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PSA: Tonite’s Episode of Downton Abbey is Awful

I used to love Downton Abbey.  But tonite’s episode of the show was my last.  It was such a change in tone, so painful to watch, that I was done.

I talked about this at length in another blog post.  This is a reminder.  For the love of God, don’t watch tonite’s show.  If do watch the show, and think I’m an idiot for not liking it, please post your opinion below.  I’d be interested in hearing your opinion!

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Books, Television

North Korea Fascinates Me

North Korea is a crazy place.  I recently learned that the 3 generation regime in North Korea has killed more people than Hitler and Stalin combined.  That’s a lot of misery.  I am so sad and disappointed that there is no solution that can immediately end the misery of millions of North Koreans.  This PBS video linked to above shows a bit of that misery.  The HBO editorial news show Vice had a great episode about a visit to the “hermit nation.” Last year I read Adam Johnson’s excellent novelization of aspects of what we know about the lives of everyday North Koreans titled The Orphan Master’s Son.  This book won the Pulitzer Prize.  Perhaps the only way that I can try to get in touch with this issue is to continue to learn about it.  I do hear some hope in this PBS documentary, particularly the bit about cell phones flowing into the country.  But if North Korea’s government were to change tomorrow, it would be a herculean task to bring the country into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.  Young people’s education consists of memorizing the speeches of the regime’s potentates, learning about how foreign powers want to kill them, and make Texas’s insane propagandized textbooks seem a beacon of truth.  I happened to meet Adam Johnson at a book event about a year ago, and he was a fascinating speaker.  One of the books he recommended on this topic is The Aquariums of Pyongyang.  I am going to take his advice finally, I think.

I don’t think I would ever agree to go to North Korea, even if I had an all-expenses paid trip paid for by Bob Barker from Showcase #2.  There is, of course, the danger of being in the country and falling afoul of the security state.  But what I’m more concerned about is supporting such a terrible dictatorship.  Bringing my foreign currency in and turning it over to the security state isn’t exactly what I have in mind for vacation.  I can’t help but imagine that it would go to support the misery and the gulags and the torture.

Can you teach me something about North Korea? If so, please comment below!

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Television

PSA: Avoid Downton Abbey Season 4 (No Spoilers)

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I’ve warned several times to avoid Downton Abbey Season 4.  Marta and I really enjoyed season 1, and 2 and 3 were good, but 4 was a complete and utter letdown.  It started slow, but came to a breaking point with episode 3.

I will be very general to avoid the ire of the internet, but in that episode there sickening tonal shift that is inappropriate for the atmosphere of the show.   There was a kerfuffle in the UK when this episode aired also.  I’m not the only one put off.  If you’re not sensitive to spoilers, you can google it.  Fans described the episode as “traumatic” and a “horror.”  I have some friends who watch this show with their kids.  After the whole family watches this show together, I think Mom and Dad are going to have some ‘splaining to do about “adult themes.”  And then Mom and Dad will have some shell shocked kids who can’t sleep.  Great.

Really I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll say no more.  So now Downton Abbey is dead to me.  Seriously I’ll never watch another episode.  I even sold my Blurays, which I had imported to watch the show early.  Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, really screwed the pooch.  I think he’s one of those talented people who got so successful that he didn’t have to listen to his script editors any more, so he ruined his wonderful creation.

I wish some kind soul would have just warned me to not watch season 4 so I could not have the show spoiled.  And that’s where we are now.  Me giving you the warning I wished that I’d received.  And hey, it’s not like there aren’t other media you can consume, right?  Marta is excited for a fun little book.  I just finished this excellent book myself.  Or go catch the Philomena at your local movie theater.

I’ll miss you, Dowager Countess.

-John

P.S. I’ve reread this and decided that it’s weak sauce without spoilers.  I mean, this must just read like some dude on the internet ranting about a TV show.  Why should you believe me,  some random bloggo.  So if you’re willing to read a spoiler, here’s one.  It’s less harsh than actually watching the episode, I think so I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you click on it.  Maybe read the spoiler to see if your kids can handle this episode and help them avoid those nightmares.

P.P.S.  Yeah, I just made up the word “bloggo.”  Deal with it.

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Books

A Murder-By-Month Mystery

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For the next three months I have to work 50 hours, 6 days a week.  To cheer myself up I bought the newest instalment in A Murder-By-Month Mystery series called “January Thaw.”  I like mysteries and this series is so funny.  In my opinion it is so much better than Stephanie Plum books.  Also the main character works in a library, but she’s not a traditional librarian especially since she came by that job by accident.  She always gets in trouble, writes articles for a local newspaper and of course solves mysteries.  If you need a book to forget your troubles I highly recommend this series.  Can’t wait to see what Mira is up to now!

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Television

Cutting the Cable

I’ve been hearing from so many friends and acquaintances that they do just fine without cable TV.  Who are these insane people who get by without a Tivo or DVR?  How do they get HBO?  How do they watch sports?

Marta and I have become one of these households.  Our 2-year contract with Comcast ended and they wouldn’t budge on the bill without another commitment, so we cut the cable.  No Dish, either!  And no, we aren’t downloading TV illegally.  We’re too old for such shenanigans.  So how are we coping since we cut off cable in November?

  1. We buy shows we really like.  I have 2 guilty pleasures in Discovery Channel shows Moonshiners and Gold Rush.  I purchase those online for $3 each in HD.  I’m going to be buying a few shows from cable networks.  Among those are Longmire, Justified.  I prefer the Amazon Instant Watch service to purchase these TV shows as I like their ecosystem the best, however many friends prefer to use iTunes.  Either one works great.  After I buy the show, it’s mine forever.  I don’t have to find shelf space for a set of Blurays or DVDs, I don’t have to worry about freeing up space on my DVR’s hard drive.  It’s just there whenever I want it.  Shows that just took up time are now abandoned.  Sorry to The Walking Dead and Mad Men.  You just weren’t good enough to justify the 42 minutes to watch and $3 per episode.  I’m just not that into you.
  2. Lots of shows are available free online through legitimate services.  I have a full-blown windows PC which uses our TV as a monitor.  We have a wireless keyboard and mouse setup to control it, so we can stream anything that is available on your PC.  I do have to watch lots of commercials now, whereas before I just flipped through them with my remote.  However I can put up with a few commercials for $100/month savings. Free sites include big names like ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, and FOX.
  3. Marta and I watched Netflix original shows for a little while and particularly enjoyed House of Cards with the lovably naughty Kevin Spacey, but we’ve discontinued that service as the original programming is pretty limited and much of it doesn’t appeal to us.
  4. We watch quite a bit of content free through Amazon’s streaming service.  Since we already subscribe to the Prime service, this is pretty much free entertainment for us.  Our current favorite is their original show Alpha House with the amazing John Goodman playing a right-wing Senator from North Carolina who shares a house in DC with 3 other similarly quirky Republican colleagues, which is our after work Friday TV treat.  There’s lots of other content there, too.
  5. The pies de la resistance is a bit of a surprise to me.  I thought Hulu Plus was a complete waste of money.  After all, aren’t they just selling the same content that you get for free on your PC?  Nope.  They have a plethora of shows, mostly from the UK, which I’d never heard of that are stellar.  In fact, I’d never have heard of them if I didn’t cut cable.  I can’t recommend Moone Boy highly enough.  It’s the story of a 6th grader who has an imaginary adult friend, and reminds me of an Irish Calvin and Hobbes.  Watch it now.  But we’ve also found Pramface, The Wrong Mans, The Thick of It, and Braquo.  I bet that if you have cable you haven’t heard of many/any of these titles.  And they are spectacular.  And if these don’t appeal to you, they seem to have shows that appeal to many demographics besides mine.  There are other competing services out there that we haven’t explored like Crackle and Vudu that I’m sure we’ll get around to soon enough.

I do miss a few shows.  I enjoyed Pawn Stars, but I can’t justify $3 for a 22-minute episode.  So maybe I’ll wait for the episodes to get older and catch up on them when they’re on a streaming service or the whole season is on sale at Amazon.  I finally got into Game of Thrones during season 3, and now I’m going to be out in the cold when season 4 airs.  However I can wait a few months for the whole fourth season to be released at once.  I’m not going to die if I don’t see them exactly when they come out.  That gives me more time for other things like reading, video games, walking the dog, or maybe I’ll go absolutely crazy and exercise or something.

But what about sports, John?  I must admit that I’m not too into sports and I get an out here by cheating.  The only thing I really ever watch is University of Tennessee football (Go Vols!).  Since I live in Washington State, outside the normal viewing fanbase of the Tennessee Volunteers, I can see most of the games for free online.  Those that I can’t are going to be the big ones that I can go to my local watering hole and watch while enjoying my favorite libations.  Or I can visit a friend’s house.  Surprisingly there are lots of SEC refugees up here in the Seattle area, and unsurprisingly they are hospitable.

We do have high speed internet through the telephone company, and that’s no pleasure.  The internet is slower than Comcast.  While there are times when our speed goes down to a crawl, it hasn’t died during wind & snow storms like our cable did.  Of course it’s just been 2 months, so I’ll withhold judgment on that front.  But we pay less than $40/month with taxes and modem rental, and I really like that price difference.  That is a promotional rate for 12 months, so at the end of that we’ll see what options are available to us.  But it beats the $70/month + fees that Comcast would charge us without the modem rental.

This has been an enjoyable experiment.  Comcast did make parting company easier by calling me a half dozen times after I’d cancelled my service to ask for cable boxes I’d already returned.  It feels good to take back a little power and go around Comcast for my content.  It’s a shame that our politicians don’t reintroduce competition to the marketplace and break up the old cable monopoly.  In the meantime, this is what I’m doing and it is great fun.

-John

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Games

My Top PC & Console Games of 2013

Listening to gaming podcasts I am reminded that there is a diversity of opinions about the games of 2013.  I played quite a few and was pleasantly surprised that the year was so innovative.  I’m of the opinion that one should get to know critics and then figure out when you agree with them and when you don’t.  A few that I follow pretty closely are Justin McElroy, Jeff Cannata, and John Davison.  With all that said, here’s my list.

The List:

These games aren’t in any particular order, other than the one I thought of them.  I find that ranking games is subjective and akin to comparing your vanilla and chocolate, so I’m not going to do that.  These are the experiences I’d wholeheartedly recommend to just about anyone who isn’t turned off by their particular flavor.

Papers, Please

I lived in Poland for a year and experienced the country about 10 years after the iron curtain fell.  This game evoked the height of the cold war, and the experience of living in a totalitarian state.  The art style brought me back to days long gone when I stared at a green screen with a matte cover to prevent glare, and I am cool with the limited graphical style.  Where this game separated itself is story.  I reveled in being able to participate in corruption or revolution or repression and in the arcane idiotic rules surrounding the minutia of entry visas.  I work a bit with this a bit in my professional capacity and I think this game does get at some of the idiocy I’ve seen the US post-9/11 and that commentary really works for me.

Gone Home

I went to college in the 90’s and I must admit was a bit of a homophobe at the time.  This game takes me back to that time in the role of a sibling coming home from time abroad.  That’s something I can personally relate to on many levels.  I won’t say much about the story other than that it’s quite strong.  There is a bit of a puzzle mechanic in figuring out your family secrets, but really this is a narrative game where you’re getting to know your parents and sister as human beings.  The music in this game is superb.  I read Marisha Pessl’s novel Night Flim this year and was struck by the great list of media referenced in the work.  This game is able to produce at least the songs that it references and it’s just a joy.  Gone Home gave me hope for games as a media to give an experience just as rich as a novel, if not quite as deep.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

I had very low expectations going into this experience.  I really enjoyed several of the other games in this series, and this is very much in the “more of the same” camp.  The mechanic with the pirate ship brought in elements that reminded me of the classic C64 game that was remade about 10 years ago, Sid Meier’s Pirates.  The ship-to-ship combat is quite satisfying, and there is an enjoyable mechanic that compels one to explore the world in search of collectibles.  This game received lots of exposure, and likely you know if you like it or not from reading this.  Perhaps what I enjoyed most about this game though was that it was when I fell in love with the PS4’s controller.  Everything else here was played on the PC using either mouse or an Xbox 360 controller.  It was hard for me to go back as that PS4 controller is something else, so that may have reflected well on Assassin’s Creed 4.

The Wolf Among Us, Episode 1

I didn’t think that Telltale could improve on the formula they introduced in The Walking Dead.  They learned lessons from some of the problematic “game” elements of that success, and fixed them here.  The next episode is reportedly coming out this month, and I can’t wait.  The story in this dark fairy tale is compelling and rich.  I can’t wait to see where this investigation takes our hero Bigby, and you’re missing out if you don’t give this one a chance.

Xcom: Enemy Within

I loved Xcom: Enemy Unknown.  Truth time: I was in the chess club in elementary school.  I played Battle Chess on my Apple IIgs as a kid.  Enemy Unknown is a combination of chess and playing with those little green army men with aliens thrown in.  What’s not to love, right?!  Enemy Within brought this to the next level and added increased complexity and plot twists to this experience.  I love that I’ll be able to replay that story and enjoy that strategic experience again and again.  Animation and mechanics are strong and stakes are quite high as your troops, whom you develop from recruits to officers, sometimes need to be sacrificed.  And they’re dead.  Forever.  Some sadistic sods on the internet have named their Xcom soldiers after friends and family.  You can even alter the appearance of your troops to make them look like them.  But in Enemy Within, you’re going to need to cut off some of their arms and legs so they can be meldings of Man & machine.  I just can’t do that to Mom.  Anyway, this is a superb experience.

Shadowrun Returns

This is another turn-based game, but it has stronger character progression (so-called “RPG”) mechanics.  It’s kind of a sci-fi Dungeons and Dragons style experience.  I didn’t think they made games like this any more.  Well, I guess I was right, but then this came around on Kickstarter and I was on board.  I was reminded of Icewind Dale or Planescape: Torment when playing through this gem.  It wasn’t quite as deep or polished, but it brought me back to a genre that I am excited to see more of in the new year.  The upcoming Berlin expansion and Wasteland 2 have me stoked for more indie retro experiences in 2014.

Backlog of things I really need to play:

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Defense Technica

Kentucky Route Zero

Civilization V: Brave New World

Sleeping Dogs

Shelter

Steamworld Dig

Much to my embarrassment, I own all of these games except Steamworld Dig.

-John

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Movies

Philomena

Today we saw “Philomena” and it was excellent. It is about an older Irish woman who is searching for her son who was taken away from her by the nuns and was given to adoption. She didn’t tell anyone about him for fifty years, but tried to find him on her own. She finally told her daughter who asked a journalist to help her mother find her lost son.
The acting and scenery were wonderful. Judi Dench is just perfect. The movie made laugh and cry at the same time. Highly, highly recommend it.

Philomena-Poster

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