup Edition, which I'll abbreviate hereafter as DCSS. Even though playing a character through to a win is, for me at least, the work of days, maybe even weeks, each individual session can be as short or as long as I want. You wander around, encounter a monster or six, kill them, and boom, you move on to the next encounter. I can put it down without losing track, plus the game has reports you can request that will let you re-orient yourself to any given character even if you've put it on hold for a very long time.
A third game I've spent far too many hours playing is Oolite, a space-flight and -trade game based on an influential 1980s game called Elite, which I never played, though I did spend hours playing its sequel Frontier. It's about halfway between Wesnoth and DCSS in put-down-ability, with its action being broken up into separate jumps between stellar systems. While you can spend hours in a given system doing various stuff, mostly you just load up, make a jump, drive to the new system's space station, and dock. So your gameplay sessions are "chunked" by the jumps, but each chunk is typically fairly short, so you can make a few jumps or several, depending on the time you have available to play.
I realize that complexity and short playtime are opposing requirements, but obviously some games can do it, and I like that in a game, though the hours I've played Wesnoth show that even with its larger time requirements, I can still enjoy it. I just have to plan out my sessions more carefully, is all.
A related issue is the "overall goal" of the game. Wesnoth is the standout here: It has "campaigns" (which I'd more likely call "scenarios") which are divided up into separate "scenarios" (which I think of as "modules" or "missions" or something), each with a clear goal and victory conditions. Each campaign has an overarching storyline, and each scenario within it has one or two strictly defined victory conditions. And each scenario contributes to the next; how much money you have at the start of a scenario to buy units with depends on how much you used up in the previous scenario, plus usually how quickly you finised the previous one. Also, units that survived the previous scenario can usually be recalled for the next one. In some cases choices you make determine which scenario(s) you'll play next.
I like that structure. Contrast it to DCSS, which has a clear goal, but only one: retrieve the Orb of Zot, and don't die in the process, which is nearly impossible, at least for me. Online I see people talking about all sorts of wins, but I have yet to come close to winning even once. DCSS is one of the famous "roguelike" games, based on a 1980s text adventure game called rogue. That Wikipedia entry notes that rogue "seems to be tuned to about 1 [win] in 1000 attempts". DCSS seems to be about the same. Plus, as with all roguelikes, when your character dies, that's the end; you start over from zero. "Permadeath", it's called, and while it may be more like Real Life, it's not really something I enjoy in a computer game. So you can play for hours, days, weeks, developing and building your character into a mighty force, and then one slip and that's all lost.
Several other games I play from time to time have a similar "single goal" structure. Freeciv, a derivative of Sid Meier's extremely popular PC game Civilization, actually has two alternate goals: either destroy all the other players, or fly to Alpha Centauri. Or rather, build a spaceship capable of flying to Alpha, a huge public-works project that takes up a ton of time and resources; the actual flight is merely assumed. In Freecol, another clone of a Sid Meier game, this time Colonization, you can "win" either by eliminating all other colonial presences, or by throwing off the chains of your mother country. I don't have a serious objection to such long-term goals, but they do require a degree of dedication that I find increasingly difficult to muster. Give me shorter self-contained scenarios and I'm happier.
Some games, thankfully few, actually have no goals or scenarios other than ones you might wish to set for yourself. Some examples are Simutrans and OpenTTD, both of which are semi-clones of the 90s MicroProse game Transport Tycoon Deluxe. Now, I never played TTD itself, but did spend hours with the Linux version of one of its predecessors, Railroad Tycoon II, another Sid Meier title. (What is it with me and Meier's games?) RT2 had actual scenarios you could play, with goals and victory conditions. They were usually pretty long-term, but still, you could do them if you tried. Connect Cairo and Johannesburg by 1935, for example. Lots of railroad history, not a subject I find particularly interesting, but fun nonetheless.
You could also just play it open-ended, with no real goal except to "be good at it". Simutrans and OpenTTD have only this latter mode, from what I can tell, which is fun as far as it goes, but eventually loses its lustre. Same deal with the free clones of SimCity such as Lincity-NG and OpenCity. You could play SimCity open-ended, but it also had scenarios, like "bring 1950s Paris under control" or "save this city beset by natural disasters" or whatever. As I recall, SimCity didn't enforce victory conditions itself; you had to judge for yourself whether you'd met them. But at least it had goals.
So I guess that's another criterion: a game should have a goal, at least optionally. I can play an open-ended game, and in some cases prefer that mode, but I also like some competition against a fixed measurement.
Another positive aspect is the ability for the user community to contribute to the game itself. Oolite is probably the prime example of this: The base game is okay, but really gets old quickly unless you're a die-hard old-school Elite fan. Yes, it has a rating system (again, open-ended, though there are milestones you can achieve), and a few built-in "missions", which have clear goals and computer-enforced victory conditions, but the real shine of oolite is OXPs, oolite expansion packs. These are user-contributed add-ons that enhance the game, with new ships, new equipment for ships, new missions, new environment to fly in, just a whole host of extensions that can turn the game into a whole new experienc.
Wesnoth has user-contributed campaigns, though the ones I've tried haven't been up to the quality standards of the "mainline" campaigns. Simutrans and OpenTTD also have sites with lots of user-contributed content, all of which is nice but sorta pointless unless you're a transport buff.
The culmination of the sadness of open-ended games, I think, is the FlightGear Flight Simulator, a testimonial to how good free software can actually be if dedicated professionals love it and work on it. It has gorgeous graphics, a huge and accurate database of terrain, very realistic flight models, and tons of user-contributed aircraft. As much as I loved flight sims in the 90s, you'd think I'd be spending all my time with FGFS, and yet I don't. That's because, as gorgeous as it is visually, and as accurate as its flying and environment are, it has no point, no goal. You take off, fly around, and then land, or crash, depending on your skill. Oh yay, tie me down. I cannot say enough good things about FGFS as a software application and as a flight simulator, but that's all it is—a simulator. It's not really a game.
One topic that's very hot in games these days is online play, that is, against other humans. I have no objection to that, and it's really almost essential for any game these days, but one thing I demand in a game is the ability to play solo, either against the game's difficulty or against AI opponents. In my fantasies of game design, I envision a single interface that can be used either by AIs or by UIs, allowing you to "plug in" any number of human and computer opponents to suit your taste. Freeciv does that, so I know it's possible.
Finally, let's talk themes. Wesnoth and DCSS are firmly in the fantasy world, swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons, elves and orcs. Fine stuff for those who prefer it. Freecol and the transport clones are more in the historical genre, sometimes accurate, sometimes not so much. Freeciv is as much about technology as it is about any other aspect of civilization, starting with the bronze age and moving into futuristic things like robotic laboratories. Now me, I'm a fan of science fiction, what has more recently been called speculative fiction. I read Asimov and Heinlein and Niven and Spinrad and Anderson and Bear and Brin and that whole bunch, and keep a weather eye on TV in hopes that another Babylon 5 or Firefly will come along someday. Some SF films are semi-okay, though the pickings tend to be slim even there. What the world thinks of as "SF" is not what I think of, but eh, there are people out there who share my tastes, and some of them continue to write books and short stories, so I'm still happy enough.
Same story with computer games: SF is a huge genre, and I've owned and played a number of SF-themed titles, from Lightspeed to Wing Commander, Star Wars Rebel Assault to Frontier. And yet, most of them are more in the "popular" SF universe rather than "my" SF universe. And most surprising to me, the SF-themed titles among libre software games are appallingly few. Of the ones I mentioned above, only oolite is SF; all the others are, well, not. Where are the good SF games on Linux?!
Finally, on the "theme" topic, you may notice that most of the games I mention above involve at least some amount of combat between opposing parties. Now I'm no pacifist; I believe the best defense is a good offense, eye for an eye, tit for tat, nuke 'em from orbit and all that. Nuke 'em til they glow, then shoot 'em in the dark! That being said, I prefer games that are not just all combat all the time.
That's one reason I don't go for the hugely popular first-person shooter genre. I played Castle Wolfenstein and even a bit of Quake, but quickly grew bored with the constant unending stream of no-mind enemies I had to explode, perforate, dismember, or otherwise destroy. I played the free non-combat game Search and Rescue and found it modestly diverting, but even though it has clear missions and semi-nice graphics, it just didn't light my fire somehow. So combat will probably be part of any game I enjoy, but will not be the entire game. There has to be some planning involved too, strategy in addition to tactics.
Obviously, if I want:
- SF-themed games,
- That are not just mindless combat, and
- Complex enough to be involving, with
- Solo play as well as online mulitplayer,
- Actual scenarios,
- User-contributed (or at least contributable) content,
- Adjustable difficulty levels,
- Short as well as long play sessions, and
- A good mix of planning and doing, strategy and tactics, economics and action,
Then I'm going to have to write them myself. And when I write software of any noticeable complexity, I prefer to use Ada. So far, the GUIs available for Ada have not been up to my standards, so that's what I'm working on right now: A GUI for Ada. After that's working, then I'll start on a game or two. I'll let you know!
Thu, 17 Feb 2011
Was reminded of how I first got into Ada, and started using GNAT, the free Ada compiler, and figured I should record it before it slips my mind entirely.
Back in 1980 (I think, though it could have been late '79) I was in the US Air Force as a 51151, which was the career code for "Programming Specialist". I used to joke that I was a Tactical Assault Programmer, but in fact I was just a desk jockey, what they in the USAF called a "titless WAF". One day my boss, who was a civilian, handed out a memo to all of us in the office, which was not an unusual occurrence. It was from the Department of Defense, on official DoD letterhead, and said (I'm paraphrasing from the bureaucratese) something like this:
Deer Military Programmer,
How's yer day! Here in a little bit, we're all gonna be usin this new language we thought up called "Ada". This is for the Good of the Nation, so get used to it.
Regards, the Secy of Defense or his minion
I groaned and thought, well this is going to suck. A few days or weeks later, my boss handed me a slim paperback manual, printed in somebody's back office on letter-size paper, with a light green cover that said, "The Green Programming Language" (or maybe it was just "The Green Language", can't recall). He said, "This is Ada, or what will be Ada. Since we're all switching to it, we want to get a head start. Write a compiler for it so we can start getting used to it."
That wasn't as astounding a request as it may seem now. First, we didn't know anything about Ada, thus didn't know how ludicrous the assignment was, and second, I'd been heavily using a compiler-writing system/language called XPL, which miracle of miracles we had installed on our Univac 1108 and had the definitive Book for in our microscopic tech library. XPL was a delight, and I'd used it to create a patching macro assembler for a CPU called the TI MARC IV, a computer used in the Wild Weasel weapon system. So I said, "I'll get right on it!" and set about (ha!) writing an Ada compiler.
As I started to pore through the Green manual, I began to realize that somehow the DoD had made a good decision. This language was nice, not the colossal fuckup I had assumed it would be. It had everything in it that I could possibly want in a language, plus some things I hadn't even known I wanted, but did after I found out about them. I quickly fell in love. My "compiler" got to the point where it was properly lexing Ada source, and the parser was beginning to recognize basic structures, when my hitch was up and I got discharged in August 1980.
I retained my interest in Ada after that, but never had access to it. I came close sometime in, I think, 1982 or 83, when the company I worked for in Los Angeles, Abacus, had access to a remote timesharing system on some mainframe that had somebody's Ada compiler installed. It had a horribly baroque library system, and an even more contorted build system, so I was never able to build any meaningful Ada programs, not to mention I had other work I was supposed to be doing. But I kept a soft spot in my heart for Ada.
Years passed, and I changed jobs and wound up in Phoenix working for Honeywell. There we used Apollo workstations, and though I could not find Ada for them, I did keep an eye out, and eventually found DEC WRL's Modula-3. And I was able to get the source and actually build a compiler than ran, and produced running apps, on the Apollo! For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, Mod-3 is a lot like Ada in many ways; the differences are mostly ones of detail, not substance. I eagerly jumped on the Mod-3 bandwagon and started making plans to become a rock-ribbed Mod-3 guy.
By then I had started using Linux at home, and was determined to create a working Modula-3 build environment there too. As I was doing that, I read an announcement on a Usenet newsgroup about a new compiler called GNAT, out of NYU and supposedly compiling not just Ada, but the new version known at the time as Ada9x. I was doubtful, but hacked around long enough to find and install their Linux compiler.
And lo! It really did compile Ada, into real working apps. I was ecstatic, and dropped Mod-3 after about two weeks of trying to reconcile the two. For one thing, I could never get a working Modula-3 for Linux. Also, the Apollo version had some serious issues, which they were working furiously to address, but which gave me some notable headaches. And here was GNAT, running just fine on Linux and everything I tried with it Just Worked. For a brand-new compiler for such a complex language, it was amazingly bug-free and featureful. And the features they hadn't implemented yet were things I hadn't gotten around to using, and by the time I did, they'd been implemented. My love affair with Ada was rekindled, and hasn't died since.
I'm still using GNAT today, currently trying to write a GUI toolkit for OpenGL, and it continues to haul my freight like a trooper. Ada itself hasn't stood still: They dropped the DoD mandate in 97, a new version (Ada95) came along in the mid 90s with some nice additions, now a still-newer version (Ada05) is the standard, and they're busy with Ada12, which adds some interesting new features. And GNAT keeps plugging along, releasing new free versions every six months or so, and Ada is now an official front-end for the GNU Compiler Collection, or gcc, which is sorta the de facto standard for open-source software.
So I'm a happy camper, and I have to say, GNAT came along at just the right time in my life. No, this entry has no earth-shattering conclusions or excellent humor, it's just a record of an event in my life. A happy event, and we could all use more of those, eh?
Thu, 22 Jul 2010
Summer 2010 TV: Miscellaneous
These are shows that I either didn't catch in my previous reviews, or are summer specials, or that move around so much it's hard to pin them to a specific day. But they're ones I like, and I don't want to leave them out.
Burn Notice would easily beat Castle as my favorite show on television if it were not for the fact that it's a basic-cable summertime series, and thus has a very fragmented broadcast schedule. But as a show, it's tops. Its blend of humor with adolescent spy-fantasy action, its Robin Hood theme, and its technique of having interspersed voiceovers describing various relevant aspects of spycraft, all work together to make it a total hoot, and something that appeals to me on a very visceral level.
For some reason Jeffrey Donovan rubs me the wrong way, can't put my finger on it, but I must admit that he makes Michael Westen into a richly believable character, even if he has gone way over the line in his quest to get his job back. He's competent, athletic, yet not a superman, and with just enough honor and compassion to get his sorry butt into the most wonderful scrapes each episode, and then get it out of them again with panache, explosions, and hilarious wisecracks strewn all about. And with the legendary Bruce Campbell at your side, how can you lose? Gabrielle Anwar is, oh, pretty enough I guess, although her looks are a bit too extreme for my taste. But she's a great actress and makes Fiona into a very appealing character, like someone I wish I knew in real life. And Sharon Gless, well, what can you say? She's simply fantastic at everything she does, and her Madeline is no exception.
I have to say, Burn Notice has its slow moments. But it also has scenes that will forever be burned into my memory. Like the first 20 minutes or so of the first episode, when Michael learns he's been burned, are an absolute classic. And the way he smoked Ben Shenkman's detestable Strickler—I backed up and re-watched that 10-second scene probably a dozen times, and cheered each and every time.
I think what gripes me about Mr. Donovan is primarily his smile. Plastic, insincere, like something he pasted on from a Mr. Potato Head kit. And I don't think it's the character, I think it's the actor. I think he was the same way on the American Touching Evil. We should get Dr. Cal Lightman from Lie to Me to come over here and tell me what it is about Donovan's smile that turns me off so much. And to quote a critic from history, his acting runs the gamut from A to B. Despite those complaints, he clearly knows his craft, because I'm a huge fan of Michael Westen, and Donovan not only acts, he produces the show as well. So whatever it is I don't like about him, it doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of Burn Notice, which is a solid top-grade A+ show from start to finish.
Speaking of Lie to Me, it has become one of my favorites even after only the short time it's been on. Similar to The Mentalist in premise, with a man (or in the case of Lie, a whole team of people) who can more or less read your inner thoughts, it tries to present a somewhat more scientific basis for its protagonists' amazing feats of divination. I've read some articles that suggest that the science as presented is largely hokum, that nobody can actually read microexpressions, blah blah, I don't fucking care. The show is a delight, and those now progressively rarer scenes where they show a freeze frame of a character making some sort of expression, then follow it with two or three stills of famous people making the exact same expression, well those totally make my day.
And the cast is great: Apparently Tim Roth has been in a ton of movies, none of which I've seen. (No, not even Pulp Fiction.) But in Lie to Me he's perfect as the acerbic professional with a colorful past, an over-protective father, and a man with razor-keen discernment of what people are really thinking. Kelli Williams is one of my all-time faves, have loved her in everything I've seen her in and still have a major crush on her, Mekhi Phifer does a standout job as the gruff but occasionally vulnerable FBI agent, and newcomer Monica Raymund is luscious and spunky as the luscious spunky newcomer. This will continue to be an A+ show for me, until its quality falls or Fox cancels it, whichever comes first.
The Closer is a show that I liked before it became a big hit, then it became a big hit, and I still like it. It is one of the main reasons I still pay for satellite TV. All that despite the fact that I really don't much care for Kyra Sedgwick. Oh, she's cute and she's obviously a good actress, and every once in a while she nails some particular "Brenda" nuance that has me standing up and cheering, but ... I dunno, just not my fave. But she does bring the character to life; my wife and I were still saying "Thank yew so much!" to each other with Sedgwick's magnolia-soaked accent until the day she died (my wife, not Ms. Sedgwick). I think I mostly like the show because two of my favorite actors are on it: J. K. Simmons and G. W. Bailey. And the rest of the cast is fantastic too, with special mention for Corey Reynolds and Anthony John Denison, and also Robert Gossett and the hilarious Michael Paul Chan. The whole show just flows, and the writers manage to make it funny and dramatic by turns, and bring it to a rousing climax almost every time. Totally A+ for me.
Probably the last of my must-see shows is TNT's Leverage, which is the newest in the genre of con-man shows, following a long and distinguished history which included a couple of my favorites: the British series Hustle, and the brief but brilliant 18 episodes of 1997's Players. But Leverage seems to be made from hardier stock, although I guess Hustle is still on, even if I haven't seen it on the schedule in a long time. Leverage mixes the con with The Equalizer, and the addition of the revenge-fantasy elements seems to help the show along. Plus, with the team breaking up and re-forming from one season to the next and so on, it seems the writers are aiming for a more complex storyline, and in most cases they do pretty well at it.
The cast are fantastic: Timothy Hutton shines as the troubled but brilliant mastermind. If I can't watch him playing Archie Goodwin (sigh), I'll take him as Nathan Ford. And I was unaware of Christian Kane before this show, but his suprisingly deep tough guy Eliot is always satisfying and often stirring. Beth Riesgraf is also new to me, but she's incredibly sexy in a waif-next-door sort of way, and makes the possibly-sociopathic Parker into a constant surprise and delight. Aldis Hodge's Hardison is a little gangsta and a lot of geek, and is probably my favorite character. I've missed Gina Bellman's Sophie, but she has never totally disappeared, and the brief addition of Jeri Ryan as an equally-competent con artist ally was a real joy. I hope they bring her back. Leverage is in its third season now, and I hope it continues for many more. A+ from me.
I've often said that I don't watch reality shows, and that's true with one exception: America's Got Talent. For unexplained reasons my late wife started recording it in the summer of 2007, which was its second season, and we started watching it together. We quickly got sucked in, and began arguing the various merits of Butterscotch, Terry Fator, Sideswipe, and the Calypso Tumblers. It was great fun, and well worth the time we spent watching it, not so much for the show, but for spending time together.
We eagerly tuned in for season 3, but had somewhat less fun that summer than we had the previous season, mostly because we weren't watching it together as often, but were watching it separately and comparing notes afterward. But we still plowed through it, and I thought Eli Mattson got robbed. Since I was watching it by myself, I mostly skipped the frame material and just watched the acts.
My wife didn't live to see season 4, and I grabbed only a few key episodes of it. I liked Nick Cannon better than Springer; he's hip and energetic and authentic and really seems to connect with the performers. Springer always seemed to be a tad patronizing, not to mention stuffy. And I liked Recycled Percussion and The Fab Five better than the guy who won, although his heartfelt rendition of Garth Brooks' "If Tomorrow Never Comes" touched a special chord for me at the time.
This season I see that they've kept Cannon (good move) and dumped The Hoff (also a good move IMHO), so we'll see how it shapes up, and whether I care enough to keep watching it. So far, Howie Mandel seems to be a lot funnier than Hasselhoff ever was. I mean, a lot. Okay, he's a comedian, and Hoff is an AC-tor, but still. The dude is totally at home in this role. I guess the show is a high B for me, although some of the acts, brief as they are, definitely take it into A territory when they're on.
I can't say any review of television shows is complete without mentioning the wonderful Canadian sitcom Corner Gas. Shown on WGN until last August, it was one of the funniest things on TV, in a gentle down-home yet surreal way. Sort of a cross between Green Acres and Friends but with a charm all its own, I just totally loved it. Canadian comedian Brent Butt was the show's creator, head writer, and lead actor, and brought a wacky charm and a very subtle dry wit to the whole production. His Brent Leroy is an easygoing schlub who enjoys his life as the proprietor of a gas station in the rural wide spot of Dog River, Saskatchewan, and who revels in the day to day absurdity and provinciality of his neighbors, without ever once being superior or condescending. Butt's real-life wife Nancy Robertson is a growly little munchkin of a woman, but she's adoreable and does a fantastic job as a comic actress. And the other cast members are pitch perfect as well, and too numerous to mention individually. I remember several scenes from the series with great fondness and much laughter, and rate the show a solid A+. I've seen other Canadian comedies, Red Green and so on, and have found Corner Gas to be a standout among them. I see that Butt has got a new series called Hiccups, which I hope will be coming to US television soon.
And that pretty much does it for my big review festival. This whole series was ... interesting to write, but not as much fun as I'd hoped it would be. I guess it sounded better back when my wife suggested it. But it's over now, and I can resume blogging on any random topic that strikes my fancy. May still do the occasional review now and again, books, movies, TV, products, whatever, but probably not another big sweep like this one. Hope you enjoyed it!
Sat, 19 Jun 2010
Spring 2010 TV: Friday
Fridays are evidence that the TV pickings get slimmer as the week goes on. Traditionally a dumping ground for series that were on their last legs or otherwise out of favor, its ever-changing lineups are always frustrating for me. At the moment, there are three shows I watch that come on Friday:
Stargate Universe is sort of Stargate meets Star Trek: Voyager. You gotta admit, the whole stargate concept has been drained of its juice by the past series. I loved the original movie, goofy though it was, and SG-1 was a worthy followup to it. I watched it regularly until Richard Dean Anderson left, then sorta fell away. And Atlantis was a fun ride for a while, though I didn't manage to stick with it til its end; not even until the Farscape cast showed up.
But the wonder of the stargate concept, that you can flip a switch and step onto another world light years away, is pretty well gone. Been there, done that. So Universe adds a cranky and mysterious ship, a Gilligan's Island marooning of the crew, and a young soap-opera cast performing their overheated escapades at the periphery while the old dogs fight it out center stage. And Begbie, er, I mean Robert Carlyle, is a fantastic old dog, and along with Canadian veteran Justin Louis and scheming Asian hottie Ming-Na they manage to bring a lot of sidelong looks and fraught drama to the show without losing the SF focus. I never understand half of what's going on, even as a lifelong SF fan, and I think the cast and the writers don't either, but it doesn't matter because we're in this haunted mansion of a ship and things happen every week and ain't it fun! An A rated show that could slip to C in an instant, but hasn't so far.
Miami Medical was intended to be the new M*A*S*H, and really missed that mark by a country mile, but I still enjoy watching it. Cancelled now, regrettably, but I'm still watching what remains of it until it goes away entirely. I haven't even gotten to the point where I recognize all the characters yet, but it doesn't matter. It's a solid trauma drama, Cuba's little brother Omar is great as the knows-all nurse, British face-man Jeremy Northam is nicely hard-bitten as the Good Guy With a Past, and I'm totally smitten with the lovely young Elisabeth Harnois, who looks about twelve but, um, a very sexy twelve. (She's really 31, and I'm still in love.) It's a shame that it won't get a chance to develop into something that's even remotely close to M*A*S*H, but oh well. An A show while it lasted.
Flashpoint was gone for a long time, but is back now, and I'm so glad. It's a very unusual case: an actual Canadian show being shown on a major American network like it was one of their own. And what a show it is—gripping, action-packed, with believable characters and tense dramatic situations. If all Canadian shows were this good, Hollywood could just pack up and go home. Flashpoint portrays its SWAT team in a way that other shows have tried to do but failed; I mean, showbiz people know in their bones that SWAT is perfect for dramatic stories, but until this show have failed to translate that to the screen. Flashpoint nails it. And the cast is great: Enrico Colantoni has been a favorite of mine since I first saw him on Just Shoot Me, shone like a quasar in Galaxy Quest, and thoroughly enriches any role he plays, including Flashpoint's troubled but principled SWAT cop Sgt. Greg Parker. And I'd never seen Hugh Dillon before this show started appearing on CBS, but I instantly became a fan and have liked him ever since. The rest of the mostly-Canadian cast are great too, and the show's plots and action keep me glued to my seat througout. A+ quality, for sure.
I should at least mention Joss Whedon's latest effort, Dollhouse, which used to show up on Fridays. Having loved Firefly so much, and having enjoyed the early seasons of Buffy, I gave Dollhouse every chance; I tried to like it, I really did. And yet ... I really never could. The premise didn't grab me, the actors weren't very compelling (except for the very drool-worthy Dichen Lachman), and the storylines were each week more disappointing than the last. Some weeks after I'd stopped watching it, I saw a lot of talk on the net about how, if you just gave it, oh, 14 or 20 episodes or whatever, you'd finally see what Whedon was driving at, and you'd fall in love with the show and never want to miss it. I guess I just didn't make it to that threshold, because overall the show seemed pretty flat to me. And now it's cancelled, in typical Fox fashion, and my sympathies go out to its fans. I'm just glad I didn't fall in love with it myself only to have it yanked out from under me like that.
Spring 2010 TV: Saturday
And Saturdays round out my TV-watching week with ... nothing. At least nothing predictable. Sometimes a recent episode I missed of a network show will make a reappearance, sometimes TNT has a good movie on, sometimes there's some good special on Comedy Central. But mostly, nothing.
I use Saturdays to catch up on things I recorded during the week(s) prior but haven't gotten around to watching. See, I never watch anything "live" except sometimes the news; regular shows I capture to hard drive in a DVR, then write to a DVD-RW, then copy to my computer and watch them there. Sometimes I'll build up a backlog of several episodes (sometimes even a couple months' worth) of a show, then have a marathon viewing session on a weekend.
And sometimes I'll just delete the whole batch without watching them at all. Despite my extensive reviews of various TV shows, despite me listing some 20-odd shows as A-list must-watch, I really don't spend as much time watching TV as you might think. For a while a few months ago I was recording a 3-hour block of rerun Law & Order every weekday from TNT. When I was in my darker hours, they would serve to distract me from the melancholy that was threatening to consume me. But then I started finding more interesting things to do with my time, and eventually the disk on my DVR filled up. I realized that (a) I wasn't really getting much out of them any more, and (b) I'd seen so many of them that it was rare for me to find one I hadn't already seen, even though there have been a whopping 456 episodes over the almost 20-year life of the series. I'm sure I've seen well over half of them, and probably more like three quarters. So I went and deleted every single one from my disk, and now the only L&O I see are the few remaining 20th-season eps I haven't caught so far.
And if a show gets cancelled, that takes the wind out of my sails for it, too. Often I'll just delete any backlog I have once I hear a show has been cancelled, depending on how it's been grabbing me (or not) thus far.
I do have one more review post to make, to clean up some stray bits from previous reviews. After that, on to new blogification!
Thu, 17 Jun 2010
Spring 2010 TV: Thursday
For me, Thursdays on TV means four shows:
CSI was the first, and still one of the best, of the modern crop of crime detection shows on TV. It has clearly influenced a generation of its successors, and has become a part of our culture in ways many and varied. While it's true that I like CSI: New York a bit better these days, and it's true that even with the addition of the masterful Laurence Fishburne, it hasn't been the same since William Petersen left, it still draws me in every week with its blend of geeky forensics and gritty street crime.
Helgenberger, Eads, Guilfoyle, Szmanda, Hall, and Berman have been solid as rocks since day one, and I'd miss seeing any one of them. I have to admit that I was strongly moved by a scene this season in which one character (was it Jim Brass?) told Marg Helgenberger's newly-crowned team leader Catherine Willows that she wasn't doing a very good job. She acknowledged that it was true, and she wasn't sure why she couldn't do as good a job as Grissom had. The other character told her, "Grissom had one thing you don't have." She asked, "What?" And he smiled and said, "You." And that sorta opened her eyes, and let her give Eads' Nick Stokes more authority and leeway, and the team began to work better after that.
I mourned Petersen's passing, but I guess it was time for Grissom to seek new bugs to study, and time for Mr. Petersen to go back to treading the boards in the Windy City. Fishburne is more than big enough to fill Petersen's shoes, but so far they haven't let him. Dunno what's up with that. I really mourned Warrick's passing, not only because I really liked the character, but because I've been a big fan of Gary Dourdan ever since I first saw him in the fourth Alien movie. Jorja Fox, eh, I've liked her well enough since she was Jorjan Fox on ER, but something about her has always seemed ... I dunno, distant. Or something.
New additions Archie and Wendy and Henry are just fine with me, and I haven't been able to get enough of Sheeri Rappaport since she played the taciturn but libidinous Officer Franco on NYPD Blue. Wallace Langham is obviously a good actor; forgive me for not liking his Hodges, although that may be the character I'm not liking rather than the actor. I see from the IMDb that Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family did a recurring turn on CSI in its early years, but I'm sorry to say I don't remember him. The show is a common venue for upscale character actors, and occasionally some big-name directors like Friedkin and Tarantino, but even with its regular crew it's always worth watching.
So it's a legend, and is getting a bit long in the tooth, but it still has enough of the ol' zazz to make it to my A list every week.
The Mentalist is now finishing up its sophomore year, and continues to amuse and occasionally enthrall me. I had not seen Aussie lead Simon Baker before this series, but he does a great job here, and his American accent is almost flawless. I've never much liked Robin Tunney, can't say why, but she just hasn't done it for me in anything she's been in, starting for me with End of Days. But she can act, I'll give her that, and does a satisfactory job as the team chief. The rest of the cast is excellent, the dialogue and situations are amusing and just suspensful enough, and the premise of a "mind reader" who turns his skills toward solving crime is quite cute. Like its brother in charms, Lie to Me, the notion of somebody being able to tell what we're thinking even when we don't want them to know has a lot of appeal. Mentalist had some rather soggy episodes in the middle of this season, but the first season was good enough for me to cut it some slack, and while I haven't yet seen the final four eps of this season, they sound good, and the finale claims to make some hay on the "Red John" subplot. An A-rated show for me.
Bones is an up-and-down experience for me. When I think about the show, I think eh, why do I even watch it? Then I actually do watch, and I always enjoy it, so I keep coming back for more even when I'm not sure I want to. Frankly, I don't have much use for either of the leads, but the supporting cast more than make up for them. I was sorry when Jonathan Adams left, but Tamara Taylor is a more-than-adequate replacement for him, and brings her own skill and sexiness to the show. I was also sorry to see Eric Millegan leave, and I hope he's doing something interesting nowadays. Michaela Conlin is one of the prettiest women on Earth these days, T. J. Thyne is who I want to be when I grow up, and Doogie Sweets, er, I mean Mitch Weir, er, John Francis Daley, yeah, that's it, doesn't annoy me enough to be a turn-off. I still miss "King of the Lab", though. I'd like to rate this one a B, but I can't recall ever voluntarily missing one, so I guess that without realizing it, this is an A show for me.
Fringe is another show just finishing its second season. It wants to be The X Files, a show I adored in its early seasons, tolerated in later seasons, and had pretty much given up on by the time it ended. I watched the series finale, but gave the movie a pass. I used to curse Files when it failed to advance its Mulder/ET theme, and then curse them when they did. Still, in its day it was one of the most unusual and mind-bending shows on TV, and my wife and I used to discuss and reference scenes and episodes for days, weeks, even years after they'd aired.
Fringe has a similar flavor, but it seems the showrunners are avoiding some of the obvious traps that Files fell into, like just being way too damned mysterious for its own good, and falling in love with its own mythology. Fringe isn't quite in the same league as X Files, I think, but it does have some pretty whackdoodle storylines, it has the mysterious "Observer" and the whole glyph thing and the alternate-universe mythology, and the secretive and probably evil megacorporation, and where else can you see Leonard Nimoy from time to time! John Noble does a fine job as the man lost in his own mind, Anna Torv and Jasika Nicole are suitably yummy and competent, and poor Joshua Jackson doesn't seem to mind being thrown about by the winds of plot, being a hapless buffoon one moment and a hard-eyed mercenary the next. One of the main reasons I watch it, though, is because Lance Reddick is in it; I think he's fantastic. Lean, hard, and uncompromising, yet willing to accept the notion that, say, somebody has burst into flame, dissolved into a puddle, or grown steel horns, without batting an eye. I'll keep watching unless/until they get too wrapped up in their own mystery, or until Fox drops the axe. Rating is A, for now.
Yes, I know that FlashForward is, or was, shown on Thursdays, but it's cancelled now, and really never lived up to its fairly intriguing premise. I guess they wanted to clone Lost (which I've never seen, and never had an urge to see), and they failed both at that and at making an interesting show in its own right. Pity. A great waste of some fantastic acting talent, most notably the most excellent Courtney B. Vance, a smart and versatile actor and a helluva good-looking man who's never seemed to find just the right niche to showcase his obvious assets.