Monday, September 01, 2008

Read these books

I'm granting myself amnesty for about six months of unreviewed books to mention a couple of recently read books.

Pirate Sun, Karl Schroeder

I think that of all the authors I enjoy, Schroeder is the most criminally under-read. If you like SF, I tell you that Virga -- the background of Pirate Sun and its two predecessors -- is the coolest SF construct since Ringworld. Schroeder could write novels in it for the next forty years and only scratch the surface of what's possible. And at that, I'm not sure that the three Virga books -- great as they are -- are his best. Permanence is an exceptional space-opera type book, and Lady of Mazes takes a background that by all rights should be nigh-incomprehensible and makes it clear, compelling, and fascinating.

Anyway, Virga is a 5000 mile sphere filled with air and intermittently lit by dozens of small artificial suns. There's not much metal, and electricity is somehow dampened. Most people live in towns that are basically the interior of cylinders that rotate to generate gravity. Because it's not a vacuum, you can travel between towns by almost anything: winged bikes, jet cycles, wooden rocket ships.

Pirate Sun is the third book in the series, and without getting into a jillion paragraphs of backstory, the main character is Chaison Fanning, a disgraced admiral hoping to get back to his tiny country to clear his name (I oversimplify, you understand). Along the way, he deals with war, a threat to the basic nature of Virga, not to mention the most amazing thunderstorm SF has ever produced (Hint: Zero-G = Large Raindrops).

You know how sometimes a book will have two viewpoint characters who are trying to find each other but keep missing and that's really irritating? Schroeder does something interesting with that here -- he never shows the second viewpoint character. We know she's there from the previous books, plus a brief showing at the beginning. The bulk of the book, though, is all Chaison -- we can infer what other characters are up too somewhat. It's very effective, and not at all irritating.

On top of all that, there's a city on city battle seen that is jaw-dropping, and Schroeder casually drops a really neat idea in the background that we're clearly going to hear more of later in the series (please tell me there's a later in the series...).

Zoe's Tale, John Scalzi

Scalzi, you're more likely to have heard of, since he's become a very popular writer, especially on the Internet. Zoe's Tale is the fourth book in the Old Man's War trilogy. And I mean that more literally then you might think, since it covers nearly the same ground as The Last Colony, only instead of being from John Perry's viewpoint, it's from his adopted daughter Zoe's (hence, you see, the name).

This works a lot better than you might expect, for a couple of reasons. First off, Zoe has a unique place in the OMW universe, what with being a near godling to an alien race, and her perspective is interesting. Second, Last Colony had a couple of obvious Zoe-sized gaps in the story that were worth exploring. Third, Scalzi is smart enough to tell a completely different story against the same plot background -- in this case how Zoe reconciles who she is with what she is.

Scalzi has said in a few places that he struggled a bit to find a plausible sixteen year old female voice. I'm not completely qualified to say whether he succeeded (it's enough for me to say the voice works perfectly well as the narrator of the story). But I will say there are spots in the story where Zoe's narration sounds much more like Scalzi-the-blogger than anything else he's written.

So, another great book from John Scalzi, and I hope he comes back to this universe a few years on to show the result of the actions of Last Colony and Zoe's Tale

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


It's been a while since I lost my geek heart to a TV show that was so obviously doomed. Which brings us to The Middleman, on ABC Family of all places.

I had been avoiding this on the grounds that it was just a silly-looking summer series and also the whole obviously doomed thing but a series of positive mentions on io9 and other Web sites (including a plug by Justine Larbalestier) led me to try the thing once.

I was hooked within the first five minutes, by about three very clever bits. That kept me going, but I was very surprised after a few episodes by how much I came to like the characters.

Five things:

  • It's unabashedly geeky. I initially described the show as "Men In Black, if the characters had all seen Men In Black." It's awash in SF/Comic references, many of which are placed in the background to reward those who are paying attention.

  • It's unabashedly heroic. The Middleman is the kind of square-jawed throwback that snarky shows usually make fun of. Not here. Somehow the show manages to make the hero retro and cool, without really making him just retro-cool. If that makes sense, which it probably doesn't.

  • It's unabashedly silly. Plots to date have included fish loving zombies that shout "TROUUUUT", vampire puppets, and a grunge match between kung-fu masters and masked Mexican wrestlers. It's the goofiest show this side of Pushing Daisies.

  • The heroes have fun. The series creator said he wanted to get past the current idea that comic-book-esque heroes need to be dour and wear their responsibilities like a 2000 pound weight. In this show, the Middleman pulls a rare reverse Peter Parker, telling his sidekick Wendy that if she falls in love and doesn't follow it, that's on her, she can't blame it on the job.

  • I also really like that, in a show that features a character who uses a "NDBS Detector" (Not Detectable By Science), they've also made Wendy's best friend a Carl Sagan reading skeptic (among other things).

So, go watch the one remaining episode next week. And then say good bye. Let's just say the ratings were so low that ABC Family won't even release what the ratings were. Plus they cut the series order to 12 episodes from 13. The outlook isn't good. But the whole season is on iTunes...

Parenthetically, if you can believe the numbers that the series creator threw out in an interview, the show, which is ridiculously low-budget, still costs roughly 1.5 million dollars an episode. (He said ABC Family spent 17 million on the series as a whole.) That's staggering.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Things I Need To Write About, Part Two: The Dark Knight

I have about seventy-million little things to say about this movie. I will try, and probably fail, to keep this brief.

Spoilers definitely ahead:

  • The movie is really, really good. It's not flawless, but it covers it's flaws through a very strong sense of what Batman means and doesn't mean as a character, and also because it's very intense. The movie spends most of the time feeling like its on the very edge of chaos and conflagration -- it's probably the first time that I've genuinely felt that the hero wouldn't "win" in superhero movie.

  • Heath Ledger is getting a lot of praise, and deservedly so, he's outstanding. I'm also interested in how the movie manages to capture the icon of The Joker while using almost nothing from the canonical comic version. (Early on, Gordon or somebody calls The Joker just a guy in makeup and I thought, okay, nobody knows that's what he really looks like. But in this movie, he is just a guy in makeup.)

  • The comic version is, at least recently, usually shown as already the head of a large empire, and also usually as having a plan. In Alan Moore's Killing Joke, which is probably one of the main comic book influences on this movie, The Joker plans to destroy Gordon by giving him the worst day of his life. In this movie, the idea to destroy Harvey Dent is more of a target of opportunity. The movie Joker doesn't really plan -- he's the anti-plan, just chaos. And the movie doesn't flinch at showing how scary that can be with very little effort.

  • Often, superhero movie series come to feel like the hero's greatest hits album -- a series of unrelated stories. One thing Dark Knight is very smart about is exactly how The Joker arises in direct response to Batman disrupting Gotham's mob scene in the first movie.

  • I really never thought I'd see a Batman movie go all the way to, "Is Gotham really better off with Batman there". It's a common feature of superhero sequels to have the hero struggle with giving up the fight. But in Superman 2 and Spiderman 2, the hero is trying to decide whether they can be personally fulfilled while being the hero. Batman is beyond that, in Dark Knight he's trying to decide if he's done any good at all.

  • Which brings us to Harvey Dent and Two-Face. Who, interestingly, is much closer to the comic version (although in the comic version, the Dent defaces the coin himself after he's injured -- actually, the movie version is better...) I really like how they kept contrasting what Batman could and couldn't do in the shadows with what Dent, as DA could and couldn't do in the public eye, and how Batman was almost eager to have Dent be Gotham's by-the-book hero.

  • The sequence where Rachel dies was a bit odd. My read on it was that the Joker didn't really care which one Batman tried to save, he just wanted to make sure that he'd fail no matter what. Still, it seemed out of character that Bats would go after Rachel.

  • The movie's use of the Chicago locations is outstanding. (Frankly, everytime I'm on Lower Wacker, I always kind of feel like I'm in a creepy action movie). Despite the fact that Gotham is nominally fictional, the locations ground it in a way that say, the Spidey movies don't quite get even though they use New York as itself. Or maybe that's just because I'm more familiar with the Chicago streets used.

  • One question that I keep wondering about is whether these two movies would have been successful 20 years ago in place of the Burton movies. Assuming, of course, that the studio in 1989 would have let that movie be made. I'm not sure. I know the fan base would have still loved it.

  • Also. Is it the best superhero movie ever? Right now, I make the top four, in no particular order, as Spidey 2, Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Incredibles. There's another story about how the movie that would have been considered as the best for years and years (Superman 2) has had it's critical stock bottom out recently. I'm not sure on the order of my top four, though..

I'll probably think of a dozen things after I post this, but that's all for now.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thing I Need To Write About, Part 1: Dr. Horrible

It seems like I'm forever mentioning that I'm not posting here as much as I'd like. I said a while back that between here and the Pathfinder blog I'd be posting two to three times a week. Turns out that's actually been more or less true, just that all of it has been on the Pathfinder side.

I do miss it here, and there are a few big genre/geek things in the last couple weeks that I really wanted to write about here, where nobody can interrupt me.

First up: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I have to admit that I was ridiculously over-psyched about this project from the beginning. Joss Whedon, musical, hapless supervillain, Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion. They didn't just have me at "hello", they had me at "h". Honestly, I was worried that no actual project could live up to my expectations.

Well, a week later, having basically memorized the songs, I'm pleased to say that it's still fantastic.

I want to talk about this as a business model first, since it lets me put spoilers at the bottom.

  • There's no question but that this is a huge test of whether online-only content is financially viable. If Joss Whedon can't turn a buck on this, given his huge existing support and the amount of buzz this show has gotten, then it's going to be very hard for other established creators to justify web-content. As much as I don't like judging movies or TV by their bottom line, in this case, if it's a gold rush, then we're going to see a lot more of it.

  • That said, it's not completely clear this has much implication for a more typical web video project, like Felicia Day's The Guild, which would have a much smaller budget and much less entrenched fan base. I think the main implication is "get it done and get it out there".

  • A back-of-the envelope guess suggests they haven't made a profit yet (or not much of one), but almost certainly will shortly. Hard numbers are scarce, two that have been released publicly: Whedon said the budget was "in the low six figures" (and that may be without paying the cast and crew), and that there were about 2 million individual hits on the web site for individual episodes.

  • So.. that's probably around 500,000 people who streamed all three episodes. No idea how many people have bought it on iTunes yet, but I'd be surprised if it was more than 50,000 and very surprised if it was more than 100,000. Again, no clue what their deal on iTunes is, but I'd be surprised if they got more than about $2 per download of the episodes in a bundle. Add that up, and they are break-even at this point at best.

  • But there are more revenue streams. I don't know what their arrangement with Hulu was for streaming. There's merchandise. There will be a soundtrack, and there will be a DVD release. And people are still buying it on iTunes. So in the end, I expect it will more than financially justify everybody's time, while not exactly being a Scrooge McDuck level of money pile.

That's more than enough on financial stuff, let's talk about it as a show. Spoilers ahead, I guess.

  • All three of the main players are great, but Neil Patrick Harris takes it to an entire other level. Really, there's very little in the entertainment world that I've enjoyed more in the last few years than watching Harris methodically take it over. This part is a perfect showcase for everything he does well -- it's dark, it's light, it's funny, it's serious, and he sings amazingly.

  • I'm not really qualified to judge the music, but it's been stuck in my head for the last couple of weeks, so I'm going to confidently say that it's pretty catchy. Some great lyric work here.

  • After some back and forth in my head, I've come to accept the ending, even though it's a bit depressing. Here's why: For about 30 minutes of show, Whedon is deliberately ambiguous about whether Billy Horrible (not his real name) is actually evil, or just playing around. He calls himself Dr. Horrible, but he's kind of a buffoon (at first), he kind of is creepily stalking Penny, but Captain Hammer is an even bigger jerk, he wants to join the Evil League of Evil, but is clearly squeamish about killing...

  • What works about the ending is that it preserves the ambiguity in the most intense possible way. Horrible is willing to disrupt the event, but flinches at the moment when he could kill Captain Hammer. He's willing to reap the benefits of being perceived as a killer, but is obviously -- given the last line -- somewhat ambivalent about it. It'll be interesting to see where the character goes if and when everybody gets around to another shoot.

Hmm... that turned out longer than expected, no wonder I'm not posting here as often as I'd like.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Not Too Distant Future

If you see RiffTrax at a party, say "Hi" from us.

That's what Joel Hodgson said about the relationship between the two different groups of Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni roving around the country skewering bad and pretentious movies. Hodgson's group, is Cinematic Titanic, while Mike Nelson's group is called RiffTrax. The two groups have a different approach to making fun of movies, although the personnel differences seem to be more a matter of geography then any long-simmering feud.

I finally got to indulge my long-dormant inner MST fan, and watched an episode from both groups.

RiffTrax, which has been around a bit longer, primarily produces MP3 files which you listen too while you watch a separate DVD. Since they don't have to clear rights, this allows RiffTrax to produce episodes on actual real movies that you have heard of. They also do some video + audio releases of public domain shorts and films, although even in those videos, the RiffTrax performers remain offscreen.

Cinematic Titanic, which has done two episodes to date, uses an updated form of the MST shadowvision motif, placing the five performers in tiers along the sides of the film. CT releases their videos for DVD or download. There's none of the character kind of stuff from MST, although the CT performers periodically pause the action for a separate bit or to interact with the film some.

The CT download (which is $9.99) is an entire VIDEO_TS directory of the DVD, a 3GB download. Plus the special download manager you need to used repeatedly crashed, though I was able to burn the DVD using other software. On my second try. That was frustrating. On the plus side, I now have it on a DVD, and I can make it portable and take it with me if I want.

RiffTrax is a much smaller MP3 file. To watch on a conventional TV, you play the DVD and also play the MP3 file on some audio player. A short introduction on the file helps you get the two synchronized. Periodically through the film, a robotic voice will repeat a line of dialog to help you keep the DVD and MP3 in synch. That's clever. It'd be more clever if the file had an AAC option with chapters or if the chapters matched the DVD chapters. Still, I was mostly able to keep the two in synch with a manageable amount of irritation. (If you want to watch the DVD on your computer, there are some software options that will handle DVD and audio file together).

As for the quality of the material, I enjoyed both of them quite a bit. The RiffTrax I sampled was Willy Wonka, with Mike Nelson and guest riffer Neal Patrick Harris. Excellent choice of movie and they had fun with it. (It's just not true that a movie has to be bad to be MST-able. It just has to be pretentious and weird.)

My Cinematic Titanic experience was their first film The Oozing Skull, which would have made for a very good MST episode back in the day. CT is doing something a little bit harder, at least from a strictly production standpoint, and I think that some further work on managing the five performers and interacting with the movie will improve their outings a lot. Still, I really liked Oozing Skull, laughed out loud, and would recommend it to friends. I didn't quite realize how much I had missed Joel Hodgson's distinct voice and timing until I heard him.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Ruby on Rails article

Just a quick mention that part 1 of my article series on using Rails to write iPhone apps is online at IBM Developerworks.

Parts 2 and 3 will be published sometime in the rather near future.

In other notes, Pathfinder has updated the company blog URL to Individual authors now have unique pages, I'm rappin.

Recent pieces there include a quick welcome to RailsConf, and a two-part article on HTML and code markup in Rails, available here and here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Notes and Notes

A couple of recent life, the universe, and everything notes:

  • I realize I've been away from here for most of the last couple of weeks -- a side project has been eating up a lot of time. I should be done with in next week, and back to posting here more regularly. I know, I always say that.

  • I'll be at RailsConf 08 later this month, and I'll probably have some number of copies of Professional Ruby on Rails to do something promotional with, but I haven't exactly decided what. If you are going, I hope to see you there.

  • The rails_iui plugin was mentioned on the Rails Envy Podcast -- thanks to Gregg for the mention. There are now just over 35 people following the project on GitHub. I do plan to add more features over the coming weeks.

  • On a related note, I've turned in a 3-part article for IBM DeveloperWorks about iPhone development with Ruby on Rails. No idea when it'll show up, though.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Rails Development for iPhone with rails_iui


I've been doing some web development for iPhone and Mobile Safari lately, not least because of a series of articles that will be showing up in IBM DeveloperWorks soon.

I was using the iUI toolkit, which contains a number of CSS styles and JavaScript event handlers to make iPhone Web apps look and feel somewhat like native iPhone applications. As I was working with iUI, I realized I was building up a library, so I converted everything to a Rails plugin: rails_iui.

Get the plugin from github: git://

Right now the plugin is primarily interested in doing a few things:

It contains a rake task to download iUI, move it's files to the Rails public directories, and change the CSS image URL's accordingly.

There's a controller class method acts_as_iphone_controller, calling that sets up a before filter that captures the Mobile Safari user agent string and sets the request format to iphone for use in respond_to blocks. For testing purposes you can call the method as acts_as_iphone_controller(true), and all calls will be treated as iPhone requests.

There is a module of helper methods that are wrapper methods or combinations of iUI CSS classes. Included are:

  • A method for creating the iPhone toolbar at the top of the view.

  • Methods for creating the iPhone list structures from a list of elements that know their associated URLs, including a grouped list in the style of the iPod application

  • Rounded rectangle classes

  • A form helper for the iPhone toggle button, as seen in the settings page.

  • A method to specify an Ajax callback when the phone changes orientation

The short term goals for the project are to tighten the code a bit and improve documentation and testing. Longer term goals are to augment iUI's JavaScript handlers with something a bit friendlier with Rails, particularly in handling history and back behavior.

So take it for a spin, let me know what you think. Hope you find it useful.

Please check out my book, Professional Ruby on Rails.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bind is actually rather an understatement...

Battlestar Galactica 403 (or 405) "Ties that Bind"

That was dark even by the really, really high standards this show has set for being dark and unsettling. It was an unrelenting parade of deeply screwed up people in torment, and the relationships that torment them. Naturally, I loved it, but if it wasn't so well written and acted, it'd be insufferably gloomy.

Bullet points -- if you haven't seen it, and plan to, look away.

  • The directing in this show was very overt, a lot of very artistic effects -- Starbuck only being shown from the back, a lot of blurred backgrounds and voice in Cally's point-of-view shots, the rotating star design motif. Most of it worked -- I thought that keeping us from seeing Starbuck's face was very effective. I could have done without the kind of druggy shots of the kid's mobile or whatever the heck that was.

  • I was spoiled on Cally's death, but the spoiler note implied it was a suicide, so I was surprised by both the addition of the baby in the scene (which made it about 100 times darker), and by Tory's involvement. I guess we'll find out next week whether Tory told Chief what she did.

  • I realize this is an odd place to make a stand on plausibility but... let me get this straight. Kara's crew has her, presumably pretty widely known in the fleet even before she died and came back; Helo, notorious as "the guy who married the toaster", plus he ran the refugees for a while, and he was Galactica's XO; and Anders, world famous athlete. All three of these people can just disappear for three weeks without anybody noticing?

  • This is true: at the beginning of the episode I was thinking, hmm... on a spaceship it's never warm enough for people to get uncomfortable and sweaty. Then they cut to the Starbuck ship, which made Cool Hand Luke look like Ice Age (Cool Hand Luke = sweatiest movie ever in the pilot for Cheers... so it's a joke. Get it?).

  • Haven't even covered: They made clear some things about Cally that were almost subliminal, about how she feels about Chief and all... thought that was nice to see. Also, Lee remains the easiest person to manipulate in the entire history of the Galaxy. Presumably Zarek nominated him to the council so he could always have one person he could con into doing goofy things.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Quick Program Notes

A couple of updates on book and article news...

  1. It looks like the screencast/video thing is going to happen, thanks to Jim Minatel. The main constraint is that they'd like the videos to be about five minutes long. I think the first one will be setting up a Rails project in Subversion (chapter 2 of the book, essentially), and I'd do a remix of that chapter using Git if there's interest. Wiley would like several of these, so I'm open to any topic ideas.

  2. At one point, I think I mentioned here that a .pdf version of the book would be available about six weeks after initial launch. Obviously that hasn't happened yet, and I'm not sure when that might come together.

  3. I'm going to have another series up at IBM Developerworks sometime in the relatively near future on developing iPhone web applications in Rails. More on that as it gets closer.

  4. I'll be attending (but not, alas, presenting at) RailsConf this year in Portland. Since it's an O'Reilly run conference, there won't be an official Wiley presence, but I'm hoping to have some book-related activity there.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Two Parter on Hide And Seek

Two articles on the Pathfinder blog on adding show and hide toggles to a Rails application:

Sunday, April 20, 2008

You Say Tomato, I Say To-Mato

In the last week, I've had two separate editors at two separate companies make a bulk change in something I was working on. Specifically, they changed "plugin" to "plug-in". This is driving me a little bit crazy. Which is right? Should I care?

Quick research, designed to shore up my point of view...

Wikipdia has it as "plugin", with "plug-in" as an alternate. has it as "plug-in", although that's clearly an antiquated reference based on the definition ("capable of or designed for being connected to an electrical power source by plugging in or inserting"). Presumably this is where the editors are getting their style guides. The Pro Rails editors let me keep it as "plugin" -- I don't remember that being an issue.

More importantly, "plugin" is 100% preferred in the Rails community, I've never seen it go the other way. See here, here, or here. This is also mostly true in the Eclipse community.

Am I putting too much effort into this argument? Does this make any difference to anybody, or am I just crazy? To me, "plug-in" looks old timey and weird, like "base ball" or "e-mail", or something John Hodgman would throw in to make his writing seem off-kilter. If I see a Rails article that uses "plug-in", I assume that either the writer is off-the-charts persnickety or that the writer is not really in touch with Rails developers. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I'm always a little worried that I'll have some writing quirk that won't match the expectations of my audience.)

So? Which spelling do you prefer? And does it even matter to you?

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Battlestar Galactica 402ish "Six of One"

Some quick bullet points before the next one comes down the pike.

Very pleased with the first two episodes of the season -- I think it's encouraging that this episode, credited to a writer whose last couple were not that strong, was arguably better than the first.

  • Katee Sackhoff had an amazing week -- Starbuck was all over the place, on the very edge of hysteria of not past it, a lot of great scenes. The Adama/Roslin scenes were also very good.

  • If you are looking for a line to take a something other than face value, I'd recommend "I'm no more a Cylon then you are"

  • How long can Tigh, Anders, Tory, and Tyrol meet together before somebody gets suspicious? It's not like they travel in the same social circles or that anybody is going to believe they've got a bridge game going...

  • Loved the Cylon civil war idea -- it's very consistent with what Moore has said in a number of interviews about Cylon society being young and under it's first real stress. (This is actually where I thought they were going to go at the end of Season Two, after "Downloaded" first hinted at pro and anti human politics among the Cylons. Plus it's always nice to see Dean Stockwell. (The actual confrontation scene was capped by Tricia Helfer's look of shock at the end.)

  • Okay, having two farewell ceremonies for Lee was a bit much, especially since you'd think that there would be some resentment over an able-bodied person leaving the military. That said, both scenes worked on their own, and I thought the aside in the bar scene of the group presumably strip poker was weird and funny.

  • There are many reasons I like this show. One is that Baltar, after the events of last episode, still had a visible scar in this episode -- a point that many shows would ignore. Watching Callis play against himself was also fun.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Video Still Working On Killing The Radio Star

Annnddd... This, of course, is what I get for posting anything about Wiley late at night without checking. Jim Minatel from Wiley added the following comment:

Noel: I'm interested in getting Wrox authors to to videos related to their books.... I can tell you what's involved and see what we can do.

So, contacting in progress. Further bulletins as events warrant. Or as events don't warrant, I think further bulletins are inevitable.

Thanks, random blog commenter, for pushing me forward on this.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Video Killed the Radio Star

When you have a blog with as few comments as this one, you can give every comment the kind of personal attention it deserves. This one came through from an anonymous commenter:

Noel, have you considred making a DVD video tutorial of your book? This will really help those who learn by watching videos.

So what do you say?

The short answer is not as any kind of official adjunct to the book. The longer answer is that it's not impossible that I'd be involved in online video or screencast training at some point in the future.

There are several issues here: logistical, legal, whether anybody would even be interested in such a thing, whether having my face on the cover is enough "me" for most people... all kinds of issues.

Logistically, the problem is that doing video well requires a lot of planning, equipment, and effort. I don't know much about it, but I know enough to say that it's probably more complicated than than I expect. Even a simple screencast involves scripting, time for filming, and editing.

Legally, Wiley/Wrox owns the copyright on the book, and while they might be okay with a short video clip that was clearly promotional, I'm not sure they'd be ok with me repurposing the book's content in bulk. On the other hand, I've never asked -- it's possible they'd see it as a marketing possibility. I don't remember the specific details of my contract, but I'm pretty sure that Wiley retains rights for any alternate media versions of the book. Which would be kind of a bummer for me if Spielberg called for the film rights.

All that said, the idea of some kind of screen cast, webinar, or video coming out of Pathfinder is not out of the question, although I don't see it happening in the near future.

Thanks for the question, Anon!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me The News

5 Things About: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Why Doogie? Because the parody at the end of How I Met Your Mother a while back, plus a desire to wander through So I watched the Doogie pilot from 1989. And now I'm writing about it.

  1. I was really not expecting the show to hold up at all. It's actually a pretty solid piece of late 80's TV, despite the cheesy theme music and classic 80's opening sequence.

  2. It's still possibly the most absurd premise that a TV show ever expected the public to take seriously. In the pilot, they work around that through an exceptionally well-crafted script combined with Neil Patrick Harris' talent and likability as Doogie.

  3. I remembered it as just a Stephen Bochco show, but it's actually Bochco and David E. Kelley. Kelley's name wouldn't have meant anything to me at the time, but in retrospect his involvement makes so much sense, it's exactly the kind of quirky drama he would become known for.

  4. Let's take this as a writing challenge. You have one opening scene to make this ridiculous premise believable. Your hero needs to be smart enough for the audience to buy him as a doctor, but not so nerdy or arrogant that it's off-putting. Again, you have one scene. First scene of the pilot: Doogie is taking his driving road test, his mom is in the back seat, and he's clearly nervous and tentative. Until they see an accident on the roadside -- Doogie suddenly is in total control, parking, running up to the accident, ordering cops around and saving a guy's leg. That's the whole show, right there. Corny? A little bit, although Harris' performance blunts that. Effective? Yep.

  5. Another nicely done bit: later, Doogie has the inevitable conflict with an older doctor who thinks he's a smart-ass young whippersnapper. My eyes rolled in anticipation of some scenery chewing, but actually the scene ends pretty quickly from there. The dilemma at this point is: if Doogie is right, then he comes off as kind of an insufferable know-it-all, if he's wrong, it's harder to take him seriously as a doctor. The writers opt for door number three -- events overtake the patient without proving Doogie right or wrong, he has a brief, nice scene with the older doctor, and the potential conflicts about his age are established without being nailed into our heads.

I'm about 100% sure, based on my own memory, that the scripts weren't always this good, but still, the pilot is pretty good.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

I Believeth, I Believeth, Don't Die Tinkerbell...

Battlestar Galactica 4-1 "He That Believeth In Me"

I'm relieved, frankly. Not surprised, exactly. I liked Season 3 more than a lot of people seemed to, and I'm optimistic that Ron Moore and his crew understand what the problems were and how to avoid them. Still, it's good to see the show starting out it's final season with a strong episode.

This was basically the episode I was hoping for, with two extra plusses, and one kind-of minus.

Spoilers Ahead, I suppose

I really liked where they took the Final Four Cylon story. After three seasons of asking "What does it mean to be a human", they inverted it -- what does it mean to be a Cylon? What does it mean if your spouse, or best friend, or your whatever the heck Lee and Kara are, turns out to be Cylon? Does it matter? Should it? Great questions, and I can't think of a previous SF work that's attacked the basic what-is-human question from this angle.

The specific pieces of the storyline were well-done. Anders' nerves about going into combat, Tigh's general Tigh-ness. The bit where the Cylon Raider scans Anders and get's the blip response was very cool.

But what really made the episode was the way that Starbuck's return integrated with the Final Four. Of course everybody would think Starbuck is a Cylon trick -- half the audience thinks so too. In the show, this allowed the characters to all talk about what it would mean to be a Cylon over the uncomfortable glances of the Fantastic Four. A really clever piece of writing structure.

The negative is the Baltar storyline. Not only does this put Baltar back in another situation where he's separated from the rest of the crew and in a place with creepy customs, but the whole thing is way too much like the telepath underground from the final season of Babylon 5 for comfort. (Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if the attack on Baltar was staged to make him stay with the cultists. But then, I'm cynical.)

  • Some great acting work all around -- watch how much of the episode is carried by the reactions of the Fab Four. And James Callis' facial expressions were the most bearable part of the Baltar story.

  • I thought that the tension between Lee and Adama was maybe resolved too quickly given how intense their argument was. I'm assuming the writers have bigger fish to fry.

  • I watched this one on, since I don't get Sci-Fi on my cable system, and they pulled out of iTunes. Overall, it wasn't bad. The video quality was worse than the iTunes files but still watchable. The biggest problem was the interspersed commercials -- not that I'm inherently against the commercials, just that they aren't synched right. Two of the breaks came about a second after the actual episode act break and one of them came right in the middle of Baltar being attacked. Annoying.

Friday, April 04, 2008

BDD: Book Driven Development

recipes.jpg(This one is also on the Pathfinder blog, but since it fits in here, I wanted the full text here...)

Jay Fields, who has been posting a very nice sequence of nuts-and-bolts Ruby and Rails guidelines, pauses to talk about creating examples. It's a topic I've wanted to write about here for a while, and this is as good a lead-in as any. Plus, I'm generally interested in how principles of software development apply or don't apply in odd cases, and software being developed specifically for example purposes certainly qualifies as an odd case.

For Professional Ruby On Rails, I knew that I wanted to run a single example application through the book. I had some grand visions of it being a "real" application or at least a real example of coding best practices. For best practices, I think it's pretty good on a method-by-method bases, but has some weaknesses as an entire app, for reasons that I think will become clear.

The first question was exactly what I wanted the sample application to do. On some level, this is a superficial question -- who really cares what the fake app in the book does? At the same time, certain application structures would make it easier or more plausible to discuss certain features. And I had a list of features I wanted to cover -- legacy databases, users and roles, navigation, and graphics. Ideally, the sample app would have some kind of consistency that would make it reasonable to have these features.

In addition, I didn't want it to be a thinly-veiled version of a site that everybody would recognize, and I wanted it to be something that I could type every day for six months without going crazy.

One of my first ideas was to resurrect an old Web 1.0 joke for my killer e-commerce plan: a web-based store for selling and delivering gasoline. But I decided that the gag was a lot less funny with gas in the $3 per gallon range, and I also decided that I didn't want the fake site to be primarily an e-commerce site.

Brainstorming ensued. I almost did a social networking site for pets, but I decided that was too silly, subsequently discovering that there are already a zillion pet social networking sites...

Eventually, I settled on Soups OnLine, a soup recipe-sharing site. It had the advantages of:

  1. Having a data model that could plausibly handle RESTful nested resources (recipe and ingredients)

  2. Having an actual user model.

  3. Being a plausible site, while still being silly enough to keep anybody from taking the whole thing too seriously.

The first problem came up almost immediately -- site design. I felt that a site that was just dull HTML would not be credible or interesting, but at the same time, I didn't really have the time or resources to create a full site design from scratch, nor did I want the book to become about site design. My solution, which I'm not prepared to defend to the death, was to integrate a template from This kind of sideswipes the whole issue, providing reasonably good-looking site without having to get into the weeds debating CSS minutia.

Over time, the example mutated away from a normal application development process in a few interesting ways.

The nature of the book-writing itself was a strong anti-agile push, in much the same way that any large body of documentation is. Changes in code structure affect the tests, which is fine, but also affect some amount of text in the previous 300 pages, which there's no easy way to find. (As you can read in this post, the issue affected not just me, but also the editors on the book). At least once, a late change in Rails invalidated a helper method I used in an early chapter. Not a big deal, except I also used that helper method to demonstrate a test structure later in the book -- I wound up keeping a shell of the original method redirecting to the new Rails method.

Also, some features that I had hoped to get in, didn't quite get there -- because I ran out of time or because they didn't with the chapter structure. (If you read the book, you'll see some early structures that imply that the app will eventually convert between English and Metric, which I never quite got to.) Again, this is the kind of thing that happens in all the time in real projects, but is hard to smoothly redirect when there's all that pre-existing text describing the earlier plans.

Sometimes, the sample app has more features than a real app would, rather than less. Since the book tries to cover multiple plugins or ways to accomplish things, Soups OnLine wound up with far more plugin load than a normal app would -- a regular app wouldn't normally have RSpec and Shoulda and Dust, or RMagick and MiniMagick and ImageScience. Inevitably some conflicts happened between multiple plugins trying to cover the same space, making the final code somewhat wilder than I'd really like. (If you've read the book and want to experiment with the outstanding code, it's probably easiest to work with around chapter 9, before Globalize and the image plugins are added...)

Ultimately, of course, as Fields concludes, it's the author's fault if the example doesn't help the user understand the issues at hand. It's my job to understand the constraints of the form and still try to present as realistic an application as possible while explaining how to to build similar applications.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Book Recommendations

I've been meaning to do this sooner, but, wow time flies...

Here are some brief comments about books I've read so far this year and would recommend. I think I'll pass on doing negative reviews here at the moment, unless I can make a larger point somehow.

Captain's Fury, by Jim Butcher

Book four in the Codex Alera series continues pretty much everything that's enjoyable about the series. I particularly like the way Butcher continues to move the story along, as well as how he's resisted the easy way to manage the hero and his lack of fury powers.

The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick

So about fourteen years ago, Swanwick published The Iron Dragon's Daughter, which was, I think, the first prominent example of a crossover between common fantasy icons and dystopian SF icons. If I remember correctly (always a dubious assumption) a lot of people (meaning me) weren't quite sure what to make of the weirdness. I don't think The Iron Dragon's Daughter is a great novel -- it's very episodic, for one thing -- but it is one of the most inventive and memorable novels you'll ever read.

The Dragons of Babel is marketed as a sequel, although I don't think there's any particular crossover beyond tone and some place or character names -- I don't remember Iron Dragon's Daughter having much plot to continue. It does however, continue the same tone as the original, a world that freely mixes fantasy elements with ideas from "the real world", and with a certain, say, lack of reverence toward High Fantasy.

The title Babel is a city, somewhat loosely based on the biblical and Mesopotamian myth, but populated with all kinds of fey, including ghouls and their corrupt city alderman leader, underground horse keepers, a mysterious throne with an absent king, guns, spells, and con men.

It's still fairly episodic, but I think it holds together as a coherent story better than Iron Dragon's Daughter, and it'll certainly mess with your head. In a good way. Mostly.

God Save The Fan by Will Leach

Leach is the editor and proprietor of Deadspin, which is the pre-eminent sports blog if you are a certain kind of fan -- irreverent? immature? Dunno, but it's one of my favorite sports web sites, serving up sports news and analysis while not stinting on pictures of drunken, partying quarterbacks.

The book is essentially Leach's attempt to make the Deadspin worldview explicit. (Although only one piece in the book is taken directly from Deadspin, regular readers will recognize many of the running jokes...) It's a collection of essays with the common goal of recovering sports from the people who take them too seriously. It's kind of hit and miss, but the best pieces are worth your time, and Leach has probably my favorite take on the steroid issue -- which is we're sick of it, please stop moralizing over it.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

I think this book is the longest work to ever win the Caldecott Medal for children's book illustration. Most Caldecott winners are your basic short kids picture books. Selznick has written a 500 page novel, about half of which is told through words, and about half through wordless pictures.

The story takes place in Paris in the 1930s. Hugo Cabret lives alone in the Paris Metro station, winding the clocks through a series of out of sight tunnels, and repairing a mechanical automaton rescued from a fire by his late father. Eventually, he comes to the attention of an elderly man who runs a mechanical toy shop in the station. The early history of French silent film is involved, along with an image you've surely seen of a rocket ship hitting the man in the moon square in the eye.

The pictures carry a lot of the story load, and they are moody and atmospheric without losing clarity -- it's never hard to follow the story, and you can't easily do things like slow zooms in pure text. There's a nice meta twist at the end, too. Definitely track down this unique and interesting book.

Lincoln and Douglas by Allen C. Guelzo

Somehow The Daily Show and The Colbert Report became my main sources for new non-fiction book recommendations (Stewart has almost completely stopped having actors as guests in favor of non-fiction authors, Colbert never really had many actor guests to begin with...). Guelzo was on The Daily Show, since books on the buildup to the Civil War really pack in the ratings.

The book is interesting, if not as dazzling in prose style as your super top-notch non-fiction books. It certainly focused on some areas that were relatively new to me. Notably, how the feud between Douglas and James Buchanan affected the race, and how East Coast Republican leaders didn't really support Lincoln out of the probably-vain hope that Douglas would reveal himself as a Republican. Guelzo also covers the various political pressures that affected Lincoln's message as well.

The interesting "what-if" scenario here is what would have happened had Douglas not chosen to debate Lincoln -- he had not much to gain from the debates as the prohibitive favorite. Absent the fame from the debates, there's no way Lincoln is the nominee in 1860. But absent the questions he had to answer in the debates, Douglas is much more likely to have cobbled together the Southern states into a coalition that could have elected him (adding a Southern VP, possibly). Where it goes from there is anybody's guess, especially since Douglas would have died months after taking office (although absent the debates, his health might have been better...)

The Mirador, by Sarah Monette

Book three in a series. One of those cases where the author settles character situations at the end of a book, then in order to write the next book in the series, she has to roll back some of the plot and character gains. That's what this book feels like -- the three main characters, acting mostly in harmony at the end of the second book, spend a lot of this book rehashing the arguments and conflicts from the last book.

That said, there's a lot in the book that does work. Monette does a nice piece of writers indirection, hiding the identity of an important character for a while. The characters and plot all move forward, maybe reaching new understandings in the end. Still looking forward to the next book.

New Amsterdam, by Elizabeth Bear

I read Bear's first novel (Hammered), thought it was okay, but never went back to the series. Since then, she's jumped her way around several genres, and the description of this one was compelling enough for me to check back in. It's alternate history, the difference point not quite spelled out, but America is still a British colony, and New Amsterdam remained a Dutch colony until the early 19th century when it was given to the British.

Our two lead characters are Sebastian de Ulloa, a centuries old vampire (the book favors "wampyr") and Abigail Irene Garret, a forensic sorcerer. Together they fight crime. Really.

The book is a series of connected short stories that eventually connect enough to roughly form a novel (some, if not all, of the stories were published separately). The early stories are mostly standalone, and have a certain Agatha Christie meets Bram Stoker kind of feel. Later stories build on each other, as both Sebastian and the British Crown find their positions in America become increasingly untenable.

I liked this book for it's atmosphere and for the main characters, I think it would have been even better fully structured as a novel -- I think it might have drawn out the supporting characters a bit more. The mystery elements give the story some texture, but the magical background behind the crimes is a little opaque to the reader... not a problem exactly, just a comment on what kind of mystery story this is. Plus, I'm an easy mark for any novel with the British Crown still ruling America. (If I met Richard Dreyfuss, I'd probably ask him what it was like to work with Harry Turtledove.) I'm hoping for a continuation to this story, and I'll check out some of Bear's other fantasy work in the meantime.

T is for Tresspass by Sue Grafton

Grafton is one of the few really best-selling authors that I read, and one of the things I like about her recent work is that she's been able to avoid having Kinsey Milhone solve the same case over and over again. In this case, the point of view goes back and forth between Kinsey and a sociopathic predator posing as a home nurse, the better to steal large sums of money from the neighborhood elderly recluse.

The mouse in this game sees Kinsey coming from a mile away, and manages to manipulate her into losing her temper and seeming unhinged to any authority figure Kinsey is inclined to consult. That's frustrating for Kinsey, but interesting for me -- I generally like watching the hero have their strengths used against them judo-style. The book is tense, although the actual ending struck me as a bit too easy.

It's also kind of interesting to watch Kinsey's stories, which take place a few months after each other and are therefore still in 1988, increasingly become period pieces. I think Grafton is increasingly referencing current events to make it easy for the reader to remember the time frame, and not wonder why Kinsey doesn't use a cell phone or the internet.

Coming soon: Matthew Hughes Magestrum series. New Lois McMaster Bujold. The third book in John Varley's Mars series. Jim Butcher's latest Dresden novel...

Friday, March 21, 2008

My Favorite Monkeys

New post at Pathfinder on monkey patching.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Beep Repaired

I don't know what this says about me, or anybody else for that matter...

I've been a huge Tom Lehrer fan ever since my 8th Grade Social Studies teacher decided to warp all our minds by playing "That Was the Year That Was" during a reading period. (It was 1985, so it's not like the recording was current or anything...) I was pretty instantly hooked, and a few years later when his albums were re-released on CD, bought them instantly, and have more-or-less memorized them.

I also became aware of the existence of the musical Tom Foolery, a review of Lehrer's songs that had apparently even recorded a cast album somewhere along the line, but not anywhere that coincided with a record shop I ever saw. I had always kind of wondered about it, and about a week ago, sort of randomly popped it into an iTunes search, and was really, really surprised to see the album actually show up. In DRM free iTunes plus, no less.

The album also has 24 reviews of which break down into: a) this isn't Tom Lehrer, b) Tom sings all these songs better, c) when is iTunes going to get real Tom Lehrer, and d) they don't even use the real lyrics, and e) who are these whiney English people pretending to be Tom Lehrer. People seem to be genuinely angered that anybody else would even bother to record Lehrer's songs (in addition to being somewhat confused as to what this recording actually is -- for example, the "wrong" lyrics were actually written by Lehrer for the production...). Oy.

Well, I wasn't about to let 20 some-odd random strangers dissuade me from an album I've been looking for for almost twenty years. Although I did pause for a microsecond or two.

Preparing for disappointment, I downloaded the album.

And you know what, it isn't Tom Lehrer. It's also actually pretty good. All in all, I like Lehrer's syncopated, ironic style better on most of the songs, but it's not true that the English cast sings the songs with no bite. It is true that they have better-trained voices than he does, and that works in favor of some songs and against others. Still, it's nice to hear some songs in character -- "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is cute as a duet, and I liked most of the adult lyric additions to "Silent E".

The really dark ballads don't all do as well, but the uptempo songs are great. There are a couple of cases where the accents invalidate a rhyme or two, but overall, I had no problem with these people singing Lehrer's songs. (It was a little weird to hear them using so much of his monologues to introduce the songs...) So, I guess it's Random English Singers 1, Random Internet Commenters 0, at least as I keep score.

One last geeky thing... like a lot of live recordings made for vinyl, the tracks begin with the actual start of the song and end with the introduction to the next song. This is fine in a record album, where you would use the track breaks to find the beginning of the musics, but it's really irritating in an iPod, mix-and-match world, since any song that comes up ends with the introduction to then next song that isn't going to be played. This really bothered me for this album, since the introductions really do need to be tied to their actual songs.

But these were DRM-free songs, and I can be an own-your-media type on occasions, so I took them all into GarageBand and re-split the tracks so that the introductions are on the same tracks as the actual song. Took under an hour, and only that long because I didn't know that GarageBand had a global preference for export quality that was set too low. Much better that way.

Speaking of iPod, mix-and-match worlds, someday I really must introduce my iTunes random playlist generator...

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Average Programming Book

One weird aspect of being a published writer is that you get very little information about sales. You see your own numbers (several months after the fact), but there's no larger context, and no sense of what a reasonable expectation of sales might be.

Which is why I love it when O'Reilly Radar puts up one of their periodic looks at the computer book market. I haven't pored over stat line like this since I collected baseball cards when I was ten.

I'm going to assume you've gone and followed the link, and post some further thoughts, rather than rehash the points already made.

So, the average programming book sold about 1100 copies in 2007. Given the probable distribution, I'd imagine the median is significantly lower, probably under 1000, although I have no way of knowing for sure. Obviously that conflates a lot of things, new books/old books, general books/specific books, but it seems to be a reasonable baseline.

It's not clear what that means for total sales, since I don't have a good sense of how long a particular book is viable. Jython Essentials, which is nobody's idea of a best-seller, is still selling the odd few copies a month, and 2007 was it's sixth calendar year of sales, (it probably just slipped below the 1100/year figure based on 2007).

You might expect that the per-unit total is larger for the larger language markets, but that doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, three of the top ten languages have much lower per-unit figures (Java, C, Visual Basic). Presumably, this is because the larger markets encourage specialized books in a way that, say, the Groovy market doesn't. Yet.

It does seem to be the case that markets whose share is growing have high per-unit sales and vice-versa. This makes sense, especially when you factor in the lag time that publishers operate under. Growth markets result in high sales for the relatively few titles available, then the average gets driven down later on as more players enter the market. (The most interesting counter example is PHP, which maintained a pretty good per-unit sales rate despite an overall drop.)

Quick thoughts:

  • Ruby has the highest per-unit sales rate in 2006 and 2007 (books are placed based on what language the examples are in, so this includes all Rails books). It's still a very strong growth market, though. (But I wonder what the average is if you subtract the two Dave Thomas books...)

  • Python passed Perl, for presumably the first time since ever. That's really weird sounding. If you'd told me when I bought the Pickaxe book in 2001 that six years later Python would outsell Perl, and Ruby would outsell both of them combined... It's weird.

  • If the trendlines come even close to continuing, C# will be the biggest language market in 2008. That seems strange too... but I guess the Microsoft Bubble of Tools is pretty big.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

iPhone SDK

I'm trying to figure out exactly why I'm so psyched by the Apple iPhone SDK announcement. The basic announcement wasn't a surprise, and I don't even own an iPhone. I did, however, dig out my Cocoa programming book and start studying.

Further thoughts:

  • The tools themselves seemed somewhat slicker than what was expected -- a lot of Mac developers were pleasantly surprised that Interface Builder was included (although apparently it's not in the first beta). There was a lot of speculation that the SDK release was delayed over security issues, but it also looks like polishing the tools took some time.

  • The demos were exceptionally well done, a very nice range of choices, and the continual push of how easy it was to make them. The quality of the demo is clearly one of the reasons that I'm excited.

  • As an aside.. say your boss came up to you and said you're going to fly to Cupertino for two weeks to build something in the super-secret iPhone SDK, which you will get to present in a full-on Steve Jobs media event. How many nanoseconds would you need to wait before accepting?

  • Let's see, the iPhone 2.0 comes out the end of June. So... by August 1, it should be the top mobile gaming platform going, right? Those were some seriously cool looking games...

  • The terms were more open than I expected. It's particularly nice that Apple is allowing the developers to set the price. It's particularly nice that they specifically included "free" as a price. They seemed to emphasize that Apple was going to try and get as many apps in front of developers as possible -- I'd take the inclusion of AIM as a demo as a sign that even things that AT&T might not be thrilled with will be allowed.

  • The general sense of the existing indy Mac community is that the 70/30 split is reasonable given what Apple is offering. It'll be interesting to see how the price points play out. (As pointed out by Jens Alfke, the App store model enables an entirely new class of micropayment software)

  • Still a number of questions: how will developers manage limited betas? Will developers be allowed to have the download be free, but have a separate license authorization? What about free but add supported (like Twitteriffic)?

Early line, here's a short list of people or apps off the top of my head I expect greatness from:

  • MobileTwitteriffic, already essentially announced. The trick here will be improving on the web UI.

  • Red Sweater, apparently Daniel is considering porting Black Ink, and maybe MarsEdit.

  • Ambrosia Software. For a really great game -- Sketch Fighter would work...

  • The Desktop Tower Defense guy. The UI would be tricky, though...

  • Somebody to do the killer To-Do list or GTD app. Omni?

  • A really cool doodle/draw program.

I think this is going to be a very fun ride...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Cuts Like A Knife

SF Movie Review: Battlestar Galactica: Razor

(Continuing the enlargement of things I write about on this site, and I think this will be the last post containing a disclaimer about topics...)

I'm not sure what this says about me or my relationship to this show, but the following is all true:

  • I bought this DVD the day it came out (I don't get Sci-Fi at the moment...)
  • I then let it sit for three entire months while waiting for the right time to watch it in one sitting.
  • I finally decided that I'd watch it in pieces, so I started it at about 10:45 at night.
  • Got so caught up in it that I watched it all the way through, then read Jacob's incredible TWoP recap before sleep.

The movie is made up of several nested flashback stories (don't even try to use this movie as an introduction to the Galactica universe...), mostly unified by the person of Kendra Shaw, whose official title might be "Highest Ranking Pegasus Officer We Never Saw Before". Shaw arrives on Pegasus about fifteen minutes before the original Cylon attack, and has a front row seat for the craziness hinted at during the first time through the Pegasus story. Later, she becomes Lee Adama's XO, and leads a mission to a mysterious Cylon outpost dating from the first Cylon war. Add in a couple of flashbacks as to what the elder Adama and Cain were doing on the last day of the first war, and you've about got it.

The basic issue with a this movie, which is designed specifically not to be necessary to understand the main story, is for the show to justify it's existence as more than a way to move DVD's at Best Buy. I think it does, not so much at a plot level, but in the way that it deepens the Pegasus story, already one of the show's best storylines.

The Galactica story has always revolved around about three questions, how do you deal with overwhelming loss, how are you supposed to act in the name of survival, and how are you supposed to treat a mortal enemy. Razor encompasses all three. The earlier Pegasus arc was, in some ways, a little too easy -- Cain fits very neatly into the model of Crazy Commanding Officer Who Goes Too Far. By taking us through the all the steps from beginning to end, Razor makes it harder to dismiss Cain as a lunatic -- it explains her actions without excusing them. Kendra Shaw, who pretty much wears a sign at the beginning saying "I'm Not Crazy" gets drawn straight into the heart of it all. As a result, Razor ends up being a very dark story even by Galactica standards.

  • My list of bedrock Galactica questions doesn't include the question of whether the Cylons are human. While that's frequently a topic of discussion on the show, it's clear to me that the creators of the show know the answer to that question... they use the human/robot question as a way of getting at the deeper issues.

  • I liked the subtle ways in which the movie placed itself in the Galactica timeline, the exact number of survivors in the credits places it, plus there were a couple of background references to major events in the last half of season 2.

  • Have they ever mentioned on the show exactly what caused the first Cylon war to end so abruptly? That's a possible plot issue to be dealt with in season 4. Or, I suppose, the on-again, off-again Caprica miniseries.

  • Moore's commentary is very interesting -- as with many other Galactica episodes, this one changed dramatically in editing. Essentially, they turned the entire movie inside out, and what was originally the framing sequence became the ending mission, and the original meat of the movie became the framing sequence.