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Month: July 2001

I got up this morning and was reading Seattle Weekly’s restaurant reviews when I suddenly remembered: there is a Mexican restaurant in town with the largest burritos in the world. I hadn’t been there in ages. I barreled upstairs and found my housemates Scott and Jane in the living room watching my DVD of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, a marvelous film. Nonetheless, the huge burritos were calling. I herded them outside and we tore across town.

The place is called Gorditos, and it’s nominally a healthy-food Mexican restaurant. I’m not sure what’s healthy about serving a burrito the size of a fireplace log, but it is tasty as all heck. The owners make a half-dozen different salsas from scratch, all different and delicious, and the tortilla chips are fresh as well.

When I say this burrito is the size of a fireplace log, I’m only exaggerating slightly–it’s the size of a fireplace log split down the middle, lengthwise. It’s huge–over a foot long and bulky. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it for yourself. We left with ample leftovers.

Next up was Daniel & Heather’s house, where the delayed photo shoot happened. But first Daniel showed me excerpts from a film he got last night, some bizarro Japanese samurai action comedy about a golden sword and a warrior who had his own sword caddy (“Hand me number 6!” he’d cry in the heat of battle).

The photo shoot was brief and went well. Once more I put on some kind of cape, held a rake, and stood in the backyard pointing at things that weren’t there. I posed as Nodens for one painting, as I’d mentioned in an earlier dispatch, but I also got to pose as Great Cthulhu himself for another work Heather is also doing for the Call of Cthulhu D20 book. That was pretty special–two gods in one day!

Then it was time to go home, groan over my lunch, and watch a movie…

Destroying America

This is a skateboard video of all things. For some years now, individuals and small companies that are involved in skateboards commercially have been making low-budget videos showing guys doing their tricks. They’ve also served to chronicle skating exhibition tours and other special events, and moved into narratives to some extent. Destroying America is a pretty amazing flick. I’m not into skateboarding at all, but this film gets the big thumbs up. The actual skateboarding content is pretty low. Instead, it’s a real American Guy kind of movie–the sort of flick that any random american male would probably make if he had some money and a camera. The film loosely follows two skateboard guys driving around in their incredibly beat-up van, wreaking merry havoc on the landscape. They are opposed by an enthusiastic cop played by Erik Estrada of the CHIPS television series. In the opening sequence one of the guys, who has an unhealthy interest in Asian pornography, gets his ass kicked repeatedly by a Japanese schoolgirl who knows tae kwon do. Then he and his buddy catch on fire and are rescued by two porn actresses driving an ambulance. They drive through a Christmas Tree sale lot, wrecking everything, and do the same at an outdoor taco place. Erik Estrada pulls them over and gives them a stern talking-to. Some impressive skateboarding occurs, often involving things on fire. At the end, Estrada’s cop car sails off the roof of a building and explodes as it plunges to the concrete. And really, I’m only scratching the surface. The film is goofy fun from start to finish and chock full of outrageous stunts and silly stuff: Estrada loads up on donuts while the skaters roll over his car, the boys drive their half-wrecked van into Yellowstone Park and ram it into trees, pro skater Tony Hawk makes a cameo as a pizza delivery driver, and in scene after scene our havoc-wreaking guys smoke cigars and drink forty-ouncers of Budweiser. Really, there’s nothing wrong with this film and lots to recommend. Find a copy and see for yourself.

After watching this crazy flick I had work to do for a few hours. And, sadly enough, I finished playing that Star Trek computer game. Lots of stuff blew up real good. Speaking of which, I came home and checked out the second film of the day…

Akira

This is the new special edition DVD of the classic Japanese animated film. First off, if you like this movie then you need to get this disc. (I didn’t get the extra-pricey two-disc set.) The film looks and sounds incredible, and is easily worth the eighteen bucks or so it costs. If you haven’t seen the film, Akira is a sci-fi action flick set in 2020 or so in Neo-Tokyo, the new capital of Japan after a world war nukes the original city. The film marries incredible Blade Runner-inspired cityscapes with motorcycle gang action, riots, a military coup, and psychic warfare. It’s an amazing visual achievement, one of the last great pre-CG animated films, with a realistic style that’s a real departure from most anime works. The film’s hard, violent edge and ambitiously conceived storyline make it a great grown-up adventure film, with a stylishness that hasn’t been equaled and a scope both epic and dense. Watching it again for the first time in several years I was struck by how good the editing is in the film–there are a number of places where the creator/director, Katsuhiro Otomo, cuts away at just the right moment within a scene. It’s very well made. The soundtrack is also amazing.

And that’s a wrap…

Ugh. A day mostly full of work. Heather had to delay the photo shoot until Sunday, though we did get breakfast at a coffeehouse and caught up on our various projects. At my studio I got to work on doing a color brochure sort of thing for Mike Daisey, part of the promotional effort his new theatrical producer is assembling in anticipation of taking 21 Dog Years on the road. Mike and I also finalized plans for the overhaul of his website, www.mikedaisey.com, which I administer. I picked up Pagan’s GenCon signage, which turned out great–large color blowups of various book covers. Really sweet. When I took them home, Scott and his girlfriend Jane were duly thrilled.

I got dinner at Teriyaki Time, a place near my studio. Since I rented this workspace I’ve been trying different restaurants in this neighborhood, as it’s not a part of town I’ve spent any time in. The results have been pretty uneven. But Teriyaki Time–“Best Teriyaki in Towm!” says the menu, for some odd reason–has proved to be just fine. Besides teriyaki they do a few other eat-it-and-beat-it dishes; tonight I tried the yakisoba, which was tasty. In Seattle, teriyaki is a commodity food, like fast-food burgers. Location is most important, followed by price, followed by quality. Teriyaki tends to be pretty similar from restaurant to restaurant, unless it’s just flat-out bad. These guys do decent stuff. The family that runs the place is Korean; I’m eating there so often I recognize them all now when I walk in.

Late tonight after I finished working I installed and played a new computer game that I bought yesterday. Embarrassingly enough, it’s called STAR TREK: VOYAGER – ELITE FORCE. The Voyager television show sucked so hard it’s like it was drowning and it thought my balls were full of air; I don’t think I watched more than a couple episodes all the way through during its whole run. But the other night Mitch cited it as a really well-done game, and it was only twenty bucks. Mitch was right. The designers did a very nice job giving it the feel of a Star Trek style story, even though it’s a first-person shooter game in the vein of DOOM and UNREAL. The whole opening sequence is a big action thing where you fight the Borg; at the end of it you learn you’re just on the holodeck in a training routine. Then something attacks the ship, and the opening credits roll–that whole first chunk was the equivalent of the pre-credits teaser sequence on an episode of any Star Trek show. Pretty nifty. I played it for a couple hours and was impressed at how good an adaptation it was–which I suppose means it should suck, but it doesn’t. Oh well.

I suspect I won’t play it again. The last few times I’ve bought a computer game, I’ve only played it for one session–long enough to get a feel for it, see what it’s all about, and then that’s it. Yesterday I remembered that I bought a game a few weeks ago that I haven’t played since the day I installed it; I’d forgotten all about the darn thing.

Today in my workspace building, I found a small packet of pot lying on the floor by one of the entrances. I saw this tiny little ziploc bag with green stuff inside and thought, “Hey, I bet that’s pot!” Sure enough. An odd thing to find lying around, but kind of funny. I’m giving it to a friend of mine; the stuff just puts me to sleep. I doubt anyone is going to go to the building manager and ask, “Has anybody turned in any pot recently?” so it might as well go where it’s wanted.

Gods. What a boring day. I shouldn’t write about days like this. Just very routine…

And as usual, I’ll sign off by saying it’s late and time for bed.

Busy busy. Next week is the GenCon game convention, and I’m getting various Pagan Publishing projects ready. We don’t have any new products ready for the show unfortunately, although the new printing of our book DELTA GREEN: COUNTDOWN will be there. But I’ve been getting signage ready for our booth and preparing a preview copy of the roleplaying game GODLIKE together for people to browse through. The game is produced by Pagan but it’s being published by our friends at a new company here in Seattle called Hawthorn Hobgoblynn. They’ve got two projects almost ready for press–GODLIKE and a stand-alone western horror scenario called VALLEY OF SHADOW–that I’m doing layout duties on.

I’ve been going to GenCon since 1988. The third time I went there, in 1990, was quite an ordeal. I’d failed to save any real money for the show, so I couldn’t afford a hotel room. I borrowed my parents’ minivan and made the drive north. I stayed the night in St. Louis with a friend of mine from college, and that evening we went to pick up a buddy of his who was just getting off work at a gas station. While he was closing up, he encouraged us to just take whatever we wanted. So I loaded up on beef jerky, cheese & crackers, and other convenience-store staples, and that was mostly what I ate during the convention. I had an air mattress in the back of the minivan, so I just left the van in a parking garage and slept there each night. In the mornings I’d get up early and take a vague sort of bath using the sink in the parking garage restroom, determined not to be another stinking unwashed gamer drone. I guess I mostly succeeded.

Tonight I bought a new laser printer for my studio. It’s a Samsung ML-1210, and was only two hundred bucks–crazy cheap for a laser printer. I started looking for it around six o’clock, by which time the usual computer stores were closed. I tried calling a CompUSA store located in a suburb hell strip mall, but their ludicrous phone system prevented me from actually talking to anyone who worked there. Finally I went to their web site and was able to do an inventory lookup there, and they had the printer in stock. At the store, it took a while to find the damn thing. It’s so new they didn’t even have any out on display. But I located a half-dozen of them under a counter, without any prices or signage, and hauled one up to the front. If I’d asked somebody they probably wouldn’t have known what I was talking about.

Afterwards I met my friend Rob Heinsoo at a coffeehouse for a couple hours. Rob and I worked together at Daedalus Entertainment a few years ago, plugging away at the FENG SHUI and SHADOWFIST games we published there. Today Rob works for my alma mater, Wizards of the Coast. He did some great writing work on the new FORGOTTEN REALMS book and now splits his time between the CHAINMAIL miniatures game and a soccer CCG WotC is doing for release in Europe. Rob has been working for a couple years now on an amazing book called TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE. The book is divided into topical chapters, such as “Trucks” or “Marriage” or “Sports”. Each chapter contains three anecdotal stories related to the topic, two of which really happened and one of which he made up. At no point in the book are the lies revealed; the entire book exists in a Schroedinger-like field of uncertainty. Rob is a fantastic storyteller, and has lived such a strange and interesting life–or has spent sufficient time around people who are doing just that, which usually ends up being the same thing–that he has a vast reservoir of weird and often savage stories. The pacific northwest produces a lot of such people and stories, owing to the wilderness, the mysterious spaces between towns, and the rural, if not tribal, customs of its inhabitants.

The previous night I was out with my friend Mitch Gitelman. Mitch is a great guy with an amazing knowledge of pornography; he can rattle off directors, stars, and genres with joyful ease. At present he’s working for Microsoft, where he just shipped the new computer game MECHCOMMANDER 2. He was the project leader or manager or some darn thing. I’m doing a lot of writing for another game studio at Microsoft, a group that used to be a company called Bungie Studios. The game I’m working on is for the new X-Box system and isn’t coming out until the fall of 2002. Mitch has been a real help in learning the ropes of computer gaming, and last night we had a great conversation about what makes a good game. His belief is that the most successful games are those where the players feel a real sense of ownership of the story and characters. Games that just plug you into the game designer’s story aren’t as successful as those where you get to enter the story in your own way, with your own character. It’s a good lesson in humility, and in placing the needs of the player before those of the game designer.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to be posing for reference photos for my friend Heather, a freelance artist. For several years now Heather has recruited me to pose in various awkward situations, usually wearing a cape and a sword since she does a lot of paintings for the MAGIC: THE GATHERING card game. She takes photographs of these poses and then uses them as reference in her work. If you put a bunch of Heather’s M:TG cards together, you’re almost certain to see me again and again–though often rendered as an ogre or what have you. For my thirtieth birthday, she made a big poster by taping together dozens of these photographs, ringed by the cards they were posed for. It’s an amazingly silly thing–endless pictures of me scowling, crawling, swinging swords, looking mage-like, or swooning from a mortal wound. Naturally, my mom and my girlfriend think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Tomorrow I’m going to be Nodens, for a painting Heather is doing for the CALL OF CTHULHU D20 project that Wizards of the Coast is publishing. I don’t get to be a god very often. The hardest part of this posing stuff is keeping some physically awkward or even painful pose while she adjusts the camera and lights and snaps photos, since these images are often action shots of a character in motion that require me to hold a sort of freeze frame in the midst of dramatic action. Still, it’s fun. It’s even more fun to look at all this art she’s done over the years and see my hands, my face, etc., in situations that I have no business being in. Usually involving elves.

And now, thank God, it’s bedtime.

I went to visit my friend Jesper in Snohomish tonight. He made Pina Coladas and we checked out two films…

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair

A 1969 Soviet fairy tale, full of humor and with bizarro technicolor production design that occupies the no-man’s-land between The Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. A foolish tzar loses his son to an underwater troll, and tries the old baby-swapping gag to save his kid. Hilarity ensues. This is one of the unwittingly strangest films I’ve ever seen, and has superb camp value. Lots of stunning visuals–stunning both in that they’re very imaginative but also because they’re so frequently ugly and strange. It’s almost visual sadism, though that was clearly not the intention. The not-so-subtle message delivered in the film’s ending is pretty funny as a piece of Soviet kitsch: the tzar’s family are ugly, corrupt buffoons, but the big-hearted, good-looking peasants triumph. As Jesper said, “Red-armed simple folk save the day!”

Gen-X Cops

Hong Kong action flick produced by Jackie Chan. Three slacker police cadet washouts are recruited by an unpopular detective to investigate gang warfare. Very Mod Squad. Lots of gunplay and some good stunt scenes, with the precision and grace you’d expect from Jackie’s stunt team. The plot is nonsense, but it’s decent fun and has a couple of great insults far too crude to print here. Followed by a sequel, Gen-Y Cops, that I haven’t seen. A lot more gunplay by the heroes than I’m used to seeing Jackie do himself. It felt a bit like an attempt to marry Jackie-style stuntwork with John Woo-style gun fu.

Today I bought a copy of John Fante’s 1930s novel ASK THE DUST, about which I’ve heard a fair amount. If you’ve read my most recent movie reviews, you may remember that I saw a film that I thought was an adapation of a Fante novel but proved to be a documentary. When I found the book in a store today, I read the opening paragraph and was completely hooked. I’ve only read a few pages now but man, this guy could write to beat the band. Joe-Bob says check it out.

Today’s movie review is…

Go

I’ve reviewed this film before, but bought a copy today on DVD ‘cuz I always liked it. It’s a really great piece of work. I’ve grown a little suspicious of overemphasizing dialogue in film, since I’ve seen how actors can get across the meaning of a scene without saying it out loud. But if you’re going to go verbal, do it as well as Go does–great dialogue, funny bits everywhere, and a really solid, front-and-center shooting style that gives you a real feeling of presence in the story. Excellent performances throughout, as well.

A couple months back I rented a small studio to work in and moved my whole computer set-up there. It’s been really great to have a separate place to go to get my stuff done. I come home in the evenings and they’re just evenings, time to play. For years I’ve spent a lot of my evenings sitting in front of the computer, either working or just screwing around until early in the morning. In fact, I’ve had a computer in my bedroom since I was in the fifth grade. It isn’t just a nice change–it’s a major change in the way I’ve spent more than half my life. And I’m liking it quite a bit.

Today I put a deposit down on a larger studio in the same building. Sometime in the next couple weeks I’ll be able to paint it and move in. It’s a brand new building, and this studio I’m moving my set-up into hasn’t even been rented before–the plasterboard is still unpainted. It’s more than twice as big as my current one, with three windows and plenty of room. It’s the kind of space I’ve been dreaming of for a while, and finally I can make it happen. For this reason and many others, 2001 is shaping up to be the best year of my life–just as 2000 and 1999 were in their time. These are remarkable days.

I bought the DVD box set of THE PRISONER from Amazon UK and am enjoying watching this series again. It’s aged far better than its contemporaries–the original STAR TREK and so forth. In particular, the style is still far bolder in some ways than even stylistically limit-pushing stuff like HOMICIDE. The opening scenes of “Arrival” are amazing–really bold camera moves and edits, as well as the sharp, angular physical action of McGoohan in the title role. The combination is incredibly aggressive and striking. And if anything, the premise and the edge of surrealism plays more modern today than it did then. THE PRISONER has aged remarkably well. If you haven’t seen it in years, it’s well worth a reappraisal.

Well, time for the movie reviews…

Conan the Barbarian

This is the new DVD release, which restores about 8 or 9 minutes of scenes cut from the original version. It’s better than I remembered, though still hampered by bad acting from the principals. Nonetheless, the film is interesting. There are long stretches without dialogue, where the story is driven by action and music. It gives the film a thoughtfully epic quality and works very well. The accompanying documentary is excellent. The commentary track by director John Milius and good old Arnold is a waste of time, however. The best tidbits appear in the documentary, and mostly what you get is Arnold displaying an embarrassing lack of familiarity with the film; he clearly hadn’t watched it in many years, and most of his comments consist of him describing what we’re watching in a slightly surprised tone of voice. (“Oh, here is where I fight the snake!”) He’s often wrong, as well, exclaiming that a certain sequence is starting when in fact it’s still later in the film. All told, he comes off like a boob and it’s pretty unfortunate.

The 13th Warrior

I really enjoyed this film, and it’s certainly superior to Conan. I’ve reviewed it before, so I’ll just note that it’s a beautifully shot and acted piece of work. I wish it had been more successful, enough so to warrant a better presentation on DVD. The film went through lengthy delays in post-production as it was cut and recut to please various people involved in the production, and there is still the feeling that chunks are missing. Were the film more popular we might see an expanded version, or at least a discussion of what changed. But as it did poorly and seems to have made little impact, this may be all we ever see about this enjoyable adventure film.

Tonight I took my friends Mike and Jean-Michele Daisey to the airport, as they’re heading off to New York again after attending a family wedding. Mike is working away on his book for the Free Press, based on his experiences at Amazon.com that also formed the basis for his successful stage show here in Seattle earlier this year. Our various endeavors are looking good. It appears likely that we’ll get funding for a series of short-short films featuring Mike in various comedic bits, which we’d produce late this year. I’m working on a redesign of his web site (www.mikedaisey.com) to bring it up to snuff. And in a very silly and happy bit of news, I’ve learned that the publisher wants to use one of my photographs on the cover of the book. It’s the photo of Mike with a dog bone in his mouth, which we’ve used as a sort of branding image on his web site, show posters, and other documents from the start. I hope this works out, as I suspect the book is going to do very well and it’ll be fun to see my photograph on all those covers. But time will tell. According to Mike, life in Brooklyn is good and there’s goat stew available everywhere. I can’t quite reconcile those two statements, but there we go.

Orange alert! Orange alert!

Assorted and sundry…

Performed a wedding today for a very nice couple, Frank and Bonnie, who are friends of a friend of a friend. Never met them before. They’ve been together 26 years and decided oh what the hell, let’s make it legal. Their twentysomething son was one of the witnesses. No ceremony, just paperwork and a couple hours shooting the breeze. Frank is a sculptor and he gave me a swell dragon’s-claw-gripping-a-skull trinket, which is now attached to my keychain. Bonnie gave me a sack full of blooming, fresh-cut, full-potency catnip. I took this home and tripped out my cats.

Tonight I saw two movies. I’m going to begin doing my movie reviews here in the dispatches, and then collect them into essay entries now and then. I have some catching up to do, but I’ll start with the latest pair.

Kiss of the Dragon

Jet Li actioner co-written by Luc Besson. The Paris locations are beautiful, and Jet Li is terrific throughout. Bridget Fonda is annoying, and her scenes are interminable. The fu is not world-class, but the action scenes as western-style action scenes are really quite good. This film is in dire need of a Phantom Edit–with Fonda’s scenes chopped, it’d be a great hour-long film. Tcheky Kvaro or however you spell his name plays the role of Gary Oldman from Besson’s Leon/The Professional, and there’s a nice revisit to the explosive-dumb-waiter sequence from Besson’s La Femme Nikita. The final shot is a curious moment where Li looks away from the exultant Fonda and stares somewhat intensely off-screen; I can only assume he’s looking forward to his next film and away from this one.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Pay for one movie, sneak into another is my rule. Renee Zellweger is terrific in this romantic comedy, as is Hugh Grant as a heel. Great fun through and through, actually, and it certainly beats the twenty minutes of the new Julia Roberts flick America’s Sweethearts that I snuck into before this. Lots of funny business, a fun character, and strong performances. Her wacky carload of friends was far less annoying here than the similar wacky carload of friends in Notting Hill, speaking of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.

On the way home, listening to the radio, I had the sublime pleasure of hearing what is clearly the finest song in the history of the world, “Dr. Bootygrabber” by the Detroit Grand Pubahs from their new album FUNK ALL Y’ALL. Actually it’s a pretty mediocore song, but it’s funny as all hell and eerily reminiscent of that smooth-lover guy on Saturday Night Live. A lyrical highlight:

“My name is Dr. Bootygrabber.

My first name is Ernest.

My middle name is Freaky.

That’s right.

My name is Dr. Ernest Freaky Bootygrabber.”

Oh yeah. That was a special song.

Stuff I’ve enjoyed recently…

in books: John Buchan’s THE 39 STEPS, Mark Bowden’s BLACKHAWK DOWN, and Haruki Murakami’s NORWEGIAN WOOD.

in music: I bought a lot of CDs recently. Some close at hand: Air, 10,000 HZ. LEGEND; Gorillaz, GORILLAZ; ANOKHA: SOUNDZ OF THE ASIAN UNDERGROUND; DJ Logic, THE ANOMALY; Fantastic Plastic Machine, LUXURY; The Clash, LONDON CALLING; Underworld, BEAUCOUP FISH; The Clash, GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE, The Waterboys, A PAGAN PLACE; James Combs, PLEASE COME DOWN; Radiohead, AMNESIAC; The Waterboys, FISHERMAN’S BLUES; The Waterboys, THIS IS THE SEA; ’68 Comeback, LOVE ALWAYS WINS; DJ Spooky, SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER; BIGSHOTS: SAN FRANCISCO DRUM AND BASS; Fantastic Plastic Machine, BEAUTIFUL; and the Nick Drake FRUIT TREE boxed set.

Late night, time for bed. My girlfriend is somewhere in Mongolia right now, probably riding a camel.

I just got a new DVD player. It’s a Sampo DVE620, and it’s rather notorious because it has features that DVD players aren’t supposed to have. Namely, it’ll play any DVD from anywhere in the world, period.

This isn’t the way DVDs are supposed to work. Part of the deal that manufacturers made with Hollywood was that their consumer DVD players would only play DVDs that were sold in the same country or region. Hollywood divided the world into about seven different zones: North America, South America, Europe/Japan, Africa, and so forth. They sell the rights to produce DVDs of a given movie to companies in each region, so they get more money and exert more control over where and how their movies are sold.

This system means that DVDs from, say, England or Japan won’t work in American DVD players and vice versa.

It’s not the same issue as NTSC/PAL, which are the two main formats for video in the world. (PAL is used by Europe, and NTSC by the U.S.) That’s a basic divergent-technology problem. The region encoding is a commercial practice that doesn’t particularly benefit anyone except the studios.

The Sampo DVE620 is a low-end DVD player, retailing for about $160 in the U.S. The same player is sold under other brand names in several countries.

Even without the bonus features, it’s a pretty amazing unit. It plays DVDs, audio CDs, VCDs (a cheapo movie format popular in Asia), and if you’ve made CD-Rs with MP3 music files on them, it’ll play them too. It supports Dolby DTS digital audio, and while it has regular stereo audio/video outputs, it also has S-Video, Component Video, and Digital Audio outputs. And it works on both PAL and NTSC television sets, playing both PAL and NTSC DVDs as needed on either standard. Whether or not these features mean anything to you, they’re a little unusual on a consumer player at the low end of the spectrum.

But it has more. The Sampo engineers enabled cheat codes, just like in many computer and video games. Type in one number and a secret menu pops up that lets you turn off the region blocking. Once that’s set, you can play movies from anywhere in the world. Type in a different code and you can disable Macrovision–that’s the standard copy-protection format used in both VHS videos and DVDs. When Macrovision is working, it detects if you’re running the signal into, say, a VCR and cycles the brightness up and down so that the movie doesn’t look good. This is to prevent you from recording DVDs onto videotape, but it also prohibits you from passing your DVD signal through your VCR–useful if you use your VCR for TV tuning and output to your stereo system, for instance. Even if you aren’t copying the movie, it still looks bad while you watch it. Thanks to Sampo, I can now run my DVD player through my VCR, which eliminates a couple cumbersome steps in watching movies at home.

And finally, the Sampo DVD player is hackable. You can upgrade the software it uses by downloading a newer version off the internet, burning a CD-R with the file on it, and sticking it in the player. After a few seconds, it flashes the new software into its motherboard. (The most recent software version disables the secret features, but you can flash an older version on there and restore them. Intermediate versions improve picture quality in various ways.) Plus, unlike the rest of the DVD players on the market, the Sampo uses a standard PC DVD drive. If you have a DVD drive in your computer, you can take it out and plop it into the Sampo’s case, with the Sampo’s features intact. This is pretty sweet, since DVD drives are getting better as time goes on.

In short, the Sampo DVE620 is one of the few pieces of consumer electronics that you can upgrade the way you would a computer.

Why should you care? There’s a wealth of movies and television series out there that you just can’t get in the U.S. The region-coding practice works against you, because if there isn’t enough market for a U.S. company to release a given title then you can’t watch it. But with a Sampo DVE620 you can.

My Sampo arrived today. I typed in the cheat codes and it worked fine. Using a Japanese DVD that previously didn’t work on my old DVD player, I verified that it plays just fine on the Sampo.

Browsing Amazon.co.uk, I found a lot of things I’d love to see. Want the second season of THE SOPRANOS? It’s available right now, along with several seasons of BUFFY, FARSCAPE, and other shows. Today I ordered a complete box set of THE PRISONER for about $75; in the U.S., you can only buy the first four DVDs (out of five) for a total of about $100. Even with shipping, the complete U.K. set is much cheaper than the U.S. one–and it’s all available now.

I also ordered THE RING, an amazing Japanese horror film. In the U.K., you can buy a DVD with English subtitles. But in the U.S., the Hollywood studio Dreamworks bought the U.S. rights and buried them, because they’re trying to do a remake. It’s entirely possible that we may never see THE RING released in the U.S. thanks to Dreamworks, but thanks to this Sampo player, I’ll be watching it next week.

My local specialty video store, Scarecrow, carries a great selection of international DVDs. They rent the Sampo players there, and also sell them (for $280, unfortunately). I can rent or buy movies from all over the world, obscure stuff that can get a release in its home country but will never be brought to the U.S.

Sampo got in trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America over this player, and as a result the newest shipping version of the Sampo isn’t nearly as cool. It doesn’t offer the secret features, and it drops the PC-standard DVD drive in favor of a more typical component unit that you can’t do much with. But you can still flash one of the older software versions into the unit and restore the global play.

This unit is a great opportunity, and it’s not going to be around much longer. Sampo is replacing it entirely later this year. If this is something you think you want, you should act fast. There are other options out there, but the Sampo is fast, cheap, and out of control.

Where can you buy one? They pop up on eBay and elsewhere for $250-$300. But at present, you can call and order one for about $160 from some video store in Kansas:

Wolfe’s

Cameras, Camcorders & Computers

635 S. Kansas Avenue

Topeka, KS 66603

Orders: (800) 359-6533

Inquiries: (785) 235-1386

Fax: (785) 235-2810

I’m not sure that they even know what they have, so asking them if it’s one of the “good” units is probably fruitless. But they had them last week, and I’d suggest you order right away if you want to pursue this.

There is a slight risk involved. The worst case scenario is that you’ll get one with the new firmware, in which case you’ll have to burn a CD-R to upgrade (downgrade, actually) your player.

You can check out the player’s specs at one of many fan web pages (for lack of a better term):

http://members.nbci.com/_XMCM/ldarchive/sampo_dvd/sampo_dve-620/sampo_dve-620.htm

For introductory info, cheat codes, and downloads of all the various versions of the firmware code:

(UK) http://www.area450.co.uk/

(US) http://www.geocities.com/reversengineer_2000/sampo/

These sites are also amusing examples of hardcore wireheads:

> There is some rivetting information about how Darrell yanked out his DVD drive

> and stuck another one in, and also how he created a back-up EEPROM in the

> event that one of his firmware flashes eventually completely trashed his 660 !