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My Chicago Shirt

Today's feature is a shirt that is seldom worn. It doesn't sport a cool band name or even some geeky phrase, but it does show the skyline of one of my favorite cities: Chicago.

The Chicago Shirt

In April 2003 the University of St. Thomas Liturgical Choir went to Chicago for an extended weekend and it was lots of fun. Actually, we had so much fun, this touristy shirt was an afterthought purchased while loading up the bus to leave. It was purchased from the hotel gift/convenience store of the Holiday Inn we stayed at.

Despite the last-minute purchase, I do enjoy the shirt. It's got a nice look at the Chicago skyline and looks great. I think the reason I don't wear it too often is because it's a bit small and the lettering is embroidered into the shirt and therefore the way the shirt bunches up around it feels odd while wearing it.

Although, speaking of Chicago, I'm planning on going to Chicago at least once this September. Over Labor Day weekend, my parents and I are going to hang out in the parks downtown and meet up with my sisters who live a couple hours away. Also, I'm seriously considering a September 16th trip to Chicago to catch one of the final U.S. tour dates of my all-time favorite band, delirious?.

During these trips, I hope to catch up with some of the things that I've yet to experience in Chicago or want to experience again. First, The R!OT and others have said that I have to get some authentic Chicago pizza, and most say Giordano's is the place, so hopefully we'll be able to do that. Last year, while in town for the Music Builds tour, we also found some fun Chicago places that we liked. My favorite was Epic Burger, a classy new burger joint that also had really good fries for a pretty good price. My sisters fell in love with Argo Tea, a very nice downtown tea shop as well, and although I don't really drink tea, it just smelled nice in there. Of course, my family loves walking down by the water and hanging out in the myriad of park spaces along the water, especially Millennium Park and more.

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Apple Needs To Formulate an iPhone App Submission Policy

This week, Google released an iPhone web app for Google Latitude, their location-aware social networking tool. The weird part was this program was just a web app running in the iPhone's Safari browser and not even an app like Google has made for almost every other phone. Here's a snippet from the TUAW post about it:

As Google's Mat Balez notes in his blog post announcing the Latitude release, Google actually developed a native app for Latitude... only to have Apple, uh, suggest that the big G redo the concept as a web app to avoid user confusion with the Maps app. Really? Must have been an interesting phone call.

No kidding. Google spent all their sweet time, no doubt, making a really nice and powerful iPhone app to allow you to manage contacts and see where your friends are on a map. Then, while submitting it to the iTunes App Store, they're told that Apple will not accept this. Great, that's a couple months of programmer time down the drain for Google.

Hold on a second here, though. When Apple announced the App Store, they announced their venture capital friends were putting together a fund for new small businesses to make apps for the phone. One of the first companies that got in on that cash was Pelago Inc., which started a service call Whrrl. I've since then deleted that app and used one that a number of my friends are on called Loopt. All of these apps are already doing the same thing that the Google Latitude app wanted to do, but apparently because Google is a much bigger partner and competitor of Apple's they do not get the option to do an app like this. It doesn't make any sense, and it costs Google thousands of dollars down the drain just because Apple can axe anything they don't like for their phone.

It's even a bigger problem for Apple and third-party hardware makers. Apple does give an API to interface with hardware devices that a company develops and plugs into the iPhone. Companies have already made nice car mounts that will charge your phone and add a couple other features. Medical service providers have made adapters to hook up various types of medical equipment, and Apple has been fine with this. But add some cool thing that will let you do things with still or video cameras? A cool way to import video to your iPhone? The company will likely spend millions developing that hardware component and thousands creating a cool iPhone app to interface with the hardware. But, in the end, if Apple wants to say "no" to the app submission the company has a cool hardware gadget with no way to use it.

On one hand, Apple does all this controlling of applications in the iPhone App Store in the name of protecting the customer, and in some cases they are protecting us from crappy products. But, with situations like this (and some other things that they should have protected us from but got out) it's proving that not only are they doing a terrible job of protecting us, but Apple is too often blocking the cool stuff. Often Apple is even blocking the cool stuff because they want to release their own version a couple months later.

I think that Apple should keep the platform more open. We would get more crap, but the iPhone App Store ecosystem would be even more healthy and have even cooler solutions for iPhone users. Besides, without Apple protecting us from the crap, we would still mark it as crap and not use it. I'm not saying that Apple cannot host the app store, but let it run free and see it become even more useful and powerful.

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Robin Parrish's Offworld

Although I'm sure I'm not much younger than Robin Parrish, I feel like I grew up with Robin Parrish's work. In the earlier days of the Internet, Robin Parrish was one of the leading journalists covering the Christian music scene on the Internet with his site on About.com. At a time when I was running my own, much less successful Christian music site, I read his insightful reviews and commentary constantly. When I graduated from high school, Robin was doing stuff that he was more interested in, covering movies, novels, and comic books with an even more undying fervor. It was during this time that Robin started publishing his own novels online, the last of which became a real, paperback novel this month. It's titled Offworld.

Offworld Cover ArtworkLike the Dominion Trilogy that Parrish released the last couple years, Offworld starts with a mysterious hook. Everyone is gone. Everyone. It's 2033 and the first manned mission to Mars has returned to earth successfully, but no one is there to greet them. Even the animals and bugs are mysteriously gone. After four years by themselves in space, this is hardly the welcome the team wanted.

Thus, the crew sets out to unravel this mystery. Along the way, the reader finds that these astronauts have their own personal secrets. Plus, there's an anti-social young woman who seems to have spent her whole life on the streets and is the only person to not have disappeared. Not to mention that it seems that nature itself is trying to stop them from finding the answers.

Within Offworld, Robin Parrish creates characters that are as flawed and realistic as they are NASA's biggest heroes. Throughout all his books so far, the characters have always had some mystery, such that just when you think you know them, they surprise you with a new wrinkle to their story. These are definitely no exception, and with less than a half-dozen main characters, there's plenty of time to get to know them well. Although the character development has very little action to it, this was probably my favorite part of the novel.

Speaking of action, I found this the hardest book yet to put down. Nearly every chapter ends on a total cliffhanger. As many have said before me, Parrish's books will someday do really well as summer blockbuster films, and Offworld is no exception. (That is, as long as Roland Emmerich doesn't direct it and make the climax happen in New York.) In fact, the book was so intense I finished it less than 24 hours after picking it up. Good thing it was a weekend, or else I would have suffered at work from either sleep deprivation or thinking of nothing but what might happen next.

So what about Parrish being a "Christian"? Does the book create some big allegory to our life in Christ? Do some of the main characters get "saved"? Thankfully, no, Parrish's books are not preachy. The heroes of the book exude characteristics that Christ teaches us like selflessness, hope, and sound morals. Some characters beg a higher power for help, but Parrish doesn't slow the story down with any theological lessons. In my opinion, it's great to see persons of faith writing positive, engaging stories that are for everyone, not just a church-going audience.

If you're looking for a fun, engaging read during the heat of summer, check out Offworld. I'm hoping it'll be hitting theaters in Summer 2013, but don't count on it; get the book now and you'll be ahead of everyone else.

P.S. - Going back to my old days with Robin Parrish publishing his early revisions of novels on the Internet, I hope something like that continues. I don't read many novels, but because Parrish's stories were released (at least partially) for free on the Internet, I was hooked. I'm not exactly sure if the first chapter will suffice for me as a hook to get me to buy the book - I'd like to see more to promote upcoming books online.

UP & Digital 3-D Technology

UP Movie PosterFirst of all, yesterday I went out and saw Pixar's latest film, Up, and it was a blast. As usual, the cartoony but more-and-more realistic-looking animation was superb. The plotline was very touching at points but still contained enough eye candy and silly jokes ot keep everyone on the edge of their seat and laughing. In short, it was another great Pixar film, although I'm not yet sure where it will go in my personal favorites; that can only be determined over time, I think.

This afternoon, though, I took the chance to rewatch the film in "Disney Digital 3D", which is just Disney's fancy branding to the RealD digital technology. Unlike old 3D glasses that used separate polarization or colors to each eye, RealD uses a more advanced polarization on alternating frames of the digital projection. This results in a much crisper picture than the older 3-D technologies, but it still suffers from a slightly dark look due to the polarization, although that might be due to the fact that I was sitting almost at the front of the theater.

RealD 3D Glasses

My experience with seeing it in 3-D wasn't amazing, but I did find it interesting. Only at a couple points in the film did the characters or sets seem to jump out of the screen for me, but when they did, the effect was pretty cool. Most of the time, the 3-D effect was subtle or barely noticeable, or at least subtle enough that I couldn't decide if it looked much better than the regular 2-D projection. On the other hand, when the film was showing photos or artwork on a wall, it definitely felt more flat to me, so maybe it's just my imagination building last night's show into 3-D. I think, to Pixar's credit, they never stooped to the level of making shots just so they wow the audience in 3-D, but they only used it to full effect when it filled the story. (I've seen numerous previews for other movies where it just seems that all the characters are sticking their face right up to the camera, which might be overwhelming but at least seems gimmicky to me.)

My main disclaimer on this front is that I do have an eye condition that does make it hard for me to see things far away (I'm almost legally blind, but not quite), and it may be that part of this condition makes it less exciting to me. People often ask me what I can see compared to them, and I tell them that I've never seen like them so I cannot really compare.

I guess my point is that the 3-D technology in films these days is much better than it was even a couple years ago. If it sounds intriguing to you, check out the new world of 3-D films and see for yourself if you like the experience. And speaking of which, besides a bunch of new films coming out in 3-D over the next year, it seems that both Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are going to be released in Disney Digital 3D over the next year before Toy Story 3 is released in June 2010.

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Wolfram Alpha: The Google of Data

Last week, a new tool called Wolfram Alpha debuted on the internet after a couple months of hype about it. At first, many claimed it was too hard to use or that it didn't do much, but I think this system needs a deeper look.

Although it looks like a search engine box, this web site's input box is more like the input line on Wolfram Research's most famous product, Mathamatica. I'll admit that I played with it for a couple minutes during a college Calculus course, but I couldn't make head nor tails of what to do with it either. However, I can see a future where Wolfram Alpha is used as much for finding useful data as Google is for finding important sources and documents. And I think that's what the folks at Wolfram Research want to do: get as much useful data and let people crunch it in as many ways as they like.

Wolfram Alpha Home Page Screenshot

So what can we do? I put in my first name, "Daniel", and found that it's the 5th most popular name in the US as of 2007. It also includes a graph of approximate age of those named "Daniel", and wouldn't you know, my parents were just ahead of the years that "Daniel" was most popular. I can put in "GDP USA" to get some data on our nation's Gross Domestic Product, but why not put in something more interesting such as "GDP USA/Canada" to find that within the last decade our GDP was 14 times more than Canada's. That's probably more interesting. Want to know about the caffeine that gets you through the day? Here's tons of scientific data, molecular models and everything. And, of course, you can also plot graphs of data, like this one I did for the function "x^2 + 3x - 1". (I wonder if this will replace a graphing calculator on our phones in a couple years?) Also, I remember there being a heat wave in the middle of May 2001 and the dorm was really hot, so I entered "weather may 2001" and it picked up my current location and plotted the temperature and many other weather metrics. Sure enough, there were a couple 95+ degree days in there.

That's only scratching the surface of this new tool. There are examples of querying data for dozens and dozens of areas of research. One thing a friend wondered was where the system got all its data, and I found a "Source Info" link at the bottom of the page, but the "Primary Source" is usually "Wolfram curated data," which hopefully is considered more reliable to professors than Wikipedia.

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The 42 Shirt

In a rather odd dichotomy, this shirt is one of my most geeky but also one of my most sporty-looking:

The 42 Shirt

As you can see, it almost looks like a sports shirt. All the geeks wear it because it's the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, of course! Yes, that's right, it's the ultimate answer to everything in Douglas Adams's classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy DVD Cover ArtOf course, this shirt was from ThinkGeek.com, the place to get all things geek. It's been featured on "The IT Crowd" and Transformers as well. I think I actually got this shirt as a present from work. One time, we all did a good job on a project or something and the boss bought us all whatever shirt we wanted from ThinkGeek.

One of the reasons I was excited about this shirt today was because tonight we're going to watch The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the 2005 film that was co-written by Adams and was released by Touchstone Pictures. I enjoy the film a lot and am looking forward to sharing it with friends.

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The Fun Little Things at DrupalCon DC 2009

Well, it seems that, unless I'm doing a T-shirt post, I have to start these blog posts with a disclaimer.  So I'll do that.  DrupalCon DC is the first large conference I've ever really been to, so I suppose lots of things impress me.  It's been a great show to learn about Drupal so far, and I can't wait to get down 'n' dirty with Drupal coding tomorrow!

First, the folks at Development Seed, who put on the conference, did an amazing job at the graphics for the conference as well as the website functionality.  First, there's the DrupalCon DC website, which even won a design mention from Smashing Magazine.  It's a great background and great artwork that immediately brings a DC feel.  They translated this graphic design to the posters in the lobby, like this one:

DrupalCon DC Lobby Poster

Also, the booklet with the map of the conference rooms and session schedule had another version of this graphic:

DrupalCon DC Booklet

I also love how the booklets even have the Metro underneath the ground, because that's also one of my favorite parts of DC in the first place.

The DrupalCon DC swag was also really fun.  First, there's the badge that verifies you paid for the conference and lists your name, which looks like a coffee cup:

DrupalCon DC Badge

And, finaly, the DrupalCon DC bag seems to be a pretty nice, reusable grocery bag with a sarcastic-looking design of a recycling bin on the side.  I like it, though, because it's not just a crappy messenger bag or something similar that will either break or you'll just throw it out.

Drupalcon DC Bag

Another fun item is that, before the show's keynotes, the large projection screens show Twitter messages from people about #drupalcon.  Here's one of my Tweet's on the screen - my Tweet is about 2 feet tall:

DrupalCon DC Me in TwitterCamp

And yes, although I didn't really attend any of the parties, many folks were getting creative in the party invites or other swag that they gave out.  My favorite is for tonight's party put on by Lullaobot, which is a real floppy disk and emulates an old pin printer's look:

DrupalCon DC Lullabot Floppy Disk Invite

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The Derek Webb Shirt

This is a shirt that I got at a show just two and a half blocks from my house. Of course, it wasn't just because the show was that close that I went, it was also because I've been a big fan of Derek Webb for much longer than that. It's dark red and has a rather weird design on the front top left of the shirt, like this:

Derek Webb Ringing Bell T-Shirt Photo

The artwork has Derek Webb's name and a bunch of black sleeves pointing to a target next to his name.  Also, in black lettering, it also says "The Ringing Bell" under his name, which is the name of his latest album.  The shirt is based on the album artwork for The Ringing Bell which was designed by Portland Studios and pictured below:

Derek Webb The Rinigng Bell Album Art

Wait, no, that's the album cover, but the shirt is based on the cover of the graphic novel that Portland Studios made based on the lyrics of the album.  It's a fun interpretation of the content of the album, and here's that cover:

Derek Webb The Ringing Bell Graphic Novel Cover

Derek Webb has spent many years as part of the band Caedmon's Call, although he did not often write many of the popular songs that were on Christian radio. In the early 2000s Derek left Caedmon's Call to start his own solo career, and he came out with guns blazing. She Must And Shall Go Free was a plea to the church to stop in-fighting and begin to be the church that Jesus called it to be. I See Things Upside Down, his second album, is probably my favorite because it is filled with big production values and lots of electric guitar licks, although many die-hard Caedmon's fans didn't like this style. He got back to the acoustic guitar-based songs and put in a more political bent in on Mockingbird. The Ringing Bell is one of my favorites as well, as more electric romps are included and it's a little more whymsical at parts.

So, back to this concert. In fall 2007, Derek Webb and his wife, artist Sandra McCracken, did a short tour of the U.S. with a couple artists to fill out a band. I don't know who booked the Varsity Theater down the street, but I knew I wanted to catch Derek with a band, because I love his sound compared to his acoustic sound. I know he doesn't tour with a band often, so I had to catch it. Thankfully, it was on a Sunday evening with not much going on for me, so I went. It was a great time, Derek played lots of my rock 'n' roll favorites, and I got this T-shirt and the Sandra McCracken albums I didn't already have. I loved how Sandra, after her opening set, had to go back to the bus to make sure their 4-month-old baby was sleeping or taken care of and then came back to play keyboards later in Derek's set. It was great to see an artist that I enjoyed appearing at the local concert hall, and a lot of people came out to see the show. Ohh, and after that I went to the Chatterbox Pub in St. Paul with some friends for the first time, although they didn't go to the concert.

If you'd like to check out Derek's music, you can use this NoiseTrade widget. And by clicking through to the NoiseTrade site, you can even download the album for free, given that you tell your friends about it.

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iTunes Podcast FAIL

So, I'm not sure if this is the fault of Apple's iTunes or the makers of all the news podcasts, but I'm sure each are at least partially to blame. You see, last night President Obama spoke and I want to watch it on the train to work tomorrow.

First, let me say that when the debates and the inagauration took place, I had no problem finding video of it later in the day or the next morning on iTunes' Podcast area. In fact, on a couple, I already had the feed on my iTunes and it just started coming in. But now, 24 hours after Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress, I can't find a video version to easily load onto my iPod.

iTunes is definitely to blame on at least one count. The browsing of the iTunes Podcast area is abysmal at best and unusable at worst. You can find the top things and the ones featured, but you've got no good ways to browse other things. And don't think the search box is going to help you much, because every time you type in a search it searches the whole iTunes Store and you get all this other crap until you click to say, "I want only podcasts, you stupid program! That's why I was browsing in the Podcasts section!" Even then, searching for "Obama address Congress" in the search box give you nothing but one radio station's commentary on it. If you broaden it to "Obama address" you get a couple top podcasts that do feature Obama giving an address, but this gets me to my next point.

First, Barack Obama's White House administration does have their own podcast, and the weekly radio address is well-presented via this podcast in both video or audio formats. I definitely am subscribed to this podcast, although I recommend doing your research afterwords through other news sources, because even if he's the President, you can't really take his word on everything. Second, ABC News offers the next best thing: a podcast with the exact same stuff that they host and deliver. I like that they did put the address in audio form in their audio version of the podcast, but I want video! Their video version of the weekly address podcast has no such item. For the debates, other podcasts such as Anderson Cooper 360 also put the videos in their podcast feed, but none of them are offering it up this time.

The web-savvy crowd at my blog may say, "But Dan, it's an hour long! That's a big file and that's lots of badwidth!" Yeah, you're right, but that didn't stop them for the Inaguration address or any of the debates. In fact, the debates were longer but they were done in great video quality that was easy to load on your iPhone. Plus, if you want, throw an advertisement or two in there, I'll watch it if it's interesting or is only 30 seconds long. Then, there's the others who will say, "Dan, I already watched all of it on Hulu." Yeah, I know, but I can't load that video into my iPhone for my daily commute. Then, as TJ said, I could try loading it up via YouTube on my iPhone, but I like being able to see Obama if I'm going to watch the video, and the only that the YouTube video quality on the iPhone is good for is videos of a cat on the Roomba. Plus, when I hit the tunnel under the airport then the streaming video will just stop playing, probably, and that's no fun.

Hopefully, in the next couple hours, a solution will appear. If they do, don't let any tech person from the major network that put it out say it takes over a day to encode a video for the iPod, because it doesn't. Otherwise, I may just have to stay uninformed for the rest of my life. Or, worse yet, I'll have to read a transcript.

Dollhouse: Hipster or Creeper Sci-Fi?

First, let me preface this post with some information about my television watching habits. I've never owned a TV in the almost 9 years since I moved out of my parent's house. Most of that time, there hasn't even been a TV set in the house, although for a year or two a roommate had a TV tuner card for his PC. For a couple months I had cable with all the trimming, and all I really watched was reruns of Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Cosby while making lunch or dinner. Oh yeah, and during that short period I watched lots of TechTV and Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was seven years ago. The only TV shows I've watched since then, besides the occasional episode of Charlie Rose or late-night talk shows, is Band of Brothers, Firefly, and Monthy Python's Flying Circus. Oh, and The Colbert Report makes an appearance once in a while, although a lot more this fall before elections. Yes, that's hardly a typical TV watcher, I know.

I like all these shows to an extent, but the only ones I took the time to get fully involved in was Band of Brothers and Firefly. I've watched all of their episodes, but then again, each one only has 10-20 episodes ever. Part of the reason I liked these was that I don't like to commit to TV. The longer the show goes, the less point it ever gets to, from what I hear, and it quickly seems like a waste of your life. (Although, comedy shows are completely different because there's little story arc, but they make us laugh.)

When I was told that Joss Wedon, maker of some of TV's shows with the most cult following and creator of the great sci-fi series Firefly was coming out with a new show, I decided to check it out. After watching the first two episodes, I'm still not sure what to make of it, but it's definitely interesting. It's definitely a science fiction show injected with almost everything I hate about today's world of TV.

The Dollhouse Tech Room with our HeroesThe premise of Dollhouse is that this company has created a method of turning people into a pretty simple, rather blank personality without a care in the world. They live in this utopian place where they have no worries and are waited on by helpful staff to make sure they're in the best condition possible. But from time to time these "blank slates" are programmed with other personalities in order to perform a predetermined job. After the job is performed, the "active", as their creators are call them, has their memory wiped and they think they fell asleep and they go back to their carefree, utopian existence.

This sounds great. It's a great sci-fi premise. It's just a bit past what can probably be done with today's science, but not out of the realm of possibility of the near future, for sure. And, like every sci-fi show, it's exciting to explore the moral and ethical ramifications of humans having the ability to perform these actions. Within the first two episodes, many things are explored and hints at many other things are forthcoming. Joss Whedon is definitely still on his A-game as far as the writing goes.

The characters and cast are definitely set up well. Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) plays the head honcho of this Dollhouse operation, calling the shots of which missions should be run, although it's unclear how she gained this post. Harry Lennix (The Matrix Trilogy's Commander Lock) plays Echo's "handler", a highly trained ex-law enforcement man who accompanies the lead "active" on missions and is tasked with making sure the "active" is not hurt or damaged, and he seems a bit unsure of how well this technology all works, I think. There's also a preppy, geeky 20-something programmer that seems to have come up with this technology and is pretty confident in his work. Also, there's an FBI agent who's trying to track down this elusive Dollhouse organization and seems to stay a step or two behind them while the rest of his colleagues is sure he's chasing absolutely nothing.

The problems I have with the show are first, the ethics of he show, if it has any. First, these "actives" live in a commune where they all shower and live together, not sleeping in the same beds, but using the same communal showers. While sleeping, these "actives" are basically locked up in beds recessed below the floor with semi-translucent windows that cover them. None of these beings seem to find this confusing or disturbing but just walk around in a somewhat blank daze. I think this can be overcome, though, because the show is really only exploring this idea, not condoning it. Still, at this point it's very unclear what the show is trying to say about this idea and it may go in the wrong direction. And, lastly, it seems that an "active" can be bought for any reason, and the first and second episode both include parts where the main character is sent on a mission where it only seems that she is hired to be a charming girlfriend, both on the streets and in bed.

Dollhouse's Promo GraphicsAnd this brings me to my other beef, which is the way that this show panders to the mainstream TV crowd. First, the main character has to be a knockout babe who kicks butt at some point in every show. I'm not saying that it can't be a good-looking woman as the main character, but TV shows these days have to always be filled with main characters in which the main character has her shirt off or is wearing almost no clothes at some point, and that should not be the point of a good show. Second, both episodes have shown the main character romantically involved and in bed with another character, which seems to even more emphasize my last point but to an even more disturbing level. Third, every episode seems to be super-intense, such that both 47-minute episodes I watched were more intense than any movie I've seen in the last year. The bad guys in the first episode are a couple kidnappers who are working for a serial child molester. The second episode pits our heroes against a psychopathic outdoorsman who seems to befriend people only to suddenly turn his back and try to murder them as a fun "game". I'll admit, these are some mean bad guys, but why do TV shows have to be so intense? And why are all the bad guys mentally deranged in some way on all the TV shows, when in the movies they seem to be of a higher life form?

All these shortcomings make me long for more Firefly, where Whedon came up with good characters that didn't sell themselves on 30-second commercials for the show but actually had a role to fill and something interesting to talk about. Dollhouse may get to that point someday, but I'm not sure if I'm going to stick around to find out if it will. Still, the show leaves us hanging, as the creators and curators of this Dollhouse seem to be a bit careless and it's obvious that their technology is not yet flawless.

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