The Problem with Streaming Video

Buffyverse

Streaming video, whether from Netflix or YouTube, is a great medium for young people with good hearing. But there comes a time in life, alas, when hearing starts to diminish and your either watch things with the volume turned up too far for decency, or you rely on captioning, or subtitles.

My wife and I are in our mid-60’s and our hearing has started to go. Our solution to this, when watching TV or DVDs, is to turn on captioning. It goes by various names: captioning, closed captioning, subtitles in English, subtitles for the hearing impaired. Go to Setup on a DVD and you’ll be able to turn it on.

We first started using subtitles when listening to British shows that often had hard-to-understand regional dialects. Then we used them for the archaeology show Time Team so we could catch the technical terms that were unfamiliar to our ears. It was better than “What was that he said?” “I dunno, couldn’t make it out.”

By the time we discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer the show was no longer on the air so we bought the DVD collection. There were so many quick lines and references to pop culture that we needed the subtitles to keep up.

Now it’s become our preferred way to watch any kind of video. We can keep the volume on the TV low yet still not miss any of the dialog.

With streamed video, which we watch via a Western Digital TV Live media player attached to our TV, there are no subtitles. There are none when we listen on our iThings either. I’ve often wondered why subtitles are not offered as a viewer option.

Not knowing the industry, I suspect it might have something to do with licensing rights and that subtitles and captions are not necessarily licensed along with the video itself. I could be wrong, of course. It may simply be that adding a subtitle track to the video isn’t standardized.

I hope something might be done about this eventually. There is, of course, a large demographic consisting of aging seniors and soon-to-be-seniors. Streamed video services would be more attractive to them as subscribers if they included captioning.

Captioning has some downsides, of course. And some chuckles. The captions occasionally obscure something you’re trying to see. Or, more comically, they try to capture the mood of the video by announcing “ominous music” when a murder is about to be committed. Still, they’ve become an important part of our viewing pleasure.

That’s it for now.

(“waves goodbye”)

Fall Update

Thanksgiving

I love the fall. The weather cools down, the trees turn colour, and the pace of life picks up.

Marion and I had a delightful day trip and picnic lunch with our friend Suzanne. We drove up to Forks of the Credit and enjoyed the autumn countryside. It takes a long time to get out of the city now with the GTA expanding northward. One day I expect it to be solidly urban from Mississauga to Orangeville.

This fall I’m taking an online course “Writing the Personal Essay,” from Creative Nonfiction. We have weekly readings and tutorials, occasional online chats, written assignments, and peer review. It’s stretching me as a writer, for which I’m thankful.

I’ve been reading so much my Kindle is smoking. I’m on an SF&F spree that I hope never ends. I’m also reading some mystery fiction. I don’t read much mainstream literature — I find it boring. Contemporary literary fiction, most of it anyway, leaves me cold. But science fiction challenges me and the inventiveness and creativity of the authors delight me. My Kindle is currently subscribed to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Clarkesworld. And for more serious reading, Philosophy Now.

The delightful thing is that as soon as the issues are released by the publisher, they download into my Kindle.

The fall marks the new TV season as well, and this season I’m watching Dexter, CSI, Silk, Inspector Lewis, and Ringer. Plus documentaries and specials.

Not to mention listening to podcasts galore, including the bracing TED Talk videos.

And I was delighted to hear that my friend Earl has picked up a Macbook Air.

Finally, for anyone interested, I’ve started a paper.li Internet newspaper called Gene’s Sci-Tech Daily.

Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy (by StarbuckGuy)

The short story, Exit Strategy, by P.G. Holyfield, in the “Stories from Wolfram & Hart” series, was podcast today on Angel Between the Lines. I voiced the dialog for the character Johannes Cordner.

If you were a fan of the Angel show, I think you’ll like the story. P.G. told an interesting tale of heist and magic. If you’re not familiar with Angel, you will likely be able to follow the story anyway. Background: Wolfram & Hart is an evil law firm. I know, aren’t they all? But we’re talking dark evil — into the use of monsters, spells, dimension portals, and the black arts.

“The Answer” — Strangely Literal 075

I recently had the pleasure of reading the fan fiction story “The Answer” for the Strangely Literal podcast, Episode #075. It’s a beautifully written story based on the final episode of Dollhouse, Season One.

If you enjoy fan fiction, or simply like to have a story read to you, please drop by for a listen. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe to Strangely Literal in iTunes or the podcatcher of your choice.

ABtL: From Audition to Assignment, Pt. 2

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[Return to Pt 1]

Once the thrill of being selected as a member of the general cast wore off a little, it was time to get to work. On the application that accompanied my audition recordings I had ticked the box that said I’d upgrade my microphone if I joined the team. For this I requested my son’s help, and he set me up with a Shure microphone on a heavy stand, an Edirol USB sound card for input and output, and he gave me a few tips on using the free sound software, Audacity.

Cast members are all required to assume more than an acting role and are offered various choices of areas they can help with, such as writing, sound mixing, special effects, artwork for the series, original music, podcasting about the series, and other forms of publicity. I chose writing and blogging. Not scripts for the show, but any small bits of writing I could contribute.

My first writing assignment was to write a radio commercial for Blue Sun Chinese Takeout, the food place that figures prominently in the first episode of Angel Between the Lines, “Curioser and Curioser.” So far it’s not been used, but I had fun writing it, and it made me feel part of the team. Next, several of us were given the group line, “To Lorne!” in Episode 1 — toasting Lorne with our drinks

The procedure is this: you record your line(s) three times, changing the delivery each time so the producers can pick the one that sounds best to them in the context of the story. There’s a specification for the type of MP3 file to create, and instructions on how to name it and where to ftp it. The producers and sound engineers then have the enormous job of putting it all together. I think I heard Tabz say once that there are over 100 people involved in a major episode, filling something like 200 roles. Some of the actors are also writers, producers, directors, or sound specialists.

The lead actors have a big show to record. Those of us in the general cast supply minor characters and crowds, where needed. In one of the episodes I play a dying demon. In another, a New York-raised “gansta.”

Some lines are recorded solo, and some are recorded in a group setting, via Skype. In the group sessions one member of the cast, always an experienced voice actor, is selected as director. The director listens for pacing, technical flaws such as poorly placed microphones, incorrectly delivered lines, and suggestions to specific actors on how they might improve their delivery. For novices like me, this is invaluable.

The whole operation works rather like an open-source software project. No one is paid, no one makes any money from the work, and Joss Whedon, who is aware of the series, has always been generous in allowing fans to write fictions based on his shows, as long as nothing commercial takes place that would violate copyright.

Angel Between the Lines will consist of 12 full episodes, plus extras. Extras include recorded feedback discussions about each episode, special smaller episodes, and some surprises. This season’s production, behind the scenes, has just passed the half-way mark, and, as mentioned, the first full episode, “Curioser and Curioser,” has been released. There is also a set of side stories called “Stories from Wolfram & Hart,” being written by some outstanding SF&F writers.

I hope, if you read this, that you’ll give the episode a try and, better yet, subscribe to the podcast, which will bring all the episodes and specials to your preferred audio device. As I said in Pt. 1, the young people who put this together are my heroes. It’s damned inspiring to see how they’ve taken fan fiction to such an incredibly sophisticated level, using the Internet to produce a new type of entertainment. Imaginative, creative, and wholly refreshing. Can you spell T-A-L-E-N-T? Kudos to the producers, writers, directors, actors, sound people, friends, supporters, and thanks to all of you who listen and provide feedback!

ABtL: From Audition to Assignment, Pt. 1

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No one was more surprised than me when I became a voice actor. It’s not something I’d ever considered doing, though people have told me all my adult life that I had a good “radio voice” whatever that means.

What strange set of circumstances could lead a retired 64-year-old to become a voice actor?  A mix of curiosity, Joss Whedon, and the Internet. Plus my heroes: the young women and men who are using the Internet in creative, zestful, imaginative ways that could never have been foreseen when I was their age. It’s their story, really, but first I’ll trace how I found them.The tale begins with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My son’s girlfriend, K, mentioned how good Buffy was, and how great Joss Whedon is as a writer, director, and general creative talent. “Joss who?” I asked. She looked at me dumbfounded. “You don’t know Joss Whedon?” She then rattled off a bunch of his works that I’d likewise never heard of.

What can I say? I quit watching TV years ago, except for the occasional BBC mystery, and I’m not a movie buff. Still, I’m curious about things and thought that since I knew next to nothing about the pop culture of the past thirty years, perhaps I could try watching some of it, to see if I could relate.

The thing about K — she’s really smart. And she loves Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels as much as I do. She insisted that if I liked Terry Pratchett, I’d probably like Joss Whedon. That was the perfect sales pitch. I checked out Buffy Season One from the local library system (I didn’t want to pay for disappointment), and my wife and I watched the first couple of discs.

We were totally smitten. Totally grabbed by the concepts, relationships, snappy writing, excellent acting, and unfolding journey of growth and meaning. I returned Season One to the library and ordered the seven season box set from Amazon.

We tried to pace our viewing, but became so addicted we finished the entire seven seasons within a month.  Well, if Buffy was that good, perhaps we should check out Angel as well. Angel was a spin-off from the Buffy show and was also produced by Joss and his excellent core of writers and directors.

I purchased the box set of five seasons of Angel and we watched that too, in addition to watching all the way through Buffy a couple more times. At this point we had become entrenched in what fans refer to as the “Buffyverse” and, more broadly, the “Jossverse.”

Next, I heard a podcast — did I mention I love podcasts? — in which one of my favourite podcasters, Dr. Ginger Campbell (Brain Science Podcast, Books and Ideas Podcast), posted an interview with Tabatha Grace Smith. Tabatha Grace Smith (Tabz), along with Kim Butler, had created and founded an audio drama series called Buffy Between the Lines.

BBtL episodes are fan fiction (fanfic) dramas based on incidents that “might have happened” in the summers between the regular seasons of Buffy. Tabz, writer/producer, wrote the initial scripts for the series while Kim, co-producer, sought out the voice talent. Together they enlisted other writers, artists, actors, musicians, sound engineers, and directors who volunteered their time to create the episodes.

As Spike said on Halloween Night, “That’s just … neat!” so I immediately subscribed to the BBtL podcasts. I was amazed that a group of volunteers from around the world could use the Internet to create such good, imaginative, high-quality productions. I became a big fan of the podcast.

Another thing about the interview that stuck with me is that Dr. Campbell, a podcaster of very serious material, talked about the fun she’d had with a small role she’d acted in one of the episodes. I had an Oz “Huh!” moment. It never occurred to me that people without an acting background might voice some of the narrative.

Some time after that — last autumn in this universe — a BBtL season two podcast announced auditions for the next drama series: Angel Between the Lines. The announcement was friendly and encouraging and I wondered if I might be able to help out and participate in a bit-player kind of way.

After some reflection, I thought “Naw,” but when the deadline neared I changed my mind and thought “What the heck? Even auditioning would be kinda fun.” So I used a cheap headset mike to record the audition lines, trying out for “General Cast” which means crowd scenes, the odd dying demon, and such. I never expected to be selected.

Then the email arrived. I’d been selected as a member of the General Cast, and was given access to the schedule and the files. I was gobsmacked.

[Continue to Pt. 2]

Battlestar Galactica (new series), Season One

Battlestar Galactica is another series I missed when it was current. But with the aid of Zip.ca, Marion and I have been viewing Season One, beginning with the miniseries. We would have finished the season by now but the next-to-last disc arrived cracked and we’re waiting for its replacement. We skipped ahead to the final episode of the season since we had the disc in hand, but an awfully lot of plot happened in the gap.

We’re gripped by what we’ve seen so far. My favourite character, as soon as I saw her, was “Starbuck”, Lt. Kara Thrace, performed by Katee Sackhoff. After the Buffy series, I really love seeing sassy women who are able to kick serious ass. The casting is good throughout and the premise is good SF. I think this Amazon.ca reviewer of the Complete Series, (Rob H., Canada), has summed up the series admirably:

This is television with intelligence; television with emotional resonance; and television with soul. It is unfortunate that the name and surface appearance of the subject matter place it squarely in the “geek” domain of science fiction because beneath the outer trappings lies a deeply religious, philosophical and spiritual discussion that can (and should) be enjoyed by everyone. The complete series is beautiful. The visuals, sound, writing, directing and acting are all exemplary and are deserving of being viewed in the highest quality possible.

His only complaint is the high price of the BluRay disc set.

The first two discs of Season Two should arrive next week, along with the Season One replacement disc. I find that after watching an episode or two, I like reading about it on the Battlestar Galactica Episode Guide. Kudos to the folks who assembled this excellent resource!

On the reading front, I picked up a new novel by Canadian SF/F writer Charles de Lint called The Mystery of Grace.  I won’t post any spoilers, but I’ll say if you’re interested in exporing a new take on life after death, this has been a very good read so far. I’m a little over half way and am having trouble putting the book down.

[addendum] Finished reading The Mystery of Grace early this morning and I can recommend it. The plot keeps turning in unexpected directions and there’s a fascinating philosophical/spiritual underpinning to the story. And you’ll love Grace, and her affection for rebuilding classic cars and listening to rockabilly and hot-rod/surfing music. It’s just that she’s in this really weird place and I don’t mean her head.

Summertime Blues

Sometimes I wonder, what am I gonna do
Cause there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

— Eddie Cochrane

July already. The days grow shorter. Not that it’s noticeable, but in a few weeks my morning walks will be in closer alignment to sunrise. The sunset times don’t affect us much because Marion and I aren’t night people. Our routine after dinner is to snuggle on the couch and watch a rented video or one from our collection. We retire early and rise early.

It wasn’t always like this. During my youth and my student days I was a nighthawk. I slept late, unless there were classes, and I confess I slept through a few of those. I usually stayed active until 2-3am. I had friends who kept a similar schedule and we spent many an hour discussing the state of the universe, usually agreeing, by 3am, that it really WAS existential.

What knocked the nighthawk out of me was getting employment and having to be at work and productive in the morning. It never tamed me entirely. Even while working I stayed up until midnight or so. I’d get to bed early enough, but sleep was elusive. I read a lot of novels between 10-12.

But aging has changed my natural circadian rhythms. I’m now keeping farmer’s hours. Funny that. I would have thought my natural rhythms were hard-wired and wouldn’t change during my lifetime. Surprise!

The main aspect of my life this has affected is my reading. I’d developed a pattern of reading fiction late at night. Now when I try to read in bed, I last, at best, a page or two. I often wake with my reading glasses on and a book in my hand. It’s cut down the amount I read. When I try to read during the day I get fidgety and find it hard to keep my focus.

On the plus side, I’m catching up on pop culture movies and TV series. It started by my getting hopelessly addicted to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fortunately so did Marion. We then branched out to other Whedon productions: Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible. Angel was okay, and better than most of the fare on TV, but it never reached the quality of Buffy. Neither of us cares much for David Boreanaz as an actor, so it was hard to very excited about the series. If it weren’t for a great supporting cast, and a few very good episodes, we’d never have watched the entire series. Firefly was good, as was the follow-on movie Serenity. Dr. Horrible was funny, and clever. Dollhouse is disappointing. I was surprised to hear it was renewed for a second season.

In an effort to branch out to see other movies and TV series that we’d missed over the past thirty or so years, I’ve been asking friends to make recommendations. We’ve signed up with Zip.ca to rent titles from our wish list. Zip has most of the TV series I’m interested in.

I particularly like to see how a well-done TV series introduced its story and characters to the audience for the first time. That makes the season one, disc one offerings especially useful. I believe a budding fiction writer can learn a lot from good TV and movie productions.

Starting this month I’m going to start chronicling what we’ve been watching and which shows we really liked, or didn’t, and why. A couple of teasers: we’re loving Battlestar Galactica but couldn’t even get through the very first episode of Star Trek: Next Generation.

My Last Tweet

Tweetie Bird (by drschenck)

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get Twitter. But with everyone advising you to use it, in conjunction with Facebook and other social media, to keep an Internet profile, I gave it a try.

I located some friends and ‘followed’ their ‘tweets’. I followed the tweets of some well known personalities. I tried Twitter as an ‘update service’ to let me know about articles, news items, and new web entries.

I understood all this, but I still didn’t get it. Twitter derives from instant messaging and from text messaging, phone to phone. Cell phone that is. It belongs to the culture that apparently wants to be in touch and available almost all hours of the day. I automatically think ‘teenagers’ but what I’m seeing belies that. The world is turning into a cell-phone/texting culture. I don’t get that either.

I own a cell phone. I’ve never texted with it and I only have it on for emergency purposes when I’m out of the house. Perhaps my mild aversion to cell phones comes naturally. For over five years I was in an ‘on-call’ rotation in the IT department of a large insurance company. It was 24/7 and often brutal. When my pager beeped or my corporate cell phone rang, it was usually not happy news.

Even so, I still don’t get why people want to broadcast one-liners along the lines of ‘I’m in Starbucks having a delicious green-tea latte’, ‘Just watched Dollhouse. It’s not going to survive’, ‘Rejection slip. I’m bummed!’, ‘Too sleepy to stay awake. Night, night.’

Sure, it’s life, as lived even. It’s also life at its most trite and banal. It’s characters acting out a part in a play with a bad script, made up as it goes. Engrossing? Perhaps to a sociologist.

Lately there has been a rash of articles in places like the Toronto Star offering advice on what constitutes a good use of Twitter, Twitter for your business needs, and so forth. Kids, when the daily newspapers start explaining how to tweet, you know whatever ‘cool factor’ Twitter might once have had is gone.

Admittedly I’m not the best judge of ‘cool’. I’m somewhat solitary, but when I see friends, I prefer to see them face to face. I don’t automatically count everyone I meet on the Net as a ‘friend.’ I’m fine with email — it works more than adequately to keep me in touch with friends, family, and colleagues. I enjoy discussion forums where something might actually be discussed.

A lot of people keep Twitter open in a window as they work, and tweet back and forth with ‘friends’ throughout the day. Although habitues of Twitter will likely disagree vehemently, I think I can say with some assurance that every tweet read and replied to lessens your concentration and efficiency.

You can multitask fluently, you say? There’s not a neurologist on the planet who agrees with you. ‘Multitasking is a myth’, is their consistent message. But we all cherish our illusions.

Life is short. As I approach my 64th birthday, it seems very short. I’ve tweeted my last tweet. My account has been deleted.

I’d rather be writing.