Taking Stock of Your Online Subscriptions

picture of woman entering credit card info into her iPad

With the impending launch of Apple Music this week, it dawned on me that I don’t exactly know just how much I’m spending on digital subscription services. Back in the day I had physical newspapers & magazines show up on my doorstep every month so it was relatively easy to keep track of what I had subscribed to. Those bound, blocks of paper acted as reminders of what I was and wasn’t reading. Subscriptions these days can be tricky things; sign up for a Patreon here, add a new online media service there and pretty soon you’ve lost track of just how much you’re shelling out for the convenience of online content.

The new Apple Music service will cost $9.99 a month / $119.88 yearly but I already subscribe to iTunes Match which costs just $24.99 a year. Do I really need both? There are additional benefits that Apple Music offers that go beyond iTunes Match of course, but is it worth it strictly from a cost basis?

Before I can answer that question I really need to know just how much I’m spending month to month on all these things, so I went through and tried to catalog all of my digital subscriptions. Here’s what I found.

• MLB TV $129.99 yearly
• Netflix $8.53 mo / $102.36 yearly
• America’s Test Kitchen Multi-site Membership / $69.96 yearly
• iTunes Match $24.99 yearly
• Patreon $8.00 mo / $96 yearly
• iCloud 20GB Plan .99¢ mo / $11.88 yearly
• Angie’s List Basic $7.99 yearly

So in total, I’m currently paying $347.17 annually in online subscriptions which breaks down to roughly $29 per month. Overall that’s better than I expected, but then again these are only the subscriptions I could track down or remember I was paying. There are probably a few others I haven’t accounted for yet. I wonder if the amount of content I’ve subscribed to is below or above average for today’s consumer?

Are there subscriptions I could cancel to help get the new Apple Music service into my budget? I’m definitely considering ending my America’s Test Kitchen subscription for instance. The two Patreons I subscribe to (Kurzgesagt & Apple World Today) may not be necessary, but they bring me awesome content every month that I enjoy and wish to support. There’s no way I would ever ditch Netflix, it’s one of the best content providers I’ve ever had.

In the end, switching out my iTunes Match subscription for a year of Apple Music would bring my monthly total up to around $37 or $442.06 annually. That’s an increase of roughly 27% of what I’m currently forking over which seems like a lot at first glance. Will Apple Music be worth it? As I don’t currently subscribe to any streaming music services like Spotify or Beats, it’s pretty much impossible to say, at least for now. The good news is Apple is offering that infamous 3-month free trial when it launches on Tuesday so I’m pretty sure I’ll be taking advantage of that to evaluate the service.

If you’re cost conscious or on a budget and have not taken stock of your online subscriptions recently, now might be a good time to do so. Knowing just how much you’re spending each month can really be an eye-opener that will help you make informed for future subscriptions. At the very least, this exercise has taught me to categorize all of my online subscriptions similarly in Mint so I can easily review what I’ve subscribed to. Lastly, the folks over at iMore have also put together a fantastic guide to Apple Music that answers every question you could possibly have. Hopefully this all helps you as much as it helped me!

A Good Day to Dye!

Star Trek's Worf in rainbow gay pride uniform

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States, in a 5-4 decision struck down gay marriage bans in 14 states effectively making it legal for gay and lesbian couples to finally marry throughout the nation. The announcement sent ripples of rainbow-colored hope throughout the country and on social media. The hashtag #LoveWins quickly spread through Twitter and Facebook and people started updating their online avatars with the bright colors of the gay pride movement in a show of solidarity that I won’t soon forget.

I created the fun image above to help celebrate the historic announcement. Star Trek has always meant so very much to me, and like millions of others who grew up enjoying its themes of peace, diversity and tolerance, the image of proud, honorable Worf standing with his brightly colored rainbow uniform just seemed perfectly appropriate. I also love a good pun and hence I made it sew (see what I did there?).

On a more serious note, the momentous events of this week still have me in a hope-filled, optimistic daze. Obamacare being upheld for some 6 million Americans who rely on it for health insurance was much welcomed news but then the Supreme Court finally recognizing gay people’s right to marry was the proverbial icing on the cake. This has been a long, long time coming and there are some who didn’t think it would happen in their lifetime.

For opponents, the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage represents an unlawful power grab that defies the Constitution, but for the majority of the nation and the court, it represents just the opposite. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees that all US citizens are to be treated equally from state to state. Justice Kennedy’s closing paragraph stands as a pillar of legal and moral truth that gave me goose bumps when I read it:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

In their decision, the court didn’t construct a law giving gay people the right to marry, they simply struck down the state laws that were keeping Americans from being treated equally under the Constitution. They re-affirmed gays rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the rest of us sometime take for granted. For the religious-minded among us, the court was reminding everyone of the age-old proverb, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Return kindness with kindness. Respect with respect and love with love. What a wonderful time to be an American. Today is indeed a good day to dye.

‘Fury Road’ Inspired LEGO Creations

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I love it when a movie, TV show or book takes hold in someone enough to inspire fan creations. I was skeptical when I heard all of the hype surrounding the new Mad Max film, but my fears were quickly buried in an awesome heap of twisted metal once I saw the film. A strange mix of classic action and modern, diverse storytelling, Fury Road really did live up to my expectations.

The film has inspired tons of art from fans from all corners of the globe and now comes these amazing LEGO roadsters from build master Calin (_tiler). I love every single bit of these builds especially the simple lines and bits of canvas and string used for the bedroll. Be sure to check out their Flickr page for even more amazing Mad Max vehicles.

These images take me right back to how I felt when I first saw the Kenner’s Landspeeder toy. I would spend hours in the sand playing with that thing until my mom would be forced to call me in for supper. It’s great how something so simple and fun can evoke the child in all of us.

Via Brother’s Brick

Creating the Ultimate Gaming Lair

There’s a lot more to gaming then just having the latest game play systems. Surrounding your arena with a plethora of luxurious gadgets can give you that all important edge in the heat of battle. If you’re thinking of pimping up your gaming space, then have at a glance at some of these fabulous extras:

Gaming Chairs

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To kick off your lair you will certainly need to be comfortable. If you’re planning on being seated at your desk for hours on end, and you regularly find yourself involved in some epic gaming adventures that you won’t want to tear yourself away from, then you owe it to your butt and your back to feel relaxed. A gaming chair that offers neck and back support is crucial for arduous sessions but it’s not just any chair, it’s your throne and an entire gaming accessory in itself. High-end gaming chairs not only provide comfort but also boast integrated surround sound and rumble motion to further enhance your gaming experience and truly immerse you in the gameplay.

Monitors

The most important element to consider whilst piecing together your new gaming man-cave is the monitor. You may have picked up a PC or console that comes complete with its own monitor but that might not quite fit the bill. A tailored gaming monitor can handle rapid motions more effectively whilst high definition screens are built to promote wonderfully vivid colors. Ultra HD and 4K monitors are the best of the best but make sure that your games, and of course your graphics card and GPU’s, can even handle this sort of resolution. Swift monitors can help you master fast-paced games and, if you partake regularly at Sky Casino, they can help you harness skills like poker multi-tabling.

Game Pads

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Gaming keypads offer a much more versatile approach to controlling the overall gaming experience. Unlike the standard PC gaming keyboards out there, these more specialized alternatives give players a more ergonomic way in which to play their favorite games. They come with adjustable features that let you control palm and wrist support and some will include thumb mounted joysticks to further comfort and maneuverability.

Headsets & Headphones

Headphones are useful for two different reasons; to help you immerse yourself fully in the gaming environment whilst blocking out background noise and to ensure you don’t drive everyone else around you mad with the constant rattle of virtual gunfire. Headsets also give you the ability to chat and interact with other online gamers via an attached and mounted microphone with wired and wireless options available. There are a number of great options available, so many that it can sometimes be difficult to choose.

Apple, Take Me Away!

LoyaltyTagsRight before the annual developer pilgrimage to Moscone Center, the interwebs become flush with wish lists for Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference and this year is no different. I can’t quibble with my peer’s desires for Apple to focus on fixing bugs and increasing stability rather than adding new and shiny features, but there is one tiny area I’m secretly hoping will play a major role in iOS 9 – Apple Pay Loyalty Programs.

Without a doubt, Apple Pay has been one of the best advancements out of Cupertino in the last 10 years. It makes paying for goods and services generally quicker, far more secure and reduces the amount of “stuff” I need to carry around in my pockets. When it was announced, Apple hinted at upcoming upgrades that would allow retailers to offer loyalty programs and incentives if people used Apple Pay at their retail locations. That was then, and this is now.

Although Tim Cook’s Apple Pay has made impressive in-roads in the space, many retailers have remained skeptical and have refused to join in the secure fun either because they are lazy, cost conscious or can’t get access to the kinds of information that Apple won’t make available via Apple Pay – customer data. Retailers currently have no way to say to Apple Pay customers “If you buy from us, we’ll give you loyalty points you can use for a future discount!” and that’s a problem. As a consumer, I desperately want to reward businesses that make my financial transactions more secure and I want them to recognize my choice by giving me the kinds of incentives I’ve come to enjoy over the years.

Like me, you probably carry around loyalty cards on your keyring or wallet that the cashier swipes when you check out at the grocery store. I hate these things desperately, they need to die a violent death. I absolutely love paying for my lunch via Apple Pay at Panera Bread, but I wince when I have to reach for my wallet to hand the cashier my Panera card just so I can get credit towards next month’s free cookie. It makes no sense.

If there’s any single thing on my wish list for this year’s WWDC, it would be for Apple to give me the ability to never have to carry loyalty/reward cards around ever again. With Apple Pay, Cupertino has made good on its original Passbook promise – A safe, secure and digital wallet without the physical wallet. I’m really hoping that they’ve found a way to integrate loyalty programs into Apple Pay for iOS 9. Doing so is good for the consumer, for businesses and ultimately the economy as paying for stuff electronically gets easier and more secure. Now if I could just get rid of my car’s key fob. Maybe one day.

UPDATE: BINGO! At today’s WWDC keynote address Apple unveiled that they will be adding merchant rewards cards to Apple Pay with iOS 9. Yes Virginia, sometimes dreams do come true!

Game of Moans

As I prepare for tonight’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, I’m reminded of this classic exchange.

Game of Moans

I used to think everything related to Star Trek, but now-a-days I’m thinking it’s Princess Bride. Who knew?

User Interfaces of the Week

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We’re less than a week away from Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference where Tim Cook and company will unveil the latest and greatest for OS X, Apple Watch and iOS. No doubt we’ll get a preview of iOS 9 and all it has to offer, but before we move forward, sometimes it’s best to reflect on where we’ve come from. I wish I could say the user interfaces featured here were but a distant App Store memory, but alas they all come from currently-shipping apps.

A few weeks ago I went looking for a well designed gas / milage tracking app in the App Store. I’ve been using Gas Cubby for years, but wanted something new to help me keep track of MPG with my new Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. From my own experience, I knew that doing a general search in the App Store tends to yield less than optimum results. Even so, I just wasn’t prepared for the sloppy approach many of these apps tried to pass off as user interface design.

Being a UI designer myself, I have surrounded myself in my professional and digital life with talented designers and developers who consistently release top-notch apps. The problem with living in a bubble of roses is you sometimes forget what the real world smells like. As I paged through dozens of these milage trackers I was reminded just how many apps on the store are basically junk. Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber has a recurring piece he calls “User interface of the Week” where he highlights some of the worst cases of user interface “design” he’s encountered. I don’t feel right calling these apps out by name, but if any apps deserved John’s moniker, these sure do.

Seeing what often passes for acceptable design in the App Store often reminds me of all the hard work that goes into creating my own well designed and executed apps. So many people think software just grows on trees, but it doesn’t. Designing and building best-in-class software requires a depth of knowledge and experience that a relative few possess.

I can’t wait to see what WWDC has in store for the future of my favorite software platforms. I’m hoping Apple inspires an entire new group of developers to strive for excellence and bring users apps that are truly worthy of these wonderful, futuristic devices. As for my milage tracker quest, I finally settled on Road Trip. It’s a bit more complex than I would like, but so far, so good.

You Will Adapt Your User Interfaces to Service Us!

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Everywhere you look, more and more people feel they are entitled to something they’re not. I and others have written about the obscene level of entitlement some users feel is owed them when they download apps from the App Store, and to be sure this is still a huge problem today. Lately however, I’ve been observing another form of app entitlement and honestly, it has got to stop – iPhone 6 Plus users who think all interfaces should be designed to both fit their jumbo phones AND still allow one-handed use.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 6 Plus and it’s enormous 5.5″ screen, it clearly filled a much-needed gap in the iOS universe. Users had been clamoring for more screen real estate for years and when it finally arrived, they rejoiced. Over time however, these users have developed a sense of entitlement that the apps they run should place all controls at or near the bottom of the screen where they can be reached by the thumb. Sorry, but like Captain Picard in First Contact, I’m drawing a line in the proverbial sand. No, iPhone 6 Plus users don’t get to dictate interface design for the rest of us.

Like it or not, buttons at the top of the screen are not going away any time soon. Developers need every bit of screen real estate to logically lay out controls consistently across a host of device ranges and configurations. From the tiny iPhone 4 to the popular iPhone 6 and the iPad there’s a method to our madness. It might seem like a great idea if every single button, tab, actionable element and control were within thumb’s reach, but that simply isn’t possible, nor is it actually desirable.

When Apple developed iOS, the experts charged with designing its interface laid out regions of the iOS screen for specific interactions. Since the entire navigation stack generally flows from left (where you were) to right (where you are going), the button for closing or going back a level is at the upper left. Creation of new content or taking action on that content, like adding a calendar event or sending an email or a tweet, is usually found at the upper right. Tab controls can be either at the top or the bottom, though generally they are usually found at the bottom. In this way, a user who picks up an iPhone 4 has a reasonable expectation that similar types of controls will appear in similar places when she picks up an iPhone 6 Plus. This helps maintain usability and UI consistency for all apps, not just those that run on jumbo phones.

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There are ways that developers can help facilitate one-handed use when it’s appropriate. The swipe to go back gesture is a great innovation Apple introduced back in iOS 7 and is a thumb-saver on larger phones. Many apps no longer require you to reach up and tap “Back” to go back, you can simply swipe from the left edge of the screen to navigate back one level. Apple also implemented Reachability (double tap the Home button to lower the entire screen temporarily) to help reach interface elements at or near the top of the screen. But for some users, these gestures are simply not enough. The thing they forget is that by opting for a large device they gained a huge, highly readable screen but they also sacrificed some level of UI convenience. iPad users have been dealing with this trade-off for years, that’s the nature of the beast, like it or not.

When I first heard about the rumored existence of the iPhone 6 Plus and its huge screen, I wondered how Apple would reconcile its long-held tenet that one-handed use reigned supreme with that of it’s upcoming larger device. Apple even built an entire marketing campaign around the advantages of smaller iPhones vs their larger Android counterparts. But when the Plus was released, Apple quickly abandoned that philosophy in order to sell millions of 6 and 6 Plus’. Funny how that happened.

The problem with these users is that they often think like the Borg – they want the best of both worlds – larger screens and an interface that lets them use every app one-handed. As someone who designs for the screen, I’m here to tell them that until humans evolve longer thumbs that simply isn’t possible. At some point (iOS 10?) Apple may come up with a completely new interface paradigm for iOS, but in the meantime it’s best if they start dealing with reality. Whether it’s assimilating Starfleet personnel or playing with your apps, sometimes you just need to use two hands.

Four Innovations I love in Gaming

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A lot of times, particularly where technology is concerned, we’re so focused on the future that we forget to enjoy the present. With ridiculously capable laptops, tablets, and smartphones at our disposal, many are looking ahead with hope to Iron Man-style hologram displays. With powerful cars setting new standards for safety and efficiency, we’re seeing advertisements for driverless vehicles. And in gaming, many seem to be turning their focus toward wearable, virtual reality options that will no doubt be widely available in a matter of years—not decades.

That’s all well and good, but as a bit of a gaming nut, I like to focus more on the present and what I can play today. Furthermore, there have been some pretty great innovations—some small, others large—throughout the gaming industry in the past few years. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed in particular.

The Spread Of Open World

Open world gaming is nothing new, but the concept has exploded in popularity over the past couple of years. A decade or two ago, a video game employing an open world format felt unique and special. For example, pretty much the only thing that made Skyrim remarkable (in my opinion) was the sheer size of its world. Well, now it’s just about the standard for action and adventure games. Look through this list of the 12 best open world games, and you’ll find a lot of releases from the past couple of years, such as Far Cry 3 and Grand Theft Auto V. To some extent, the concept has even extended to mobile platforms, with Minecraft Pocket Edition now offering a limitless world creative option!

Narrative Gaming

Narrative gaming is nothing new on the console level, other than that it’s gotten better. Not long ago, it was a common complaint among gamers when a game attempted to be too cinematic in nature, but that’s because it was usually done via interspersed, non-playable graphic clips used to move the story along. This is still a problem in some titles, but generally speaking most now have natural, free-flowing narratives that make them more interesting. Even in sports games, “My Player” and “My Career” modes let you play out the story of an athlete or franchise. The trend toward sharper narratives is also particularly prevalent in app gaming, where indie developers like Simogo focus as much on story as action. In my view, this is a positive trend.

Live Dealing & Interaction

This is a trend that exists primarily in the casino gaming industry. Given that this industry now occupies a significant portion of the video game business as a whole, it still feels noteworthy. Live interaction is nothing new. The best online casino sites allow players to face live competition, and even some of the popular poker and blackjack apps, most of which operate with play money, allow for live online games. But one fascinating trend that I first noticed here is the idea of using an actual video feed of a live dealer in roulette and card games. Naturally, this concept makes the games feel a great deal more realistic. While there’s not an obvious parallel in non-casino gaming, the implications of using a live feed in gaming are interesting. One can imagine in-game video chats with other players, Google Maps feeds of real geographical areas, etc. helping to make other games more realistic.

Retro Appreciation

And finally there’s this, my single favorite trend in modern gaming. As mentioned, we have a tendency to always look forward when it comes to technology. But thanks in large part to new-ish formats of gaming, such as mobile app stores and console download stores, there seems to be a broad recognition of retro games going on. In part, we see it through the continuation of old, beloved franchises, with the most relevant example being the coming Street Fighter V PS4 game from Capcom. But mostly, the retro appreciation is seen in apps and downloads. On modern consoles, players have access to huge libraries of old games, either for free or for just a few dollars. In app stores, we can play with all kinds of old characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog, the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat fighters, and so on. According to ZDNet, we may even soon have a Mario game or two available on iPhones! This is a trend any serious gamer can get behind.

Valar Morghulis – The Return of Game of Thrones

The new season of Game of Thrones premiers on HBO in just 8 days, on April 12th, and I simply cannot wait. Season 4 was my favorite so far and with the introduction of new characters like the Sand Snakes and Alexander Siddig as Prince Doran Martell, I firmly believe season 5 will be even better. I eagerly await catching up with all my favorite characters, visiting new locations and enjoying the memorable iconic phrases highlighted in this wonderful GoT supercut. Winter is coming, my friends!

Barack Speaks at Selma Anniversary

Yesterday, President Obama spoke at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a former Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan) to mark the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. Thousands of people gathered to hear him and others speak to commemorate the occasion the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”. I’m a little ashamed to admit that before I saw the amazing film Selma last month, I didn’t know the specifics of the horrible events that took place there. I now have a better understanding of the history and the depth of the courage it took to cross the bridge that hot, summer day and it has given me an acute appreciation for the President’s stirring words.

You can read the entire transcript of the text online, but simply reading it doesn’t do it justice. Take 30 minutes and watch the video of the President’s remarks, they are some of the most poignant Barack’s ever spoken during his presidency. Some people in this country prefer to think that racism is dead and buried, that we shouldn’t look back in order to move forward. They couldn’t be further from the truth, as the recent events in Ferguson and other places around this nation prove. The President was careful to note that we have indeed made progress, yet there is still much work left to be done.

If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.

His words remind me why I voted for him and why I still believe he’s the best President we’ve had in the past 25 years. He reminds us of where we’ve been, all the better to see the bright, shining future in front of us. After all, without the darkness, there can be no light. Selma’s anniversary is a bright, shining moment when people stood up against hate and brutality and changed this country, indeed the world, for the better. I’m glad I took the time to learn more about it.

Mr. Spock and I

So many wonderful things have already been written about Leonard Nimoy on his passing this week. I’ve been awash in stories about his life, his contributions to our popular culture and his humanity, but I keep coming back to what he’s meant to me these many years.

I could write a book about Leonard’s portrayal of Mr. Spock but I’ve decided to record my thoughts in audio form instead. Just a couple minutes to try and summarize why I loved him so much, on saying goodbye and an amazing, chance encounter I had with Nimoy as a teenager, growing up in New England. This life-long fan will miss him dearly.

One Perfect Shot: Star Trek’s ‘Shore Leave’

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Some of my favorite episodes of classic Star Trek feature plots that venture from science fiction into the realm of the surreal. The series wasn’t afraid to take chances with stories that seemed strange and fantastical, even for Star Trek’s standards. Episodes like The Savage Curtain, Catspaw and Shore Leave all feature elements that, at least initially, can’t possibly make any sense adding an air of other-worldliness that was Star Trek’s hallmark.

When the crew of the Enterprise survey a lush planet in the Omicron Delta region, the place quickly presents itself one of those “strange, new worlds” Kirk highlights in the show’s opening narration. McCoy spies Alice and the Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Sulu finds an ancient Colt revolver and Captain Kirk meets Finnegan, an upperclassman who tormented him endlessly at Starfleet Academy and a long lost love named Ruth. Both people from Kirk’s past can’t possibly be on this planet far from Earth, yet here they are in all their nostalgic glory.

Things get even more bizarre for the landing party when Don Juan shows up and Doctor McCoy is seemingly killed by a dark knight on horseback. The crew eventually discovers the entire planet was constructed so that its creators could come and visit and live out any fantasy they choose simply by thinking about it. One of the planet’s caretakers appears at the conclusion of act IV (accompanied by an alive and well McCoy) and suggests that with the proper precautions, their playground planet could just be what the exhausted Enterprise crew needs to relax.

I love many aspects of Shore Leave, especially how this episode set the stage for the creation of the holo-deck in Star Trek: The Next Generation – a place where you could go and magically experience anything you wished in an instant. The playground planet featured prominently in another episode of Star Trek: The Animated SeriesOnce Upon A Planet, and as you might expect, the crew encounters difficulties then as well.

Our one perfect shot from Shore Leave comes just as Kirk discovers his old adversary, Finnegan, leaning boyishly against a tree. The fantastic nature of his appearance, how director Robert Sparr decided to present him to the audience is wonderful. I always wished we had learned more about Finnegan, perhaps in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, but alas, that never materialized.

Next time Spock gets his first taste of command under extreme circumstances in “Galileo Seven”.

Check out the entire series of perfect Star Trek shots to date.

TV I’m Enjoying Right Now

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MINOR SPOILER WARNING: I don’t talk about specific plot points for these TV shows in this post, but I do outline them in general. As with all of my posts about TV & movies, if you’d rather not be spoiled about ANYTHING, you probably shouldn’t read on.

It’s not a stretch to say the US television landscape is currently experiencing a golden age. Everywhere you look there are quality TV shows to be enjoyed. As television and those who create it have branched out beyond the major networks to cable, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, competition for viewers has increased dramatically. If the current state of television is any indication, the best way to attract those millions of viewers is with high-quality series that can be consumed any time and anywhere.

There’s so much good TV in fact, that it’s pretty much impossible to watch it all so I thought I might share just four of the great shows I’ve been enjoying lately, why I love them and where you can catch them.

Arrow

I had heard so much about the CW’s show Arrow, based on the superhero from DC Comics, that I finally just had to check it out. The series follows spoiled billionaire playboy Oliver Queen who, at the start of the show, is missing and presumed dead when his yacht is lost at sea. He returns to his home in Starling City five years later a changed man, determined to clean up Starling as a green-hooded vigilante armed with a bow.

Arrow follows in the footsteps of prior super hero efforts like The WB’s Smallville and although it takes about 10-12 episodes to really find its footing, once it does, it really gets going. By the end of season 1, Arrow is a solid mix of action, gritty drama, geeky comic book fun and more. Stephen Amell plays the lead, Oliver Queen, and thankfully his acting chops have improved considerably since the start of the series. Ollie goes from a spoiled brat who has little emotional range to a complex character we care deeply about.

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Arrow also has a great ensemble cast including stand outs David Ramsey as John Diggle and Emily Bett Rickards as Ollie’s geeky, computer expert Felicity Smoak. The writers really start to ratchet up the story arc and drama near the end of S2 which culminates in some seriously great TV. Arrow also sets up the backstory for crossovers with another CW property I’ve started watching – The Flash. The two shows take place in the same universe so I’m looking forward to seeing how these two heroes interact in Flash S1 and Arrow S3.

Arrow is a great deal of fun and seems to be building its own personal mythos. As someone who’s knowledge of the DC character Green Arrow came solely from cartoon episodes of the Super Friends, it’s been wonderful learning about Oliver’s origins, his personal mission and his relationships with his friends in Starling City. Arrow also features other costumed heroes and villains I’ve often heard about but never seen on screen until now. The first two seasons of Arrow are both on Netflix streaming, the third season is currently airing on the CW but is also available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

M*A*S*H

For many of you reading this, M*A*S*H is most likely before your time. The show followed a company of army doctors and nurses as they work only a few miles from the Korean War front to save wounded soldiers. Based largely on stories and accounts from actual MASH doctors, the series premiered on CBS on September 17, 1972, and ended 11 seasons later in February of 1983. It was one of the highest-rated television shows ever and its final episode “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” is still the most-watched episode of television in history with a record-breaking 106 million viewers.

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As soon as I heard Netflix streaming picked up the first 5 seasons of M*A*S*H, I instantly added it to my queue. I remember growing up on the show and loved watching the antics of surgeon Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda, BJ, Radar, Potter and the rest of the cast week after week.

If you’re new to M*A*S*H, the first 3 seasons are pretty slapstick and based more on the comedic formula of the 1970 feature film than what would follow. Several of the main characters decided to leave after season 3 including McClean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake and Wayne Rogers as Trapper John. When they left, the writers (and the actors) who replaced them made a conscious decision to set the new characters apart from the old and the show started taking on more dramatic depth.

Re-watching a classic series like M*A*S*H on Netflix is great because you eventually come upon episodes you’ve never seen before in syndication. Finding them is like unearthing gold, dramatic and comedic nuggets to savor and treasure. I already count watching at least 4 episodes of M*A*S*H I’ve never seen which is remarkable since I was sure I had already seen them all.

A situation comedy like M*A*S*H pre-dates the long-story filled arcs that are common among today’s popular shows, but it more than makes up for it in heart and touching character interactions. I always enjoyed seeing how these brave group of men and women clown, scrounge and save lives in the midst of war. There are great episodes in M*A*S*H that will make you howl with laughter as well as cry like a baby. The key is giving the audience the kinds of characters we care about and can relate to. When the show ended, none of us (myself included) wanted to see them go. Re-watching the series now, it’s very clear why.

House of Cards

For some TV goers, House of Cards may be an acquired taste. The award-winning series from Netflix returns for season 3 on February 27th and fans of the show have been anticipating it’s arrival like an overdue subway train. I got hooked on House of Cards after only a few episodes, largely due to the fantastic performances of the two leads, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Frank and Clarie Underwood.

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The show features the dark side of Washington politics and the lengths some will go to to seize and hold power. It’s a tight, well-written dramatic series that features some impressive twists and turns and enough political intrigue to keep fans consistently on the edge of their seat week after week.

Unlike Arrow or M*A*S*H, the entire House of Cards run is available for streaming, but only from Netflix. Indeed, House of Cards (and other Netflix series like Orange is the New Black) helped bring the term “binge-watching” into today’s lexicon. Thanks to how the internet is changing the way we watch TV, viewers can now experience the entire 10 ep season of House of Cards in a single sitting. Personally, I like to savor my television, so I usually skip a few days in-between episodes, but your milage may vary.

If you enjoy tense, political maneuvering, well-crafted, realistic characters or just plain good storytelling, House of Cards may be for you. Those who love the show, love it dearly and with good reason. Spacey, Wright and the entire cast is top-notch, the writing is clever and production values (especially the music) are as good or better than any show on network or cable TV. The cliffhangers from S2 have paved the way for what’s yet to come and I can’t wait until Frank finally gets back to breaking the 4th wall once again.

Archer

Yes, Archer is a cartoon, and yes, that sometimes means it can be childish and silly but for my money it’s also one of the funniest shows on television. Archer is the brainchild of its creator, Adam Reed, developed for the FX network and follows the exploits of Sterling Archer, master spy and anti-hero. The series premiered in 2009 and features adult humor and dark, sometimes vulgar comedy but that’s really part of what makes Archer so great.

Archer and his co-workers at the organization formerly known as Isis, are a rag-tag bunch of misfits who tout themselves as being skilled in covert surveillance. In reality, the team often causes more harm than they prevent, going from one international incident to the next, toppling governments, trying to overthrow drug lords and even protecting the Pope from assassination attempts.

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Archer is at his best when he’s facing off against any number of arch-villian spies the series has introduced over it’s 5-season run on FX. I especially love Sterling’s bionic rival, Barry Dylan, who has made Archer’s life a living hell on more than one occasion. Barry showed up again this season, as did a number of other recurring characters which has helped to make season 5 more memorable than the previous “Archer Vice” season 4.

The series features the amazing voice talents of H. Jon Benjamin as Archer, Aisha Tyler as Lana and former SNL cast member Chris Parnell who puts in a hilarious performance as accountant Cyril Figgis. The cast makes an annual appearance at Comicon and often does live episode readings, dishes on their fellow cast members and answer fan questions. I also love the visual style of Archer including the “sets” and the design of the characters themselves, many of whom are patterned on their real-life counterparts.

If you like off-beat comedy combined with a touch of adult humor and fantasy thrown in for good measure, you’ll want to check out Archer on FX. One of the best parts of an animated series is that the characters and show format generally don’t change. When it comes to Sterling and company, that’s just fine with me, they’re hilarious just the way they are.

Honorable Mentions

Other shows I’m currently enjoying or looking forward to returning include Marvel’s Agent Carter & Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Flash, Big Giant Swords on the Discovery Channel (yes, and it’s awesome!), Face Off, Better Call Saul and WWII in HD on Netflix.

Everywhere you turn there’s just too much good TV to absorb it all. I hope this quick rundown helps give a glimpse into the kinds of TV I love to watch. Maybe there’s something here that appeals to you as well, enjoy!

Managing Movie Expectations

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One of the problems of living in the age of social media and hyper-connectivity is that it’s become quite difficult for me to manage my expectations of TV and movies. The longer I go before I decide to buy a ticket to a new film or commit myself to watching a new television show, the more I find the opinions of those I follow on Twitter or Facebook color my opinions of it when I finally do experience it. Try as I might, it’s nearly impossible to keep my own expectations in check when the people who’s opinions I value the most tell me “It’s the best movie of the year!” or “OMG, that was a stinker!”

I resisted seeing the mega-hit Frozen for months after its release, but the hype surrounding the film simply became so great that when I finally bought it on iTunes and watched it, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Here was a different kind of fairy tale with no central love story to speak of and a landmark song that everyone and their dog was making parodies of, but I must have missed something because I just didn’t find Frozen that fabulous. Similar experiences happened when I got to the theatre to see PIXAR’s Brave and just recently with Disney’s Big Hero 6.

I’ve been hearing for months how awesome Big Hero 6 was and truth be told, it’s a pretty good film. It’s full of heart and off-beat characters, but for all the raving I’ve seen on Twitter and the internet about it, I just didn’t go ga-ga. The story is one we’ve been told a thousand times and it’s obvious appeal to the base instinct kids have of controlling giant robots and becoming super-heroes turned me off. I also don’t personally think it’s a better animated film than The LEGO Movie which got passed over for Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon: 2 by the Academy Awards, and that is a true shame. I also don’t have kids of my own, so I think it’s fair to say many parents watch and rate these types of movies through the eyes of their children, which makes total sense.

It’s gotten to the point where I purposefully try to convince myself a movie will be bad so I’ll be pleasantly surprised when it’s not. This probably sounds silly, but most of the time it works. When the re-booted Robocop came out in theaters, I knew it couldn’t stack up to the original and convinced myself I was wasting my money going to see it. Turned out that was the right mindset because I came out of the theatre happy. Not for what the movie was but for what it wasn’t – a complete and utter train wreck.

Television shows are a bit of a different beast thankfully and my opinion of them changes and varies over long stretches of time as I watch them. Everyone was telling me that the CW’s superhero series Arrow was one of the best shows on TV, but honestly much of the first season is merely meh. I stuck with it however, and I’m glad I did because the series quickly picked up steam and has become a personal favorite of mine. Season 2 truly is great and I definitely agree with what my friends from Twitter were telling me all along. If you’ve not checked out Arrow on Netflix, give it a go, it’s pretty great.

In the end, the only person who decides if you like a particular movie or television show is you. The opinions of critics, the general public and even your close friends can only hold so much weight. The trick is learning to balance the overwhelming scale of today’s social media with those of your own likes and dislikes. There’s absolutely no question that our personal expectations color our movie and TV going expreiences. I think the trick is to recognize that fact and try and not let it stand in the way of keeping an open mind and having a good time. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself :-/

The TARDIS Takes a New Trip

I love it when fans make awesome contributions to the shows they admire. I also love that technology has reached a point where anyone, with enough skill and the right hardware, can create special effects sequences that rival the series’ actual production quality. Enter this unique, fan-created dematerialization sequence for the BBC’s Doctor Who. I’ve watched it half a dozen times already and I love it to death.

Back before series 8 aired, another fan posted his take on the iconic opening credits for the show that featured elements like spinning gears and clock faces. He did such a wonderful job of it, the producers adapted his creation into the official title sequence for Doctor Who starring Peter Capalidi. It’s wonderful when show runners treat the love of their fans as an asset to be nurtured instead of a threat to their intellectual property. So who knows, perhaps we’ll see a sequence like the one here in a future episode as the Doctor and his companion make their way across time and space.

Star Trek: Next Gen Wallpapers for iPad

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A few months ago I released several iPhone wallpapers that Star Trek fans have really been enjoying. The response to these LCARS-style graphics was tremendous and almost immediately I started receiving requests for iPad versions of them. The problem was there’s no way to design a square LCARS wallpaper that works both in portrait and landscape mode on the iPad. All of the major elements on-screen (the time, date, slide to unlock & camera icon) are positioned differently when you rotate your device.

A big part of the charm of the iPhone LCARS wallpapers is that the iOS elements flow right into the design and become part of it, but this just isn’t possible to do with a single image for iPad. The solution was to not even try and to design separate wallpapers that can be used in either landscape or portrait, not both. The result is the landscape Next Gen iPad versions I’ve created here. I may create portrait versions at some point, but the majority of iPad owners use the device in landscape mode primarily so that’s what I went with.

I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek Production Designer, Michael Okuda since day one and like the iPhone versions, this project is my ongoing way of saying “Thank you!” for the wonderful, futuristic operating system that Next Gen fans know and love as LCARS. With these new iPad versions, you can definitely feel like you’re using a real Next Gen PADD when you unlock your tablet, it’s super fun!

How to download and apply the wallpapers on iOS 8:

1) Click to view the version of the iPad wallpaper you like best:

• iPad landscape – Original / TNG Colors
• iPad landscape (Starship Schematic) – Original / TNG Colors

2) Tap & hold on the image in mobile Safari & save it to your photo library

3) Open Photos, view the image then tap the Share button in the lower left

4) In the Share menu tap Use as Wallpaper

5) Pinch Zoom OUT on the image to size it exactly to the screen

6) Turn Perspective Zoom OFF

7) Position the image so the Lock Screen’s date line is centered inside the thinner, red upper bar

8) Tap Set > Set Lock Screen

That’s it! Sleep/lock your iPad and the next time you activate it, you can pretend you’re Captain Picard himself receiving an important message from Starfeet Command. I hope you enjoy this fun treat & help spread the word via Twitter and Facebook.

Be sure to visit my Goodies page to download other fun desktop wallpapers for iPhone, iPad & Mac. Engage and enjoy!

I’ll Miss You, Jon Stewart

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Like so many good things in life, we often take stuff for granted until we lose it. When someone’s been on TV as long as Jon Stewart has, you tend to think of him as always being there. So when the news broke on Twitter today that Stewart will be hanging up his fake news hat later this year as the host of The Daily Show, it almost didn’t seem real. I’m too young to really remember Johnny Carson’s 30+ year run on The Tonight Show, but I imagine our parents must have felt something like this when Carson finally decided to retire.

Sixteen years is a long time to host any show however and I can understand if Jon wants to take a break from the endless pressure of making fun of the 24-hour news cycle. Add to the fact the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign season is fast approaching and one can start to understand the timing behind Stewart’s decision. That said, it’s been a tough year for fans of late night comedy. Between Stephen Colbert leaving his series and heading to The Late Show on CBS and now Jon Stewart leaving the fray, where will I get my award-winning fake news from? If Jon Oliver didn’t already have enough to live up, now he’s got even bigger shoes to fill.

For my money, Stewart was at his best when he was wasn’t laughing. I relished those TV appearances like his watershed 2006 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, where he raised the level of discourse about the state of politics in the media. He’s always cast a critical eye towards media and political figures who talk much but whom say very little. His epic stints with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly come to mind as the two would take jabs at each other from their respective, televised desks. His first ‘Daily Show’ broadcast after the attacks of 9/11 was one that I’ll never forget, and put into words what so many of us were feeling in the days after the tragedy.

For all his jokes and satire, Jon often contributed more to our understanding of the day-to-day issues facing us as a nation than many of his “real world” counterparts did. For that, and his genuine desire to try and stop the cable TV shouting matches we’ve all had to endlessly endure, I will dearly miss him. Here’s hoping his voice continues to be heard, if not on Comedy Central, then in some other fashion. We could all do a lot worse than Jon Stewart.

One Perfect Shot: Star Trek’s ‘The Balance of Terror’

The crew of the Enterprise gets their historic first look at the enigmatic Romulans as Kirk is called to defend a string of Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. A mysterious ship that seems to posses the power of invisibility has been staging sneak attacks and it’s up to Starfleet’s finest to track it down and destroy her before the Romulans start an all-out war.

The Balance of Terror is notable for a number of reasons, but my favorite is that it introduces us to actor Mark Leonard as the Romulan Commander. Star Trek fans will of course know that Leonard went on to play Spock’s father, Sarek in ‘The Journey to Babel’ as well as in a number of other episodes of Next Generation and the movies. Our one perfect shot comes during the stealthy deep space battle between the Romulan Bird of Prey and the Enterprise. The battle itself was patterned after popular on-screen WWII U-Boat conflicts made famous in such films as 1958′s Run Silent, Run Deep.

I just love the look on the Romulan Commander’s face as he realizes he’s finally met his match in Captain James T. Kirk. The two Captains circle and spar like caged tigers, employing every maneuver and trick in the book to try and best each other and the result is one of fans’ top-rated Original Series episodes. The Romulans would return time and time again in episodes like ‘The Enterprise Incident’, but for my money, their first appearance was also their best.

Next time the crew of the Enterprise takes a holiday and gets much more than they bargained for in ‘Shore Leave‘.

Check out the entire series of perfect Star Trek shots to date.