Alex Winter (best-known as Bill from the Bill & Ted movies, but more frequently a director these days) is making a documentary about Frank. And as part of the process, he's helping Joe Travers to preserve and digitize the Zappa Vault.
Winter recently explained in Update #18 that the first million dollars raised in the Kickstarter campaign will all go to preserving the Vault, and that he won't put any Kickstarter dollars toward the documentary until and unless it passes $1 million. I think this shows he's got his priorities in order; I definitely want to see the documentary, but I agree with him that the most important step in preserving Zappa's legacy is preserving his work and making sure we don't lose it to degrading tape and film.
The Kickstarter runs through April 8. There are add-on rewards available, too, which don't require you to pledge to the Kickstarter and which will still be available after it ends.
I've always advocated being kind to tech support people. They have a tough job, it's not their fault you have a problem, and they spend all day dealing with abuse from people who act like it is their fault.
Well, yesterday, for the first time in my life, I cursed out a phone support rep. I'm not proud of it, but in my defense, I'd been talking to support for 90 minutes by that point, and the last 30 of that had been a conversation where this tier-2 rep talked in circles, blamed me for problems with their server, repeatedly said she couldn't help me, refused to listen to my explanations of the problem, and acted like a condescending ass.
Seriously, this is the worst tech support experience I have ever had. Beating out the previous record-holder, the guy who told me that my burned-out power supply wasn't really burned-out, I was probably experiencing a software issue. After I told him there were burn marks on the power connector.
At least that one was funny. The conversation I had with Cox yesterday wasn't funny, just infuriating.
Here's what happened: on Monday evening, when I tried to send an E-Mail, I started getting this error:
An error occurred while sending mail: The mail server sent an incorrect greeting:
fed1rmimpo306.cox.net cox connection refused from [my IP address].
I tried unplugging the modem to see if I'd get a new IP assigned. No luck. I tried turning the computer off and then on again. No luck. I tried sending mail from other devices. Same result.
So on Tuesday afternoon, I pulled up Cox's live support chat to ask for some help.
The rep eventually told me he'd escalate, and that the issue should be fixed within 24 hours.
Just shy of 27 hours later, I pulled up Cox's live support chat again, to ask what the problem was.
The rep -- a different one this time -- quoted me this feedback from the ticket:
Good afternoon, the log below shows the username can send on our servers. This may be a software, device or network issue. Please review the notes and contact the customer.
In other words, they'd tested the wrong thing. The mail server was rejecting my connection, based on my IP address, before my mail client sent my username and password. And Cox's solution to this was...to confirm that my username and password were working.
I explained this to the rep, over the course of 75 excruciating minutes. I demonstrated by disconnecting my phone from my wifi network and sending an E-Mail while connected to my wireless carrier. It worked when I connected to Cox's SMTP server over LTE; the same mail app on the same phone failed when connected to my wifi.
I explained that the mail server was blocking connections from my IP address, and that they needed to either make it stop blocking my IP address or assign me a different IP address.
The rep told me that was impossible, that residential accounts use DHCP, which assigns IP addresses at random.
I told him that I know what DHCP is, and that I wasn't asking for a static IP address, I was just asking for someone to revoke my DHCP lease and assign my modem a new IP address from the DHCP pool.
He told me that the only way to get a new IP address is to disconnect your modem for 24 hours.
I told him that was unacceptable, and I asked if there was anyone else I could talk to.
He gave me a number to call.
The person who answered the phone said she'd escalate to a tier-2 tech. I said, pointedly, that I did not understand why nobody had thought to do that in the preceding 75 minutes.
As it turns out, tier-2 techs are worse than tier-1 techs. Tier-1 techs at least know that they don't know everything, and are willing to ask for help from people who know more than they do. Tier-2 techs think they do know everything, will not ask for help from someone who knows more than they do, and certainly will not listen to a customer who knows more than they do.
Well, probably not all of them. But that was sure as hell my experience with the tier-2 tech I got stuck with.
First, she had the sheer gall to tell me my modem wasn't connected to the Internet.
I told her I could connect to websites, I could receive E-Mail, and that the error message on sending mail was not a timeout, it was a Connection Refused. I added that I was doing this from a computer that was connected to my router by a cable, that I had not accidentally jumped on somebody else's wifi.
She would have none of it. She insisted "We can't see your connection here, so you're not connected." Repeatedly. When I told her that I was clearly connected to the Internet, she just kept telling me that no, I wasn't.
Finally she told me to bypass my router and plug my desktop directly into my modem. I told her that this wouldn't fix anything, because this was happening from multiple devices that all had Internet access. She got huffy and standoffish and told me she couldn't help me if I wasn't willing to do what she asked.
So I did it. I climbed back behind my computer, traced the cable to the router, and swapped it with the one coming from the modem.
Absolutely nothing changed. Except that she said. "Oh. You're running a Linux computer? We don't support Linux."
I responded, "The operating system I am using is not relevant to whether your server is accepting connections from my IP address."
But some reps aren't interested in helping. They're only interested in finding an excuse for why they don't have to help you.
I asked her if there was any way she could determine why my IP was being blocked. I noted that it seemed to be on some sort of blacklist.
She asked if I'd checked whether it was on any public blacklist. I responded that I had, and that it had an expired listing on SORBS from 2013 -- well before it was my IP address; I've only lived in this house since 2014 --, that I hadn't found it in any other blacklist, and that a SORBS listing from over two years ago should not result in my suddenly losing the ability to connect to SMTP two days ago.
She said that if I was on a blacklist, those were handled by third parties and it was my responsibility to get de-listed. I explained that I did not see my IP on any currently-active blacklists, and asked if she could look up what was causing the rejection. She said she couldn't.
I asked if she could reset my IP. She said that the only way to do it would be to shut down my modem for 25 hours. (Already I had somehow lost another hour!)
I told her that was unacceptable, and asked how I could get it reset remotely.
She told me that was impossible, that residential accounts use DHCP, which assigns IP addresses at random, and that the only way to get a new DHCP address is to disconnect your modem for 25 hours.
I told her that it is not impossible, that the same router that provides DHCP leases is capable of revoking them, and that I needed somebody to do that for me.
We went round and round like this for awhile.
At one point, she said, "We can't do that; it's done automatically."
I responded that anything a computer does automatically can also be done manually, and that there is certainly someone in Cox who has the account access to log into the router that is assigning IP addresses and revoke a lease.
She started to explain DHCP to me again -- it was about the fifth time at this point -- and I snapped.
I shouted, "I know how DHCP works; I ran an ISP, for fuck's sake!"
I feel kinda bad about that.
I finally got pushed over to a supervisor -- another twenty minutes on hold -- who tried to tell me that Cox can't help me because they don't support third-party programs like what I'm using, and that if I could send messages from webmail, that's what I should do.
I said, "Are you seriously telling me that Cox does not support sending E-Mail from phones or tablets?"
The supervisor backed off that claim and said that she didn't really understand the technical stuff, that she could send me back to tier 2.
I responded that it had been two hours and I didn't think it was in anyone's best interest for me to continue this conversation, but that if I decided to call back tomorrow, what could I do to get some service?
She said to ask for tier 2 again, and this time ask for a manager.
I'm debating whether I really want to deal with that kind of aggravation, or if I'd be happier just abandoning the Cox E-Mail address that I've been using for fifteen fucking years.
Incidentally, Cox just jacked its prices up by $7 a month. Why is it that every time the cost goes up, the quality of service goes down? I remember the first time they hiked my bill, they dropped Usenet service.
That was in 2009. Since then my bill's gone up $27. My service sucks; several times a day my connection just stops working and I have to restart the modem.
And of course I can't switch to another ISP, because there isn't one available at my address. My "choices", such as they are, are as follows:
Pay $74 a month for Cox
Steal wifi from a neighbor who's paying for Cox
See how far I can get using only my phone's data plan for Internet access
I'm pretty much fucked, like most Americans are on broadband access.
And the hell of it is, even if there were another provider available, all the alternatives seem to be even worse.
I mean, Christ, at least I don't have Time Warner or Comcast.
This one is probably obvious, but just in case it isn't: I started with a short story because when you want to learn a new skill, you want to start small. I didn't want to write something novel-length and then run into a bunch of problems.
A short story's the perfect length to start with. Old Tom and the Old Tome clocks in around 3,000 words, split up into 4 separate sections (cover, copyright, story, About the Author). It has a great structure for learning the ropes.
Of course, you don't have to go the fiction route. In fact, it occurs to me that this blog post would actually convert quite nicely into a short eBook. Hm, food for thought.
I checked out Scrivener because Charles Stross swears by it. It's basically an IDE for writing books; it's quite simply the most advanced and mature piece of software there is for the purpose.
There's a Linux version, but it's abandonware. For a GNU/Linux user such as myself, this is something of a double-edged sword: on the plus side, I get Scrivener for free, where Mac and Windows users have to pay $40 for it; on the minus side, if a system upgrade ever causes it to stop working, I'm SOL. If Scrivener stops working on my system, there's not going to be a fix, I'll be locked into a platform I can no longer use. I could try and see if the Windows version will run under WINE, but there's no guarantee of that.
The good news is that Scrivener saves its files in standard formats, so if it ever stops working I'll still be able to access my content in other programs. The bad news is that it saves its individual files with names like 3.rtf and 3_synopsis.txt.
So Scrivener's pretty great, and I'll probably stick with it for a little while even though there are no more updates on the horizon for my OS -- but there's a definite downside to using the Linux version. (And if they decided the Linux version wasn't going to bring in enough profit to justify maintaining it, what happens if they decide the same thing for the Windows version someday, maybe leave it as a Mac-only product?)
Scrivener's got a great tutorial to run through its functionality; start there.
When you're done with the tutorial and ready to get to work on your book, I recommend using the Novel template, even if you're not writing a novel, because it automatically includes Front Matter and Back Matter sections; the Short Story template does not.
Scrivener's got your standard MS-word-style tools for formatting your work. I didn't use them. Since I was targeting a digital-only release and no print version, I wrote my story in Markdown, which converts trivially to HTML but isn't as verbose as HTML.
Since I went the Markdown route, I found that the best option for output at compile time was Plain Text (.txt). The most vexing thing I found about the output was the limited options under the "Text Separator" option -- the thing that goes between different sections. What I wanted was a linebreak, followed by ***, followed by another linebreak. Scrivener doesn't have any option for that -- your options are Single Return, Empty Line, Page Break, and Custom. Under Custom you can put ***, but there doesn't seem to be any way to put a linebreak on either side of it. So I found the best option was to just do that, and then manually edit the text file it put out and add a linebreak on either side of each one.
If you plan on making an EPUB file, you'll probably want to keep all the "smart quotes" and other symbols that Scrivener adds to your text file. However, if you want to distribute the Markdown file in plain text and want it to be readable in Chrome, you'll need to remove all the pretty-print characters, because Chrome won't render them correctly in a plain-text file (though it'll do it just fine in a properly-formatted HTML file). You'll also want to use the .txt extension rather than .md or .markdown if you want the file to display in Firefox (instead of prompting a download).
You've got different options for converting from Markdown to HTML. Pandoc is a versatile command-line tool for converting between all sorts of different formats, but I don't like the way it converts from Markdown to HTML; not enough linebreaks or tabs for my tastes. There are probably command-line flags to customize those output settings, but I didn't find them when I glanced through the man page.
I thought Scrivener's Multimarkdown to Web Page (.html) compile option worked pretty well, although the version I used (1.9 for Linux) has a bug that none of the checkboxes to remove fancy characters work correctly: you're getting smartquotes whether you want them or not. You also don't want to use *** as your section separator, because Scrivener reads it as an italicized asterisk (an asterisk in-between two other asterisks, get it?) instead of an HR. Similarly, it reads --- as an indicator that the previous line of text is an h2.
So your best bet for a section break is something like
(Actually, you don't want to use HR's at all in an EPUB, for reasons I'll get to later, but if you want to distribute an HTML version of your book, it's fine to use them in that version.)
Sigil is an excellent, very straightforward tool for editing the EPUB format. I recommend you grab the Sigil User Guide, go through the Tutorial section, and do what it tells you -- even the stuff that generates seemingly ugly code. For example, if you use Sigil's Add Cover tool, you wind up with code that looks like this:
If you're like me, looking at that makes you wince. And your instinct will be to replace it with something simple, like this:
<img src="../Images/cover.jpg" alt="Cover" />
But don't do that. Removing the <svg> tag, or even removing those ugly-ass inline styling attributes, will prevent the cover from displaying correctly as a thumbnail in readers.
(If there is a way to clean up that ugly <svg> tag and still have the thumbnail display correctly, please let me know; I'd love to hear it.)
Now, Sigil is for the EPUB2 format. It doesn't support any of the newfangled fancy features of EPUB3, and neither do most readers at this point. You're going to want to keep your styles simple. In fact, here's the entire CSS file from Old Tom and the Old Tome:
Oh, and that last class, .break? That's there because some readers ignore <hr/> tags. FBReader on Android, for example, will not display an HR. No matter how I tried formatting it, it wouldn't render. Not as a thin line, not even as a margin. If you use an <hr/> tag in your EPUB file, FBReader will act as if it isn't there.
So I wound up cribbing a style I saw in Tor's EPUB version of The Bloodline Feud by Charles Stross:
where, as noted in the above CSS, the .break class centers the text and puts a 1em margin above and below it.
(Some readers won't respect even that sort of simple styling, either; Okular parses the margin above and below the * but ignores the text-align: center style. Keep this in mind when you're building an EPUB file: keep the styles simple, and remember that some readers will straight-up ignore them anyway.)
(Also: this should go without saying, but while it's okay to look through other eBooks for formatting suggestions and lifting a few lines' worth of obvious styling is no problem, you don't want to go and do anything foolish like grab an entire CSS file, unless it's from a source that explicitly allows it. Even then, it might not be a good idea; formatting that works in somebody else's book may not be a good idea in yours.)
Once my EPUB was done, I tested it in a number of different readers for a number of different platforms at a number of different resolutions. There are a lot of e-readers out there, and their standards compliance is inconsistent -- much moreso than the browser market, where there are essentially only three families of rendering engines.
If you're used to using an exhaustive, precise set of CSS resets for cross-browser consistency, you probably expect to use something similar for e-readers. Put that thought out of your head; you're not going to find them. The best you're going to get are a few loose guidelines.
Consistency across different e-readers just isn't attainable in the way that it is across different web browsers. Don't make that a goal, and don't expect it to happen. You're not looking for your eBook to display perfectly in every reader; you're just looking for it to be good enough in a few of the most-used readers.
For example, I found that the margins the Nook reader put around my story were fine on a tablet, but I thought they were too much on a phone. If I'd wanted, I could have futzed around with media queries and seen if that was possible to fix -- but I decided no, it was Good Enough; it wasn't worth the effort of trying to fix it just for that one use-case.
If you already know HTML, here's what I can tell you about the Smashwords Style Guide: read the FAQ at the beginning, then skip to Step 21: Front Matter. Because it turns out that Steps 1-20 are about how to try and make Microsoft Word output clean HTML and CSS. If you already know how to write HTML and CSS yourself, there is of course absolutely no fucking reason why you would ever want to use Word to write your HTML and CSS for you.
It's probably a good idea to read the rest of the guide from Step 21 through the end, but most of it's pretty simple stuff. To tell the truth, there are exactly two modifications I made to the EPUB for the Smashwords edition: I added the phrase "Smashwords edition" to the copyright page, and I put ### at the end of the story (before the back matter). That's it.
For all the time the guide spends telling you how easy it is to fuck up and submit a file that will fail validation, I experienced none of that. My EPUB validated immediately, and it was approved for Smashwords Premium the next day (though Smashwords says it usually takes 1-2 weeks; the quick turnaround may have been a function of how short my short story is).
Most of the forms you fill out on the Smashwords Publish page are well-documented and/or self-explanatory. The Long Description and Short Description fields are exceptions; it's probably not entirely clear, at a glance, where your listing will show the short description and where it will show the short one. So here's how they work:
On Smashwords, your book's listing shows the short description, followed by a link that says "More". When you click "More", the long description appears underneath the short description.
Kobo and iBooks don't appear to use the short description at all. Your book's listing will show the first few lines of your long description, followed by an arrow (on Kobo) or a "More..." link (on iBooks), which you can click to expand to show the entire description.
Inktera shows the long description, followed by an HR, followed by the short description.
Lastly, Blio doesn't show either description of my book. Clearly this is a problem and I should probably talk to tech support about it.
As you might expect, the various different ways the different sites use the two descriptions create a bit of a conundrum: how can you write a short description that is the primary description on one site and a long description that is the primary description on four other sites, and write the two descriptions so that they don't look pointless and redundant when you put them side-by-side?
I haven't come up with a good solution for this in the case of Old Tom yet.
It turns out the Amazon conversion is really easy. I just set up an account at kdp.amazon.com, filled out the forms, uploaded the cover and the EPUB file, and Amazon's automatic conversion software switched it over to Kindle format with no trouble at all. Amazon's even got a really nice online reader that lets you check how your file will look in the Kindle Reader on various devices (Kindle Fire HD, iPhone, iPad, Android phone, Android tablet, etc.).
I only hit one speed bump when I submitted to Amazon: after a few hours, I got an E-Mail back saying that the book was freely available online (because of course it is; I've posted it in multiple places, including this site). Amazon required me to go back through and reaffirm that I am the copyright holder of the book -- which meant just going through the exact same forms I'd already filled out and clicking the Submit button again. It was a little bit annoying, but not time-consuming and mostly painless, and the book appeared for download on Amazon shortly after.
And that's it.
The hardest part of self-publishing an eBook was finding the time, figuring out what resources to use, and learning the EPUB format. And now that I know what resources to use and understand the EPUB format, it doesn't take nearly as much time. For my next book, I'll be able to spend a lot more time writing and a lot less time formatting. Hopefully this blog post has helped you so that you can do the same.
This was an interesting project, and I hope it will be the first of many. In the coming days I expect to share some of the Making-Of information -- what tools I used to make it, the learning curve, etc.
A lot of the discussion about the MST3K reboot has centered around fans who want to see the old cast come back. Joel has said he'd like to bring them on as writers, and to appear in cameos. But the thing is, most of them don't seem to want to do it.
Here's what Mike, Bill, and Kevin said when Chris Ford asked them about it in a Diffuser interview last year:
Speaking to Wired, Joel Hodgson mentioned that he’d consider revisiting ‘MST3K.’ Is that something you’d consider?
Nelson: I probably wouldn’t. It’s just sort of a personal preference. I mean, I already have RiffTrax going, and that’s taken my last seven years, and I’m fond of how that’s working. So there’s just no need, I feel. And I wonder about revisiting something like that. But who’s to say that it couldn’t be. You know, it survived a lot of changes, so it could start again. Who knows?
Corbett: It would depend completely on the arrangement. I loved doing ‘MST3K,’ was honored to be part of such a great show and had a wonderful time during my years there. But the owners of the show cut me off as soon as it was over. Haven’t made a cent from it since I filmed my last show in 1999, and all attempts to change that arrangement have been rejected. A few attempts to revive ‘MST3K’ have already failed because of such issues. So I’d be skeptical.
Murphy: You know, I’m really not interested. As I said, where I am right now, I’m really loving what I do. We’re having great fun with RiffTrax, and to go back and do that again would … it has this ‘Return to Gilligan’s Island’ feel to it. You know, they did that again, and it just looked sad and lame because it was the same characters, except they’d gotten old. Or they’d substituted in new characters, and it didn’t really feel right. I think they had a fake Ginger in there. I don’t remember, but it just never felt right. It never felt like the real thing. We made that real thing for 10 years, so I’m really not interested in going back. It’s like going back down to your basement from when you were a kid when you’re an adult and making the same kind of car models that you did when you were a kid. It just doesn’t ring true to me anymore. What I’m doing right now with Mike and Bill at RiffTrax is a blast. We’re having a great time doing it, and people seem to like it. So I’m happy to do that. And if Joel wants to do the show again, God bless him, and I hope he has a lot of fun doing it. But I think I’m happy where I am.
Since the announcement of the Kickstarter, Mike and Bill have both reiterated their non-involvement, as have Mary Jo and Josh. Trace has ruled out even showing up in a cameo.
What about everyone else? Are the other MST3K writers and actors coming back?
This is the hardest question to answer, because there are several moving pieces involved.
Right now, I don't know who will agree to come back and work on the next season of MST3K… but if the Kickstarter is successful, everyone will be invited to take part.
Until yesterday, I wasn't even sure this whole Kickstarter idea would work. I've reached out and spoken with some of the old cast and writers, but until I knew how much money we'd have to work with – and when we'd start writing and shooting – there was just no way to make the specific offers that I hope will bring many of them back.
Plus – as many of you know – so far, the old cast haven't been compensated as well as they (or I) might have liked. I wish I could go back and fix that, but if I'm going to ask them to participate in the next season, I want to be certain we can pay them what they deserve this time. As soon as we pass our initial goal of $2,000,000, I'm hoping to start making the invitations official, and I hope some of them will be able to join us before we start working in January.
And guys, as much as I'd like to see the old cast and crew back, given their responses so far I really don't think it's going to happen.
I think it's great that Joel is talking about royalties. I believe that Shout! Factory should pay royalties to all the former writers and cast members, not as leverage to get them to participate in the new show but because it's the right thing to do.
But while royalties have certainly been a sticking point for some of the former cast members, I don't think they're the only reason people are holding out on participating in the new show. Look at what Mike and Kevin said in the Diffuser interview I quoted above -- it doesn't sound to me like they're holding out for a better deal; it sounds like they just plain don't want to do it. And Josh has said he's working on two documentary films, so it sure sounds like his non-participation is because he's too busy with other projects.
Aside from what they've said in public, I can't speak for individual cast members' motivations. Mary Jo has complained about the lack of profit participation in the past, while Frank has said it doesn't bother him. I've seen a lot of fans assume that the reason the old cast members aren't interested in being part of the new show is because of their lack of profit participation, and that if Joel gives them a good offer they'll be onboard after all -- but I think that's fans' wishful thinking. I've seen no hard evidence to back it up; the only thing I've seen that even looks like a "maybe" is Bill's "It would depend completely on the arrangement" in that Diffuser interview.
There are other reasons why people might not want to participate -- Mike and Kevin have suggested that they're just plain not interested. As for other former cast members, the geographical issues that brought an end to Cinematic Titanic are still present; the simple fact is that many of them don't live in the place where the new show is going to be produced. Even if, say, Mary Jo gets a profit-sharing offer that she's agreeable to, she still lives in Austin.
In short, I think that while fans are absolutely right to call for a new royalty agreement for every former cast member and writer on MST3K, they should also tamp down their expectations that this will lead to the old team returning for the new show. I just don't think that's gonna happen. Look forward to the new show for what it is, not for what you wish it was going to be.
I think that's it for now on the subject of the upcoming MST3K relaunch. The Kickstarter page, one more time, is bringbackmst3k.com; I haven't pledged yet but I plan on throwing in at the $35 level. That'll get you the first episode of the new series, plus three classic episodes as DRM-free downloads. (The three classic episodes are not currently listed in the Rewards section, but Joel said in an update that they're being added to the $35 tier as a bonus. He has not yet specified which three episodes they will be.)
And on the subject of compensation for the cast and crew of the old series: Rifftrax has just started selling MST3K episodes; as of this writing they have Mitchell, Pumaman, Final Sacrifice, and Future War, each priced at $10, with another episode going up for sale every Monday. And here's the most important part:
A significant share of the profits of all MST episodes sold on RiffTrax will be paid out directly to ALL the principal cast members of MST – Mike, Joel, Kevin, Bill, Mary Jo, Trace, Frank, Josh and Bridget. We feel it’s important that the original artists benefit directly from their awesome work. So if you want to support them, buy your MST here on RiffTrax!
There's no mention of Paul Chaplin; I wonder if that's an oversight, or if they don't know how to get in touch with Paul these days or what. I hope he gets a cut too.
At any rate, much as I love the DVD sets, I have to recommend from here on in that if you want to buy old episodes of MST3K, you buy them through Rifftrax, because right now that's the only way the cast and writers get a percentage of your purchase dollars. Again, I'm hoping that changes and the series' new owners at Shout! reach a deal to give them a piece of all purchases and streaming revenue. But for now, they only get paid if you buy them through Rifftrax. So do that.
The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:
Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.
There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.
Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.
There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.
I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.
And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.
But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.
And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.
As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the rifftrax.com homepage:
And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.
And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)
There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."
But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.
The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.
Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.
Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:
We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.
To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.
And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).
As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.
I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.
Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.
If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.
(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)
CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.
(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)
But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:
We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.
That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.
By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.
Before I say anything else, let's get the obvious out of the way: nobody is obligated to contribute to any Kickstarter, ever. If you don't like Jonah Ray, if you're disappointed that the old cast isn't onboard, if you're strapped for cash or saving for Christmas or more interested in that Maya Angelou documentary or just plain don't feel like it, that's your prerogative. It's your money, and it's up to you how you want to spend it. And it's your time, and it's up to you whether you want to commit to a show that runs over 90 minutes an episode. I would like to make it clear that, while I'm about to make some criticisms of online negativity and some fans' tendency to prejudge, I'm not for one moment saying that you're obligated to feel excited about the new series, let alone to contribute money to it sight unseen.
That said, if you do watch the new MST3K, you should pay for it. Pirating MST3K would be a dick move.
Joel's announcement that Jonah Ray would be the new host sounded downright defensive:
Since this is the internet, I guess some people will hear this news and rush to declare – for better and for worse – "what this means for the future of MST3K." (In fact, since a lot of people guessed that it was Jonah's voice in our first video, that's already happening!)
I can't really tell you what kind of host Jonah is going to be, but I hope you'll give him a chance to show you. And even if you're familiar with Jonah's career, remember: that doesn't mean he'll bring the same exact approach to MST3K. I think a lot of you may be surprised. Plus, like the previous members of our cast, I think Jonah has great instincts and a lot of range. He's funny, he's wicked smart, and like I said, his heart's in the right place. He loves MST3K, he seems to understand what makes it so special, and most important, I know he takes the role seriously.
And man, a lot of people seem angry about Jonah Ray. I mean, it's the Internet, and everybody's always angry about something, and the people who really really hate something are almost never a representative sample. The Kickstarter's raised another half-a-million or so since the announcement, so it sure doesn't look like most people are too bothered by it.
I don't know much about Jonah Ray. I don't listen to the Nerdist podcast and I haven't seen his standup. Maybe I'd like it and maybe I wouldn't.
But I think Joel's right here: neither of those things is likely to be a good indicator of what he'll be like as host. And while it's true that each host is different and does the show his own way, it's also true that it's still the same show under Mike that it was under Joel. (Well, I think so, anyway; there are folks who disagree.)
There is a general feeling that the Mike era was meaner than the Joel era, that under Mike there was more of a tendency to outright insult the films, where Joel's era felt more like good-natured ribbing. (And in the host segments, Joel was certainly more friendly and deferential to the Mads than Mike was -- "What do you think, Sirs?")
(I've even seen folks in the Info Club comments section complain that there was too much sexual innuendo in the Sci-Fi Channel era, and...well, Jesus, apparently MST3K fans are a sheltered bunch.)
And I think it's easy to see Jonah Ray take Mike's tack a bit more than Joel's.
But, y'know, he's still a fan.
I was excited when i put on the jumpsuit...then i started to cry when they put the GIZMONICS patch. https://t.co/rJ217GXSUx
Being a fan doesn't automatically mean he'll be good in the role. But I think it does mean he'll show deference to the original show.
I mentioned in the previous post that Joel's got to thread the needle and make a show that's fresh and new and still noticeably MST3K. That might be true even moreso for Jonah as the new host.
We don't know who else is going to be on the show yet. I've seen several people refer to an alleged Entertainment Weekly article that calims Felicia Day is playing the new Mad and Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount are playing Servo and Crow (not sure which is which, but since I don't know who Vaughn or Yount are that's kind of a moot point). I have never seen a link to the alleged EW article in question, nor been able to find it on ew.com, so I am skeptical.
For the record I think Day would be a great choice, not just because I've wanted to see her play a villain since Dr. Horrible but because there's simply nobody with more experience at making a cult TV show on the Internet without studio backing.
As for Servo and Crow, well. It's definitely going to take some adjustment. On Servo in particular.
It is, at least, really refreshing to see fans who think that MST3K is more than just a couple of puppets named Tom Servo and Crow, and that it matters who's operating those puppets, dammit.
And it does! It definitely does!
But we've been through this before. There's a well-known story in the fandom that when Josh Weinstein left the show and Kevin Murphy took over as Tom Servo, a fan mailed him a six-foot-long banner saying "I hate Tom Servo's new voice."
Well, 25 years later, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks Josh was a better Servo than Kevin. (Sorry, Josh.)
And while there are people who don't like Bill Corbett as Crow, I think he was great. I still have a "You know you want me, baby!" T-shirt around here somewhere.
I think the fans need to thread the needle too, in our own way: while it's totally commendable (and encouraged!) to acknowledge that just because a show's got Servo and Crow and a guy in a jumpsuit on the Satellite of Love riffing on cheesy movies doesn't mean it's going to be the same MST3K we know and love, that it's the people who made the show great.
But we should also acknowledge that just because there are new people in those roles doesn't mean it's going to be a bad show, either. Yes, it's going to be different. But different doesn't always mean bad. You don't have to be optimistic about the new show, but y'know, you don't have to be pessimistic about it either.
Of course, the show's not just about the people in front of the camera, either. And in my next post I plan on talking about the writers, the importance of the ensemble, and how continuity in the writers' room was one of the main reasons the old show stayed consistent even when the cast changed. That's one more challenge the new show's going to have.
It's a great time to be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan -- though there are those who disagree.
MST3K is coming back. Shout! Factory bought the rights to the series, and creator Joel Hodgson is running a Kickstarter to fund new episodes. He's passed his goal of $2 million, which will be enough to set up the infrastructure and shoot three episodes; he hopes to raise at least $5.5 million, make a full season of 12 episodes, and convince TV executives that there's enough of a fanbase to pick up the series.
Joel has announced that the new host will be Jonah Ray. I'm not familiar with Mr. Ray or his work, but a lot of people on the Internet seem very angry about this. Some people are angry about the selection of Jonah Ray in particular; some are more generally uneasy that it just won't be the same show.
And it won't. And that's tricky. Joel has to thread the needle here: the reason he's bringing back the MST3K name, brand, and characters is because there's nostalgia and goodwill attached to them (both on his part and the fans'), but, at the same time, this will by its nature be a different show. I'm looking forward to it (and I haven't pledged yet but I plan to), but it is an unknown quantity.
Joel notes, rightly, that every cast member on MST3K got swapped out at one time or another. Nervous fans note, rightly, that it never happened with the entire cast at once, let alone the entire staff. So far, only one person from the old show is involved with the new one, and that's Joel himself -- and he won't be hosting it. So we're not just looking at an entirely new cast, we're also looking at an almost-entirely-new writing team.
So, per the last couple of posts, I find it entirely possible that, as vendors develop tablets that double as PC's, they may replace traditional desktop and laptop computers. For the common end user who just needs a web browser and (maybe) an office suite, I don't think that's going to be a tough sell.
But there are markets that rely heavily on more powerful computing hardware.
One is PC gamers. Others are the various types of media creators: people who create images, music, movies.
I've already mentioned dumb terminals and software as a service (SaaS) as a major current trend, with programs like Google Docs running in a browser and working as an effective substitute for traditional locally-run programs like Microsoft Word.
Of course, a word processor is one thing; an enterprise-quality photo editor is another, and a game requiring split-second timing is something else again.
But developers are working on it.
Last year Adobe released a limited beta of a streaming version of Photoshop for ChromeOS. Photoshop itself doesn't run in the browser; the app is a Remote Desktop shell that interacts with an instance of the Windows version of Photoshop running on a remote server.
So, by definition, this is no replacement for the Windows version of Photoshop -- because it is the Windows version of Photoshop. But it demonstrates a potentially compelling alternative to buying expensive, high-end hardware just to run Photoshop: what if you could buy cheap hardware, and pay a subscription fee to run Photoshop on someone else's expensive hardware?
Reactions to the ChromeOS version of Photoshop seemed generally positive; I would expect it to have some latency issues, but I also bet it runs faster on a remote server than it did on the Core 2 I had to use at GoDaddy. (Hey, when I said the Core 2 Duo was the last chip most users ever needed, I said I wasn't including Photoshop.)
Adobe has already moved Photoshop's licensing to a subscription model instead of a purchase model. (A lot of people are very angry about this, but I haven't heard anything to suggest it's led to a drop in "sales"; that's the thing about monopolies.) It's not hard to envision a transition to a subscription model where you run the program remotely instead of locally. Hell, they could even charge more money to give you access to faster servers.
Other media development suites could, potentially, move to streaming services, but there are caveats. Uploading raw, uncompressed digital audio and video files takes a lot more time than uncompressed images. And what about storing your source files? My grandmother puts together home movies on her iMac, and she's got terabytes of data going back some 15 years. That's the kind of storage requirement an amateur filmmaker can rack up; now think of how much somebody who does it for a living might wind up with. If you're renting storage space on an external server, on a month-to-month basis, that could get pretty costly.
But it's technically feasible, at least, that audio and video editing could be performed on a remote server.
Recording audio is another story. Anything more complex than a simple, single-track voice recording is still going to require specialized mixing hardware. And transferring your recording to a remote server in real-time, without lossy compression? You'd better be sitting on fiber.
So I think we can put "recording studios" -- even the home-office variety, like mine -- into the category of Stuff That's Not Going Anywhere for Awhile.
Moving games to a streaming system is a challenge -- but I'm not sure it's as big a challenge as recording studios. It's more or less the same requirement as Photoshop: take simple inputs from a human interface device, send them to a server, have the server run them and respond accordingly, stream the video output back to the client. The trick is managing to do that in real-time with minimal loss of audio and video quality. That's the challenge -- but engineers are working on it.
The OnLive streaming service was a failure, but Sony bought it out; it sees value there. nVidia's got its own streaming solution too, in GRID. One of these things is not like the other -- Sony sells consoles at a loss and would stand to benefit from selling cheaper hardware, while nVidia makes a ton of money selling expensive graphics cards to enthusiasts and surely doesn't want to cannibalize its own market -- but obviously there's more than one type of gamer, and the people who shell out over $300 for a graphics card are in the minority.
Now, as minorities go, high-end PC gamers are still a pretty sizable minority; it's still a multibillion-dollar industry. But it's a fraction of the console gaming business, and it's expected to be surpassed by mobile gaming by the end of this year. Like the PC industry as a whole, it's still big and it's still growing, but it's growing a lot slower than other sectors and could be facing a long-term threat from new platforms.
Switching to a streaming platform could have a lot of appeal to game publishers; it combines the simplicity of developing for consoles with the superior hardware capabilities of the PC. Think about the possibility of developing for the latest and greatest hardware, but only for a single specific hardware build.
It would also, at long last, produce a form of DRM that could actually work.
While the industry has tried many, many copy protection schemes over the years, all of them are, sooner or later (and usually sooner), crackable. And there's a simple, logical reason for this: no matter what you do to encrypt the data of your program, you have to give the computer the means to decrypt it, or it won't work. No matter where or how you hide the key, if you give it to your users sooner or later they're going to find it.
But that's only true if the software is running on their computer. If the binary data is never copied to their hard drive, never stored in their memory, if the program is actually stored and run on a remote server somewhere and all the client has access to is a program that takes inputs and streams audio and video? Well, then there's no way they can copy the game, unless they actually break into your servers.
(Which, given Sony's history with Internet security, might not actually be so hard.)
I am not saying this is a good thing; in fact, I consider it something of a nightmare scenario.
Consider every problem you've ever had with an online or digitally-distributed game. Now think of what it would look like if every game had those issues.
Not just latency, lag, server outages, and losing your progress every time your Internet connection goes out. Consider that if a game is no longer profitable, they'll pull the plug. If a developer loses a license, the game(s) associated with it will go away. (Was GoldenEye ever released on Virtual Console? I don't think it was.) If a game gets updated and you liked the old version better, too bad. And remember when Nintendo ended its partnership with GameSpy and killed all the online multiplayer features of every Wii and DS game ever made? Imagine an entire generation's worth of games not working at all anymore, online or otherwise. Even though you paid for them.
Now, there's recent evidence that a strategy like this would fail. The Xbox One is still reeling from customer backlash against early plans to restrict used-game sales and require an always-on Internet connection even for single-player games, even though those plans were never even implemented.
On the other hand, there's evidence that even a wildly unpopular strategy could still succeed. Have you ever heard anyone who doesn't work for EA praise the Origin distribution service (or whatever the fuck they're calling it now)? I know I haven't, but people still use it. Because if you want to play Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition, your only choices are consoles, Origin, and piracy.
And then there are examples that could go either way: Ubisoft continued to use DRM that required an always-on Internet connection for about two years, from 2010 to 2012, before finally giving in to market backlash.
It's hard to say how existing high-end PC gamers would react if the major publishers tried to force a transition toward streaming games -- or whether high-end PC gamers will continue to be a big enough market for the major publishers to care what they think. But for the foreseeable future, I think PC gaming will continue on much the same as it has for the past 15 years. There could be major changes on the horizon, but I sure don't see them happening in the next 10 years.
Then again, five years ago I was saying there was no way that streaming video would outpace Blu-Ray because there was just no way to stream 1080p video over a home Internet connection. So keep that in mind before trusting any predictions I make.
Over the past couple of posts, I've given some of the reasons I think tablet PC's could replace traditional desktops and laptops. Today I'm going to talk about why I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon: the business market.
In enterprise, Microsoft still rules the roost, with Windows and Office. The lock-in is strong.
And while the BYOD trend isn't likely to go away, and in fact there are some major features of Android Marshmallow that are designed to make it easier to use a phone with dual profiles for home and work, that's still a far cry from replacing work-provided computers with devices that workers bring from home.
And there's a simple reason why: whatever costs a company incurs by buying a computer for every one of its employees are offset by standardizing on hardware and software to make IT's job easier. When everybody's running the same few programs on the same few models of computer, it limits the number of potential compatibility issues. When every computer is running the same stock image, it's easier to control devices' security, and when IT pushes every software update, it limits the possibility that the latest patch will break anything. And when a computer does break down, it makes it easy to replace it with a machine of the same model with all the same software and settings.
And when data is stored on an internal company server, it's less vulnerable than if it's in somebody's Google Docs account, or Dropbox, or whatever the hell MS and Apple call that thing where your home directory automatically gets uploaded to their servers now.
And that's just talking general best-practices for every company. You start getting into companies (and government agencies) where security is tightly restricted, whether that be military, intelligence, healthcare, or just a lot of sensitive proprietary information, and there's no fucking way you're going to allow people to use their personal devices for work.
(Unless you're the Director of the CIA and send confidential information to your personal fucking AOL account. But I digress.)
All that said, business has already started transitioning away from desktops to laptops, and I can foresee the possibility of Windows-based convertible tablets like the Lenovo Yoga and the MS Surface picking up some traction. I don't think it would be a BYOD scenario; I don't think businesses are apt to move their operations over to workers' own personal tablets -- but they could eventually start equipping every worker with a company-supplied tablet instead of a company-supplied laptop.
But first, prices are going to have to drop. The reason laptops passed desktops is that their prices approached parity; that hasn't happened with tablets yet. You can get a respectable mid-range Lenovo laptop for under $400; you can get a Lenovo tablet with a keyboard in that price range, but it's going to come with pretty anemic specs. 2GB RAM and 32GB internal storage is okay for a tablet, and might work for a device you only use when you're traveling, but I don't think a machine like that is good enough to use as a daily driver, even for end-users who only need Windows and Office. If you want a convertible tablet with comparable specs to a mid-range laptop, you can expect to pay 3 times as much -- at least, for now. Moore's Law is still in effect, and that gap's going to close, just like the gap between desktops and laptops did.
There's one more factor that can make the puny specs of a 32GB tablet moot: apps that run in a browser instead of locally. Office 365 could potentially replace the traditional client-side version of MS Office for business users.
But most business users don't just use Microsoft Office. I've worked at companies both big and small, and nearly all of them have some sort of ancient proprietary program that they rely on for day-to-day use, and often several. Transitioning from an already-long-in-the-tooth program to a new one that performs the same features but runs on a server is not a quick, easy, or cheap task.
I'll talk more about SaaS in the next post -- and, in particular, the challenges it faces in displacing high-performance applications like multimedia editors and games -- and I think it's making major inroads. But the business sector depends so heavily on legacy software that I just don't see it transitioning entirely to the cloud within the next decade. We'll have cost-competetive convertible tablets before we have every app in the cloud.