Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lost Symbol, plus more Dan Brown

I've read Dan Brown's entire catalog. I imagine most people who have read his books followed about the same path I did: I'd never heard of the guy until 2003, when The Da Vinci Code became huge, controversial news. Of course, I didn't pick up The Da Vinci Code just on the promise of controversy alone. All the controversy in the world wouldn't save it from a clunky plot, or an unbelievable premise, or a stupid story. But I got the idea that The Da Vinci Code wouldn't be like that--it had the promise of junk science, and cryptic codes, and secret societies, and world travel.

The Da Vinci Code actually exceeded my expectations. It turned out to be a fast-paced thriller, with some unexpected twists, some intelligent cryptography, and just enough "oh, yeah, right" moments to make it worth reading. Based on its strength, I--and judging by bestseller lists in 2003-2004, thousands and thousands of other people--decided to read the rest of Dan Brown's books.

Turns out we didn't really need to. For illustration, here's a summary of some undisclosed Dan Brown book. Harvard professor, skeptic, and symbologist extraordinaire Robert Langon is called to check out a mysterious happening at a well-known world landmark. As he investigates, he realizes that the mystery is much deeper than it appears, linked to some ancient (but ultimately misunderstood) society that serves as a guardian of mystical knowledge. Langdon relies on a few important allies, including his mentor Peter Solomon, and an attractive female fringe scientist, whose knowledge sets coincidentally complement his own in the exact right way to solve the mystery. By the end, Langdon has stumbled on some secret that only a handful of other people on Earth have ever seen, not to mention kindling a romance with the attractive female scientist and exposing some bad people in the upper ranks of an important organization.

Now, if you've read The Da Vinci Code, you're probably nodding along and adding some details about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail. If you've read Angels and Demons, you're probably nodding along and adding details about antimatter and the Illuminati. Or, if you've read The Lost Symbol, you're probably nodding along and adding details about the Freemasons and Noetic Science.

You might argue that Dan Brown is not unlike any other author in that regard: Robin Cook has written dozens of formulaic medical dramas; John Grisham has written dozens of formulaic legal dramas; the late Michael Crichton wrote dozens of formulaic weird-science dramas. So Dan Brown has the market cornered on thrillers featuring cryptic symbols and secret societies. The biggest difference here is that Cook, or Grisham, or Crichton, wrote different books every time.

To say that every Dan Brown book is an unabashed clone of the last is a bit of an exaggeration. But each does follow the pattern above, especially the Langdon books. (It's worth mentioning that he has written two other books, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, that only somewhat follow the pattern. They're cousins to the nuclear family that includes the Langdon triplets.)

If these books are so much the same, are they all worth reading? That's the fantastic thing about Dan Brown's books: you know exactly what you'll be getting, but it's entertaining anyway. If nothing else, Brown has perfected the art of the thriller. His pace is frenetic, almost amusingly so, starting a new chapter about every four pages. But each mini-chapter ends on enough of a cliffhanger, or at least an intriguing development, that you want to keep reading until you reach that batch of characters again.

So yes, Brown's books are all worth reading, if you're into this sort of thing. Bear in mind, he's not writing great literature. If you're looking for powerful redemptive tales, or multi-faceted character development, or multiple layers of interpretation, or an acknowledgment of the entire spectrum of emotional experience, you're very much in the wrong place. About the only commentary on the human condition Brown is going to make is something about man's insatiable curiosity about the unknown.

I haven't said a lot about The Lost Symbol itself yet. It mostly plays like a rehash of The Da Vinci Code, which in turn played like a rehash of Angels and Demons. There are a few differences--the biggest one is that The Lost Symbol feels a lot closer to home than the other two. Set in DC and involving locations and historical figures intimately related to the American cultural tableau, Symbol has a "what if this is true?" factor that the earlier books lacked.

The fringe science du jour in Symbol is noetic science, which makes using particle colliders at CERN to create antimatter (a la Angels and Demons) look downright plausible. But where antimatter was actually important to the plot of Angels, noetics were a MacGuffin in Symbol: Katherine Solomon's research could have been on self-assembling nanosurfaces, or the inclusion of the Korean language in the Altaic family, or the feces-throwing capabilities of different monkey species, and it would not have changed the plot. The beginning of the book seemed to promise thoughts projecting a force in a sort of noetic telekinesis, but we never get it.

More differences exist--Langdon exchanges romance with a young, attractive female scientist for friendship with a middle-age attractive female scientist. There's less focus on ancient messages embedded in well-known works of art, and more focus on slightly less ancient messages embedded in a totally secret stone pyramid. And in the end, Langdon doesn't come across any world-shattering discoveries, just an affirmation of religious faith by the nation's founders. All of that adds to a sense of plausibility in Symbol that wasn't present in Da Vinci and Angels.

Between that plausibility, the cultural intimacy, and a few unexpected twists, The Lost Symbol is probably Brown's best book yet. It's impossible to put down and a great read, assuming you know and like what you're getting yourself into. And if you've read anything else by Dan Brown, there's little doubt of that.

Currently listening: Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

Monday, December 21, 2009

Survivor: Samoa: Reactions

For all the legitimately good television I watch (Lost, House, The Office, and then some), I think I deserve a guilty pleasure show or two; Survivor has filled that role for the past ten years. Some of the past nineteen seasons have fallen flat, being totally unmemorable and lacking both character and interesting characters. The past two seasons, though, have failed to disappoint: we had the blatant psychosis of Coach last season, and the unprecedented malice of Russell this season.

At first, I thought this season would be doomed, mostly because of how evil Russell appeared at first. As the season wore on, though, Russell became less the bully and more the champion of an underdog tribe. As his tactical moves shifted from burning his own teammate's socks to finding hidden idols without the benefit of clues, though, I grew to respect Russell as one of the greatest players ever to have played the game--and I wasn't alone. Russell's epithet on CBS's promotions morphed from "evil genius" to "fan favorite".

Russell's goal and purpose for being in the game was simple: "I don't need the money. All I'm here to do is show people just how easy it is to win this game." Clearly, he had the skills to do that.

Just how great a player was Russell? His people were at a 4-8 disadvantage coming to the merge, and they ended up eliminating all 8 of the other team, suffering only a single casualty at the very end. In a game where hidden immunity idols seem to leave the game unplayed more often than they're actually used, Russell keyed on the exactly correct moment to play his and swing momentum irreversibly to his side. He made alliances with the right people at the right times, and he knew exactly when to cut off those alliances to maintain his superior strategic position.

And for all that apparent mastery of the game, Russell did not win. The one thing that Russell failed to account for in his grand strategy was the temperament of the jury, which is the greatest variable of all in Survivor. The way I see it, there are two types of juries that can emerge. The first is the bitter emotional jury, which votes against you because you had a hand in voting them out; the second is the detached intellectual jury, which votes for you because you had a hand in voting them out. The first rewards integrity, possibly at the expense of allowing a less-skilled player to win, while the second rewards game mastery, possibly at the expense of allowing a devious player to win.

What sort of jury America wants is not consistent from season to season. Sometimes we root for the honorable guy, sometimes we want the evil genius to win. We're unpredictable. And so is the jury. There is literally no way to know what sort of mentality those nine people are going to have when they cast their votes. Therefore, I argue that it's in no way Russell's fault that he didn't win the game. As Jeff Probst is so fond of saying, he went as far as he could go in the game.

Instead, the mostly undeserving (but quite pretty, once she'd put on about fifteen pounds and washed her hair) Natalie won, apparently on the strength of her "social game". But Russell played a hell of a social game too, in that his entire strategy revolved around the manipulation of people. In fact, the only person who made it to finale night who hadn't played an entirely social game was Brett, who made it to the finale on success in challenges alone. In Survivor-land, though, "social" does not exactly mean "involving other people".

No, in the odd vernacular of Survivor, "social" more closely means "having people like you". So, yes, Natalie did play a better "social game" in that fewer people hated her than hated Russell. By that same logic, then Shambo's chickens should have had a decent shot of winning too, and the Samoan fire jugglers should have been a lock.

The only reason I say that Natalie is "mostly" rather than "wholly" undeserving is that alliances are necessarily a two-way street. Natalie needed the protection of Russell to remain in the game as long as she did, but then again, Russell needed Natalie's loyalty and guaranteed vote every week in order to manipulate each tribal council.

But the thing is, while the finale might have left me and a a majority of viewers with a bad taste in the mouth, it couldn't retroactively doom the rest of the season. Credit to Russell--and casting at CBS--for making this one of the most memorable seasons yet.

(And by the way, "Heroes Versus Villains" sounds like the lamest concept yet for a season of Survivor. Good luck making that watchable.)

Currently listening: "Ambulance" (which is VERY VERY GOOD), Eisley, from Fire Kite EP

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mae: (A)fternoon

I wanted to like (A)fternoon. Really wanted to. For lots of good reasons.

First, Mae is one of my favorite bands of all time. I'd proclaim them among my favorites on the strength of The Everglow alone, but then I'd be ignoring a strong debut in Destination: Beautiful and a pretty decent EP in (M)orning. The thing about any band, though, is that to remain in favorite-band status, you have two choices: 1) release more material that is good, or 2) take the George Costanza approach and quit while you're on top. Since Mae has opted out of the second option, it's especially important that the follow-ups to their earlier brilliance are worth something.

Second, the music that Mae is producing now is critical to developing some sort of trend for the band's future direction. Destination: Beautiful was good to great. The Everglow approached perfection (trend: upward). Singularity was forgettably average at best (trend: downward). That meant that whatever Mae put out immediately thereafter would essentially serve as a harbinger of the quality of Mae's future material. If it was consistently good, then Mae could write off Singularity as an uninspired blip. Consistently bad, and Mae was essentially admitting to us that they'd run out of gas after their magnum opus.

(M)orning, in turn, was good again (trend: upward). (A)fternoon also being good would go a long way toward establishing the promise of good Mae for years to come. (A)fternoon being bad again, on the other hand, would mean that all bets are off, and that Mae really has no idea what it's doing, throwing out genius, tepidness, and everything in between with no consistency.

Third, (A)fternoon is the same album as (M)orning. Seriously. Compare the track lists:

  • Track 1: "Good (name of EP)", a track that mixes a little music with assorted noises ("Good (M)orning", "Good (A)fternoon")
  • Four tracks that corresponded to the songs sold for charity in that part of the year ("The House that Fire Built", "Boomerang", "A Melody, The Memory", "Night/Day"; "Over & Over", "The Fight Song (Crash and Burn)", "In Pieces", "The Cure")
  • An instrumental track that more or less followed from one of the charity tracks ("Two Birds" from "Boomerang"; "Falling into You" from "The Cure")
  • A seven-minute-plus experimental track that may or may not feature the same Jesus figure ("The Fisherman Song/We All Need Love"; "Communication")
  • and Track 8: another one with the name of the EP that's mostly noise rather than music ("(M)orning Drive"; "(A)fternoon in Eden")

Obviously, the songs aren't the same at all, but the structure of the albums is so close together that by this point, comparisons are inevitable. And if you're going to make essentially the same album twice in a row, the second iteration better be at least as good as the first, or those inevitable comparisons are going to be overwhelmingly negative.

My friend and mock trial mentor Kyle told me that there are two ways a mock trial round can end in a blowout. The first is that one or two critical parts of your case just fall apart: your opener opens for the wrong side, your star witness forgets his testimony, your expert is torn apart by a masterful cross. The second, much less devious, but equally as dangerous, is when the one team is a notch better in everything that it does: the directs are a touch more conversational, the character witnesses are just slightly more entertaining, the closer is a hair more impassioned.

And unfortunately, that second scenario is the tragedy that befalls (A)fternoon. I'll start with the high points: "In Pieces" and "The Cure" can stand up to anything on (M)orning, and I'll go out on a limb and say that with the possible exception of (M)orning's "The Fisherman Song", "In Pieces" is Mae's best track since The Everglow. The opening and closing tracks are meant to be interesting bookends, nothing more, and the two EP's are about equal in that respect. (A)fternoon goes downhill from there.

"Two Birds", (M)orning's lead-out instrumental track, was a pleasant surprise, playing off the strengths of "Boomerang", but becoming an interesting track in its own right. "Falling Into You", on the other hand, is totally unrelated to "The Cure", plus it manages to be wholly cliche and uninspiring at the same time. "Communication" is miles behind "The Fisherman Song", which is especially disheartening, because I hailed "Fisherman" as salvation for Mae: a promising new direction that incorporated the earlier style and emotion while managing to be something completely different. "Communication" falls flat by (again, inevitable) comparison: the narrative is nowhere near as compelling, the instrumentation less passionate, the message less exultant. "The Fight Song" is a regrettable example of why Mae should not play around with distortion and free-from guitar soloing.

But my biggest gripe with (A)fternoon is a series of just four notes. That may seem petty and insignificant, but it's a complaint that's been brewing ever since Singularity. It's unfair to pick on "Over & Over" by itself for this gripe, but it shows up most insistently and dramatically on "Over & Over", so I have little choice. It's a musical issue, so the less-exposed to music theory may be less bothered by it than I.

Get to a keyboard, and try this out. (Feel free to click the "notes" and "sharps/flats" buttons if you like--I certainly had to.) Play the following sequence of notes: B flat-A flat-G-F. It should feel like it's resolving melodically, because it is: it's the bottom half of the descending F-minor scale. Mae starts "Over & Over" using this motif in the chorus, and it sounds fine. Actually, it sounds pretty cool, especially with the chords that's being played on top of. (I don't know quite enough music theory to recognize those chords by sound!)

Now, try this. Play the sequence B flat-A flat-G-A; that is, use the same first three notes, but change the fourth to an A. It sounds odd, right? That's because it's really nothing other than an awkward way to change from major to minor tonality. There are probably dozens of ways to do this that other musicians have thought of. Picardy is an especially famous one. Mae's method--which, I assure you, did not start with "Over & Over"--is probably the clumsiest that I've ever heard.

Does one bizarre musical miscue derail Mae's entire career? It does derail "Over & Over"--which, again, started as a pretty good song--and we all know the adage about losing the war for want of a nail. But no, B flat-A flat-G-A does not spell the end for Mae by itself, especially not with the other weaknesses that plague (A)fternoon. It does, however, represent the Singularity-style pitfalls that the (E)vening EP must desperately avoid if Mae wants this "temporal EP" experiment to represent a positive future for the band.

I'll eagerly await early next year, which is when I assume (E)vening will be released. I'll hold out hope that the temporal EP's follow the trilogy curse, and that the middle volume will turn out to be by far the weakest. (Imagine reading The Lord of the Rings and stopping at The Two Towers, or worse yet, reading The Two Towers by itself.) Until then, though, your best bet for 2009-era Mae is by far (M)orning.

Currently listening: "Child's Prayer", Chicago, from the Christmas album

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Wheel of Time: Speculations and Observations

Another piece of evidence that Brandon Sanderson has done a wonderful job with the latest volume of the Wheel of Time is that it's gotten me thinking, just like the old days of WoT, or just like I do a lot whenever I read a Song of Ice and Fire book. Obviously, the ultimate destination of the series is the Last Battle Tarmon Gai'don, but it has something like 1500 pages' worth of plots to resolve and characters to develop before it gets there. Here are some stray thoughts and observations, not necessarily connected to each other, on where the series is going.

--I don't know who made the decision to name the last book A Memory of Light. Maybe it was Jordan, less likely Sanderson, possibly Middle Managing Editor At Tor. But whoever it was, the fan base ought to give him or her a hug for not calling it something mind-numbingly uncreative like Tarmon Gai'don or The Last Battle. Take, for counterexample, the Left Behind series. Essentially the Christian apocalyptic eschatological equivalent of the Wheel of Time, it concerns the end of days, the last battle Armageddon, and the glorious appearing of Jesus to rule His new kingdom. Their titles were just fine until they got to the end of the series, which ended with--I'm not making this up--Armageddon and Glorious Appearing.

--Almost an afterthought since the middle of the series, Callandor got a few nods in The Gathering Storm, with the promise that "three will become one" in order for Rand to wield it again. We know that a circle of three channelers, one male and two female, is necessary to use it safely, which is ostensibly what the "three become one" passage is referring to. My best guess as to who these three might be are Rand plus the two of his girls that can channel, Elayne and Aviendha. It could just as easily be something like Rand, Egwene, and Tuon. But don't forget that there's "something" Min and Cadsuane are missing about the sa'angreal. One theory that I like but can't take credit for is that the "three" represent saidar, saidin, and the True Power.

--The Tower of Ghenjei showdown is coming up, and soon. I'm a sucker for mysterious, "what's really going on here?" sorts of stories, which makes this the single most exciting upcoming plot in the Wheel of Time to me. I can't wait to see how the Tower, the 'elfinn, and the red mirrors are all related, and how exactly one does win the game of Snakes and Foxes. Moiraine's rescue is somehow going to be more important to the rest of the books than simply "cool, now we have another ally to fight on our side", but it's impossible to say how yet. However, I am more or less certain that it's going to happen in the next book, where Ghenjei will be one of the "Towers of Midnight".

--Another Mat plot is the one I'm looking second-most forward to in the entire series: the culmination of the Illuminators/gunpowder story. Mat rolling into the Last Battle with the Band armed with cannons is going to be fantastic. Here's a long shot speculation, but we know that Rand wants to defeat the Dark One without having to touch him--because touching him with the Power last time led to the taint--so what if Rand ends up defeating the Dark One by blasting him with cannons?

--The White Tower reunification plot line is almost finished, but not quite: the Black Ajah purge still isn't complete. Mesaana is still alive, presumably with the Blacks somewhere, and Alviarin is still out there too. I think in the next book, Egwene will use the strength of the unified White Tower (perhaps another of the "Towers of Midnight"?) to get this done.

--A little Forsaken speculation: Moridin (né Ishamael), Cyndane (née Lanfear), and Moghedien are all bound together, the latter two by Moridin's mindtrap. Moridin is obviously a book-14 issue; Rand's battle with him will be one of the climaxes of Tarmon Gai'don. And it's not like Cyndane or Moghedien or making any plans of their own these days. I think during the last battle, it's going to take a good guy dream team of Rand (to fight Moridin), Moiraine (who has quite the history with Lanfear), and Nynaeve (who has history of her own with Moghedien) to take them down. Maybe these are the three who will end up using Callandor.

--More on the Forsaken: Mesaana and Aran'gar (née Balthamel) are the two Forsaken most closely tied to the Aes Sedai; if Egwene finished the Black Ajah purge in the next book, then Mesaana and Aran'gar are going down in the next book rather than the finale. And then there's Demandred, whose identity and plans probably won't be revealed until the very end.

--Perrin needs to do something with his wolf abilities. Don't know what.

--Finally, several pairs or groups of characters still need to reunite: Rand and his three girls; Lan and Nynaeve; Moiraine and Lan; Mat and Tuon; and perhaps most important to the story, Rand, Mat, and Perrin. Rand, Mat, and Perrin won't reunite until the very end, but when they do, stuff is going down.

Currently listening: "Dear Valentine", Guster, from Ganging Up on the Sun

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm

I never quite know what to answer when people ask me if I like the Wheel of Time books. I think I like the idea of them, the promise, the setting, more than the books themselves. The concept more than the execution, perhaps. But that concept is so good that I believe the books are worth reading on its singular merit. I maintain that a drastically shortened Wheel of Time, truncated after the third book, and fudged a bit in the last few chapters of the second and third books, could be the greatest fantasy trilogy ever written, The Lord of the Rings included.

But like all great series apparently must, the Wheel of Time dragged a bit--rather, a lot--in its middle. Where the first three books were brilliant, books four through seven were overly complicated but still interesting, and eight through eleven just plain dragged on, with perhaps only one important plot point happening in each. We fans were getting antsy: Robert Jordan promised us that the series was going to end soon, but if the last book or books plodded along with the same lack of excitement as the most recent handful, we might be left with a series ending in a whimper rather than the bang we felt like we deserved.

Then, as if for the sole purpose of throwing everything we knew into chaos (as well as being a strange reflection on the events of the series itself), Robert Jordan passed away in September 2007. Fortunately, things worked out much more smoothly than they really had any right to: Mr. Jordan's family and associates quickly got their collective act together and installed a new author, Brandon Sanderson, who would ensure that we got some sort of resolution to the story we'd spent decades following.

So here we have it: the most highly-anticipated fantasy novel since... the last Wheel of Time book? No, that's not quite right. Knife of Dreams, The Gathering Storm's immediate predecessor, was another step down the same old Robert Jordan path, while Storm was a bold new step in the Brandon Sanderson direction. Knife was merely book #11; Storm is either book #12, or the first part of book #12, or the first volume in the finale trilogy, depending on how you want to think of it. Knife was the continuation of fifteen years' prior work, and Storm represents not only the beginning of the end, but a new voice trying to integrate itself into thousands of old pages.

For the first half of the book, that integration becomes a major motif. In that first half, Sanderson touches base with every one of the major characters. It represents Sanderson gaining his footing, setting himself up as the author, and testing his control of the plots and characters. (A notable exception is Elayne, who strangely does not get a single chapter in this book, and barely so much as a handful of mentions. Is this a tacit admission by Sanderson that he has no idea what to do with Elayne?)

Sanderson asserts his place as an author of a Wheel of Time book, and not a mere fantasy book, by hearkening back to the series' beginning. Emond's Field and the Two Rivers get name-dropped more than they have since the action was actually happening there a few books back, Baerlon even merits a quick mention, Min starts to become an important character in her own right, and Tam gets his first lines in ages. Perhaps this is a thematically important decision, giving a nod to the "everything starts where it ends" cyclical nature of the mythology. Maybe Sanderson knows that the early books were the most beloved by fans, and he's trying to get on the readers' good sides by emphasizing their importance. Or possibly it's not even a conscious choice: because the first few books were more memorable, their characters and settings have worked their way back in because Sanderson feels inherently more connected to and comfortable with them.

Aside from all this base-touching and identity-imprinting, nothing much happens in the first half of the book. It plays out like an extended news report--but (perhaps a bit cynically) that's nothing we're not used to from the Wheel of Time. However, things change quickly around the time Rand has his decisive encounter with Semirhage. It's an oddly written part of the book, seeming forced in all respects. Shaidar Haran has become more or less a walking deus ex machina for the bad guys--Sanderson needs to establish and explain some restriction on this thing's powers quickly, or else a multitude of plot holes will spring up any time someone wonders "why doesn't Shaidar Haran just do it?" And Rand channeling the True Power better have some explanation of its own--not to mention consequences. But even for its clumsy execution, this scene gets the action moving.

It doesn't stop, either. Plots that have persisted for the last three or four books now--the White Tower siege, Tuon's waiting to proclaim herself Empress, Aviendha's transition to being a Wise One, the fate of Verin, and Rand's escalating insanity, just to name a few--are finally resolved. Even Mat and Thom's long-impending assault on the Tower of Ghenjei now seems imminent. Sanderson's deliberate decision to have Rand balefire Elza Penfell in that Semirhage encounter is of course more than just a protagonist defeating an antagonist. It's understood in the narrative as further evidence that Rand is becoming dangerous and on the brink of insane. But I think it's also a promise by Sanderson that we're going to see antagonists defeated decisively from now on, and we're not going to see the introduction of a lot more minor characters. After four or so books of not a lot happening, all of this is welcome news to readers.

Sanderson's skill is not only apparent in making events happen. He's almost equally as skilled in parsing out the story when things don't happen. Sanderson has a good sense of how to organize the story in terms of exciting scenes and developing scenes--he doesn't try to string together too much development at once with the same characters, which would get boring fast. But when it gets exciting, he lets us follow the action with the same set of people for several consecutive chapters without breaking up pivotal events.

Another way Sanderson organizes his story well is in his understanding of which plot events to show, and which ones to let the reader assume has happened. Sanderson neatly accomplishes this through leveraging his characters' ta'veren powers, which is something that Jordan either never did, or didn't emphasize nearly as much as Sanderson. This device of letting Rand, Mat, and Perrin "see" each other works well to advance the plot without having to devote a chapter to each thing that happens with all of them. For example, at one point, Mat travels to Caemlyn to get information. Rather than having to write an entire chapter about Mat, he lets Rand have a ta'veren vision of Mat. In about three lines, Sanderson accomplishes something that might have taken Jordan an entire chapter.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room: what if Sanderson's implementation of the Wheel of Time turns out better than Jordan's? Are fans going to see what Sanderson has done with the series and rush out to proclaim him its savior? Even if they do--and judging from how good The Gathering Storm was, that might not be too much of an exaggeration--it's clear that Sanderson is not about to accept that mantle. In a gracious and classy foreword, Sanderson tells the readers in no uncertain terms that he's merely a facilitator at this point. He reminds us that the final three Wheel of Time books are Jordan's first and ours, the readers', second.

Even if Sanderson manages a complete turnaround, the important thing to remember is that that's the very best Sanderson can hope for: a return to form. Although the words of the last three books might be Sanderson's, the stories themselves are not. Everything good about the Wheel of Time--and yes, there is a lot of it, in spite of the direction that last handful of books took--is a direct result of Robert Jordan's fantastic brilliance.

But in the end, Sanderson does accomplish that return to form, and he does it so convincingly that I'm excited about the next Wheel of Time book for the first time in years.

Currently listening: "Perfect Symmetry", Keane

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins

At first, I was not ready to believe all the hype surrounding this game. My friends touted it to me as the greatest thing to hit the computer since the mouse, but I just wasn't sure. It had been since Oblivion, nearly four years, since I'd invested myself in a massive epic RPG. I just wasn't interested, or there wasn't a good one out, or it was undergrad and I was way too busy.

And besides, Dragon Age was just another Bioware RPG, right? My history with their games wasn't exactly the torrid love affair that it was for most of my friends. I played Knights of the Old Republic and certainly enjoyed it, even though I didn't find it the revolutionary masterpiece that I many of my friends did. I scratched just enough of the surface of Neverwinter Nights to know that I didn't feel like playing the other 95% of the game. And I've heard the Baldur's Gate suite of games referenced and quoted enough that I resent them even though I've never played any of them.

But now the bustle of undergrad has given way to the relative tranquility of grad school, and with an apparently good game out, why not give it a shot? Time isn't an issue--I figure it's either video games or House reruns--and if the game were a total bust, all I'd really be wasting is 50 dollars of the Department of Homeland Security's money. So far, I've been far from disappointed.

Unsurprisingly, Dragon Age plays exactly like any other Bioware game. You play the silent protagonist, customized however you like, who's tasked with defending your corner of the kingdom/world/galaxy from the Evil Supernatural Threat of the Day. Even though you're supposed to believe you're playing in a completely-defined setting, all the action really takes place in six or seven clickable spots on the world map. Half to two thirds of the game focuses on a parallel group of four or so quests, all of which need to be completed to lead up to the Climactic Confrontation in the last chunk of the game. In lieu of the "sandbox" feel of setting continuity, the game focuses on character interaction and development, especially when it comes to discovering the back stories of your six to nine other party members. (Often, it's quoted in terms of the number of novels' worth of dialog the character discussion contains; Dragon Age weighs in at nine.) And, of course, with all this character development comes the prospect of character romance.

That may seem like a hefty paragraph of over-generalization, but seriously, every Bioware game plays like that. It's a formula that's brought them success--and if it's not broke, don't fix it--but given that every Bioware game is mechanically the same, the characters and plots need to be immersive and legitimately interesting to convince me to play your game. And that all starts with the setting. Bioware took the easy and conservative, though effective, route in their first few efforts, drawing off the established settings of the Forgotten Realms and Star Wars.

It's inherently easy to make a Star Wars game. It can't be hard to draw off 30 collective years of Star Wars myth when you're making KotOR. The framework is already there, and all Bioware had to do was fill in some interesting details. In other words, given that someone is going to spend fifty hours of their life playing a Star Wars game, it can be reasonably expected that that person is going to know what a droid is, what a Wookiee is, why Jedi are important and heroic, and why the Sith are scary and evil. If you make up a cool story about the history of the Jedi, you can just have your characters tell it, and the player will automatically care about it.

That's not necessarily the case if you're making your own setting. You have to establish the setting framework first before you can tell those cool stories. Leaping into the tale of some legendary Grey Warden from a hundred years ago just doesn't work without first establishing who the Grey Wardens are, why they're important, and why you should care about them. At the same time, though, this sort of legend is useful (and almost necessary) for establishing a sense of verisimilitude.

Dragon Age goes a step beyond this, though. If you dig deep enough, you can actually hear different versions of the same legend, or different myths about the same character. All of that contributes to the setting having an organic feeling, as if the world actually developed itself through millennia of culture rather than developer fiat. The depth of lore isn't as extensive as it is in, say, the Elder Scrolls universe--but then again, the Elder Scrolls have had four mainline games plus at least as many side stories to develop its internal mythos. That the Dragon Age mythos is even able to be compared to the Elder Scrolls this early in its development speaks volumes.

A game can't survive on quality of setting alone, obviously. Otherwise, it would be sufficient to read a series of Wikipedia articles on the subject, similarly the critical research on the Mongol empire that I may or may not have done for an afternoon or two during my Big Oil internship. You need a plot and characters. Dragon Age does all right with both; as of now, I'm slightly more impressed by the story than the party. Many of the characters in this game have the tendency of being too arch, bordering on bitchy, but that's not always the case. Shale the golem is amusingly douche-y, Alistair's sense of humor is actually funny, Sten's laconic nature actually makes you believe he's from a foreign culture, and Leliana's vast repertoire of tales actually make you believe she's picked up a thing or two as a traveling minstrel.

Aesthetically, Dragon Age is average to decent, with the notable exception of the voice acting, which is superb. I've probably been spoiled on a steady diet of Jeremy Soule in the Elder Scrolls games, but the music feels repetitive and uninspired. The graphics aren't too bad--my computer, which is relatively new and decently powerful but by no means a "gaming rig", can play it with high resolution and graphic detail. I have to assume that anyone playing on a computer meant for gaming could turn all the settings to "ultra super awesome" and things would handle just fine.

One comment about the game's difficulty. I've talked this over with a friend who's also playing through the game now, and I've narrowed it down to three possibilities: 1) I'm missing something big, and finding that something would make the game a lot easier; 2) I'm really bad at the game; or 3) the game is just really hard. (I choose to believe option 3.) Just about every fight feels like a challenge, and at least one party member dies in a significant number of them. And here's the thing--I'm playing on normal difficulty. There have been more than a few times I've been tempted to say "screw it, I'm going for easy mode." I can't imagine how or why you'd ever play hard, let alone "nightmare".

All in all, I recommend this game, unless you're not ready to commit 50+ hours to a video game. (Be especially wary if you value your social life.) And I recommend it highly if you're a fan of Bioware's previous work or epic fantasy RPGs in general. Even if you're not a Bioware fan by and large, Dragon Age: Origins might make you a believer.

Currently listening: "Simple Pages", Weezer, from the Green Album

Friday, November 06, 2009

Vedera, Live at the Fillmore

Anyone attempting to find a record of the "Vedera concert" at the Fillmore on 11/5/09 will probably not find it. By all rights, it was the "Mat Kearney concert", with Vedera as an opening band. This marks the first time in my concert-going career that I've gone to a show for the sole purpose of seeing the opening band. If this smacks of indie-kid obscurism to you, it does to me too, and I sort of resent it.

Most of the reason I resent it is because Vedera is good--really good. It's just that Vedera doesn't have the massive fan base that's probably required to sustain a headlined tour. But they're clearly accomplished enough musically to headline their own tour, with two full-length albums out. And they're experienced enough; as Kristen May said, they've been a touring band for five years now. I can only hope that as Vedera continues to open for bigger-name acts like Mat Kearney and Eisley, and huge-name acts like the Fray, that they'll become a big-name act themselves.

In other words, while I might be awfully indie-kid in liking a band before they make it big, I'm decidedly not so indie-kid in that I want them to enjoy mainstream success. Fortunately for everyone involved, their fan base seems to be growing by the day, at least if their Facebook "fan" numbers are any indication. And they should continue to grow as long as Vedera keeps putting on concerts like they did in San Francisco.

Probably the most striking thing about the concert was the audience reaction to it. "Their singer is amazing." "She [Kristen May] is adorable." "I didn't know of these guys at all, but I'm buying the album." "I was really impressed." All of that suggests to me that all Vedera needs to do is maintain the aggressive approach to big tours and generating publicity, and they'll do just fine.

The concert itself, unsurprisingly, presented like a sales pitch for the most recent album, Stages. May gently reminded the audience to go buy the album at every opportunity she got--and at least her efforts appeared to have paid off. The set list was more or less straight down Stages, with a couple songs left off and a few others out of order. I might have liked to hear some of the older stuff too, but it's so different from the new material that it probably would have seemed out of place. Save it for the headlined tour, I suppose.

May remarked at the beginning that she had "butterflies in [her] stomach playing the Fillmore." You could tell--May started the evening a little hesitant, without going for the vocal "big plays" that fans know her for. By the end, though, all that trepidation seems to have vanished; "We Sing" was an enormously powerful performance to end the show. The "audience participation" gimmick in that song was fun, and it would have worked much better had the crowd been better sports in singing along.

One of May's most endearing traits during the concert turned out to be that shy nervousness from playing such an iconic venue combined with her coy flirting with the audience. (Bad, bad news for male fans of Vedera: Kristen May is married--actually to the band's guitarist, Brian Little.) Asking the audience if it was our "first date" with her (it was for most of us), maintaining an upbeat indie glamor throughout, and offering signatures and hugs after the concert (I got one of each) is the sort of thing that goes a long way toward building enthusiasm for seeing future shows. And even though I'm never (publicly) going to congratulate myself for "discovering" Vedera before the mainstream music community does, I can't say it wasn't amazing standing close enough to the stage to see the sparkle in Kristen's eye.

Only one regret from the concert: I forgot my damn camera. Photography during the concert was "not allowed", so I had to resort to furtive pictures taken on my phone, none of which turned out to look any good at all. And the lighting conditions were downright horrible when I tried to get pictures with the band, so what ought to have been me, Brian, and Kristen, ended up looking like some hideous red blurs. Still, the chance to meet both of them was fantastic--they're genuine, gracious people who clearly appreciate their fans and are willing to take some time out after their show to talk with them.

So go buy some of their music.

Currently listening: The Blue Album, Weezer

Monday, October 19, 2009

Georgia Tech Football Retrospective: the 05-08 Years

October 2009 has so far proven to be a great time to be a Yellow Jacket fan. A convincing win at an SEC stadium. The first victory at Doak Campbell Stadium in twenty years. The first home victory against a top-five team in forty. All this got me thinking about a conversation I had with my roommates last year, discussing the top five greatest football moments in out time at Tech. This, more or less, was our consensus.

Game #5: #3 Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 10; 9/2/06, Bobby Dodd Stadium
"Wait, I thought these were supposed to be the five greatest games. How can you start with one where Tech loses?" I usually hate saying things like this, but I think it was one of those games that you really had to be there. Never before or since did I see Bobby Dodd Stadium so energized. Mild September night, complete sellout, jam-packed student section, and more enthusiasm than I've ever seen at a college football game.

And although the good guys did lose, this game was important for at least two reasons. First, it reaffirmed that Tech could go toe-to-toe with the nationally-recognized "elite" of college football and still come away with a win. And second, it represented a sort of "coming-out" party for Calvin Johnson as one of the greatest receivers playing the game.

Game #4: Georgia Tech 38, #9 Virginia Tech 27; 9/30/2006, Lane Stadium
The GT-VT rivalry has quietly been fomenting as one of the fiercest in the ACC. The ACC Championship game has been played four times; VT or GT has represented the ACC Coastal in it all four times. Two of those times (2006 and 2008), the GT-VT game more or less directly decided the division. And on top of all that, both "Techs" are similar academically and demographically, often being considered "peer institutions" to each other.

The 2006 installment of the rivalry came after the most lopsided--and embarrassing, for Georgia Tech fans--game in its history, a 51-7 loss at Blacksburg. Not to be deterred, GT marched right back to Blacksburg the very next year and turned things around. It was almost over halfway through the first quarter, when GT scored 21 points in the first eight minutes. Winning this game led Tech to its first (and so far only) ACC championship game.

Game #3: Georgia Tech 31, #16 Florida State 28; 11/1/08; Bobby Dodd Stadium
Where the GT-VT rivalry has been a close one that's had more than its fair share of influence in determining the conference champion recently, the Tech-Florida State rivalry has been one of mind-boggling losing streaks and embarrassing lopsidedness. Tech hadn't defeated Florida State at home since 1975. They hadn't beaten Florida State at all in the last twelve tries, dating back to 1992. And the list went on. That all changed this game.

I call this the most impressive home win I ever watched as a Tech student, and the fact that it broke all these miserable streaks was only part of it. It sounds crazy, but I swear there was a "vibe" around Bobby Dodd that day that something was going to change. This game was the only rushed field of my undergrad career, and it was Paul Johnson's first "marquee win" over a ranked opponent in his tenure as Tech's head coach.

And it's the only time I ever saw Paul Johnson smile, aside from when he accepted the job as head coach.

Game #2: Georgia Tech 14, #3 Miami 10; 11/19/2005, Miami Orange Bowl
The Chan Gailey years were a roller coaster in every sense that a football tenure can be. Over those six or seven years, Tech made a habit of losing to teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia... but then they'd unexpectedly pull out massive upsets against the likes of Miami. Seven sacks, only 30 rushing yards allowed, and Calvin Johnson's famous lying-stretch catch that made people sit up and notice just how good he was. All this against the number 3 team in the nation.

In fact, the prospect of upsetting Miami was so incredible that it made people who never cared about football at all get excited. I remember being in Memphis for the most prestigious mock trial invitational of the season (the old Blues City Challenge), when we really should have been practicing in anticipation of our fourth round Sunday morning, our team's usually-strict coaches decided to look the other way and "trust us to practice instead of watching the game".

Game #1: #18 Georgia Tech 45, #11 Georgia 42; 11/29/08, Sanford Stadium
You might never hear a higher-up at the Tech Athletic Association admit it, but plain and simple, this is the game that Paul Johnson was hired to win. Chan Gailey had done a middling to decent job as head coach for the past several years, but had never beaten Tech's archrival, the University of Georgia. The vaunted rivalry was starting to lose steam: an informal poll taken of UGA fans ranked Tech as the fourth most important rivalry that UGA had, behind Florida, Tennessee, and (of all teams) South Carolina.

A passive sort of coach might have sat on his hands for a year, feeling Georgia out, and preparing to beat the Bulldogs in his second year in the much friendlier confines of Bobby Dodd Stadium. But Paul Johnson is not the passive sort of coach. Instead, he rose to the challenge, overcoming a 28-12 deficit at the half to claim victory between the hedges. Tech players snipped off parts of the vaunted hedges as trophies; when Paul Johnson was asked if he'd taken a souvenir, he responded "no, I figure I'll be back here."

This game was incredibly important for the rivalry. It preserved the longest winning streak in the series at Tech's 8 (Bobby Dodd back in the 50's). It answered the question "what has Paul Johnson done for the program?", if there were any doubts lingering after the aforementioned Florida State game, and it turned Johnson into a folk hero around campus. It reignited passion for the rivalry on both sides of US 78. And it gave the Class of 2009 its only win in "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" that they'd enjoy as students.

Coach Johnson continues to rise to the challenge. If I were still at Tech and making this list to include this year's games, I'd have to include at least two. The road win at Florida State was probably an even bigger deal for the program and for historical trends than the win at VT in 2006, and a win against #4 VT at home (on homecoming!) with the goalposts coming down probably had more buzz and more energy than either the Notre Dame game or last year's Florida State victory.

Four incredible wins in a year and a half have made me incredibly optimistic about the future of the GT program. The road to the Orange Bowl is tricky but still doable this year, and once Paul Johnson starts recruiting people specifically for his offense, I see no limit to how impressive Tech football might become.

Currently listening: Brandenburg Concerto #3 as performed by Maurice Andre

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Peggle: 750,000?

I know, this post is two years late. Peggle is hardly today's news. But that's how long it's taken me to finally complete the last challenge in the game, the granddaddy of them all: 750,000? (It even comes with a question mark to show just how improbable it is to complete this challenge.)

For those of you who aren't familiar with the casual gaming event of the decade, Peggle is one of the simplest yet most addicting games ever to be released. The basic premise is that you fire balls at pegs, trying to hit as many of them as you can... and that's about it. Think Pachinko meets Breakout, with a dash of Bust-a-Move thrown in for good measure.

The game starts out innocently enough, with fifty-five levels that you only need to complete. That ends the "undergraduate" course at the Peggle Institute; next up is the much harder gauntlet of challenges. These range from "score a lot of points" to "beat the computer in a duel" to "finish a level under a set of crazy conditions." And they get harder as you go along, eventually culminating in the utterly ridiculous 750,000 point challenge.

Again, for the Peggle uninitiated, 750,000 is an absurd number of point to accumulate in a single level. A usual single-level score is in the neighborhood of 200,000 with some wide variation; say plus or minus 50,000. If you break 300,000 consistently, you're doing a great job. 500,000 is about the highest score you're likely to achieve purely by accident. This challenge demands 1.5 times that.

Most of the challenges can be completed with a little perseverance, possibly with the addition of a touch of strategy or a bit of luck. 750,000? is not among those challenges. You need a solid gameplan before you can even think about broaching this one. My first inclination was to go for a Spookyball- or Multiball-flavored strategy, trying to time and place the last few shots exactly correctly to take advantage of multiple shots at the 100,000 level-ending bonus. I think in theory that's a viable approach, but in practice there were so many variables--and each attempt took such a long time--that I decided to take a new approach.

Swallowing some pride, I turned to my old buddy the internet. And I wasn't the only one who'd done it. There are forum discussions, YouTube Videos, and even hints on the actual Peggle website. Some advised going for a simple, orderly level with predictable shots to maximize style points. Some had bizarre, fancy strategies for "trapping" the ball on complex levels with moving pegs. The problem with all of these is that they require you to be really good at Peggle. So the strategy I ended up going with represented the "brute force/pure luck" approach: Warren on Pearl Clam.

"Wait!" all you Peggle aficionados are protesting. "You always play Claude on Pearl Clam!" And it's true; Peggle conventional wisdom does call for our crabby friend on that level. The level might as well be designed to showcase how the flippers are effective. The thing about Warren is that--with enough luck--he can effectively be Claude, plus he has a few tricks of his own.

The key to this strategy is getting Warren's wheel to land on Triple Score from one of the green pegs and Flippers on the other--within one turn of each other. This is not easy. If you miss a green on the first shot, that's a restart. Hit a green but get Magic Hat or Extra Ball, restart. Hit Triple Score one turn but miss a green next turn, restart. Hit a Triple Score, but then get anything but Flippers, restart. Statistically, it's a 1/72 chance, assuming you make contact with both.

But if you make it work out, this strategy works like a gem. The turn you have Triple Score and Flippers both active, flipper the crap out of the ball until you screw up and lose it. Ideally, you'll accumulate upwards of 175,000 points (though it's feasible to get many more, like the above video shows). That will triple to 525,000. You'll probably get the Orange Attack and Flipper Maniac bonuses for an extra 75,000, bringing your first- or second-ball total to 600,000. Then it's relatively easy to get an additional 150,000, especially if you pick off all the stragglers and get the guaranteed 100,000 at the end.

Now that that's complete, do I stop playing Peggle for a while? Hardly. 100% ribbons on every level, here I come.

Currently listening: "La Virgen de la Macarena", Arturo Sandoval, from Trumpet Evolution

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Vedera: Stages (the album)

Note to self for the future: do not start listening to an album with the hope or expectation that it will be your favorite of the year. It's not a fair basis for a review. Nor is it realistic to set expectations for an album based on three songs you know it's going to contain. Imagine, for example, listening to "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "The Fool on the Hill" and "Penny Lane" over and over (and over and over and over...) on some hypothetical Magical Mystery EP for the better part of a year, with the future knowledge that there was going to be some sort of Magical Mystery Tour album containing those songs. Those are three incredibly good songs. Some of the best in the Beatles' entire catalog--and that's saying something.

When the full-length Magical Mystery Tour came out, you'd probably get a few pleasant surprises ("I Am the Walrus", "All You Need is Love"). And eventually you'd hit stuff like "Baby You're a Rich Man" and start thinking, okay, what the heck is this? This is not a bad song, but it's nowhere near "Penny Lane" in terns of sheer awesomeness.

That was the inherent danger in listening to--and falling in love with--the Stages EP back in January. The three songs on that EP--"Satisfy", "Back to the Middle", and "A World Apart"--are easily the best three songs in Vedera's (admittedly more limited) catalog. I had deluded myself into thinking that the entire full-length would be as incredible as those three songs. Turns out that's not even close to a reasonable goal--but neither does it imply that the full-length album is bad.

To me, the core of the album is still the "cycle" of songs from the EP. And primacy being what it is, I think those are still the strongest tracks here. I'm not sure how Vedera intended those songs to be interpreted, but to me a very strong possibility is a miniature story: "girl realizes times were good back then and tries to get them back" ("Satisfy"); "girl decides to go back to guy, knowing that it wasn't perfect being with him but acknowledging he's the only thing she can think about" ("Back to the Middle"); "girl admits that she can't be with guy after all, but figures out she's inexplicably stronger for it" ("A World Apart"). The tones of the songs fit:"Satisfy" is brimming with optimism; "Back to the Middle" is alternatively trepid and exultant, finally settling on "the middle"; "A World Apart" is longing yet resolute.

But Stages breaks apart these three tracks--as well it should, to avoid a "more of the same" feeling--and adds a few kinks into the story. "Forgive You" and "Goodbye My Love" are the other side of the "Satisfy" coin, where "girl wonders whether or not it's worth it to give guy a second chance." By the end of "Goodbye My Love", it seems that she's made her decision--but she's "drawn back" along the same old road anyway. In "Even I", she's in denial but is beginning to realize that she can't go back, leaving "A World Apart" with a much more defiant and individualistic tone.

The point of all that analysis is to say that by ordering songs correctly, the story an album tells can be completely different. That's one of Stages' many strengths.

Another obvious high point is lead singer Kristen May's voice. Over the band's first full-length, The Weight of an Empty Room, plus this one, May's voice has been at times growly, edgy, soaring, bittersweet, vulnerable, and confident. But regardless of the mood, May's vocals are always passionate and always impressive. She's obviously Vedera's strongest link, and her virtuoso vocal performances are what make Vedera stand out as a band worth listening to.

It's no surprise, then, that the weakest points of this album are when May's voice is at its least interesting. May's voice is one built to soar above the rest of the band, to shine through the instrumentation, so it's not surprising that the more of these vocals Vedera throws into the new songs, the better they turn out. That's what elevates "Greater Than" into one of the best songs on the album and what makes me like "The Rain" and "Goodbye My Love" in spite of myself.

It's also what makes "Loving Ghosts" and "Even I" probably the two worst songs, or at least the least interesting. Here, May's voice is a middling to good alto, but we've become accustomed to a stunning soprano. Vedera toured extensively with the Fray over the last year or two, and it shows in these two songs. Now, I have nothing against the Fray. I think they make fine music. But they have the "middle-tempo, piano-driven, softish pop rock" market cornered, and Vedera does not need to challenge them on it. Moreover, Vedera has Kristen May; why would Vedera want to challenge them on it?

And still, if the worst thing that can be said about this album is that it's too much like the Fray, that's hardly scathing criticism.

The only other critique I'd level is that some of the metaphors in the lyrics are a little stale, like Vedera is trying too hard to say something creative. There are good ones, like "lived tossed along these waves" in Satisfy. And then there are a few atrocious ones, like the entire premise of "I am the rain" and just about everything in "Goodbye My Love": "uncut diamond", "storm on a quiet day", etc. etc. But a few tepid lyrics don't come close to representing a deal breaker for this album.

Stray observations on other songs: "Look Around" would have been right at home on The Weight of an Empty Room; it recalls some of the first album's edge and meandering, noncommittal tonality--without sounding like it was recorded in a shoebox.

"We Sing" uses the old Vedera trick of "take the chorus from a decent song from the old album and leverage it to create a freaking great song on the new album." In this case, Vedera stole from "For a Friend"; we've seen it before when they robbed their own "Desire on Repeat" to make "Satisfy". I'm ambivalent toward that tactic. I can justify it as long as it's part of the "reinvention" from Veda to Vedera. But if I see "you're the only one I know who brings me back to the middle" show up in the chorus to a new song on the next Vedera album (which better not be too far away!), I'll feel a lot worse about it.

Move Forward is an interesting jam-ish way to end the album. I can't figure out if it's a bonus track or not... the only problem with having bought it off iTunes. I'm inclined to think that it is because it doesn't show up in the liner notes. They end similarly, both on a strangely transcendent major second piano chord that dares you, don't go back and listen to this album again. You probably won't be able to resist.

And finally, the liner notes to the album are downright beautiful--simple, elegant, artistic without really trying... a lot like Kristen May's voice at its most expressive.

I came into this album wanting it to be the best one of the year. Now that I've thought about it, given it a fair shake, and not judged it against what I thought it possibly could be, it almost delivers.

Currently listening: "Wild Horses", the Rolling Stones

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Salsa Connoisseur: D.L. Jardine's Texas Champagne

There's probably an important distinction between "hot sauce" and "salsa", but it's far from obvious. If I had to nail it down to one single difference, it would be in their intentions: salsa is an end in itself, while hot sauce is often relegated to a means to the end of making food spicier. Foods are custom-designed to go well with salsa, while hot sauce is more or less designed with the aim of making existing food better. Maybe it's that hot sauces "know their place" where salsas are currently in the middle of a culinary explosion of new (and not necessarily good) ideas.

I think it's because of this that hot sauces as a category are more internally consistent or homogeneous than salsas are. The consistency issues that plague salsa (with respect to the smooth-chunky axis) just don't show up in hot sauces. And the set of ingredients varies a lot less from hot sauce to hot sauce than they do from salsa to salsa.

That said, hot sauces and salsas share a lot in common with each other. The criterion of balancing heat with flavor is especially applicable to hot sauces, where some purveyors sell you a bottle of habanero juice, slap a "10/10" or "Insane!!!" or "XXX" or pictures of fire on the bottle. Then they leave it to you to find out that instead of using their product, you may as well have immersed your mouth in boiling water--it's just as hot and doesn't have any more flavor.

D.L. Jardine's does not make that mistake with their Texas Champagne hot sauce.

Texture: shakes from the bottle easily. Maybe slightly thicker than a standard hot sauce like Tabasco, but only if you're looking for it to be.

Heat: reasonably hot but not unbearably so. You can easily eat some of this by itself (if you're so inclined!), or put it on a chip, and not be driven to apply an ice cube to your tongue. Intensifies the longer you keep it on your tongue. When shaken uniformly over food, or stirred into a soup or chili, it gives a noticeable kick to each bite, but the heat never overtakes the flavor of either the sauce or the food. D.L. Jardine calls it "hot" with no reference to what "mild" or "insane" might be, which is a little ambiguous but seems right to me.

Flavor: saltier than you might expect. Scent is tangy, similar to a pepperoncini pepper, but less acidic or briny. The three ingredients--cayenne peppers, vinegar, and salt--mix beautifully. A food item is well-made when you can taste each and every flavor in each bite, and Texas Champagne hits the nail on the head there. D.L. Jardine's website boasts that this sauce is the new partner to salt and pepper in condiment land, and I think the sauce is versatile enough for that to be true.

I bought a 3-ounce bottle at Berkeley Bowl, and it ran me $3.29 for a 3-ounce bottle (or $1.10 per ounce!), but part of that is my fault for buying a name-brand grocery item at a more "marketplace" establishment.

Recommended, especially if you're not on a budget. It's similar to, but better than, Louisiana Hot Sauce, which you might find on the tables at your friendly neighborhood Popeye's. For slathering on fried chicken, Louisiana might be a better choice, but for a few drops in gumbo or red beans and rice, this is a fine hot sauce.

Currently listening: 25 or 6 to 4, Chicago

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Earbud Review

Way back sometime in 2006, I realized that the default iPod earbuds pretty much sucked, so I decided to do a little shopping.

Pretty much instantly, I became a fan of the Philips "virtual surround sound" headphones. They're cheap ($20 or so in the store, $13 plus shipping on Amazon). The "virtual surround sound" works better than it has any right to. The treble-bass equalization is pretty much spot-on. And they have a convenient behind-the-neck arrangement, so if you need to actually listen to something in the real world for a few seconds, you're not stuck awkwardly holding them--they just rest on your neck. I really love these headphones. In fact, I love them so much, I bought three pairs of them over as many years.

Wait... no, I bought three pairs of them because they kept breaking. Like clockwork, after about a year of use, the sound in one channel would suddenly crap out on me. September 2007, left ear drops; I buy pair number 2. September 2008, left ear drops; I buy pair number 3. So when the melody dropped in September 2009 (leaving me with nothing but drums, a little bass, and some background vocals if I was lucky), I thought twice about buying pair number 4.

Thinking back on it, the design on these earphones is a little screwy. The cord is far too long, so it keeps getting caught on random objects as you walk past them--particularly doing yardwork or exercising. That much tension on the cord probably doesn't help the auditory integrity that seems to plague the earbuds. And because the cord was so long, it kept getting tangled in my pocket, ensuring that I'd spend at least half the time I wanted to listen to music on disentangling the damn cord.

So if not the old reliable Philips, where to turn? I headed to the Staples up the street and came out with the Griffin Tunebuds. I spent $30 (but they're cheaper--$18--on Amazon) on them, subscribing to the old fallacy that more expensive means better quality.

From the standpoint of durability, that seems to be true. Also, these earbuds did a great job of "noise isolating" like they claimed. The only problem is that the sound is no good at all. First, the bass is pretty decent, but the treble is cranked to eleven, and the low-mid range is way underbalanced. Equally as bad, there's a white noise/static undercurrent that runs all the time. That means if you're listening to music that relies on lots of dynamics changes (anything classical) or anything with a lot of starting and stopping (like a podcast), you're treated to SHHHHHH at every quiet moment. I had to find a better solution.

I've been participating in E-poll surveys for several years now. It's one of those deals where you fill out surveys about various things--usually TV, but sometimes random products, and occasionally food and drink. In return, you get "points" that go toward various rewards from cool places like Amazon, iTunes, and Best Buy. It's not much--it takes about a year to get to twenty bucks' worth of rewards. Having not cashed in for a while, and being a poor grad student, I decided to check my point balance on a whim, and hooray! I had enough for fifty bucks at Amazon.

Armed with that much virtual cash, I decided to buy the highest-rated fifty-dollar earbuds, figuring that surely they'd blow anything else I've ever heard out of the water. I ended up at the UltimateEars MetroFi 170 by Logitech. The verdict? They're good, defintiely better than the Tunebuds I had to put up with for a couple of weeks. The equalizer is much better, and the noise isolation is at least as good. On top of that, they seem much more durable than the Philips I used for years: the cord is sturdier and shorter, and I haven't had a tangling issue yet.

The thing is, though, I'm not sure they sound any better than the Philips. I'm inclined to think that the "directionality" of sound I noticed in the Philips was actually better due to this "virtual surround" business. And I get the same sort of white noise/static on low volume that I did with the Tunebuds. It's not as noticeable--more of a shhhhhh every time the volume drops--but it's definitely there. Maybe this is merely a side effect of good noise isolation--the static is there all the time in the iPod, but you only notice it if the noise isolation is any good?

Bottom line: I'm happy with the UltimateEars, and I'm even happier that they were free. I'm not sure I would have been as happy if I'd actually spent money on them, and I'm not at all convinced that a pair of these is any better than the two or three of Philips that cost the same amount of money and in series would last just as long.

Currently listening: "Spiders", Lovedrug

3-Sentence Reviews: TV Premieres, Part 2

Continuing from last week's installment...

Curb Your Enthusiasm: At the start of a TV season that seems determined to wreak as many changes in characters as the stretching bounds of realism will accept, Curb hit its stride by not changing a thing. Larry is still as cantankerous as ever, and the show's formula of "three or four plot elements converge to screw over Larry" hasn't gone anywhere at all. But that's what made the show funny for six seasons, and that's what should keep it funny for a seventh.

House: This was undoubtedly the weirdest episode of House ever, including the ones that were hallucinations or entirely in House's head. It definitely had its ups and downs, and I'm hesitant to pronounce it "good" or "bad" before I see it in context in the rest of the season. If it means the end of Dead Amber, though, there's at least one definite plus.

The Big Bang Theory: Very weak episode, because it strayed too much from what we've come to expect from these characters--sitcoms aren't supposed to be too much about character development. Sheldon needs to be laughably socially inept, not making statements about religion; Raj and Howard need to making wisecracks about Sheldon, not bringing out actual feelings in him; Leonard and Penny certainly do not need to be in bed together. And I really, really hate Kripke--slapping a speech impediment on a character does not make him funny.

Criminal Minds and CSI: New York: Basically the same episode in both shows, and both were reliably solid. Actually, these are pretty much the same show, with a different flavor of forensics in each. And as long as they stay reliably procedural-y, I'll keep watching both.

The Mentalist: I hope the decision to have Jane and Co. move away from all this Red John business is an admission from the producers that serialized plots don't really fit into a show as light-hearted as this one, instead of the shift to just another serialized element that Agent Bosco could easily become. All the drama about Jane leaving the team in the first half of the episode was completely unnecessary, but the second half picked up nicely with the stakeout scene. Also, is it just me, or is Amanda Righetti ridiculously pretty?

Special note to CBS regarding the above shows: get into the modern era and start putting full episodes online. All your competition does it, and even you do it with a handful of shows. The more reluctant you are to let me watch your programming for free, the more encouraged I am to download some dude's bootleg of it. Controlled distribution on the internet, or a free-for-all in Torrent-land. Your pick.

Currently listening: "My Mirror Speaks", Death Cab for Cutie

Sunday, September 20, 2009

3-Sentence Reviews: TV Premieres, Part 1

It's TV season again, and since I watch sort of a lot of television, I may as wellpost some thoughts on the premieres. But in keeping with the Twitter paradigm, I'm going to do micro-reviews of each one. This covers premieres for the week of 9/14.

Survivor: Samoa: I'm skeptical of this season, and most of my skepticism has to do with this Russell character. He manages to make Johnny Fairplay look like a decent human being and Coach look level-headed and sane. Sucks that Marisa had to go so early--she was cute, way cuter than those two blond girls that I can't tell apart.

Bones: Though it has intriguing mysteries like all the other procedural crime dramas that I'm so into, I'm not a huge fan of Bones, and after the season premiere, I realized why. It centers around the title character; Emily Deschanel is an attractive woman and a good actress, but her Detective Brennan is so socially stubborn that the show is difficult to watch. She's like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, except that his social ineptitude is comedic and therefore watchable.

The Office: Season 5 showed us that The Office is much better when it's emphasizing the "mock" part of "mockumentary" rather than trying to tackle serious issues. "Gossip" showed that the show is back to its old tricks, which is a relief. Michael exhibited some lawsuit-worthy behavior, Jim and Pam were adorable, Kelly was perky, Creed was creepy, and Andy made a fool of himself.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: This show is so funny I watched all four seasons of it in the past few weeks in the run-up to the premiere. The premiere had its moments, but I can think of several funnier episodes off the top of my head. FX lost major points in my book for that "covert screening" crap they kept pushing through the show--the "covertly screened" show was horrible, and to add insult to injury, they made it look like we'd be getting an hour-long premiere of Sunny.

Check back next week for House, various CSI's, The Mentalist, and more!

Currently listening: "We'll Never Sleep (God Knows We'll Try)", Rilo Kiley

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lessons Learned from a Replay of Earthbound

It's well-enough known that Earthbound is probably my favorite video game of all time. I won't argue that it's the best game of all time, or even the best RPG or the best SNES game. (It might be close on that last one.) But after observing what the video game-producing world has had to offer for the last fifteen or twenty years, I will argue that it's the one I like the best.

So, if other games feature more detailed graphics and immersive environments (Oblivion), more engrossing plots and powerful story lines (Final Fantasy X), or more entertaining multiplayer modes (Mario Kart), what makes Earthbound worthy of being my favorite ever?

A lot of it is nostalgia. Earthbound is the first, and to date one of the only, games that I "found". That is, there wasn't a huge media buzz over it that I simply succumbed to. There wasn't a mad rush among my friends to get this game that I joined once most of them had bought it too. Instead, I read a description and review of the game in the newspaper, I thought it looked interesting, and I started playing it. It turned out to be a lot of fun. And the same way that indie kids become rabidly protective of "their" bands, I started to idolize Earthbound.

Of course, it's not like Earthbound is a bad game. Otherwise it wouldn't have had the staying power that it obviously has. What works? Quirky sense of humor that gracefully vacillates between punny, absurdist, and surreal. Absolutely inspired soundtrack with a clear John Lennon influence. So many obscure, hidden treats that you're practically guaranteed to find something new every time you play through the game.

With that last one in mind, I decided I'd play through the game for probably the seventh time this past summer. I was going to take a completely novel approach to the game: complete tasks in obviously the wrong order, take the time to look for rare items I'd never bothered with in the past, make sure I sought out all those obscure hidden characters and messages that really give the game its spirit.

My observations, progress toward goals, and other thoughts about the game:

--I didn't finish, sadly enough.

--I blame my not finishing on the Broken Antenna, which upgrades to Jeff's ultimate weapon, the Gaia Beam. It took a long time to get. Fighting Uncontrollable Spheres is a pain in the ass because every time you kill one, it explodes, and you take quite a lot of damage.

--The Sword of Kings gave me a lot more trouble than it usually does... I killed a lot more than 128 Starmen Super, that's for sure. The Sword has been a running point of contention between me and my friend Nicholas because of how effortlessly I'd obtained it in the past. Once, I got it on the first try. Another time, I accidentally got two in the same game. He's never found it. I guess this is karma.

--I didn't get the Star Pendant (but I figured out how I would have approached it, had I had time to).

--The Magic Fry Pan is totally not worth the effort it takes to get. I abandoned the project a few Chomposaurs in. Paula shouldn't make too many physical attacks anyway, so unless you're really worried about Smash attacks, the Guts bonus is practically useless.

--The For Sale Sign, on the other hand, is awesome. I probably netted thousands of dollars from that thing over the course of the game, because you can use it to sell obsolete items rather than discarding them.

--There are really only three Sanctuaries you have to visit in the "right" order: Giant Step, Milky Well, and Lumine Hall. All three of these advance the plot of the game. You can skip Lilliput Steps, Milky Well, Magnet Hill, and Pink Cloud and revisit them later in the game.

--The Dusty Dunes Desert has a lot of cool Easter eggs that you wouldn't necessarily realize unless you combed every inch of it. That can be a pain because you apparently contract sunstroke if you walk around the desert for two minutes.

--The Clumsy Robot's bologna sandwich doesn't actually max out its HP.

--I never quite reached Magicant or anything beyond it, so sadly I can't comment on the rest of the game.

So while I never reached my goal of getting all the rare items and talking to every character in the game, I did find out some interesting things about the game. More importantly, I can definitely confirm that this game is awesome, and I remembered why it's among my all-time favorites.

Currently listening: "Ten Cent Blues", Eisley, from Combinations

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Basterds, plus Tarantino in General

It's taken me until right now to discover something that presumably the rest of the free moviegoing world has known for over a decade now: the only way to enjoy a Quentin Tarantino movie is not to take it seriously. I think that's why I didn't like Pulp Fiction that much--I was trying to make it make too much sense. (Alternately, maybe it wasn't actually a good movie at all, but here again, the rest of the free moviegoing world disagrees with me.)

But that's exactly why Inglourious Basterds was amazing--as long as you don't expect anything serious out of it, it's a masterpiece of ridiculousness. Sure, depending on personal taste, there might be a number of reasons you wouldn't want to see this movie. If the over-the-top needless violence in, say, Kill Bill wasn't your thing, you probably won't do well with the over-the-top needless violence in this movie. If you're expecting a thoughtful film about the sensitive issues that World War II raised, you're not going to get it here. And if you want any historical accuracy, forget it.

What you will get is a bunch of dead "Nat-zees", as Brad Pitt's character puts it. And Pitt's Aldo Raine is by far the best part of this film. His barely-literate Appalachian zeal for Nazi killing is incredibly entertaining. It's roles like this that make me actually respect the guy despite all the tabloid nonsense he spawns. Christoph Waltz is equally excellent as the primary antagonist Hans Landa. In fact, he makes a much better antagonist than, say, the Joker from The Dark Knight, because he's believable. Nobody is as deranged as the Joker, but plenty of Nazis were as deranged as Landa, and Waltz plays that derangement with such utter contemptibility and sliminess that you want nothing more than for him to lose.

So really, the movie only suffers when neither Pitt nor Waltz are involved in a scene. Nothing against Mélanie Laurent, but the scenes with Pitt and Waltz are so good that the story of her Shoshanna seems more like a subplot than an integral part of the film. Maybe her story seems weak because the backstory is still a mystery: we have no idea how she got to Paris and became successful following the death of her family. Also, I would have like to have seen the British film critic turned soldier have a bigger part in the movie.

But those flaws don't do much to reduce the awesomeness and absurdity that is Inglourious Basterds. Definitely recommended.

Currently listening: "Turn on Me", the Shins

Monday, July 27, 2009

Stunt Dorm Rooms

It's getting toward college move-in season again, and we all know what that means. No, not mandatory but useless orientation on the hottest and/or rainiest weekend of the year. Not overeager eighteen year olds drinking cases of Icehouse just because it's there. Not even student staff members who already resent their jobs, two weeks in. (Although, that last one is more true than the residents and professional staff alike might care to know.)

What it means is the annual rampant consumerist explosion known as "back to school shopping". Bookshelves. Lamps--in both desk and octopus-like floor varieties. Carpeting. Microwaves. Refrigerators--but not bigger than 3.1 cubic feet. Desks. Desk chairs. Futons. "Art". Coffee makers. Those ridiculous water dispensers. (Really, guys, there's a water fountain down the hall. I promise.)

That leaves me, and most other people who have actually been to college recently, wondering "where exactly do you put all that stuff?" The answer, if you listen to the peddlers of all this college gear, is "in your massive dorm room that you get all to yourself as a freshman". Here are a few of my favorite exaggerations:

This one's courtesy of our friends at Target. Note the massive, sun-filled window right above the bed (with neither safety screen in front of the window, nor shirtless dudes playing volleyball outside). The cleanliness. The modern, slightly-industrial decor. The new wooden furniture. The spotless mirror on the back of the door, with neither crack nor "unidentifiable smudge" from the last inhabitant. Also notice how the pale blue-gray bricks actually seem to compliment the colors in the bedding.

This one, from Bed Bath & Beyond, gives us a little less to work with, but there's still plenty of wishful thinking here. I like the luxury of putting the bed right in the middle of the room, with no need to cram it into a corner to afford the roommate some space. The bedding here, too, compliments the wall coloring. Better yet, it's available in 3 other styles--each of which comes with ready access to perfectly matching dorm rooms.

But by far my favorite in "yeah, right" awesomeness is this masterpiece from Ikea. Windows, check. Wall treatments that match your furniture and accessories, check. Enough space for a bed, a guitar, a desk-ish cube, and a bookshelf--on just your side of the room!--check. And the pièce de résistance? Hardwood floors. Because no dorms have decades-old carpeting, and surely none have dingy tile floor.

(All images copyright of their respective fantastically creative owners.)

Currently listening: "Shady Grove" as performed by Among the Oak & Ash

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Folk Music Among the Oak & Ash

The Paste Magazine Culture Club podcast turned me on to one of my favorite albums of summer 2008, and just as I was thinking I needed some new music for this summer, the July 2009 edition of Paste Culture Club showed up to save the day.

Among a bunch of bizarre stuff--bizarre stuff comes with the territory in that podcast--was the track "Peggy-O" from Among the Oak & Ash's self-titled album. They're a folk/"Americana" duet who play a lot of songs by that celebrated composer "Traditional". I've always had a soft spot for Appalachia-tinted folk-y music. (I don't even mind a little bluegrass, which is far from a popular opinion.) But the big obstacle in the way of me actually acquiring some is that it feels kind of weird listening to some fifty-year old dude from Tennessee plucking an indeterminate string instrument.

That's why Among the Oak & Ash is so intriguing: they play that sort of music, but they're indie enough to live comfortably in the rest of my iPod (and among the rest of the Paste Magazine fare). I mean, the girl singer is named Garrison, and the dude wears a vest while he's playing guitar.

Folk music thrives on harmonies, and Among the Oak & Ash delivers there. Garrison Starr and Josh Joplin have a very effective vocal arrangement that shows up in several of the songs on the album, where they sing the same melody and the same pitches (with Starr an octave or two higher, naturally). It's not harmonizing per se, but it's a nice effect that suggests simplicity and unity. The other vocal trick that works well is harmonizing in perfect fourths, but with Joplin singing the higher pitch, despite his lower vocal register.

The album makes the mistake that so many others do, front-loading it with the most interesting tracks. "Hiram Hubbard" is a brilliant way to start the album, and I don't think it would have worked anywhere but the start. The next three tracks, "Peggy-O", "Angel Gabriel", and "Shady Grove", are upbeat (or at least fast-paced), and they're my favorite three tracks on the album. "Angel Gabriel" is probably the highlight of the album, combining the band's vocal excellence with some nice religious imagery.

Unfortunately, the entire album isn't as exciting as the first four songs promise. "The Water Is Wide" and "High, Low, and Wide" are both about three times as long as they need to be, and honestly none of the songs where either Starr or Joplin sings alone is as effective as the ones where they sing together. "Joseph Hillstrom" is a catchy enough original composition, and I couldn't identify it as an original rather than a traditional simply by listening to it, which is a good sign.

As first, I didn't see a whole lot that would keep me coming back to Among the Oak & Ash, but I don't think that's true at all. The band's music represents an original take on music deeply rooted in the cultural, social, and spiritual traditions of this country. Or, a contemporary view of timeless themes. Starr and Joplin say that Among the Oak & Ash is a project that's just beginning, and I can only hope we see many more albums like this one in the coming years.

Currently listening: "A World Apart", Vedera

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harper's Island Post-Mortem

I've been following the CBS series Harper's Island thanks to my friend Alex Harkey. Quick recap/explanation: several years ago, lots of people got killed on Harper's Island, a secluded island off the coast of Seattle; now two people are trying to get married on Harper's Island; people start dying again; the killer is one of the wedding guests or one of their friends on the island. (Spoilers follow. Most of this is taken from a conversation with Alex, and edited for coherency.)

In the end, we find out that the killer was Henry, the groom-to-be, motivated by some psychotic conception of "togetherness" with his childhood friend Abby. And if I understood the finale correctly, I think Henry and Abby might be half-siblings? That's especially creepy.

My thoughts on the reveal and the resolution:

I don't dislike Henry as the killer, mostly because I don't see him as totally implausible. Everything I said about knowing the island, and knowing the wedding party, and being central enough to have some sort of impact definitely applies to Henry. The thing that I like the least about Henry as the killer is that it was weird to watch him transform into a complete psychopath over the course of about an hour.

It was clear Henry had some downright bizarre notions about "being together" with Abby--as in he seemed like a total nutjob--but he seemed the most stable out of anyone on that island through the first eleven episodes. Given that the motive was apparently driven by insanity, I'm not sure how plausible it was to see ostensibly the most sane guy there have that motive then see the sanity just vanish as soon as it was convenient.

A killer in a murder mystery should appear as normal as, or even more normal than, the other characters. The trick in making a really good one is to put in subtle hints that some motive could exist while still appearing like a normal person on the surface. From that angle, I more could have bought the killer being someone with some kinks to their personality than the guy who was essentially the straight man to a whole lot of eccentricity.

I'm not sure if you could have positively identified Henry as the killer in any of the first eleven episodes. There's plenty of evidence against him, but I don't think there's a smoking gun. Motive would have been impossible to nail down until about the ninth episode at the earliest, when we found out that Abby's mother likely had a child with Wakefield. It would be interesting to watch through some of the early episodes already knowing how the ending and resolution to see if that colors some of the "clues" or if any of the deaths could be explained or are still suspicious.

All that said, the weakest part of the denouement was the explanation of Henry's motive. We saw that Henry wanted to go around with Abby a lot, but that's not identifiable as motive at all--they were understood to be good friends, and it's a heck of a logical leap to take that to "well, okay, what if Henry wants the two of them to be more than friends, and that's why he's the killer."

I would have preferred one of the characters to have figured out the killer rather than Henry essentially telling them. Of the characters who knew who that killer was Henry, Henry himself told Trish, Sully, Abby, and Jimmy. We don't know what eventually happened to Shea and Madison, but we can assume that Abby or Jimmy told them the truth eventually. That means that nobody actually figured out the killer for themselves, which is a little disappointing.

Finally, it would really help if we got a "debrief" sort of episode? Maybe some "here were all the clues" and "here's how Henry killed all these people and avoided suspicion"? Make it similar to the Mole, where after the big reveal, there's always a "debrief" episode where the "clues" and "sabotage" are explained. I think Harper's Island would probably benefit from something like that too. Or maybe even a writer/producer commentary track over the episodes to say things like "okay, notice how we haven't seen Henry in the last few minutes here" or "while all this is going on, here's where we imagine Henry is rigging the trapped chandelier in the church."

Thoughts on the series as a whole:

Foremost, I think it would have worked better if everyone wasn't so "sure" that Wakefield was dead at the beginning. I really dislike starting a story with the premise that an old villain was dead, then bringing back the old villain just so the good guys can fight him again. (See my comments on the new Transformers movie.) It would have been a lot easier for me to stomach if it had been something along the lines of "some people say that Wakefield died, but I have my doubts". That way, you can get people thinking from the very beginning about whether or not the guy is alive, and there's a lot less secret-keeping between Abby and her father.

It's easy to say that I would have preferred that Wakefield not come back at all, but honestly that would have changed the series so much that it's tough to say if such an overhaul would have made things better or worse. He was pretty intense as a villain, but that doesn't necessarily say that his appearance made good narrative sense. The idea that he would show up to prove his own innocence, as suggested by Harkey, is a great twist that I never even thought of, and I doubt anyone would have seen coming.

There was a definite shift in tone between the first ten episodes and the last three, when the killings went from mysterious to out in the open, or alternately the style went from "murder mystery" to "horror". Maybe that was to try and make things more exciting and intense for the last part of the series. I think it worked; the last three or four episodes really seemed like a climax to me, with the real emotional climax of the series as a whole coming at the end of the eleventh episode, when Chloe threw herself into the water so Wakefield couldn't get her.

Speaking of Chloe, I'm glad that the Cal-Chloe story and the Sully redemption story reached their resolutions. Toward the middle of the series, I kept insisting that all of those characters had to live to the end so their stories could resolve. In retrospect, though, none of those people actually did, and I think both stories were handled well. Also in retrospect, Shea pretty much had to live, unless they wanted the Madison story to end in complete tragedy. Not only can you really not kill a little girl, you really can't orphan her either, I guess.

Overall reaction to the series:

Definitely one of the strengths was the closed environment--the promise of "this is only going thirteen episodes, you will know all the answers by the end, and the killer will be revealed." It's like Lost, which hit a nadir at an episode now popularly referred to as the "flying kites in Thailand" episode, which had virtually nothing to do with the overarching plot of the series, or even the story arc of the season. Basically, the producers realized the show had no real direction, so they petitioned ABC for an end date. When they got it, the show got back on its feet, because they'd always imagined Lost as a show with a beginning, middle, and end. Short story long, having a set amount of time to get things done allows much more effective storyboarding and long-term planning, which I think Harper's Island capitalized on.

I'm not exactly sure why Harper's Island's ratings were so low. Obviously the move to a different time slot didn't help, but I think the low ratings probably started before that and the move was a reaction to falling ratings. Maybe people didn't want to wait thirteen weeks to figure out how it ended? Maybe it's because it was so serialized? I definitely think it's the sort of show where if you miss one episode, you feel lost, and you might be less than inclined to watch the next week. Of course there's always the option to watch online, but maybe not enough viewers thought that was worth it, so there was just a gradual decline in watching each week. The only other idea I've heard is that some combination of the time slot and network didn't reach the target demographic well enough.

In general, I enjoyed it a lot, and would recommend it with a few reservations (noted above). It's absolutely the sort of show that's way more fun to discuss with someone else, to make predictions and give reactions to the murders as they happen.

Currently listening: "I'm Not Over", Carolina Liar