Monthly Archives: July 2011

Watching the Detectives

I’d like to welcome back my wonderful friend H., who blogs at The Thousand Book Project.  If you’re looking for a good mystery to read on the beach this summer, here are some ideas. I can personally vouch for the Thomas Pitt books.  Thanks for classing up the joint, H.!  – mekkalekkah 

What is it about a detective that absolutely charms me?  Having been exposed to the charms of Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order at a fairly young age, I’ve always had an affinity for police procedurals.  As I’ve grown older, this affinity has intertwined with another of my great loves: history.  Well written, minutely detailed whodunits in a historical setting absolutely fascinate me.  How do you solve a crime without DNA evidence, without pictures, fingerprints, or in some cases, even flashlights?  If you’re smart enough, you manage.  Below are some of my favorite inspectors, investigators, detectives, and all around brilliant gents who manage to catch the bad guy, regardless of the year.

M. Didius Falco (Didius Falco mysteries, Lindsey Davis)

Didius Falco (or Marcus, to his friends and family) is a private informer in ancient Rome during the reign of the emperor Vespasian.  A strict republican, he takes the cases for Vespasian to earn enough money to move to a higher social class – once he does, he can marry his patrician ladyfriend, Helena Justina.  Working for the emperor sends him not just around Rome, but to the farthest reaches of the empire and everywhere in between – Egypt, England, Gaul and Germania.  Not only is it interesting because I never really learned a lot about ancient Rome, but it’s incredibly detailed and it’s very obvious that a lot of time was spent researching to make everything believable, even down to the anklets on the girls serving wine in the shops.  Falco is also a great character, a wisecracking, sarcastic, curly-headed ladykiller with a heart of gold and a sensitive streak (he likes to write (terrible) poetry in his spare time).  Helena is also great, she’s intelligent and stubborn and a fairly modern woman but it doesn’t feel anachronistic at all.  I fully admit I have a huge crush on Didius Falco and his smart mouth.

Thomas Pitt (Thomas Pitt series, Anne Perry)

Thomas Pitt is the working class son of a gamekeeper and now Bow Street Runner in Victorian England.  He has a reputation for honesty, a keen ability to read people, and a dogged determination to solve a case, and a reputation for being completely unkempt and wild haired.  He works a very posh area of London that brings him into the houses and lives of the wealthy.  Since the police at that time are seen as a distasteful necessity, like a rat catcher or a sewer cleaner, oftentimes doors are literally and figuratively closed to him when he has to investigate.  Luckily his nosy wife Charlotte has a socialite sister, equally nosy and looking for something to occupy herself, who manage to charm their way in and discover clues Thomas would never be able to find.  I call these Cracklike Victorian Detective Novels because once I started reading them I just blew right through the entire series, which is at least twenty books by this point.  The plots are often ridiculous (gay suicide pacts!  Secret witchcraft societies!  Irish bombers!  Oh, and honest to God, Thomas solves a crime with Oscar Wilde’s assistance – twice) but they’re so fast paced and dramatic that you don’t seem to mind.  I’ve actually gotten very wrapped up in them, staying up late to finish and gasping when the killer is revealed.  Thomas and Charlotte are also excellent because they feel like a very modern couple while still fitting perfectly into their time period.  Thomas is probably the most heroic of the detectives here, but he’s not perfect so it doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief.  Also, there was a tv movie made for the first book in the series and it is absolutely awful and even more ridiculous than the books.

Mary Russell (Russell/Holmes series, Laurie R. King)

Obviously I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan but I actually read this series before getting into any of Doyle’s stories.  Mary Russell is an English-American Jewish girl, a brilliant scholar studying chemistry and theology at Oxford University in the 1920s.  Oh, and she’s also the partner of semi-retired Sherlock Holmes.  Together they travel the globe and solve crimes under Mycroft’s guidance.  Some people do not like these books: they feel too Mary Sue-ish, they don’t like the way Doyle’s characters are portrayed, they feel Doyle’s books are sacred and shouldn’t be touched, or they don’t like Russell and Holmes’ relationship.  I can see where people would have these issues but I feel that they’re extremely well written, and very true to the voice and spirit of the original Holmes stories.  I’m usually extremely wary of books that are retellings of other stories from another character’s POV but Russell is a wry, intelligent storyteller who is every bit an intellectual match with Holmes.  Also (spoiler alert!) Russell and Holmes do marry later in the series, which I realize is very much against the common perception of Holmes, but it’s almost an aside and never ever is the focus of the books save for the one where they actually do get married.  I will concede that King’s version of Watson gets a very short shrift but her Holmes is pitch perfect.  As a fan of Holmes, you could do a lot worse and I think it’s almost a disservice to write off these books just because they don’t “fit” the idealized image of Sherlock Holmes 100%.  Also someone, I don’t know if it’s King herself or a fan or what, poses as Mary Russell on twitter and often makes snarky comments about the books and insists that SHE, not King, is the rightful author.

Matthew Corbett (Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter, Robert McCammon)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew lives in colonial New York in the early 18th century.  Starting as a curious minded legal clerk, he heads to the Carolinas with his boss to deal with a witchcraft trial.  His skill at winnowing out the truth of a matter brings him to the attention of a secret network of spies on both sides of the Atlantic, and he’s hired as a new agent and trained to be a true detective.  The books become more involved and more swashbuckling as Matthew deals with Indians, corrupt police, idiotic royal representatives, and the various perils of New York nearly 100 years before American Independence.  I really like these books because again, unfortunately colonial America is not a period I know much about, so the detail is fascinating to me, and Matthew is a very quiet and very relatable, human character, nowhere near as noble as Thomas Pitt is made out to be.  The cases all have a very modern feel, with serial killers and sociopaths and psychological aspects, but it’s still 1702 so it’s not really put into so many words.  They’re also all very thick books but they hardly ever drag so you really get involved and wrapped up in the story.

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Netflix vs. Entitlement

Since one of my regular features on this blog is my Netflix Instant Pick, I felt obliged to weigh in on the Netflix pricing controversy. 

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 24 hours, Netflix raised its prices yesterday. I was previously enrolled in the package that lets you stream as much as you want, and borrow one DVD at a time. The old price was around ten dollars a month, and now I’ll be paying another $6 a month for the same service.

As you can imagine, customers took to the Internet to complain. The topic #DearNetflix was trending on Twitter most of the day yesterday. Maybe it still is, but I haven’t had time to take a look and see. If you’re feeling brave, you can click here to read the complaints.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an old fogey, but I wasn’t mad the price increase. I think the reason I wasn’t angry is that the day before prices went up, I saw this article on CNN that discussed the upcoming contract renewals for Netflix’s licensing of streaming content. After reading that article, I was worried that Netflix would be unable to generate enough revenue to keep the movies that were already available for streaming, let alone add new ones. Once I read that article, I knew that price hikes were inevitable.

I know that there are other options besides Netflix streaming, such as Hulu Plus, Apple TV, and just plain old piracy. However, I don’t own a laptop or an iPad, and I hate watching TV and movies on my computer while sitting at my desk. I prefer seeing them on my HDTV while sitting on my couch with my neurotic cat. (She hates it when I am sitting at the computer, because then she can’t get attention from me.)

I don’t think that Netflix is too costly, anyway. I remember last summer when I first moved to Austin from Phoenix, I didn’t have Netflix at first. I was going through a phase where I was obsessed with getting caught up on the TV show Fringe, so I went to the local Blockbuster. I rented 3 DVD’s and it cost me FIFTEEN dollars! After that gouging, I found out that Netflix was much cheaper at ten dollars a month. I’m not upset about paying fifteen dollars a month for unlimited DVD’s and streaming. It’s a small price to pay and there are no late fees.

Of course, to today’s entitled gotta-have-it-now generation, paying for music, movies and TV is an unheard of horror. Yes, you can pirate everything if you’re determined not to pay for it. I’ve seen with the music industry how things can end up when piracy takes over, so I pay for all of my music. I don’t want the same thing happen to the movie studios.

If you want to blame anyone for being “greedy” you should blame the studios who are asking Netflix to pay them more money so that they can license their content. Netflix is not the one who asked for more money, the studios are. And if you were surprised that this happened, then you are in for a shock if you ever leave your house, because apparently you live in a bubble. 

If you compare the price of Netflix to the cost of going to the movies, renting videos elsewhere, or renting/streaming movies on iTunes or Amazon, you will soon see what a bargain it is.  Yes, it’s STILL a bargain.  Stop whining and take a minute to think about the fact that if you are complaining about this, you’re probably living in a fantasy world.  Everything has a price, and the cost of Netflix is still less than one night out at the movies, for the most part.

Netflix Instant Pick vol. 6 – The IT Crowd and The Guild

Nerd alert!

I just finished marathoning two of the geekiest shows I have ever seen, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  For those of you who think The Big Bang Theory is the ultimate in sitcom nerdery, you need to level up.  It’s time to put away your 12-sided die and pick up your 20-sided die.

First up – The IT Crowd.  In this case, IT stands for “Information Technology”, not the “it factor”.  (And yes, I knew what IT stood for without having to look it up, thank you very much!)  It’s a British comedy, as if I watch anything else.  Roy (played by Chris O’Dowd, who you might recognize as the cop in Bridesmaids) and Moss are the tech support geeks, and Jen is their Relationship Manager.  In other words, she protects them from angry end-users.

Here is a clip so you can get an idea of what it’s all about:

As an end-user who tries not to be one of THOSE people, I laughed really hard at this show.  I’ll admit right now, I have called IT and had it turn out that I didn’t have the thing plugged in.  Maybe more than once.  How embarrassing!

You don’t have to know anything about computers to find the show funny, but it helps.  Don’t worry, they don’t spend all their time in the office.  Sometimes they go out for a drink, or go to see a play about gays called Gay, or get stuck in Namco machines.

I’ll admit it right now.  I know that everyone has a huge crush on Chris O’Dowd, and I do find him adorable.  (Though sometimes all I can see is how close together his eyes are and how chubby his cheeks are, and he starts to look demented.)  I have to be different and get a crush on Moss.  He’s so silly and sweet and innocent!  I can’t help myself.  Those of you who know me are probably not surprised.

Every episode is currently available on Netflix.  I powered through it pretty quickly and then I was sad because it was over.  That’s probably the highest recommendation for watching something that I can give.

As soon as I was done watching The IT Crowd, I felt rudderless, adrift on an endless sea.  Wherever would I go?  Whatever would I do?  Then I remembered that The Guild is also currently streaming on Netflix!

You might have heard of The Guild, but if not, I’ll clue you in.  This show stars (and is written by) Felicia Day.  You might remember her as Penny from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  Felicia stars as Codex, a gamer in the Knights of Good Guild.

Yes, the show is about gamers who play in some kind of WoW type role playing game.  However, you don’t have to be a gamer to appreciate the show.  I can tell you right now that I have not played a lot of video games.  I have zero to nil hand-eye coordination and get very frustrated.  I have watched other people play games, but I don’t know much about it.  As far as role-playing games go, I was a D&D Dungeon Master in the 1980’s.  That was back when we used graph paper to make the maps.  (NERD ALERT)

Even though I don’t like video games, and don’t understand how to play them, I laughed a lot while watching this show.  I think that anyone who has an “internet family” will understand what’s going on.  For those of us who spend most of our social time online, it hits home pretty hard.  Everyone in The Guild is supremely dysfunctional.  I think that Clara, the negligent mom, takes the cake.  I am truly horrified at some of the things Clara does, but I still laugh at it anyway.

If this clip doesn’t intrigue you, then I give up.  No one can resist Felicia Day – I don’t care if you’re a man, woman or halfling.

The problem with turntable.fm

Have you crazy kids tried turntable.fm? It’s the latest music streaming website, but it’s interactive! The idea is that you and your friends are in a virtual club, and you can DJ music while your friend’s avatars bop their heads to the beat.

Doesn’t that sound amazing? Doesn’t that sound like so much fun?

I love to make playlists and I used to have one of “those” mp3 music blogs a few years ago. Sharing new music or just making a playlist is one of my favorite things, and I even consider it to be my superpower.  Naturally, when I heard about this new website, I immediately joined and started exploring.

I only joined a few days ago, and I’m already giving up on it.  First of all, I should say that you can only join turntable.fm if you have a Facebook friend that is already a member.  I’m sure anyone hip enough to read this blog is hip enough to get into the site.  Am I right?

Actually that is the problem with the site.  Everyone who is a member is a snooty hipster and won’t let anyone else play.  The only room that a newbie has a remote chance of DJing in is a room like “Play 3 and Step Down”, where there is an orderly queue of people waiting to DJ their 3 songs.  Most of the time you have to wait for over an hour to get a chance to play songs, though.  If you just want to stream your choice of songs, you can’t create your own room and play by yourself, because you have to have two DJ’s in order to hear anything besides a sample.

If you can’t DJ, you can’t earn points and change your avatar to a Deadmau5 or other fun stuff.  Also it’s just fun to DJ and see everyone enjoying the song, or to get a chat message that you made a cool choice.  A DJ also can earn “fans” which is validation of uber-hipster coolness.

Maybe it’s because I am not an aggressive person, but I can’t get in to a DJ booth to save my life.  I am a very impatient person and I hate waiting around for someone to leave.  I don’t have hours and hours to spend in the turntable rooms waiting for the unlikely moment that someone will step down and actually let me play some songs.

In a moment of desperation, I made my own room tonight, and only one of my friends took pity on me and came in to listen.

Either everyone who reads this blog needs to join turntable, and become my “fan” (DJ name: mekkalekkah), or I should just forget turntable.fm and move on with my life.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide my fate.  THIS IS SO IMPORTANT YOU GUYS.

No, no, I’m just kidding – but I would like to know if anyone reading this post has used the site, and what their experiences have been.

Postscript:

While I was writing this post, a bunch of people came into the room I created and now I feel all better.  I’m still posting this though!  So there.

Singers who can’t sing

Why do aging hippies and young hipsters love singers who cannot sing?  Sometimes it’s charming to hear someone singing in a non-conventional way, but most times we just need to face facts and admit to ourselves that there are some people who should not be recording songs.

I am about to utter some thoughts I have held for a long time which will shock and dismay many of you.  Yet I feel it’s time to say it.  I can’t hold it in any longer.

These three rock stars are beloved by many, and revered by a few, and barely tolerated by me.

1.  Bob Dylan

I suppose it’s actually become pretty commonly known that Bob is a mush-mouthed mumbling whiny horrible singer.  Really he’s not much worse than he was as a young man.  There are a few songs of his that I enjoy, and I did like the Traveling Wilburys project too.  However, over 80% of his back catalogue is unlistenable whiny bullcrap.  I don’t care how good his lyrics are.  If his lyrics are so good then he should just publish books of poetry and hire someone else to sing them.

Evidence:

Whiny, pitchy, and intolerable, it just plods along while you slowly die.

Here is a cover by Jimi Hendrix:

Suddenly this is a SONG, with some kind of purpose and sung by someone who has emotions and feeling.  You can finally understand the story Dylan wanted to tell.

2.  Lou Reed

Oh, God, how can anyone listen to Lou Reed and enjoy it?  The man is one of the worst singers of all time.  Do I really have to say why?  Listen to him and you will know pain.  Why can’t anyone just come out and admit it?  Why does everyone pretend he is some sort of musician?  He’s not.  He is the most pretentious sack of crap that ever lived, and he proved it by marrying Laurie Anderson, who’s another one of those singers who just talks and makes noise.

Again, this is someone who has some great songs in his back catalogue but he needs someone else to sing them and make them something that humans can enjoy.

Evidence:

Note that this You Tube clip says “Best Live Version”.  If this is the best, I never want to hear the worst.  I get itchy just thinking about Lou Reed’s voice.  He makes me want to smash things.

In contrast, here is a cover of the same song by a band that made it into something beautiful and heartbreaking:

3.  Iggy Pop

I don’t hate every single Iggy Pop song, but when I hear someone cover one of his songs I realize how much better the covers are.  Iggy is an amazing performer and a compelling figure, but his vocal chops aren’t the best.  He’s legendary for many things – none of them are his singing voice.

I can’t hate on Iggy too much, because he is an interesting guy and seems like he is nice and fun to be around.  I love him in the John Waters’ movies, but I really don’t enjoy hearing him sing.

Evidence:

You can tell that this song has potential, but the vocals are so muddled and fuzzy you can’t really appreciate what you’re hearing.  It’s like a block of stone that has the potential to be a great sculpture.

I’m sure that everyone reading this has heard David Bowie’s cover of this song.  Bowie polished it up and made it into a pop gem.  He added some coherency and a backbeat, thanks to Nile Rogers.  Iggy should thank David every day for the mint he made off of this cover.  (And also, I imagine, for the great head.)

Now, this is only my opinion, and not the word of God.  I realize there are those who will disagree with me, and that is their right.  I am speaking for the people out there who think these singers sound like crap and have been afraid to voice their thoughts.  BE HEARD!  YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

I suppose that all this post might actually prove is that I prefer glossy pop songs over messy punk songs.  That’s true.  After all, I was raised in the Yacht Rock 70’s and was a teenager in the New Wave 80’s.

I love me some pop music, is that so wrong?

Google +/-

Google’s trying again to make a “Facebook killer”.  Remember Google Buzz?  Google Wave?  Those attempts both failed miserably.  Google’s ready to try a third time, and the third time’s the charm, right?

Hmmm…maybe not.  I was lucky enough to get a Google + Invite the day it launched. I sent invitations to some of my tech-savvy friends, but not all of them could get in. Google declared that it was “at capacity” and could allow more users at a later date.

Obviously, Google is trying to raise some demand, but tactics like this are not wise when you’re trying to build a social network. Google + is a lot like Facebook, in that you can share your thoughts, photos and web links with your friends that use the service. However, if you only have six friends who were allowed into the service, then there isn’t much to look at. It’s like being in a huge auditorium and only the first row is full. Everything you say goes into an echo chamber and you feel more alone than ever.

The main differences between Google + and Facebook is that you can compartmentalize everyone into groups (called Circles), such as Family, Friends, Acquaintances and any other category you can think of. It’s very user-friendly to create the groups, and it solves the problem of adding your mom to your friends list. Another exciting feature of Google + is the “hangout”, which allows users with webcams to create a group video chat. I haven’t used it yet, but it seems like a fun idea for someone like me, who has lots of friends scattered all over the globe.

Other than those two things, it’s pretty much the same as Facebook. Instead of a “like” button, you have a “+1” button, which you click to show your appreciation of a post.

One huge drawback for me is that Google + doesn’t have those games that everyone plays on Facebook. I am addicted to Pet Society, and don’t you DARE try to take it away from me! (Harry Potter theme next week, you guys!)

Based on the few days I have been using Google +, I predict another failure on Google’s part. Trying to launch a social network based on the theory that it’s only for the “cool kids” who got invited is a minus, not a plus. A full public offering would have been best, although I know that’s what Google did with Buzz and that was a huge failure. However, Google + makes sure to show your privacy options up front. The problem with Buzz is that even if you didn’t want to use it, you were forced into it.

Hey, Google, how’s about letting everyone try Google + if they want to? Don’t force everyone into it, but don’t make it an exclusive club for the elite either.