Linksys Powerline AV 4-Port Network Adapter Kit (PLSK400)

There are basically 3 ways to connect a computer to your internet modem:
1- Wired with CAT 5e cable
2- Wirelessly via a WiFi router
3- Wired via a Powerline adaptor

As you build out your home network there are multiple considerations, including the ease of which dedicated Ethernet cabling can be run, the wireless coverage, the location of the modem, and the bandwidth requirements. A decade ago, when most of us had one computer connected directly to their modem, this was much less of an issue than it is today with mutiple connected devices, and the bandwidth required to transmit HD video (which is around 4 to 8 megabits per second in case you were wondering).

While a WiFi router is commonly the central hub of most home networks, there are still times when a wired solution is best. These include situations when the wireless coverage is spotty, there is interference from neighbor's networks, and when bandwidth requirements are high, such as with video or gaming. Depending on the situation, this involves turning to Ethernet cable or a Powerline solution. While the Ethernet cable is affordable, the electrician to install it too often is not, and for those looking for professional appearing results without opening up wall boards and fishing wires, Powerline networking starts looking attractive.

This is the technology that involves sending network information through the home's wiring. There can be issues when the data has to cross a circuit breaker. Early on this technique was slow and proprietary, but with established standards, it is a viable alternative for a simple network setup, or as a supplement to a wireless system. If you are worried about security, quite simply don't as there is 128 bit encryption built into the standard, and your data won't transmit beyond your homes wiring.

Linksys provided their "Linksys PLSK400: Powerline AV 4-Port Network Adapter Kit." It consisted of two Powerline adapters, a basic instruction manual, and two Ethernet cables. Of note, one adapter has one Ethernet port, and the other has 4 ports. The idea is that the single port one gets plugged into the router, and then the 4 port one is plugged into the destination making this ideal for plugging in several devices, such as in a home media setup. There are 3 LED's, with pics that correspond to power, link and Ethernet.

Setup is a breeze with no software to install, and the pair of adapters with the same key out of the box. Additional ones can be added, and there is a small button to sync the keys. This is much better than the last time I played with Powerline networking as it took me an hour to get the keys in sync. For this pair of Linksys adapters, it was truly plug and play.

Here's a word about my setup. My internet comes into the house in the basement, and it is Optimum 15/2 with the modem positioned next to the wireless router. The router is a Linksys E4200 with WPA2 security (that is their top of the line WiFi router for those keeping score). The test system is one floor up, and a Windows 7 Phenom II 945 system; WiFi connectivity is via a draft-N USB adapter and the 10/100 Ethernet port is via the motherboard. The electrical outlets for the Powerline adapters are on different circuit breakers, not on power surge strips.  To keep this fair, there are plenty of wireless obstructions including metal ductwork in the way. This is real world testing, and not some idealized lab setup.

The Powerline adapters connected easily and the computer connected online with no issues. Subjectively, internet surfing was just like it normally was, and online videos played without a hitch. However, I decided to throw it a few tests, and a set of older (circa 2008) Powerline gear from a competitor, the Actiontec MegaPlug AV, that also claimed a 200 Mbps speed.

First test is Speedtest.net. This is a test of the internet connection, and all testing was done on the different adapters on the same day. While it is a test of internet speed more than network, if the home network is slow, it can be the bottleneck.  The chart shows the results:
The results show that the Linksys PLSK400 kit was just as fast for internet speeds as the E4200 wireless router, and the limit is the internet speed itself.  I have to admit I was a bit surprised that the Actiontec gear was so much slower, but it shows how Powerline gear has progressed in the last few years.

 The next test uses the USB port built into the wireless router, to which a USB flash drive is attached.  I use it a "Poor man's network attached storage," and is quite convenient for accessing files between different computers without the need of plugging in a flash drive directly.  It can also be accessed non-wirelessly as well.  Hence, I decided to upload a 188 MB file (LibreOffice 3.4 installation file), and then calculating a transfer speed.

 In the transfer test, the Linksys PLSK400 hits a speedy 287 kb/sec which is leaps better than the older Actiontec Powerline gear which stuck at a pokey 13 kb/sec.  However, the E4200 WiFi did live up to its reputation for speed, and averaged 1070 kb/sec.

The Linksys PLSK400 is available for $119.  It is a viable solution for those seeking an alternative to WiFi and in need of a wired network, or to supplement wireless due to dead spots.  It was ideal for internet speeds, but slower for sustained uploads, although much better than what was available a couple of years back.  With the ease of setup, the built in security, and the potential for expansion, it makes this product a recommended purchase.

More info

Overall Grade: A-



I suppose fantasy sports leagues offer their participants a way to imagine themselves in the game without requiring any talent or physical ability. In the comedy The League, a fantasy football league provides a bunch of friends and family members with the opportunity to act like
obsessed, onboxious jerks in pursuit of their imaginary championship.

Rodney Ruxon (Nick Kroll) is a product-liability attorney (representing despicable clients: "The way I look at it is, if you can't afford a Porterhouse you deserve hepatitis") who is an obnoxious league winner, disgusting trash-talker, and paranoid about the others conspiring against him (which they usually are). Pete Eckhart (Mark Duplass) is a bit of a womanizer who likes to manipulate the other league members into bad trades. Kevin MacArthur (Stephen Rannazzisi) is the league commissioner who's never won the Shiva. Jenny MacArthur (Katie Aselton) is Kevin's wife, a league member since season 2, and quite comfortable with being described as a spciopath. Taco MacArthur (John Lajoie) is Kevin's brother, a very happy stoner musician always coming up with bizarre plans -- and who doesn't care much about the league, though he's wound up as its champion. And rounding out the league is Andre Nowzick (Paul Scheer), a plastic surgeon who seems to follow every fad and makes himself the butt of the other's jokes. This group hangs out, gets in bizarre (and often juvenile and/or disgusting) situations, and seems focused on making trades, updating their weekly lineups, winning the Shiva (the trophy for the team doing the best) and avoiding the Sacko (the trophy for the worst team, made from... well, you don't want to know).

The League is largely improvised, which makes its strength not the plots (which can be fairly typical: Kevin and Jenny's young daughter curses after hearing her parents, Ruxon has to pretend not to be sick in front of his boss) but in the one-liners and character discussions. Fortunately, they work very well, from Taco's wildly inappropriate birthday song to Taco's having a "guest bong" in the home of all of his friends. There are also some terrific guest-stars: numerous football players; Sarah Silverman as Andre's sister, who slept with most of the people in the league; Nadine Velazquez (from My Name is Earl) as Sofia, Ruxon's beautiful wife; Seth Rogen as Dirty Randy, a porn producer; and especially Jason Mantzoukas as Rafi, Sofia's brother and a violent, erratic, somewhat insane vagrant -- who has some of the funniest lines on the show when he's on.

The League goes for base humor pretty often (though it's nice that Jenny is just like one of the guys, instead of a bland woman reacting to the craziness around her), but when it's funny, it's really funny. This won't make you want to watch football or join a fantasy football league -- but it will make you laugh.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

Tom Waits, BAD AS ME

Tom Waits is a master of many musical styles, and on Bad as Me he lets them all cut loose. The result is his most consistent and satisfying album since Bone Machine.

Bad as Me hits the ground running with "Chicago," a track that's pulse-pounding and a perfect snapshot of Waits' frequent combination of optimism and desperation: "Maybe things will be better in Chicago/to leave all we've ever known/for a place we've never seen." He then runs through a wide variety of song styles: blues ("Raised Right Men," "Last Leaf"), smoky jazz ("Kiss Me"), rockabily ("Get Lost"), the angry anti-war "Hell Broke Luce" and the maudlin "Last Leaf."

This album showcases both Waits' street poetry and distinctive voice. The songs have a rough elegance to them, whether he's romancing an old flame ("I want you to kiss me/ like a stranger once again") or feeling like an aged survivor ("I'm the last leaf on the tree/ the autumn took the rest/ but they won't take me"). And Waits can vary his voice from a gravel-filled rumble to an almost comical high pitch from song to song with ease -- and it all sounds good.

Tom Waits has been performing for decades now, and Bad as Me shows that experience pays off. This album keeps you guessing, delivers the unexpected, and manages to be quite sad, funny, angry, and touching.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


American Café Orchestra, Nightmare Polka (ACO, 2011)

American fiddler Ruthie Dornfeld, Danish guitarist Morten Høirup, and Finnish bassist Tapani Varis, collectively known as American Café Orchestra, have a planet full of musical influences between them.  Their new CD Nightmare Polka takes full advantage of these influences, mixing the musical traditions of their respective homelands with an awareness of modern and post-modern compositional styles and a broad sense of experimentation.

Although many of the tunes on Nightmare Polka have a traditional flavor, all of the tunes except one are composed by members of the band.  Styles are often mixed and matched. "Sweet Nights Polska" is rooted in Scandinavian traditions, for example, "Copenhagen Hoedown" is a hybrid of Celtic and bluegrass, and "Oikotie" is a jig given a primal twist by Varis' use of the overtone flute.  The band do not generally aim for standard arrangements suitable for dancing, however.  Dornfeld plays "Egyptian Domino" with a hint of bluesy abrasion that will keep listeners from sitting too comfortably, while "Bell" is a peculiar combination of folk music and some slow, dark jazz. The two tracks that will make or break the album for most listeners, though, are the title track and the closing tune "Onion Cubes."  True to its name, "Nightmare Polka" is uneasy from the start, but breaks down completely into a mess of scraping dissonance that will either grab you attention or send you running. "Onion Cubes" is a jew's harp duet featuring Varis and guest musician Jouko Kyhälä. The interweaving harps create a bizarrely unusual sound, at times sounding deceptively simple or almost electronic in its repetitiveness.

The three members of American Café Orchestra have already established reputations in their respective folk music circles both as first-rate players and as performers with a sense of adventure. They play some really nice tunes on Nightmare Polka, but they also show a willingness to jar their audience and dare them to follow along. That probably won't please everybody, especially people who are just looking for some dancing tunes, but I still thought it was plenty of fun.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott



The Underworld movies have always revolved around the war between the vampires and werewolves, er, Lycans, but in Underworld: Awakening a new enemy enters the mix: humans. Also, Kate Beckinsale returns as Selena, the ultra-lethal vampire Death Dealer (still wearing her fetish-inspired outfit, of course).

Set shortly after the second movie (and largely ignoring the prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), the humans have learned of the existence of both vampires and werewolves, declaring a war on both species with the Purge. With both races being slaughtered by humans, Selene and her hybrid lover Michael are trying to escape when they get knocked out.
Selene awakens from a cryogenic chamber in a lab in the Antigen company -- and learns she's been unconscious for twelve years! And while she can't sense Michael, she has a psychic connection with Eve (India Eisley), who turns out to be the daughter of Selene and Michael (and the one who freed Selene). So the mother-daughter duo head on the run.

But wait -- there's more! (More cliches, that is.) Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), the apparent head of Antigen, created the hybrid Eve and wants her and Selene captured. The Lycans have been virtually eradicated and have devolved to near-feral savages. Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) is investigating an apparent Lycan killing and keeps spotting Selene. An underground vampire coven is divided, with David (Theo James) wanting to help Selene and fight the humans while his father Thomas (Charles Dance) wants to remain hidden and survive. And there's also a giant, nigh-invulnerable Lycan running around, not to mention a plot twist...

Despite making the humans the main enemy, Underworld: Awakening is almost identical to the previous movies. Selene can move with super-speed and has amazing strength, yet she spends most of the movie rapid-firing a pair of pistols and bouncing around in slow motion. There are the usual debates/arguments among the vampires (this time fight vs. flight accompanies the old hatred of hybrids), and the storylines are very predictable. It's also amusing that most of the movie revolves around protecting Eve, considering she's one of the most powerful characters in the movie; and she looks so scary when mad she's easily be the evil villain in any other movie.

And so, Underworld: Awakening is more of the same, only with humans and a hybrid kid tossed in the mix. Kate Beckinsale looks great (as always) but can't give Selene any real depth here. The movie is a barely-there investigation, lots of gunfights with cgi creatures (and easily-slaughtered humans), and the always-present muted bluish lighting. The end of this movie seems to be setting the stage for another sequel, but since Underworld: Awakening is so similar to the previous movies, why bother?

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


When developing a game, playtesting is a rigorous and vital process where rules, gameplay, and other aspects of the game are tested to see if they work, need changing, or need removing. So when I saw that there was a game called We Didn't Playtest This at All (from Asmadi Games), I suspected it would be pretty silly. And I called that one right!

Gameplay is amazingly simple. Everyone starts with two cards, and on each turn a player draws a card and plays a card. However, unlike most games We Didn't Playtest This at All almost always eliminated one player -- often several -- during each turn. I've never played a game that lasted longer than 10 minutes.

The various Battle! cards have the players play rock-paper-scissors ("RPS: The sport of kings"), with only the person who played the card knowing what has to be thrown to stay in the game. Cards like Dragon and Black Hole are placed in front of an opponent and eliminate that player on their turn unless they can get rid of it. The "I Win!" cards let a person win if the person playing it meets the requirements on the card. Cards can eliminate people if they point or say "you," they can make everyone lose; Eddie Izzard fans will enjoy the card making everyone choose between cake or death; and the only card that can cancel any other card is Kittens.

We Didn't Playtest This at All is extremely simple and goofy. Every card has amusing flavor text at its bottom, and the games are fast -- damn fast -- and fun. That said, there is absolutely no strategy to this game: The luck of the draw truly determines who will win, and you won't do better at it no matter how often you play. We Didn't Playtest This at All is ideal for killing time while waiting for the rest of your friends to come and play something more serious -- but little more.

Overall grade: C+

Reviewed by James Lynch



The novel Story of O by Pauline Reage was controversial when released in 1954 and still retains its (in)famous reputation -- but what of its history? Who was the woman behind the pseudonym Pauline Reage? What happened when the book was released? And was Story of O more fantasy or reality? Director Pola Rapaport explores the fact behind the fiction in the documentary Writer of O.

Dominique Aury was a French writer, an intellectual (traveling in the same circles as Albert Camus), a member of the French Resistance during World Wat 2 -- and the lover of married publisher Jean Paulhan. She expressed her love to him by writing Story of O, and she remained hidden behind her pseudonym Pauline Reage until "coming out" 40 years later in an article in The New Yorker by John de St. Jarre. Writer of O explores Aury's life, and her famous work, through: interviews with Aury and authors, publishers, critics, and journalists; news footage of both Aury and the sensation Story of O caused in the 1950s; and actors re-creating both excerpts from the novel and interviews and discussions of people involved with its publication.

Writer of O shows us what a remarkable woman Dominique Aury was. (She passed away in 1998.) In her youth, even while keeping her authorship secret she was a passionate advocate of the power of literature and the imagination. As a woman in her 80s she retained both her sharp mind and dignity, effortlessly defending her work ("women are as immoral as men") while noting that she kept her secret for 40 years because when she finally revealed her authorship, people were less likely to attack an old woman.

As for the rest of the world of Story of O, the documentary is a little one-sided. Everyone interviewed is a fan of both Aury and her novel; many are far from objective, such as the French and American publishers who first released the book, or friends of Aury and Pauhan. And while dramatic snippets from the novel illustrate Story of O's appeal and controversial nature, Writer of O blurs its non-fiction perspective by also having actors portraying the same people already interviewed or shown in news footage. Still, there are good analyses of what happened when Story of O was released, both from critics today and some people who were there when it exploded on the literary world.

Despite these flaws, Writer of O is a good look at not just at the woman behind Pauline Reage and some of the history surrounding the novel. (The dvd also has mini-interviews on several topics, from where the name "O" came from to the original translations.)

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


Andrew Roachford, Addictive (M3 Records, 2011)

He's still an extremely well-kept secret in the United States, but UK soul singer Andrew Roachford has been making records for over twenty years now.  He was originally the leader of the group Roachford, with whom he created a unique blend of old-school soul and brazen hard rock which, to the group's commercial detriment, defied easy categorization.  Songs like "Cuddly Toy (Feel for Me)" and "How Could I (Insecurity)" would be universally regarded as the classics that they are in a better world, but that was not the band's fate.  Andrew Roachford has soldiered on as a solo artist in the past decade, with his latest effort Addictive coming out in 2011.

For better or worse, Roachford's music has mellowed out over the years.  He's made a point of showing his sensitive side more, but there are points on Addictive where I kind of wish the combative bad-ass from the debut Roachford album back in 1988 would come barging into the room.  Not that there's anything really wrong with Addictive; Roachford remains a first rate pop songwriter, and the only really weak song, "The Doctor," is actually the most aggressive track on the album.  It's just that most of the album is a little too mid-tempo.  Having said that, "Old Friend" and "Complicated" are solid pop songs. Roachford has always worn his soul influences on his sleeve, and on this album he channels Al Green particularly well with the song "Precious Love." He saves the best song on the album for last, though, with the rousing closer "Wishing You Knew." 

There is still plenty of room in contemporary pop and rock for some music rooted in the classic soul music of the sixties and seventies. At his best, Andrew Roachford has been a match for most of his influences. Addictive isn't overwhelming, but it does show that Roachford is still writing and singing worthy songs nearly a quarter century into his career.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

the video for "Wishing You Knew"



The revenge flick is such a staple of action movies it's almost a cliche: someone close to the hero is attacked or killed or kidnapped, and the hero seeks violent revenge when the authorities can't do anything. But Nietzsche warned, "Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster" -- so what happens when the hero's tactics bring him closer and closer to the behavior of the villain? This is the situation in I Saw the Devil, a brutal Korean movie about violence and revenge and more violence.

Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is an absolutely brutal psychopath. He drives around in a school bus, looking for women alone; when he has a target he bludgens them into unconsciousness, brings them to his home, and what happens next is too graphic to mention. His most recent victim, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), was the daughter of a retired police chief -- and fiancee of secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun). Kim is a hot-shot agent -- one could imagine his character as a Korean James Bond -- and with the help of his would-be father-in-law, quickly finds Kyung-chul.

For better or worse, though, Kim doesn't want simple revenge. After brutally beating Kyung-chul, Kim forces him to swallow a tracking device that lets Kim hear and follow Kyung-chul. Kim's plan is to keep torturing Kyung-chul, keeping him alive and in pain until the psychopath suffers as much as Joo-yeon did. Unfortunately, Kyung-chul is both smart and relentless; and he keeps slaughtering people even as Kim keeps track of him.

I Saw the Devil is a powerful combination of action, horror, and even philosophy. At first glance, Kyung-chul seems to be little more than a thug preying on the helpless, and Kim seems to be the young, handsome skilled avenger, yet as the movie goes on Kim becomes more focused on his own monstrous acts against the brutal psychopath -- especially when he heard Kim talking with some fellow serial killers who comment that Kim is like them, a hunter. "Revenge is for the movies," warns Se-yeon (Yoon-seo Kim), yet Kim continues with his plan for revenge -- even when it begins spiralling out of control. It's impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for Kyung-chul -- yet Kim's actions seem as responsible for the further evils as Kyung-chul's actions.

The acting and action in I Saw the Devil are both excellent. Min-sik Choi makes his psychopath completely amoral, horrific, almost simple (no Hannibal Lecter here: This one curses constantly and chain-smokes), and disturbingly uncaring about what he does or what happens to him. Byung-hun Lee is also excellent as the good man who has to keep steeling himself to continue down a path of revenge that seems to get more and more people killed. The action and horror also blend together nicely, as car chases and martial arts go hand-in-hand in a world of unflinching violence and stomach-churning tortures.

Korean cinema has its share of movies that are both disturbing and thought-provoking (Oldboy and The Audition come to mind), and I Saw the Devil is a worthy addition to that list. This is certainly not a movie for the faint of heart, but it is a gigantic step up from the typical Hollywood movie where the audience is expected to cheer for the hero as his behavior starts to resemble that of the villain he pursues. Revenge here has seldom been so cool-looking -- or so morally murky.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



What is the concert experience? It should provide impressive music, either familiar songs
that go beyond the studio version or new songs you won't hear elsewhere. It should also provide some spectacle, the "show" in "showmanship," often with dancing, costuming, or both. So what happens when Kylie Minogue -- the pop princess who makes the closest we have to disco today -- goes on tour? Aphrodite Les Folies [Live in London] is a dvd-cd set from Kylie's 2011 concert tour.

In the behind-the-scenes feature, Kylie describes the tour as "the synchronicity of music, performance, and visuals, of songs and spectacle." She certainly has the visuals and spectacle down pat: The singer emerges as the goddess Aphrodite in an ancient Greek setting; she rides a golden chariot dragged by several muscular men (her shows provide lots of male skin, as a reward to her female and gay male fans); there's the shiniest dress I've ever seen (shown in the video, below); and there's the inevitable flying angel during "Looking for an Angel" and her cover of the Eurythmics' "There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)." Aphrodite Les Folies [Live in London] certainly provides an impressive visual experience.

But what about the music? While Kylie's music is something of a guilty pleasure, Aphrodite Les Folies [Live in London] is a remarkably standard-sounding concert. While a few of the sounds are given new life live -- the electric guitar-driven rock version of "Can't Get You out of My Head," the jazzy torch song treatment given to "Slow" -- most of the songs here sound almost identical to the album versions. Also, virtually all the songs here are from Kylie's album Aphrodite or the two prior albums (X and Body Language), so fans of her "classic" hits will find few of them performed here. The music cd becomes almost irrelevant here.

One of the most striking moments on Aphrodite Les Folies [Live in London] comes near the end, as Kylie Minogue performs a slow ballad ("If You Don't Love Me") and a dance number ("Better the Devil You Know") when it's just her -- no giant props, no backup dancers, no light shows or flying performers -- and it sounds terrific. Aphrodite Les Folies [Live in London] is quite a visual treat, but I would think for a musician the music should come first -- and here, the live songs sound too similar to the album versions. Kylie Minogue's music has always been (at its best) fun fluff, but it should still sound better live.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (Anti-, 2011)

Unique, always challenging, and often perplexing, Kate Bush has had a remarkable career that now spans close to thirty-five years. She has a reputation for working very slowly and deliberately -- her 2005 CD Aerial came twelve years after her previous release The Red Shoes -- but lately she has actually been quite busy. May 2011 saw the release of Director's Cut, a collection of reworked versions of songs that originally appeared on The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes, but at the time of release she was already back in the studio recording the seven tracks that make up her CD of all new material, 50 Words for Snow. This album takes a different musical direction than Bush's previous work, but lacks none of her characteristic quirkiness and sense of musical adventure.

The most obvious difference between 50 Words for Snow and Bush's previous work is that the soundscape is dominated by Bush's piano, rather than her voice. In fact, the first voice you hear on the opening song "Snowflake" belongs to her son, Albert "Bertie" McIntosh. All of the songs are extended, ambient pieces, ranging from nearly seven to over thirteen minutes in length. The arrangements are generally a bit on the jazzy side, with the piano supported mostly by Steve Gadd's drums and percussion. The songs tell different stories, linked by the theme of snow. "Snowflake" is literally about a snowflake, floating down to meet its destination. "I am ice and dust, I am sky," Bertie sings while Bush responds,"The world is so loud, keep falling, I will find you." "Lake Tahoe" is a ghost story about a woman who met her end looking for her dog in the cold; at the end of the song her spirit comes home and finds the dog waiting for her. "Wild Man" is a song about the yeti, and "Snowed in at Wheeler Street" is a duet about love enduring through history that features guest vocalist Elton John.

Of course, Bush's recordings are made or broken by the willingness of the listener to embrace her many eccentricities. Her best work has moments that will make some people go "Wow!" while others go "Huh?" The two songs that define this album in that regard are "Misty" and the title track. "Misty" is a deeply erotic song about love that melts away as quickly as it arrives. Taken literally, though, it's a thirteen-minute opus about a one night stand with a snowman. "50 Words for Snow" takes its inspiration from the Inuit, who really do have fifty words in their language to describe various types of snow. Bush concocts fifty different expressions -- some mundane, some completely off the wall -- and gets Stephen Fry to recite them as she counts them off.

Kate Bush has always been an avant-garde performance artist somewhat miscast as an alternative rocker. She has shown more than enough genuine musicality over the years to keep pulling it off, though, and she remains one of the best and most influential artists of the rock era, male or female. 50 Words for Snow is ultimately a solid piece of work. Bush creates a wintry atmosphere from the opening notes, and lets each idea develop in as much time as is necessary. The slow pace will frustrate listeners insisting on instant gratification, but this album grows on you as much as any of her work in the past. I'd argue that it's her best work since Hounds of Love in 1985, already half her lifetime ago.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

An animated piece set to a segment of "Misty"


Sam Phillips, Solid State (Littlebox Recordings, 2011)

From her Christian rock beginnings, to her albums produced by ex-husband T Bone Burnett, and through to her present work, Sam Phillips has made a career out of doing things her own peculiar way.  Over the past two years, she has worked on an extended project called The Long Play, for which she has written and recorded a steady stream of EPs plus one full-length album available via subscription from her website.  Solid State is a more publicly available compilation of recordings taken from the sessions for The Long Play, and it shows Phillips to be in continued fine form after her strong previous album Don't Do Anything.

The music on Solid State is deliberately underproduced. Outside of a couple of tracks with backing from a string quartet, Phillips' songs are given a front porch treatment. Phillips' acoustic rhythm guitar is the dominant instrument on most of the tracks, with a light amount of accompaniment.  Her understanding of pop music styles from different decades has always been exemplary, even if she leans a bit more on the sixties than on other decades, and that remains the case on Solid State. If Phillips hasn't changed her style much in recent years, she also hasn't altered her high standard of intelligent, thoughtful, melodic songwriting. The album's best lyrics come on the song "What It All Means," on which Phillips sings over a string quartet. "So I've tried to simplify," Phillips sings, "but it seems as if that's what you do when you die."

Sam Phillips has been one of the most consistently interesting and enjoyable performers in rock for quite some time now. Solid State isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but it is chock full of good, straightforward pop songs.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"When I'm a Camera"



The good folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have once again endeavored -- successfully -- to present a work of H.P. Lovecraft as a movie from the 1920s. Their version of The Call of Cthulhu was a black and white silent film. Their latest venture is a version of The Whisperer in Darkness that maintains the atmosphere and horror of the original tale, while exanding it well past the original's ending, as a black and white pulp film.

The Whisperer in Darkness can be divided into three parts. In the introduction, it's 1927 and Miskatonic University folklorist Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) is annoyed by the rumors that the floods in Vermont have dredged up corpses of monsters. Investigator Nathaniel Ward (Matt Lagan) urges Wilmarth to be careful. Rich playboy adventurer Charlie Tower (Stephen Blackhart) finds it all amusing. And believer in the unknown Charles Fort (Andrew Leman) urges Wilmarth to keep an open mind. In the midst of all this, Wilmarth get a visit from George Akeley (Joe Sofranko) with evidence of the monsters -- and of their activities. His father, Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), has been besieged on his Vermont farm by some sort of flying creatures, and he sent his son George to enlist Wilmarth's help.

The second part of The Whisperer in Darkness follows the original tale pretty closely, as Wilmarth heads up to Vermont to help Henry Akeley. There are assorted people he meets along the way, from the overly theatrical driver P.F. Norris (Daniel Kaemon) to the nervous farmer Will Masterson (Caspar Marsh) and his young daughter Hannah (Autumn Wendel). Then there's the meeting with Henry, who is quite ill and stationary -- and whose change in attitude only adds to the mystery (until the big reveal, of course).

The third act of this movie combines the horrors of the original with an action movie. Gunshots! Cultists! Monsterous Mi-Go! Chases! Alien technology! Melodrama! A desperate last stand! This part of the movie may put off purists, but it continues past the normal Lovecraftian dramatic revelation to give the audience a sense of action in the face of the horrors discovered in the remote Vermont mountains. It's tense, it's unpredictable, and in its own way it's as horrifying as what came before.

The Whisperer in Darkness is another excellent adaption from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. While the melodrama was a little overdramatic at times, Matt Foyer does an excellent job as Albert Wilmarth, the bookish scholar and skeptic who soon finds himself immersed in a situation far over his head. The combination of the black-and-white filming and near-omnipresent rain make this feel like a pulp film from the 1920s, and even the CGI monsters look and move like creatures from the old films. And the dvd extras -- over two and a half hours! -- show the creativity and passion that went into making this on a very low budget, from the miniatures to the constant rain to creating the Mi-Go. If you love Lovecraft and/or classic horror, you should definitely check out The Whisperer in Darkness.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch



The problem with the boardgame Arkham Horror is that while it does a fine job of creating the 1920s world of H.P. Lovecraft, it is also far too complex. Elder Sign, also from Fantasy Flight Games, simplifies the Lovecraftian world -- and in this case, less is definitely not better.

Like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign is a cooperative game where players work to either prevent a monstrous Ancient One from entering the world, or (if they fail that) engaging in the last-ditch battle with the horrific beast. Players control one character, and that character consists of Sanity and Stamina scores, one ability, and starting items. Players move between the entrance (where they can regain Sanity or Stamina , buy items, or trade trophies for items) and the rooms (six cards, possibly more if Other Worlds come into play).

Each room has a number of tasks, and a player rolls dice hoping to match the symbols on the tasks (sometimes using the items to affect the results). If a player succeeds, they get the card (as a trophy) and the items listed on the card. If the player fails, they may suffer a terror effect, lose one die, and keep trying to complete the tasks with the remaining dice. If it's impossible to complete due to a lack of dice, the player suffers the penalty. Rooms may also have a monster, which is defeated by rolling the dice and matching the task on the monster; a defeated monster becomes a trophy for the player.

The players win if they get enough Elder Signs to keep the Ancient One at bay. However, after each player's turn a clock advances three numbers (on a spinner) and each time it hits midnight a Mythos card is drawn, often adding a Doom Token to the Ancient One's Doom Track. If the Doom Track is filled in, the Ancient One awakens and players have a very uphill battle against the creature.

Elder Sign is easier to play and win than Arkham Horror -- but it's also too simple. Since the characters only have one special ability, solving the tasks virtually always comes down to rolling as many dice as possible and hoping for a good result. (I love one person's description of this as "Cthulhu meets Yahtzee.") Elder Sign is okay, but its lack of depth and challenge make it fine for only an occasional play.

Overall grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch

John Nornan, DANCER OF GOR

John Norman has written over 20 books in the Gor series, creating the alien world of Gor where humans are brought to live adventures that combine sword and sorcery wth periods from ancient human history. Well, that's what happens to men: Dancer of Gor shows Norman fantasizing about the absolute captivity, submission, and degredation of women -- and contempt for women who resist this.

The protagonist of this book is Doreen Williamson, an introverted, shy librarian who finds release in the "shocking" practice of bellydance. This somehow brings her to the attention of Gorean slavers (led by Teibar), and before you can say "BDSM" Doreen has been fully bound, kidnapped, transported to Gor, and sold into slavery.

What follows is a series of not so much adventures as Norman's fantasies about sumbission. It's hard to know which the author enjoys more: his long and detailed descriptions of physical bondage, or his creating a society where women have literally fewer rights than animals, any woman can be captured and enslaved, and men can rename, use, abuse, rape, and even kill women at their whim. Doreen starts as a dancing prostitute and winds up in subsequently worse situations -- and loves every minute of it.

The problem with Dancer of Gor isn't having a submissive protagonist: This has been done well plenty of times, from The Story of O (in its numerous adaptions) to the movie Secretary. First, Norman not only revels in this world where women exist solely to please men, but also condems the "modern woman" who he sees as weakening and destroying men. He doesn't just like a submissive woman -- he shows a hatred for any woman who shows signs of independence or intelligence. Further, Doreen (or whatever her name is -- it's changed several times during the novel) is treated with contempt by all males throughout the book, existing as little more than a male sexual fantasy.

Oh yes, and the writing is terrible. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Gor series, this book "has been specifically edited by the author and is a definitive text." Someone should have spoken to Norman about avoiding run-on sentences and the overuse of commas, as demonstrated here: "If they could have seen me curling about a man's feet in an alcove, licking and kissing theinching upwards, piteously, hopefully, then kneeling beside him, looking up, kissing, licking, pleading, I do not think they would have been so quickto dismiss me as a mere 'pot girl.' Tela, too, I am sure, was angry. After all, not only had she once been a rich free woman, of high family and significant station, of a fine city, Lydius, but even after her capture,and her prompt reduction to total and absolute bondage, she had been found so beautiful, so luscious and desirable, that she had been chosen over many women for the triangle of red silk in the tent of Aulus." Of course, when Dancer of Gor isn't wordy it's usually short, stupid exclamations of the women begging and the men insulting them. So it's pretty much a no-win situation.

I haven't read any of the other Gor books -- and after this I have no desire to -- so I can't speak to the treatment of women in those. I can say that Dancer of Gor demonstrates some of the worst stereotypes about the BDSM world: that it's insulting, degrading, and terrible to women. Furthermore, Norman is a terrible writer, from the absolutely one-dimensional characters to the consistently awful sentences. Avoid this book like a Gorean slaver.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch


Vieux Farka Touré, The Secret (Six Degrees, 2011)

Vieux Farka Touré's new album may be called The Secret, but it's no secret that the guy can play guitar.  The son of Malian musical legend Ali Farka Touré has made a career out of combining the rhythms and styles of his homeland with some fierce electric guitar, but while some of his work is really good, a lot of it is uneven as well. His new album brings more of the same, which is both good and bad.

The problem with The Secret is that it sounds a little too familiar if you've heard Touré's previous recordings.  The only real twists come from the guest appearances of Derek Trucks on slide guitar on "Aigna" and Dave Matthews with some vocals in English on "All the Same."  Otherwise, while the songs "Sokosondou" and "Borei" have a good combination of energy and guitar pyrotechnics, the rest of the album is too formulaic.  Touré seems most comfortable when he's rocking out, and sounds like he's going through the motions the rest of the time. The only really interesting of the more traditional tracks is the title track, an extended instrumental with a slow but steady groove.

Vieux Farka Touré has made three albums now, and unfortunately the quality of his output has declined since his very solid debut. The Secret has some fine moments, but not enough for me to recommend it ahead of Touré's earlier work.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

"All the Same," featuring Dave Matthews



Sure, Munchkin Zombies gave players the opportunity to feast on human brains while fighting to be the first person, er, zombie to level 10 -- but what if you want more? You'll get more (cards, not rules) with the game's first expansion: Munchkin Zombies 2: Armed and Dangerous.

This 112-card expansion provides players with new opportunities to arm themselves with treasures (like bowling attire, a Winning Smile, or Ed the Undead Head), "monsters" to fight (Vegan, Tree Surgeon, Basketball Player), Curses (Walked Through Cement, Head Leaks,
Daaaaaaaanes!), and other cards to help yourself or hurt opponents.

Munchkin Zombies 2 offers a new Mojo (the Patchwork Zombie, which adds two levels when determining how many Powers you can have) and a new Power (Hungry, which adds a bonus to a zombie who Looks for Trouble), but no changes to the rules of the original. Detractors may say that this simply offers (to use H.P. Lovecraft's description of cannibalism) "more th' same," but this expansion also continues the gleefully twisted undead humor of the original.

Not many expansions let you affect the outcome of a battle with a Bubble Wand, battle a Congrettcritter, find a Horde Reward, or afflict someone with Graaaaaaaains! Munchkin Zombies 2: Armed and Dangerous is a nice, twisted way to keep killing "monsters" and making your opponents struggle.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch