Netflix's extraordinary exclusive series Black Mirror recently released its fourth season, and it's premiere episode, "USS Callister", is already being praised around the internet for its spectacular deconstruction of toxic fandom and male-entitlement power fantasies. It deserves every bit of that praise. Jesse Plemons is also deservedly earning plenty of praise for his incredible performance as both a nerdy creeper and for his spot-on Shatner send-up. But Black Mirror, as a series, is so good, in part, because it works on many, many different levels. So I wanted to spend a bit of time praising the episode for some of its other concepts that are getting less attention in the mainstream.

Jesse Plemons puts on a masterful performance as a nerdy office creeper and a spot-on Shatner send-up.

Before I do that, I want to start by saying that I love Black Mirror as a series. It's a modern-day Twilight Zone with a specific focus on the social impacts of technology, and dire warnings about their dangers. Yes, it's pessimistic, but it's bloody brilliant! I haven't sat down to watch every episode yet, and have only seen a handful of episodes from the first three seasons and the season four premiere. That being said, the show's second episode "Fifteen Million Merits" is one of my favorite pieces of television ever. "The Entire History of You", "Be Right Back", and "San Junipero" are also some of my favorites so far.

These episodes (along with "USS Callister") work so well for me because they do such a fantastic job of world-building -- at least, when they are not unrealistically pretending that memories and personality can be replicated from DNA, which is a major (almost story-breaking) stumbling block for Callister. These deep, nuanced worlds create many levels of commentary to unpack. "Fifteen Million Merits" focused on reality TV and pervasive advertising, but it also has some scathing warnings about a culture of body-shaming, obsession over digital merits (read: XBox Live and Steam Achievements), and how corporate avarice could turn a post-scarcity economy into an absolute dystopia.

A friend of mine highly recommended "San Junipero" to me on the grounds that it's a more optimistic episode than many of the others -- even having a happy ending. But my takeaway was not a "happy ending" at all. The fairy tale ending hides a sinister metaphysical question that the text of the episode mostly sidesteps: the mind-body problem. Is the avatar of a deceased person living in San Junipero really that same person? Or merely a copy? Are they one power failure away from being snuffed out of existence? Are people committing suicide based on misinformation from a multi-billion dollar corporation promising that they can live forever in a simulated reality?

Black Mirror's exceptionally well-thought-out worlds always leave sinister nuances to unpack.

"USS Callister", on the surface, appears to be entirely about toxic fandom (along with male entitlement). It is absolutely about that, and it does a fantastic job of presenting it. As a Star Trek fan, I also enjoyed the deconstructive elements about Trek tropes and the unrealistic reverence that fans hold for the series and its established canon. As someone who blogs about Star Trek, Star Wars, video games, and other fanboy topics, I am certainly a target of at least some of this episode's criticism.

As someone who works in the software industry, I recognized the episode also taking swipes at the cult of personality attached to tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gabe Newell, and others, and the idea that they may be taking credit and profiting on other people's work, and becoming filthy stinking rich at the expense of the consumers who mindlessly use and venerate their products, all with willful disregard for how those products may be misused. As someone who can't wait to put myself on the waiting list for a Tesla self-driving car, I'm also well within the cross-hairs of that line of commentary...

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It's tax season, which is not something that I ever write about on this blog. But this year, I had a very irregular experience. It wasn't with my taxes; rather, it was with my dad's attempts to use this year's TurboTax software. He'd been using TurboTax for years with no problem, but this year, the program wouldn't install. He's not exactly tech-savvy, so he had to call me to help him troubleshoot.

TurboTax installation failure
TurboTax fails to install due to some unspecified issue with the .NET Framework.

Upon attempting to install the program, he gets a very un-descriptive error message that simply states there was a problem installing TurboTax. Then a dialogue pops up stating that TurboTax is attempting to fix the problem by checking the file system, registry, and .Net framework. It's the .Net Framework step where TurboTax fails with yet another very un-specific error.

We tried updating Windows, disabling anti-virus software, and even opened up the registry to make sure that all the requisite versions of .Net Framework were installed. No luck.

TurboTax installation failure
Unable to resolve the problem itself, TurboTax referred us to a troubleshooting web page.

TurboTax referred us to this troubleshooting page, which includes instructions for downloading and running various .Net Framework repair tools and other system file integrity tools. In my dad's case, none of this stuff worked. As a last resort, the troubleshooting guide referred me to a blog post by Microsoft developer Aaron Stebner, who wrote about a .Net Framework cleanup tool that could potentially be used to resolve the issue...

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I haven't had a good rant on this blog for a long while. At least, not one that isn't part of tearing apart a terrible game in a review. But I have something that's been really grinding my gears throughout all of 2016, and I need to say something about it: I really dislike advertising. I have an especially intense dislike of internet advertising practices. It's not the ads themselves that get on my nerves; it's the ways in which websites and advertisers chose to deliver them. So many websites are crammed full of ugly, intrusive, and obnoxious ads that really hurt the experience of the user trying to actually view and navigate the website.

Streaming services like Comedy Central insist on crashing the video in the event that there's even the remotest hiccup in loading one of the five advertisements that it must play during the four advertising breaks that it includes in its half-hour episodes. I routinely run into issues in which the pre-episode ads fail to load, and so the whole episode refuses to load, and I have to ctrl-F5 to reload the page until it selects a set of five advertisements that actually work. But then it gets to one of the mid-episode commercial breaks, and even if the advertisements do load and play, the actual episode refuses to continue. Sometimes, I can hit the "rewind 10 seconds" button to fix the problem. Other times, I once again have to ctrl-F5 to reload the page, sit through the pre-episode ads again (hoping they don't cause yet another failure), then skip past the ad break in the timeline, watch the mid-episode ads (and hope that they don't also fail), and then maybe I can continue watching the content. This is why I haven't seen an episode of The Daily Show in a couple months and have no idea if new host Trevor Noah has finally hit a stride yet. I have similar issues with CBS steaming, which is why I also haven't been able to watch much of Stephen Colbert's new late night talk show. Sorry Stephen, I love you, but CBS apparently doesn't want me to watch you.

advertisement
Issues with Comedy Central's ad-delivery abound: ads play over the actual content, their failure to load
prevents the content from playing, they have multiple ad breaks and not enough unique ads to fill them, etc.

To make matters worse, Comedy Central and CBS often doesn't even have enough distinct ads to fill up all these advertising breaks. I often see the same three or four ads in every ad break. Sometimes, the same exact ad will play back-to-back during the same advertising break!

Is this supposed to be punishment for not watching the show on cable TV? I actually do (at the time of this writing) have an active cable subscription, and that subscription does include Comedy Central and CBS. I could easily just DVR episodes of The Daily Show or Late Show with Stephen Colbert and watch them at home, but I prefer to watch them during my sit-in lunch breaks at work because it's just a more efficient use of time. Or at least, it would be, if it ever actually worked. Heck, on the DVR, I can just skip past the damned ads. I can't do that when streaming on the internet.

Comedy Central is far from unique in this regard. I've already pointed a finger at CBS as well, and this is one of the reasons that I'm not happy about Star Trek: Discovery being exclusive to CBS All-Access. I really don't want to pay for a streaming service to watch one show! Especially if it's still going to contain content-breaking advertisements that prevent me from even watching the show that I'm paying to watch...

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft set a major milestone for human space exploration earlier this week. Its approach of Pluto means that every solar body that is now - or ever has been - considered a "planet" has been visited by at least one NASA space probe. The probe was launched in January of 2006 (back when Pluto was still a "planet"), and it will continue out beyond Pluto and into the mysterious Kuiper Belt to continue its exploration of the solar system.

In the meantime, the probe has sent back months-worth of high-resolution images and scans for NASA scientists to study. The early results are already full of surprises.

New Horizon photo of Pluto
New Horizon's first, high-res photograph of Pluto (July 14, 2015).

Pluto - it turns out - is not the old, craggy, cratered world that many scientists expected it to be. In fact, it appears quite young, with tall, rocky mountains and nary a single impact crater. This is surprising considering the body's proximity to the Kuiper Belt, which contains numerous asteroids, and other small, rocky bodies left over from the formation of the solar system.

New Horizon photo of Pluto
Large mountains were found on Pluto.

The probe also found possible evidence of frozen water. Frozen nitrogen and methane were expected, but early photographs suggest that frozen water may also make up a large portion of Pluto's crust. This is exciting for scientists because the presence of water (even in frozen ice form) is a possible indicator of life. There doesn't appear to be any liquid water (at least not yet), so the prospects for life are much better on Jupiter's moon Europa (which may have underground liquid oceans warmed by subterranean vents), or Saturn's moon Titan (which has a dense atmosphere and possible liquid surface water). But it at least adds Pluto to the list of possible targets of further study.

New Horizons was actually making discoveries long before it reached Pluto. In 2007, it captured video of a massive volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io. It was a pretty spectacular sight to behold.

New Horizon photo of Pluto
A five frame video of a massive volcanic plume on Jupiter's moon Io (taken in 2007).

As an interesting piece of trivia: the New Horizons craft also contains the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who first discovered Pluto in 1930. He had requested that his ashes be sent to space. Not only did NASA oblige, but they send his ashes to the very body that he became famous for discovering. He had died in 1997, and you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more fitting interment for an astronomer.

More information about Pluto and the New Horizons mission can be found on NASA's official webpage at https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html.

Pluto photographic history
A history of the images of Pluto.
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Back to the Future II - dates
"Back to the Future Day" is rapidly approaching.

This fall, expect to see an onslaught of social media posts about how scientists and engineers have failed us because they haven't invented hover boards, self-drying clothes, holographic sharks, or flying cars. These sorts of Back to the Future memes have been showing up on social media every October for the past few years, often with the dates misquoted. These posts also tend to lament the lack of the nifty technologies showcased in Back to the Future.

And it isn't just Back to the Future that makes people get all nostalgic for the science fiction technology of yesteryear. At the turn of the century, people also bemoaned the huge gap between the manned spaceflight program depicted in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Arthur Clark's classic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. We also don't have food in the form of pills, or robot butlers, or lightsabers, or holodecks, or wrist phones either. Oh wait, we do have wrist phones, so we can check that one off the list.

But maybe the tech that we do have is actually better than what is depicted in contemporary science fiction movies.

Here's what bothers me: the same people who use their smart phones to post these "Back to the Future Day" memes to Facebook, and demand that scientists get off their lazy butts and build a working hoverboard, often take the technology that we do have for granted...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

Follow me on Twitter at: twitter.com/MegaBearsFan

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