Ashes to Ashes: Season 1, Episode 1

It’s finally here:

Ashes to Ashes

After what seems like forever, the BCC aired the first episode of Ashes to Ashes this past Thursday. The show is the sequel (of sorts) to my all-time favorite TV show, Life On Mars.

As you might know, Life On Mars is about Detective Inspector Sam Tyler, a police officer in modern day Manchester, England. One day while on duty, Tyler gets hit by a car. When he wakes up, he’s still in Manchester, he’s still a cop… but the year is 1973. He’s found by some Manchester cops who think Sam’s just passed out. While trying to figure out who he is, they find his badge and some papers indicating that he was transferring from one Manchester precinct to another. When Sam wakes up, they helpfully take him to his new precinct. Sam, totally confused but feeling he has no other choice, begins working with the cops.

There’s his boss DCI Gene Hunt (pictured above, left), DS Ray Carling, DC Chris Skelton and WPC Annie Cartwright. And what a motley group they all are. Hunt, Carling and Skelton are racist, sexist, homophobic, and slightly corrupt. They solve crimes the old-fashioned way: by smacking people around until someone talks. Sam, needless to say, feels like a fish out of water. He’s used to a world with advanced forensics, mobile phones and laptop computers… to say nothing of more politically-correct attitudes. In a very real sense, much of Life On Mars is an ordinary cop show. It’s as if someone from one of the CSI shows somehow traveled back in time to wind up on Kojak.

But there’s more than that. Sam can hear voices. Sometimes they come from the radio. Sometimes they come from late night TV. Sometimes he can just hear them anywhere. The voices are those of people in his hospital room back in 2006. He can hear the voices of the nurses working on him. He can hear his Mom’s voice when she comes and visits him. Her can hear the doctor giving his mother Sam’s prognosis. But all is not, exactly, what it seems. Is Sam really a time traveler from 2006? Or is he just crazy and it really is 1973? If so, why does he have visions of a life in 2006? And why go back to 1973? Why that specific year? You’ll just have to watch the show to find out!

In any case, Ashes to Ashes picks up the story. Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes, from Spooks) is a hostage negotiator. She supposedly has the day off to celebrate her daughter’s birthday. But she gets an urgent call while driving her daughter to her birthday party: a street crazy with a gun has taken someone hostage, and has asked the police for Drake specifically. She has no other option but to attend to the matter.

While Alex is talking with the hostage taker, he suddenly starts singing “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too” (from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”). Alex’s daughter, who has ignored Alex’s order to stay in the car, becomes scared and rushes towards her mother. The hostage taker, seeing an advantage, releases his hostage and takes Alex’s daughter instead. In the confusion that ensues, the two disappear, and Alex almost loses it when a gunshot is heard. Tracking down the noise, she finds her daughter unhurt and the hostage taker gone. Alex calls her daughter’s godfather to take the child on to the party while she “cleans up this mess”.

After talking with the cops and “cleaning up the mess”, Alex gets back in her car to drive to the party, only to find the hostage taker in the back seat waiting for her. He takes her to a barge on the Thames where he shoots her. Alex later wakes up on the barge… only to find herself in the middle of a party fueled by cocaine and hookers. And oh yeah, it’s now 1981. The sounds of police sirens can be heard as Alex walks around the party trying to make sense of it all. The party is being raided by the cops, and the host apparently thinks that Alex is the one that’s called them. He tries to take Alex hostage, only to run smack dab into… Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton. Hunt initially thinks that Alex is “just another prozzie” from the party… until he searches her and finds her badge.

Alex is even more freaked out by her time travel than Sam Tyler was. She’s a trained psychologist, you see, being a hostage negotiator and all. She tries to rationalize everything, to make sense out of her situation… until she mentions Tyler to Hunt, who reveals that Tyler only died the previous year, and that’s a big part of the reason why he and his crew moved to London. Unlike Life On Mars, where it wasn’t immediately clear why Sam was transported back to 1973, Drake thinks she knows exactly why she was sent to 1981. She’s convinced that the hostage taker (from 2006) is a drug lord (in 1981), and that by busting him, she can put him in prison and stop herself from getting shot in 2006. Just like on Life On Mars, though, it just isn’t that simple.

What, exactly, the future holds for Alex isn’t clear (hey, it’s only been one episode!). I’m glad that the show’s writers didn’t take the “easy way out” by simply making this Life On Mars 2. Sam Tyler’s character is firmly a part of this show, everything that happened in Mars affects Ashes. Alex uses her knowledge of Sam to make the transition from 2006 to 1981 somewhat easier. She knows, for instance, that Sam heard his voices mostly in radios and televisions, so she seeks out both to see if she can hear her doctors. No dice, apparently (at least so far). And just as Mars had its surreal moments, so too does Ashes. Instead of being haunted by Test Card F like Sam, Alex is haunted by a Pierrot clown (perhaps not coincidentally, David Bowie dresses up as a Pierrot clown in the “Ashes to Ashes” music video). And unlike Mars, where Test Card F could only originate from the TV, the clown can apparently show up anywhere, much to the distress of Alex.

All in all, it’s a great show so far. But then, it also has some massive shoes to fill. It would be hard to be “as good as” or “better than” Mars, especially since this is a follow-up. But everything’s good so far. Especially the soundtrack. While I liked Mars’ soundtrack, I’m really digging Ashes’ soundtrack. Episode 1 alone featured “I Fought The Law” by The Clash, “Vienna” by Ultravox, “Are Friends Electric” by Gary Numan, “No More Heroes” by The Stranglers, “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” by The Passions, “Careless Memories” by Duran Duran and “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music.

That last song, in fact, is used at the very end of episode 1. Drake is alone in her apartment. She grabs a police radio and, hoping that anyone from 2006 will hear her, begins a short speech where she promises her daughter that she’ll come home. By the time the speech is over, Alex is in tears. Exhausted and resigned to her fate in to be in 1981 for now, she seeks out Gene and the rest of “the gang”. Alex heads back to an Italian restaurant that appeared earlier in the episode. She sits at the bar. Gene walks up, pours her as glass of wine, then walks away. She looks back at him, then stares off into space… as the song goes on:

Nothing lasts forever
Of that I’m sure
Now you’ve made an offer
I’ll take some more

Young loving may be
Oh so mean
Will I still survive
The same old scene?

Fucking perfect.

News for 02/09/2008

Everyone knows that cables are a ripoff. When you buy a new HDTV from Best Buy or Circuit City, the store only makes a few dollars off the TV; where they make their real money is on the overpriced Monster Cables. Pretty much every techie knows this, and perhaps the non-techies learned about it this week, when Consumerist ran this story about it. It seems that a Radio Shack employee faxed Consumerist an internal Radio Shack memo that contained the retail price, wholesale price, and markup percentages for all Monster Cables the chain carries. And the sheer profit margin on them is, quite frankly, breathtaking. A 19 foot Monster HDMI-DVI cable costs Radio Shack just $99.94; the store then truns around and sells them for $179.99. An 8 foot Monster component cable costs you $91.99, but one costs the Radio Shack store only $41.60 –  a markup of 219%! Don’t get me wrong folks: Monster Cables are quality cables. It’s just that buying Monster Cables are like paying $400,000 for a 2008 Mercedes C-Class (average actual price: $35,000). I almost want to ask the people that run Monster Cable how they sleep at night… but I already know the answer: on top of a huge pile on money!

If you’re the kind of person that actually likes Monster Cables, you might be interested in this: a $6 million home theatre. Known as the Kipnis Studio Standard, this baby sports an 18′ x 10′ Stewart screen and a Sony SRX-S110 projector that upscales Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies. Click the link to check out Engadget’s post about it – they couldn’t be bothered to even get in to the audio portion of the theatre.

Strawberry CheetosStrawberry Cheetos? What will those crazy Japanese think of next?

This is… disturbing

OK, I know I’m late to the scene with this one… but man, there’s just something so disturbing about this video:

I don’t know if it’s just the subject matter, or the cheesy “special effects”, or how the video is one “music video cliché” after another… or whether it’s just Samwell himself. I don’t know, but I do know that this video just gives me the heebie jeebies for some reason!

Creating Files With No Name

It doesn’t happen that often, but there are times when you might need to create a file without a name. One example is an .htaccess file. It’s a plain text file used on web servers to (generally) control access to certain directories. For example, most smaller web sites (like this one) are hosted on “shared servers”, that is, a server that hosts multiple web sites on one machine. To keep other (legitimate) users of the server from accessing my files, my web host uses an .htaccess file to restrict access to my files to anyone with my user name and password. Likewise, I use an .htaccess file in my own site to keep people without a username and password from accessing certain “storage” directories.

The problem with creating or editing such files in Windows is that Windows hates files without a “proper” name. Windows wants a file called “filename.extension” (like notes.txt) and it just chokes when you want to create a file without a name like (.htaccess). So if you need to edit your .htaccess file on a Windows computer (or, for that matter, any “hidden file” on a Unix system, like .config), Windows usually pitches a fit and demands that you give the file a name.

To get around this, simply put the file name in quotes when you go to save it. For instance, in Notepad you’d click File > Save, then choose “All files” and enter “.htaccess” as the name… aaaaannnd presto! One .htaccess file created in Windows, without the hassle!

Geek Basics: RSS

“RSS” stands for “Really Simple Syndication”. RSS is a way for websites to “push” data out to their readers. The idea behind RSS is similar in concept to “email updates” you may choose to get from or some other site. However, RSS works very differently under the hood. Whereas email updates can only be sent to a single email address, RSS has lots of nifty tricks that make it much more useful than a “CNN Headlines” email.

To understand how RSS works, you need to know that it all begins with a piece of software called an “RSS reader” or “RSS aggregator” (or just “aggregator” for short). In most cases, you’d need to download an RSS reader and install it on your system. Then you enter the names of the RSS feeds you want to subscribe to into the RSS reader. The software will then begin checking a specially formatted page on the website in question. The reader checks that page at a timed interval (usually 1 hour). Any new entries are then copied into your reader software, where you can read them at your leisure.

To put it in simple terms… Have you ever sat at a web page and constantly reloaded it? Maybe you were at waiting for concert tickets to go on sale… Maybe you were at waiting for Star Wars tickets to go on sale… Maybe you were waiting for a news item to appear on your local TV station’s website… Whatever the case, you were at a site, refreshing the page every 30 seconds or so, waiting for new entires to appear. That’s exactly what an RSS reader does, only it does it automatically, behind the scenes, once an hour (or sooner, if you set that option). The web page that the RSS reader is loading is specially formatted, and when the reader finds a new entry, it copies it to your computer so that you can read it.

Here’s where RSS gets interesting.

First of all, there are several ways to get feeds. If you’d prefer using a standalone program to read feeds, you can download a free program like RSS Bandit or SharpReader. If you’re a big user of Microsoft Outlook, you can upgrade to Office 2007 (which has an integrated RSS reader), or you can install NewsGator, a free plug-in for Outlook 2000\2003 that integrates feeds into Outlook. If you use lots of different computers during the day, you might want to look in to online RSS readers like Google Reader; instead of downloading new feeds to your desktop computer, Google Reader downloads then to your Google Account, so you can check the feeds from multiple computers – just like web mail.

Continue reading “Geek Basics: RSS”

News for 02/02/2008

Flying internationally any time soon? Beware of fuel surcharges! Last week, United Airlines added a $300 surcharge to their $400 flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Yep, that’s right: the $300 surcharge almost doubles the cost of the flight. United claims that the surcharge is “necessary” given fuel costs, but other factors might be at play here: most types of discounts (sales, vouchers) don’t apply to fuel surcharges. So if you wanted to fly to Tokyo and had a $400 voucher, the “flight” would be free, but you’d still have to pony up $300 to pay the surcharge. But hey, at least when you get to Japan you’ll be able to buy coffee and cigarettes in one handy package! Oh, and speaking of packaging, companies have at long last started to listen to their customers when it comes to blister packaging. “Blister packs” are those maddening, clear-plastic containers that usually require a knife, box cutter, can opener and blow torch to open. They’re so annoying that they’ve even spawned the phrase “wrap rage”! In any case, some manufacturers are starting to develop less annoying versions of the blister packs; let’s hope that others follow!

How’s this for a “sign of the times”? Apparently the FBI is investigating the entire mortgage industry!

Just when you thought you had modern physics all figured out, leave it to a rusty heap of space debris to throw a wrench into the works! It seems that the old Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft – launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively – are slowing down, and astronomers don’t understand why. They’ve plotted the ships’ courses, and in both cases the ships end up about 3000 miles short of where they’re expected to be every year. [Robert Stack voice] Perhaps you can help… solve a mystery![/Robert Stack voice]

Lastly for today, here’s the hilarious Sarah Silverman video you’ve been hearing about. You see, Jimmy Kimmel has a running joke on his show that they’ve “run out of time” for guest Matt Damon. I’m not completely sure, but I think they actually did run out of time for Damon one time, and since then Kimmel has often ended the show by apologizing to Damon for not getting him on the show… which is sort of an old joke itself. Johnny Carson would routinely “run out of time” for some guests, especially if Johnny had one of his favorites on that evening. They might have scheduled Charles Nelson Reilly for, say, 8 minutes, but Reilly and Carson would get something funny going and just roll with it. And Reilly would end up taking 20 minutes instead of 8. Part of the joke is that chat shows are so structured now that this never happens these days. In any case, Damon flipped the joke back on Kimmel this week. Here’s a video that Sarah Silverman made as a “gift” for the five-year anniversary of her boyfriend’s chat show:

Silly Baseball Trivia

This is just about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard:

If you’ve ever watched a baseball game, you’ve probably seen a “bat boy”. Bat boys are like “field assistants” in baseball. When a batter hits the ball, he drops his bat and runs to first base. It’s the bat boy’s job to pick up the bat and take it back to the dugout. Bat Boys have other duties too, like cleaning equipment, fetching a new bat if a batter wants one, taking a fresh supply of baseballs to the umpire if needed, keeping beach balls and other debris off the field and removing foul balls from the field of play if they land near him. Every baseball game features two bat boys, one for the home team and one for the visiting team. Bat boys almost never travel with the team, so in most cases both bat boys are employed by the home team.

Bat boys are often male, and are usually between the ages of 16-20. Because bat boys are so young, and might need to miss games for school or family, teams have a “pool” of bat boys that they’ll call on for each game. Remember this point, OK?

Here’s where it gets weird: although bat boys are not officially “members” of any team, they still wear a standard baseball uniform on the field. In the case of minor league teams, the home team’s bat boy wears the home team’s home jersey, while the visiting team’s bat boy wears the home team’s road jersey. Got that?

But here’s what doesn’t make any sense at all: in Major League Baseball, the visiting team’s bat boy is required to wear the visiting team’s jersey. And because every team uses a pool of bat boys, a visiting team has no idea which bat boy will be assisting any given game. Which means that every road team must bring along a couple dozen of their uniforms for the bat boy, since they have no idea which boy will assist them.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there’s little uniformity between teams when it comes to the bat boy’s uniform. Some teams give their bat boys plain uniforms without a number or name on back. Others have uniforms with “Bat Boy” on the back, like a player name. Others say “Batboy” on them, so apparently MLB can’t even decide on how to spell the position! Still others skip the issue by putting “BB” on the back as a number. And some teams give their bat boys “player numbers” that are the last two digits of the year (2007 = 07). This was all well and good from the 1970s to 2009, since no player uniforms have any of those numbers. But in 2010 they’ll face a problem, since “10” is a legitimate player number.

Who knew the world of the bat boy could be so complicated?