Tag Archive: reviews

November 9 2008

Dexter: Moral ambiguity and cognitive dissonance in television (and why I love it)

Ok, let’s take a break from all the politics and talk about TV.

One of my favorite shows right now is a Showtime series called Dexter. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s familiar with it, which is a shame, because it’s one of the most interesting and gutsy shows on TV right now.

On its surface, Dexter seems like yet another crime show. It takes place is perpetually-sunny Miami, it has a cast of interesting characters, and it focuses on Dexter (shockingly enough) who is an easy-to-like blood-spatter analyst working for the Miami police department. But the thing that sets this show apart is that Dexter is also a serial killer.

The story is told primarily from Dexter’s perspective, and you hear his inner monologue. On the outside, he’s the quirky guy who brings a box of doughnuts to work every day to share with his co-workers. But he’s driven to murder people, and does so quite frequently. He makes sure that his victims are criminals, but he’s not doing it to get bad guys off the streets. He does it because he enjoys killing; because he has a need for it. He even collects a drop of blood from each victim on a microscope slide, which helps him (and the audience) keep track of exactly how long he’s been doing it, and how often. Beyond that, he’s pretty much a normal person who deals with normal problems, who has a normal life, and a pretty normal job.

The thing I find most fascinating about the show is that it’s not trying to tell you what to think about what Dexter does. It’s a constant festival of cognitive dissonance, with your mind and morality constantly flipping between what you perceive as good and evil, and usually coming up with something in between. It raises far more questions than it answers. Is it ok for Dexter to kill a serial rapist? How are you supposed to feel when that same rapist begs for his life before Dexter plunges a knife into his chest? Is Dexter any better than the people he’s killing? Does Dexter’s difficult past make what he’s doing understandable?

Dexter isn’t the one-dimensional serial killer character you typically see opposite the “good guys” on the standard procedural cop show. He’s a very likeable character. You want to see him succeed in life. You don’t want to see him caught and sent to jail, even though it seems like he deserves it.

Dexter isn’t a show for people who view the world in black & white. This isn’t about the good guys catching the bad guys. It’s about a good guy who’s also a bad guy, and it’s not telling you how to think. It’s showing you that the real world is shades of gray, and that you have to weigh each situation as it comes.

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October 6 2008

Book Review: “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God” by Guy P. Harrison

I couldn’t find a good image on the net to steal, so I just tossed my copy in the scanner. I do plan to actually buy the book someday.

This is the book I wish everybody on the planet would read. Or at least my friends and family.

The best thing about this book is that it conveys the reasoning behind atheism without being even remotely condescending toward believers. It wasn’t written to convert people, or prove who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just trying to inform.

Not only does the book inform you about atheism and, being a book with a “western world” mindset, Christianity, but it also delves into many other world religions, some of which I’ve never even heard of. Harrison seems to have led a fascinating life so far, traveling the world and seeing many different types of people and cultures, and he gladly shares some of his stories and experiences while at the same time using them to illustrate the idea he’s trying to convey in a given chapter.

The format of the book is ideal for this sort of topic. Each of the titular 50 reasons is given its own chapter, and each chapter can be read on its own, without having read any of the previous chapters. The chapters are, on average, about 7 pages long. This means that each chapter covers its intended topic thoroughly without going overboard with unnecessary prose or over-elaborate explanations.

No matter what you believe, this book will give you a lot to think about.

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August 17 2008

Book Review: “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris


This is one of the first atheism-oriented books I read once I realized that I was probably an atheist and that it was ok to read books on the subject to learn more. If I remember correctly, it was #4, after The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (great), God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (I couldn’t get into it, even though I really liked his writing), and Harris’ own The End of Faith (mostly pretty good).

This book was written as a direct response to the criticism Harris received from The End of Faith. It’s written directly to “Christian America”, and attempts to address the biggest issues and apparent omissions from his previous book. As a result, it reads more like a conversation than a lecture, which really helps.

Though I enjoyed The End of Faith, I found Letter to a Christian Nation to be much easier to read, to understand, and to recommend to others. Harris addresses specific questions that you commonly hear when theists are questioning the atheist point of view (as they should, even though they rarely apply similar questioning to their own religion), and in a calm, matter-of-fact way.

In fact, this book seems more mellow and casual when compared to The End of Faith. This helps it a great deal, because the book can’t be as easily dismissed as the angry ranting of a “militant atheist” (a term which seems to refer to any atheist who doesn’t just sit down, shut up, and let the Christians do what they want).

The best part is that it’s short. It’s only 144 pages long (or 2 hours in audiobook form), which makes it much easier to digest for the common reader. Harris doesn’t ramble or tell unnecessary anecdotes or quote other books very often. He specifically focuses on Christianity (as if the title of the book wasn’t a big clue) in order to tailor this book to the general public. If you want to read his opinions on other religions, he covers them at great length (especially Islam) in The End of Faith.

I listened to the audiobook version on my MP3 player, which I think is a great way to go. (I’ll address my inability to actually read non-fiction in a future post.) The narrator is very good, and either believes the material he’s speaking, or he’s an excellent actor. His calm voice lacks any venom that could distort what Harris is really trying to say.

(I was just thinking…it must be hard finding book narrators who don’t have a problem with narrating an atheist book. It’s probably a good thing that they’ve never done an audiobook of Mein Kampf, because anybody who takes that job is going to come out of it sounding like a nazi. They’d have to get someone who can in no way be mistaken for a nazi, like Morgan Freeman or Woody Allen.)

The best thing about this book is that it’s actually something you can give to your believer friends to help them understand why you can’t believe in God. It specifically addresses the common Christian throughout its pages. Will it convert them? Probably not, unless they’re already on the fence. And true believers won’t be swayed by any of the arguments Harris makes, of course. But most rational believers will probably come away with a better understanding of who atheists really are, and they’ll probably never look at their own religion the same way again.

On a slightly unrelated note, I find it hilarious that someone wrote a book called The End of Reason in response to Harris’ The End of Faith. Guess they didn’t give much thought to that title, did they?

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April 19 2008

Playing with the Liquid Resizer image program

Update: This program was eventually bought by Adobe, and it’s now a part of Photoshop, from CS4 onward, as the Content-Aware Scale tool.

Some of you may have seen a few YouTube videos where a guy showed off a really cool new image-resizing program that actually shrunk/enlarged elements of the picture, rather than just the whole picture, thus creating a more or less realistic image without unsightly stretching.

Well, a few days ago, they released this program as a beta to the public (eventually they’ll be selling it as a Photoshop plugin), and you can find it here. I’ve been playing with it a bit, and here are some of the cool things I’ve been able to do with it.

This is the shot I started out with. Dan in the snow taking pictures. I decided to try resizing it so the picture was square. The original dimensions were 800×600, and I changed them to 600×600.

In Liquid Resize, I selected the area of the picture that I DIDN’T want resized (Dan and his tripod), and let the program do the rest. As you can see, it created an almost perfect "scrunch job" of the image. Most of the image loss came from the path on the left, and from the trees. The large tree in the upper-right corner was scrunched a bit too much for my taste the first time, so I protected it too. The rest of the trees are mostly narrower, but you can’t tell unless you’re looking at the original.

In this image, I thought it’d be fun to try to take Dan out of the picture completely and see what happened. In LR, you can either choose to "protect" or "delete" an element of the picture. Protecting an area will cause the program to completely ignore the protected area when it’s looking for elements to scrunch/stretch. Setting an area to "delete" will cause the area to be favored for deletion, so it’ll scrunch into the deletion area as much as possible.

The result is pretty good, though you can definitely see some seams, and the big tree in the foreground has seen better days. Oh well; this isn’t really what it’s supposed to be used for.

Here’s another fun shot. This is Kev, Dan, and Tim (and myself behind the camera) out golfing before Dan’s wedding.

…and here’s the square version. This one turned out really well. LR closed the gap between Kev and the other two, and brought in the left side. Remember that it’s not cropping out ANYTHING; it’s resizing the different elements so they all fit within the specified dimensions. The houses in the back do seem a little narrower, and of course the pond is a bit smaller, but you’d never notice that if you hadn’t seen the original.

There is one minor issue though: Kev seems like he’s a lot taller now, due to the change in perspective.

Hmm…why is Dan in every one of these pictures so far?

Anyway, this is Dan & Jenni after the wedding, when we were driving around on the bus through Stillwater. We stopped by an outdoor biker hangout and somebody let them pose for pictures on their bike.

Again, I had LR change it to be square. This one was tricky. I protected Dan, Jenni, and their motorcycle of course, and also Shelly on the right. I also protected the two motorcycles in the back, because they were too distorted the first time I tried this. I also had it delete the lady on the left. I may have protected the car in the back too; I don’t remember.

As you can see, it brought the two bikes in the back (and Shelly) closer together. Some problems, which I could probably fix if I wasn’t so lazy, are that the house in the back is kinda scrunched, as is the bike on the far left.

Now, let’s play with a vertical picture, at 600×800. Here’s a shot of some ducks on a frozen pond.

This time, rather than having the program scrunch the image down to a 600×600, I had it stretch it to 800×800. I didn’t bother to have it protect any elements, and just decided to see what it would do.

Mostly, it just stretched the less-detailed area on the left. It also separated the ducks a little bit. Good solution.

This one is pretty funny, actually. I went back to the original image, and resized it down to 600×600. LR chose to shrink most of the background lake element, and as a result the ducks look gigantic. I definitely wouldn’t have been chasing them with a stick that day if they were all 5 feet tall.

The horizon on the far right looks a little goofy too. It scrunched the skyline and treeline to make room for the branch.

Overall, I think this program/plugin is going to be a valuable tool in any photo manipulator’s arsenal. Obviously it’s not perfect for every situation, but it’s very easy to use, and usually pulls off some impressive feats.

Here are a few more images I created. The first one is the original in each pair.

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July 15 2007

Greatest cancelled TV shows ever (Part 1)

I was just watching some old video files I downloaded a while ago, and I came to the realization that some (or dare I say, most) of the best TV shows get cancelled before their time. So I thought I’d mention some of my favorites, in the hope that I’d get people interested in some of these lost gems. As far as I know, they’re all available on DVD.

Carnivàle (2003-2005)

Jeez, it’s hard to explain this show. It takes place during the Great Depression, and on the surface, it’s about a struggling traveling carnival, and a seemingly-unrelated preacher. In the first episode, the carnival picks up a young man (Ben, the main character) who, unbeknownst to them, has the power to heal others. Ben and the preacher also share some sort of bond, and are gradually drawn to each other. Eventually, you realize that it’s not really about a carnival at all, but a battle between good and evil. There’s all sorts of mysticism and prophesy and a very deep mythology. Or there would have been.

Unfortunately, it only lasted for 2 seasons. The first season was very, well, deliberately paced, which could be mistaken for “slow”. The ratings weren’t very good, but HBO was kind enough to give it a second season to tie everything together.

The second season was nowhere near as deliberate as the first, and they abandoned the gradual buildup of the first season to get about 4 seasons of material into one. Things really start happening, and many mysteries are explained, including what the show is really about.

Personally, I can’t decide which season works better. At the end of the first, I felt like “wow, this is a really cool show, but I still have no clue what it’s about”. The second explained too much, and of course there are plenty of plotlines still open, since they were hoping that ratings would improve enough for more seasons, or a movie of some sort.

To be a Carnivàle fan is to know true frustration, but I still recommend checking it out.

Farscape (1999-2003)

Farscape is about modern-day human astronaut John Crichton, who gets lost in space and winds up aboard a ship with several escaping alien prisoners. He accidentally pisses off a military officer, and must stay with the ship and prisoners to keep from being captured. Gradually, he makes friends with the prisoners and acquires lots of enemies. Crichton’s quest for a way home is detoured when it turns out that he posesses something that the great military forces of the galaxy desire.

The show was produced by the Jim Henson Company, which means that the show is filled with weird alien creatures of every variety. Some characters are covered in extensive makeup, some obscured under very clever prosthetics, and some are actually elaborate animatronic puppets. Makes the pointy ears and goofy foreheads on Star Trek look quaint.

The show is full of sci-fi goodness like spaceship battles, laser gunfights, elaborate story arcs, oppressive military forces and all that, but it also has some truly amazing characters. Though there is a core group of characters, there are also often additions and subtractions as Crichton and his shipmates meet up with new people, all with their own agendas. Nobody is who they seem to be on the surface. Trusted allies can wind up betraying their friends, enemies can become friends, and just about everybody is crazy.

Farscape was the show that really helped the Sci-Fi Channel get off the ground, and helped it to become more than a glorified rerun network. The show ran for 4 seasons and was apparently approved for a fifth, but then Sci-Fi axed it. It was their most popular show, and they cancelled it. Of course, it was also their most expensive show.

Fortunately, Sci-Fi let them finish the show with a 3-hour miniseries a couple years after cancellation, but it’s really hard to tie up 4 years of an elaborate story in 3 hours.

I think they still air the show in reruns, but it’s one of those shows that you need to watch from start to finish, so I recommend DVDs.

Star Trek (1966-1969)

I just wanted to briefly mention the grandaddy of them all, because without the original Star Trek, where would Science Fiction be today? Like any good sci-fi, it was far deeper than it seemed. The show tackled numerous social issues, from race to war to religion, you name it. It only lasted 3 seasons before it was cancelled due to poor ratings, but it changed the world. And it looks better than ever on the recently released remastered DVDs.

Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005)

Enterprise never got the respect it deserved. True, it started out a little slow, but so did every other Star Trek show, and most other TV shows too, for that matter. The first season is pretty decent. The second season is good. The third season is great, and the fourth is also great, but for different reasons.

The show takes place many years before the Original Series, and the Enterprise is the first and only human ship capable of long-range space exploration. There’s no Federation yet. Humanity has only had contact with a few alien races (the first being Vulcans, of course) so they’re eager to get out there and see what’s what. In fact, in the first episode, they see their first Klingon (dun dun duuuun!) and have to return him to his homeworld.

For the first 2 seasons, it’s all classic Star Trek fare – seeking out new life and/or civilizations, going boldly and all that. The one hickup is the inclusion of the “Temporal Cold War” storyline. In the first episode, we’re introduced to a new evil alien race called the Suliban, who are these crazy souped-up genetic experiments from the future, or something. Fortunately, there aren’t that many episodes involving the TCW, and they’re mostly absent from Seasons 3 and 4.

In Season 3 and 4, the episodes are way better. Season 3 is basically one long storyline where the Enterprise has to stop a race of aliens bent on destroying Earth. Season 4 takes major strides toward the formation of the Federation, and plays with a lot of established Trek lore. In one 3-parter, you get to see them deal with some of Khan’s leftover genetics experiments, meet Data’s great-grandfather, and find out why the original Kirk-era Klingons looked so much different than they do on the other shows.

The characters are kinda standard, though they get much more interesting as time goes on. Captain Archer is more like Kirk than other captains, though he’s also somewhat less sure of what he’s doing, since what he’s doing has never been done by other humans before. The science officer is an uppity female Vulcan who seems to only be there to tell the puny humans how stupid they are for the first season. The rest of the cast are all humans for obvious reasons. There’s a likable southern engineer who winds up in a lot of embarassing situations (and provides most of the swearing on the show), a quiet British armory officer, a worrisome Asian communications officer, and the token black guy who flies the ship, or something. Oh, and then there’s Phlox, who’s an alien doctor (best character on the show).

After 4 seasons, the show was ended due to low ratings. The final episode (which is generally considered equal to Paramount kicking each of the show’s fans in the balls) is a Holodeck simulation on the Next Generation Enterprise, featuring Riker and Troy looking pretty old and overweight playing the characters they played 15 years ago. Sigh.

I’ve got more shows to cover, but I’m getting tired of writing, so I think I’ll make this a two-parter and continue tomorrow or something. And yes, I’m going to mention Firefly.

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May 6 2007

Spiderman 3 Review – 6.5/10

Apparently, Sony is planning Spiderman 4-6 right now. If they can keep them as interesting as this one was, then I might as well give them my money now. Actually, they’ll have to be satisfied with an IOU, because I’m broke. That’s if they were actually accepting money for the next 3 movies right now. Oh, but I’m rambling.

So yea, I liked it a lot, despite its flaws. I’d say it was better than #1 but not as good as #2. But maybe I’m biased, since Doc Ock is my favorite Spiderman villain and they got him PERFECT in the movie.

It’s really hard to go over what you like about a movie, and really easy to go over what you didn’t. So I guess you can assume that I liked everything that I didn’t like.

So what didn’t I like? For starters, there was just too damn much Mary Jane. Kirsten Dunst isn’t exactly my favorite actress, and she was exactly the same as she was in the previous two movies: boring boring boring. We have characters in this movie who can shoot webs from their hands, turn into sand, and fly. Why did they have to stick so much “struggling actress” into it? I didn’t pay $9.25 for a Hallmark Channel special. Fortunately, the parts that aren’t about MJ are a blast to watch. Supposedly, Dunst doesn’t want to do any more Spiderman movies, and for that I’m glad.

What else didn’t I like? Sandman. The actor was great, the sand effects were great, but they basically turned him into a lumbering Frankenstein monster that kills without thought. His “I just want to help my daughter” story isn’t exactly believable when he’s smashing people by the dozens.

The fact that the movie had three villains to try to juggle when they weren’t advancing the insipid love story meant that they had a lot of story to tell, but not enough time to tell it. You can tell by some noticeable gaps in the story, as well as a couple too-convenient duct tape-style segments that tie things together, that a lot of content got left on the cutting room floor.

I wish they had just focused on Harry, Sandman, and the black suit, and just left Venom as a cameo at the end so they could focus on him in the next one. Why did they feel like they had to jam three unrelated villains into one movie? Hell, even TWO is too much sometimes (I’m thinking of the Batman movies, pre-Bale).

Aside from those problems, it was still a blast to watch. The fights are great (though they use too much CG in them) and Spidey is still a great character. There were even some surprises to ME, and I thought I knew what was going to happen since I know the source material. It had the action, the characters, the humor (oh Bruce Campbell, you’re just too awesome for words), and the suspense that the previous movies had.

Basically, I’m saying that if you liked the other Spidey movies, you’ll like this one. I give it an 6.5/10.

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