Tvstuff: The Wonder Pets

One of my many responsibilities as a parent is ensuring that the television programs my young apprentice watches are educational, wholesome, enriching and appropriate for his age (currently 20 months). As a public service, I present the first in a series of informative reviews of television programs geared toward preschoolers.

The Wonder Pets
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The Wonder Pets is one of Kyle’s favorite programs, and it’s not hard to see why: there’s plenty of music, oodles of cute animals and more music. Parents (and corporate managers) will undoubtedly appreciate the core message the show consistently delivers: that cooperation and teamwork are essential in any problem-solving effort. On the surface, it seems like the perfect show for young children. A closer examination, however, reveals that The Wonder Pets is one unfortunate example after another of parental negligence.

Each episode begins with Linny (a guinea pig), Tuck (a turtle) and Ming-Ming (a duckling) relaxing in their schoolhouse home after all the children have left for the day. Their leisure time is interrupted by the phone (“the phone is ringing!”), a can-and-string contraption that alerts the trio to a baby animal in peril. Donning capes and hats and assembling the flyboat (a vehicle constructed from a Frisbee, some markers and various other bits), The Wonder Pets race to rescue the youngling from some horrible situation using (“what’s gonna work?”) teamwork and music.

Once the chick, kit, fawn, foal, cub, joey or calf has been rescued, the irresponsible parents arrive on the scene, probably returning from the local watering hole, brothel or cock-fighting ring. Oh, sure, there’s the requisite gushing over how brave and amazing The Wonder Pets are, but rarely is there an explanation from the reprehenible parents as to why the children were left unattended in the first place. The best thing Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming (too) could do to help the baby animals in trouble is contact the local Department of Children’s Services.

Coming soon: an intrepid explorer, a singing moose and a whiny turtle.

Podcast: Volcanicast presents Tangentcast #1

VolcanicastI’ve heard rumors that a bonus episode of Volcanicast has found its way onto these very Internets. The episode is comprised entirely of tangents, rare conversational digressions that we explored while discussing the most popular Google search terms of the past week.

During post-production, our stalwart editor opted to omit these nuggets of off-topic banter in order to trim the show from its original recorded length of nearly three hours to just over two. Recognizing that relegating these tasty tidbits to the trash would constitute a terrible travesty—and perhaps just a little gun-shy about deleting audio after an unfortunate keystroke led to the recent destruction of an entire episode—said editor has assembled a bonus “Tangentcast” and released it for your listening pleasure.

If you’re subscribed to the Volcanicast, your podcatcher has almost certainly ensnared this bonus episode and is patiently holding it for you. If you are not subscribed, you should add the feed to your favorite podcatcher and try not to salivate with anticipation during the download.

If you are the type who shuns catchers of pod, you can either visit the Volcanicast site and listen with the embedded player or download the episode directly. The point is that we want to make listening to the show easy and enjoyable for everyone; we care that much.

Sitestuff: WordPress 2.3, CSS woes and Amazon in your face

One of the most memorable quotes from Tim Burton’s Batman is Jack Nicholson as the Joker declaring “This town needs an enema!” Though the Clown Prince of Crime certainly had sinister designs on Gotham, he had a point: the city was a mess and needed a thorough cleansing. His choice of words may not have appealed to those of a delicate and genteel nature (who would likely have preferred “facelift” or “makeover” to the vulgar colonic), but the idea has always resonated with me and it springs to mind anytime I see something that is clearly in need of change.

I’ve often felt that the phrase applies to this very website, both in terms of content and design.

Content-wise, I’d like updates to be more consistent, preferably at least one new post every weekday and perhaps a single post over the weekend. Of course, there’s more to blogging than just establishing a posting schedule, because no one is going to care that I’m posting regularly if I’m not posting anything interesting; which begs the question: what do the people who read this blog find interesting?

As an example of something potentially uninteresting, I offer up this very post. I like to keep the meta-blogging (or “blogging about blogging”) to a minimum here and leave it to folks like Lorelle VanFossen, who meta-blog far better than I ever could (or would want to). My meta-blog posts tend to center around whatever issues I’m currently experiencing with WordPress and such; I don’t do advice. When I do dip my toe into meta-blogging, I do so with the understanding that—unless you’re a WordPress user (or a huge dork)—the excursion isn’t going to be terribly interesting, but I also do it knowing that the process of writing helps keep the gears turning in my head and there are a few people reading who do blog with (or without) WordPress and muck around with CSS and web design, and they’re likely to provide some very insightful feedback.

Content is far more important than design and aesthetics, but over the past few days I’ve been very focused on the look and feel of this site. I upgraded to WordPress 2.3, which had some unintended consequences, specifically in the areas of commenting and post tags, but I think I’ve taken care of those. Digging through the site, however, made me realize that I’d like to spruce things up a bit (the Library page is in dire need of an overhaul, for instance, and the Now Reading section in the right-hand sidebar could be cleand up), take care of some browser-dependent design quirks, organize things a bit better and maybe cut some of the extraneous bits.

I spent an absolutely stupid amount of time last night going through old blog entries (I’m about a third of the way done) and making sure that the markup for images and footnotes was consistent (and adding images to some movie review posts that didn’t have them); the idea is to create a consistent look across the entire site, but also to make switching to a new theme easier, should I ever decide to stop using Brian Gardner‘s Blue Zinfandel.

Unfortunately, despite a lot of CSS tweaking and web searches, I was unable resolve a browser-specific rendering problem: Internet Explorer versions 6 and 7 both have issues with floating images. The IE screen shot below illustrates the problem: the text immediately beneath the Transformers movie poster image (which is “floating” on the left of the center column) should be to the right of the image and wrap around as it flows beyond it. Firefox renders it properly but neither version of Internet Explorer does.

Internet Explorer Float Issue
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The problem is very likely something to do with floating images within floating sections or visible overflow or something, but I haven’t been able to nail it down yet and it’s pretty annoying; especially since I’m almost positive that it was working properly in the past.

Finally, there’s the new “Currently Playing” and “Recently Watched” sections on the left-hand sidebar. The former was blatantly stolen from Greg Howley (though Rob Miller deserves some credit, too, as his Now Reading plug-in set me on the “media I’m consuming” path in the first place) and the latter was an obvious extension of the idea. Neither of them are plug-ins (though that could change), and they originally featured just cover images and titles. However, converting them to Amazon links has removed some of the hassle of maintaining them: I don’t have to hand-write the HTML or host the images myself. I’ve been embedding my Amazon Associates ID in DVD, book and video game links for over a year now, but this is the first time I’ve used the Buy Now button, something I’ve been avoiding because I don’t want the site to feel like an ad (don’t worry, I don’t plan to start using Google AdSense anytime in the foreseeable future).

So there you have it: I’m feeling a little restless about the current state of KJToo.com and I want to shake things up a bit. I welcome your suggestions and feedback and appreciate your patience if I somehow manage to break the site while I’m fiddling.

Podcast: Volcanicast for the week ending 22 September 2007

Volcanicast is the show where hosts Wesley, Bob and yours truly discuss the most popular Google search terms of the past week. The Internets were very curious about a lot of stuff over the past week, resulting in our longest show to date.

This week: the environment, the economy, lawyers who shouldn’t sue us, elaborate suicide methods (successful and otherwise), bad Irish accents, and the quiet time between intimate moments.

Volcanicast is intended for mature audiences, but we listen to it anyway.

TVstuff: Reaper is not Journeyman

While writing yesterday’s post about scheduling conflicts between SciFi’s Eureka, FOX’s House and NBC’s Journeyman I overlooked one minor (yet arguably important) detail: there is no such conflict. House and Eureka are both on Tuesday night, but Journeyman is (as I discovered yesterday) on Monday night.

The CW’s Reaper, on the other hand, is on Tuesday night and its schedule does conflict with the other, previously mentioned Tuesday primetime shows.

Reaper

L-R: Bret Harrison, Ray Wise and Tyler Labine

On the bright side, several savvy readers have already suggested a solution to my scheduling woes; a solution that does not involve replacing my dual-LNB DirecTV dish and adding another DirecTivo receiver (and television) to the International House of Johnson.

See, if there’s one thing The SciFi Channel is good at (apart from cranking out schlocky monster-of-the-week movies and calling them science fiction), it’s replaying everything on their schedule over and over again. This has allowed me to catch the occasional missed Saturday night movie later in the week—even if the argument could be made that I’m usually better off missing those movies—and will also allow me to record Reaper at 9:00 and Eureka three hours later.

Unfortunately, a quick glance at the upcoming SciFi listings reveals that the replay time for Eureka isn’t consistent week to week: tonight it’s on at midnight and next week it replays at 12:30; and TiVo, for all its magical powers, apparently lacks a single-click “record the later showing” function. We are, it seems, doomed to learn that our heroes are flawed.

As for Journeyman, I watched the premiere in the wee hours of this morning while sitting with my young insomniac. They managed to get a good hook into me, and if NBC cancels the show before we learn why (and how) Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd, Rome) is traveling through time, I’m going to write at least one very indignant blog post about it. That’s right, NBC; consider yourself warned. You don’t want the kind of heat that I bring to the party.

TVstuff: No Journeyman for me?

The cast of Journeyman
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I finally got around to setting up the new Season Passes on the TiVo last night and it appears that I won’t be watching Journeyman after all. Seems some bonehead decided to schedule it at the same time as two shows we’re already recording: House and Eureka. I could cancel the Season Pass for House…if I want to spend autumn sleeping under the deck; it’s one of Laura’s shows (okay, I watch it, too) and it’s hardly fair to ask her to sacrifice something so consistently good for Journeyman, which is definitely an unknown quantity right now.

Ditto for Eureka. I’m probably in the definite minority when I say Eureka is the best series SciFi has right now, even better than Battlestar Galactica. ((I like Battlestar Galactica and all, but to paraphrase Sam Chupp, I need to get a prescription for Zoloft before I watch it.)) Knowing SciFi, the Eureka season finale is probably two or three weeks away, at which point I may be able to replace it with Journeyman (assuming the latter hasn’t been canceled by then).

Journeyman centers around San Francisco newspaper reporter Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd), who inexplicably begins to travel through time. ((I hate it when that happens.)) Like Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, Vasser is able to change people’s lives when he is out-of-time; unlike Beckett, Vasser regularly returns to his own time. In the course of his temporal wandering, Dan is reunited with his former fiance, Livia (Moon Bloodgood ((Yes, really. Best. Name. Ever.))), which could complicate things with his real-time wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf).

Sounds like it could be interesting. Perhaps it’s time for me to break down and finally make use of the sub-etha antennaKudos to again to Sam Chupp. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go listen to The Round Table’s discussion of British vs. American televisions. that I’ve successfully avoided since upgrading the IHoJ to broadband. Hell, I’d be willing to pay two bucks to download the Journeyman premiere from iTunes, if only NBC hadn’t decided to pull the plug on their deal with Apple. Or maybe NBC will have their new series available for free on their new on-demand video site, Hulu, but I’ve got to believe that any flavor of “free” on Hulu is going to come with strings attached.

Gamestuff: No One Lives Forever 2

No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s WayNow that my office is 80% clean (pictures to follow soonish) and I actually feel comfortable spending time in it, I’ve been playing No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s WayNo One Lives Forever 2 borrows a bit from the Rambo and Dark Forces school of title generation. The full title of the first game is The Operative: No One Lives Forever, but everything pre-colon has been dropped for the sequel (much like Jedi Knight 2, which dropped the original Dark Forces name from the first two games in that series, or Rambo III which did away with First Blood).. Last night, I wrapped up the final two “chapters” of the game.

No One Lives Forever 2 and its predecessor (both developed by Monolith Productions) are first-person shooters that take place in the late 1960’s and feature Scottish superspy Cate “The Fox” Archer as an operative for the international anti-terrorism organization, UNITY. Thematically, the games are a cross between the FlintOur Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967), both starring James Coburn as freelance superspy, Derek Flint. and Austin Powers movies, spoofing the superspy genre made popular by Ian Fleming’s James Bond. The humor is brilliant, but doesn’t in any way detract from the core sneak-and-shoot mechanic of the game.

The “sneak” part of the mechanic isn’t quite up to the standards set by games like Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell and Looking Glass Studios’ Thief, but it’s certainly no slouch. In fact, the stealth implementation in NOLF 2 is considerably improved over its predecessor. That said, there are still occasions in which Cate should be hidden from her opponents and can still be spotted, which proves to be rather annoying.

The “shoot” aspect, on the other hand, is very satisfying. Throughout the game, Cate wields melee weapons (Japanese katanas, Indian tulwars and a stun gun disguised as a mascara kit) a variety of handguns, rifles, machine guns and shotguns, a crossbow (my personal favorite ranged weapon, featuring four different flavors of ammunition) and a host of superspy gadgets (most of which are disguised as items Cate might keep in her purse: lipstick, compact, perfume, etc.) and improvised weapons. The array of weapons available is dependent upon the mission but, apart from one or two stealth-heavy missions, The Fox is almost always well-armed and NOLF 2 is a very satisfying FPS.

The locations and opponents are nearly as varied as the weapons; H.A.R.M. (an evil organization whose acronym is never explained) operates around the globe and Cate is sent to Japan, Russia, India, a secret undersea submarine base and even Akron, Ohio to thwart their nefarious schemes. Along the way, the intrepid operative battles countless tommy-gun-toting mimes, female ninjas, H.A.R.M. thugsIn the original NOLF, the Indian H.A.R.M. thugs had some of the funniest dialog, often shouting “Do not be apprehensive about this apprehension!” when pursuing Cate and “Hard rain is falling!” when she shot at them. The thugs (Indian and otherwise) in NOLF 2 say things like “Oh, man! Now I’m bleeding!” when shot or “I’m not taking the blame for this” when they find one of their comrades dead or unconscious. and a few genetically-engineered super-soldiers (shades of Captain America!).

As varied as the locations are, they have one thing in common: they are all very, very pretty. Every stage of No One Lives Forever 2 is a work of art, both visually and aurally. The graphics are crisp and clean, the ambient noise subtle, and the background musicA special edition of The Operative: No One Lives Forever shipped with two CDs: the first contained the game and the second was a soundtrack disc. The soundtrack has a wonderful 1960s “feel”, much like the music from the Austin Powers movies. The soundtracks for NOLF and Homeworld (a real-time space sim) are tied at the top of my list of best video game music (with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault coming in second). sets the mood perfectly (especially the eerie theremin that plays when Cate is in H.A.R.M.’s underwater base).

Beautiful locations, fantastic soundtrack, engaging story and exciting gameplay all combine to make No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way an excellent gaming experience. Among single-player first-person shooters, I rank it behind only the original Deus Ex for bringing the fun.

Gamestuff: The Lost Gentleman

The 18th of August slipped quietly by over a month ago and I failed to mention that I lost my gentleman’s bet with Miscellaneous G™. Longtime readers will no doubt recall that Miscellaneous G™ felt I would be unable to complete two PC games in twelve months’ time; his feelings were strong enough to warrant a wager on the matter.

“You are such a gadabout, sir,” proclaimed he, “that it is entirely outside the realms of your capacity to complete both Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast and Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption in the time it takes the very Earth upon which we tread to complete a single revolution around yon source of light and life!” At which point he gestured to the noonday sun, for we were in the parking lot of the Chipotle Mexican Grill and that brightest of stars was indeed high above our heads.

“Sir, you are a scoundrel!” said I. “Your words cut me to the quick! I’ll not have such aspersions cast upon my character, even though there be none but you and I to hear them! This is an affront to decency and honour ((Under normal circumstances I would have said “honor”, but the manner of speech had inexplicably ascended to and beyond high-falutin’, so I felt the extra vowel was necessary.)) and I have little recourse but to prove you mistaken!” Had the weather been cooler, I would most certainly have been wearing gloves and the outrageous nature of his claim would surely have compelled me to remove one of those gloves and strike him soundly across the cheek with the supple leather.

Thus was our wager struck, and I set about to demonstrate to Miscellaneous G™ the cut of my jib. In short order ((Four months later, actually. Not a very short order at all.)) I had installed and conquered Jedi Outcast, much to my esteemed friend’s dismay. Shortly thereafter, I installed Vampire the Masquerade and was making considerable progress through its blood-sucking story; by all appearances, I seemed poised to successfully restore my impugned honor.

I don’t recall the precise nature of that which diverted my attention; whether it was a shiny bauble or a calamitous catastrophe, I know not. Certainly, it could have been either. Whatever the particulars, my unwavering resolve was tested and found lacking. Or, at the very least, wavering. As I have previously stated, the 18th of August has come and gone, and it was precisely one year previous to that date when my attention span was deemed suspect. The wager is lost, for Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption is unfinished; Christoff is cursed to walk forever in shadow and the fair and virtuous Anezka remains lost to him.

As for me, I am shamed and broken, my honor besmirched and sullied. Miscellaneous G™ has quietly triumphed, and though he does not crow like the cock at dawn, I see the glint of victory in his eye and hear the lilting song of conquest in his voice, ever a reminder that he has beaten me. I am no stranger to bitter defeat, but I feel the icy grip of this failure upon my heart and I despair, for it is as though I will never know warmth again. At least, not until I finish No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way.

Blogging: Abandoned Posts

There are times when I start a blog entry and then something shiny comes along to distract me and the thing never gets finished. I had, until recently, nearly two dozen such posts in WordPress, just waiting for me to come along and finish them; everything from movie reviews (The Station Agent, Alien Nation, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 300, The Prestige, Pan’s Labyrinth) to book reviews (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment) and even theater reviews (Spamalot) and short fiction (The Tale of the Ugly Pony, Major Dorque: The Soldier’s Story). I waded through the incomplete posts this morning and deleted most of them, except the short stories and one Game Night recap (yeah, Gus, it’s the one you’re waiting for).

Here’s a sample of what got axed: my started-but-never-finished Origins 2007 recap from way back in July. A lot of fun stuff happened at Origins, but I got hung up on the style I’d chosen for the intro and never got around to actually writing about any of it.

Saturday, 07 July 2007, Oh Early Hundred Hours

As the first rays of sunshine begin to bathe northeast Ohio in their warmth, the MVoD cruises quietly southward along Interstate 271 toward Columbus. Safely ensconced within the sheet metal and fiberglass cockpit, two bearded geeks—unused to being active at such an early hour—rub the remnants of sleep from their bleary eyes and scan the distant horizon for the first glimpse of the Columbus Convention Center, to which thousands of geeks—bearded and unbearded alike—make their annual pilgrimage for Origins, the ne plus ultra of gaming fairs.

“Long has it been since we walked among our people,” declares one of the bearded geeks.

“Indeed,” the other agrees.It is neither pertinent nor especially interesting to distinguish between bearded geeks, for one is as much like the other as to make ascertaining anything beyond the most trivial and minute of distinctions an exercise in futility. For the sake of simplicity, we shall henceforth call them Kris and Chris, and note that even their names are so similar that the human ear cannot detect any significant discrepancy in pronunciation. The two are, for all intents and purposes in recounting this tale, identical.

Unerringly and without hesitation, Kris guides the vehicle toward the Convention Center, while Chris interjects with only the occasional clucking of his tongue against his palate, tsking as one might to a horse who is well familiar with the route but appreciates the subtle encouragement nonetheless.

Now the majestic spires of Columbus are visible, glimmering towers of crystal rising up through the faraway mists, and the bearded geeks are momentarily struck dumb by the magnificence before them. Time slows, the nearness of the destination taunting the weary travelers with a siren call that transcends sound, the shimmering jewel of the city urging them ever onward. And when it seems that the road will ever stretch out in front of the carriage, leaving their mecca unattainable for all eternity, time collapses in upon itself like a spyglass and at last they arrive.

Weekend Wrap-up: 15-16 September 2007

I haven’t done one of these in a while. Here’s what went on in and around the International House of Johnson this past weekend:

  • I started cleaning my office on Saturday. Unlike previous efforts, I did take a “before” photo, which I will post along with the “after” photo when I eventually finish.
  • After messing around with Firefox in Kubuntu for several hours, I finally got everything running properly, including the Foxmarks and Greasemonkey plug-ins.
  • I watched Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, the latest animated movie from Marvel Entertainment and Lionsgate. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Doctor Strange fan, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. The concept of the ninja-magician doesn’t really hold to the classic Marvel version of Strange, but I liked it.
  • I played a bit of No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way Saturday night. I managed to escape the tornado-threatened trailer park in Akron and am now infiltrating the H.A.R.M. base in Calcutta; or would be, if I could get past the stinkin’ guards.
  • Kyle and I watched Elmo’s Potty Time and Elmo in Grouchland: Sing and Play Sunday morning. I have to give Roscoe Orman (Gordon) a lot of credit for keeping a straight face when discussing the linguistic nuances of pee and poop with Elmo and Baby Bear.
  • Laura, Kyle and I had an early dinner at The Cheesecake Factory on Sunday. I should not have ordered the appetizer, as I only ate half of my Cuban sandwich and my three-berry cheesecake is (if Laura knows what’s good for her) sitting in the fridge, uneaten.
  • Wesley, Bob, Chris and I recorded another episode of Volcanicast Sunday night. We had a blast, but Wesley’s got a hell of an editing job ahead of him if he’s going to get the show down to 90 minutes.