Wednesday, January 31, 2007

five sentences for the price of one

My own pre-ordered copy of Star Wars: Allegiance is in transit, but I thought I'd look for some reviews. This gem is one of those. I appreciated the opinions expressed, as well as the level of detail, but man alive, is it a confounding piece to read. Here is one of my favorite sentences, yep, just one sentence:

After experiencing a most welcome and I thought a highly unlikely circumstance: two recent, highly recommended Star Wars efforts - written by Karen Traviss and Aaron Allston and both associated with the promising Legacy of the Force sequence - Zahn's effort fell short of those reading experiences, not undone by premise, as this nook in the EU - at least conceptually - represents an obvious draw to fans who have been waiting to see the exploits of a certain Mara Jade in her Imperial position and to what I think is a growing trend - the popularity of military-styled SF and Fantasy represented by Storm Troopers in Allegiance.
If there was a little public-domain "English Horror" icon similar to the "Coding Horror" icon in Code Complete, I would slap it up right beside that text. I try to suppress my schoolmarmish penchant for well-written prose, but I can't stop it from bursting out of my stomach sometimes ala Alien.

Then again, I remember being extremely annoyed by the arbitrary "each paragraph must have five or more sentences" rule in school, because I thought each of my compound-complex sentences should have counted as two or more simple sentences. Apparently I've met my match in whoever wrote that review.

Monday, January 29, 2007

the Super Bowl is the quintessential US holiday

Some point to the US's overindulgences at Christmas or Thanksgiving as proof that those holidays are the most important. While I can't argue against that, I think it's also true that there is one holiday which can claim to be still more emblematic, still more quintessential of the modern US: Super Bowl Sunday.
  • The holiday revolves around the top honors of a sport that simply hasn't spread as far or as deeply outside the US: American football, le football américain. Even the name has "American" in it. Tradition and pride, expressed by people colliding with one another, and working unbelieveably hard to accomplish a momentary blip of glory. Or, like some of the people I went to school with, feeling sufficient societal pressure to consent to merely sitting on the bench in uniform (but at least they had the privilege of exercising to the point of vomiting at practice!).
  • People across the nation gather around the TV. What could be more fitting, considering how much other time they spend there? The pregame show lasts for hours on its own, and the television show that comes on after the game receives instant recognition, if not viewership. Commercial TV is at its zenith, selling and displaying advertisements that will hopefully stimulate conversation and attention. The half-time show exhibits famous music stars in a performance spectacle that a variety of people will critique. National TV is one of the connecting threads, along with franchises and store chains, that bind the US into a gloriously bland whole.
  • Naturally, along with the TV-watching comes the food, fried and meaty and easily-prepared, not like that labor-intensive Thanksgiving stuff. As everyone knows, people can't be expected to gather together without eating. And if you're going to sit inertly for an extended period of time, you need to keep your hands busy doing something. What's the point of living in a country of plenty if you can't be decadent, at least on a holiday?
  • Some may say that the lack of gifts makes this a so-so holiday at best. I can't argue with that, but at the same time, the lack of gift-giving makes this holiday more similar to the way people act most of the time. In fact, the surge of entertainment-system upgrades that coincides with this holiday means that people have the chance to give to themselves. They give the gift that really keeps on giving: an enhanced portal to a rapid-fire, continually-renewed reality, an escape from drab everyday life. More sophisticated entertainment means more efficient happiness (at least, that's how I interpret the way the purchases in the Sims work). Quite American indeed.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

peeve no. 246 is the term Syntax Sugar

As peeves go, my personal dislike for the term "syntax sugar" doesn't register all that high. It's the psychological equivalent of making a lip twitch. And, like I wrote in the rant about the acronym AJAX, I have no trouble understanding the usefulness and accuracy of this term. It's an irrational peeve. My ire is aimed more at its connotation or implication than its denotation.

Here, what I mean by syntax sugar is "syntax that makes a programming language easier to use rather than more capable". Without syntax sugar, people could give the computer the same instructions; they would just need to work harder at achieving the necessary mindset for the translation from pseudocode to actual code. Syntax sugar is "sugar" because it makes a language sweeter without making it more substantial or filling, at least from the point of view of a compiler or language designer.

My gripe is that syntax sugar is worth more than the term implies. Syntax sugar is not empty calories, to extend the analogy. In fact, extending it further, syntax sugar is the "presentation" part of food preparation that you may have heard people harp on as being so important to the total effect. (Two foods may taste excellent together, but if you stuff 'em in a blender, gourmands may not touch the mixture with a ten-foot pole.)

Basically, the attack on the "syntax is unimportant" assertion has two flanks, one pedantic and the other empirical. First, fundamentally speaking, we know that a Turing Machine can simulate another Turing Machine. If my syntax expresses a Turing-computable algorithm, yours can too, even if the extreme case is writing a full-blown interpreter that translates my syntax to yours. So almost all syntax is syntax sugar in the theoretical computer science-y sense. All you need is the syntax of the Brainf*ck language. Clearly, we foolish humans want our syntax sugar for our algorithms.

Second, experience has proven that syntax is important, because syntax is the prime, perennial point of complaint.
  • Exhibit A: using indentation/whitespace to delimit code blocks rather than braces. As syntax arguments go, this one is more pointless than most because it's about mere delimiters, but otherwise rational folks will turn into raving nutters at the suggestion that braces be replaced.
  • Exhibit B: Perl's <> and $_ . These two little syntax entities are exceedingly common in Perl code. Both are cryptic as anything, but the sheer convenience factor more than makes up for this. Perl coders seem to almost always use them and take the resulting hit in readability. These two are syntax sugar of the purest kind, but nevertheless vital to many programmers.
  • Exhibit C: Huffman-coding of language constructs. I'm not referring to true Huffman information encoding, but the general concept as employed by language designers: a construct's frequency of use is inversely related to its length or ease of use. When programmers complain about writing full anonymous inner classes in Java for GUI event handlers, they are complaining about the faulty Huffman-coding of anonymous inner classes: "why must I type so much to accomplish something that comes up so often?". A similar phenomenon is programmers who are trying to switch from the imperative paradigm to the OO paradigm, and end up creating overstuffed classes because of the "bother of creating a new class just to do minor task X" (to some extent, they may be right). A more positive use of Huffman-coding is to make the programmer work harder to do things he probably shouldn't, such as global variables. Syntax must be more than just sugar, because it affects programmers so much.
Syntax matters. Give me some sugar.

Monday, January 22, 2007

someone else explained it better

A while back, after reading some blog posts by people on either side of the perceived Java/Ruby rift, I reached the insight that they can't find common ground because they have different values for the choice of programming language. Thus, using the flashiest title possible, what we have here is a clash of programming language civilizations.

Kevin Barnes' Code Craft blog, which I have favorable first and second impressions of, seems to express the same conclusion in the entry Freedom languages. But rather than two civilizations with two sets of values, there are two kinds of languages: freedom and safety (but note the section at the end entitled "Safety isn't safe and freedom isn't free"). Freedom languages encourage the programmer to do whatever he or she wants, and safety languages restrict the programmer or code in some way, whether to enforce contracts or teamwork or performance. I like the distinction because it's more general than the usual litmus test of static-vs-runtime data typing, which falls down in cases when a language offers both options.

Bonus link: I commented about Web continuations and Rife. Read here about why the idea may not be as spiffy as advertised.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

some advice in retrospect

I went on Wikipedia to do one simple thing: look up what the comic-book aficionados mean when they say "Golden Age" or "Silver Age". I have since realized this was a mistake. Don't do this unless you have time to burn! You see, as I was reading I found a link to another Wikipedia article that looked interesting. And in that article there were many links to more specific subject matter, so I opened up some of those, in new browser exponential growth of tabs. And so forth, more or less, until I freaked out about what time it was. How much of that information will I remember a mere couple days from now? Very little - my knowledge-absorption reached saturation level all too soon. Curse you, Wikipedia, for the deluge of detailed minutiae presented by your army of interlinking editors!

Postscript: I was tempted to make a snide comment about the people who took the time to key in all this information about fiction, but I'm a grateful recipient. I don't have any motivation to complain. Remind me again how fan communities got by before the Web came along, and especially Wikipedia? For that matter, remind me how casual fans like I managed to understand anything in serialized entertainment without this valuable reference.

Post-postscript: Truth be told, I'm in awe of people who know certain topics so deeply. I'm not good at spotting continuity errors, but I'm intrigued by the lengths writers will go to reconcile contradictions. "No, no, Pooky only seemed to murder Wubbly. The murdered Wubbly was a clone of the real Wubbly, who was working behind the scenes with Razmatazz to undermine the progress of Necros. The Wubbly clone came about when Wubbly's DNA merged with the psychic shadow of Hermy in a tragic smelting accident."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

peeve no. 245 is grouping programmers by language

It just happened again: some innocent shmuck wrote a blog entry wondering about how programmers in language camp X generally differ from programmers in language camp Q by some other characteristic. Fools. I can't speak for anyone else, but I have had the (un)fortunate pleasure of learning and/or using multiple languages in different contexts. Some for work, some for leisure. Anyone who wants to put himself in a box labeled "COBOL" or "C++" or "Unlambda" can go ahead. Code Complete, seemingly one of the most consistently recommended books in existence, has a section entitled "Program into Your Language, Not in It". The point is that just because a language happens to (not) have a feature, does not mean the programmer is doomed to thinking the way the language most easily supports. The famous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis asserts that one's language affects the way one thinks. Don't prove it right!

That's why it's patently ridiculous and, dare I say, a tad unprofessional to stamp someone with a particular programming language. It's somewhat like identifying an individual, whether voter or legislator, with a political party. Does that person necessarily agree with every nail in the party platform? Nooooo. I'm a unique, precious flower, dammit. I suppose someone could try to correlate a "programming language of choice" with some other random statistic, but what's the point? I mean, honestly. A programming language is for ordering machines around.

On the other hand, I can fully understand being an active part of a community whose focus is a programming language. Like with anything else, a small number of people tend to do most of the work; the rest do a little here and there to help out. Without the true believers, the people who continually push a language forward, a programming language pretty much deserves to die in obscurity. Doubly so if the language is open-source rather than managed by a company. Hats off to those folks - the ones O'Reilly calls alpha geeks. But have you noticed that they're people who also have breadth? There are few truly new programming language ideas. The staunchest supporters of a programming language know other programming languages, too, because those other languages often have at least a couple ideas worth stealing. It's reasonable to group programmers by a language they contribute to. It's simplistic to group programmers by a language they happen to use or advocate.

I'm not a Java programmer. I'm not a C++ programmer. I'm not a Perl programmer. I'm not a Javascript programmer. I'm not a Groovy, Scala, Python, Ruby, Boo, C#, F#, VB programmer. My goal is to be someone who gets stuff done, to be the ultimate Ninja Turtle who can switch between the katana and bo and nunchuk and sai at a moment's notice. Of course, my resume indicates what my actual experience in each language consists of...

Monday, January 15, 2007

revisiting the concept of truthiness

Usual disclaimer: I'm not a serious scholar of philosophy. I'll be freely using ideas whose sources I can't even remember. I cannot claim originality for anything here, without being sure. Moving along...

Colbert's "Truthiness" is very much the little word that could, at least for the past couple years, and in the eyes of dictionary and news people. Truthiness has successfully brought a timeless philosophical topic, the issue of how truth is defined, into wide-reaching public awareness. I also consider it a symptom of one of the marks of a healthy/free society: debates not only about specific issues and questions but also paradigms and assumptions. However, the simple use of truthiness as a term of mockery overlooks several deep, thorny points. The following explanation will be reminiscent of what I wrote about truth and wikipedia.

As I understand it, truthiness means arriving at truth subjectively as opposed to objectively. The opposite of truthiness is only granting truth to the objective realm. Naturally, dividing up the world into two neat chunks of objective truth and subjective falsehood is nothing new; see Hume and Positivism and so on. It has also been a popular thing to argue about. Keeping in mind that I'm considering one lil' concept here, and not a robust philosophy, here are some indications that it is not all-sufficient:
  • Objective truth is deniable. I covered this point in the post about wikipedia. I don't mean that evidence is worthless. I do mean that evidence can be disputed - in fact, the strength of an item of evidence is how well it stands up to dispute. Conflicting evidence and the method of measurement are just two avenues of attack. This isn't a compelling downside, since almost all statements are deniable somehow (even if in some cases those denials would mark someone as clinically insane). I mention it merely as a reminder that if Alice and Bob are talking about Eve, and Alice refers to evidence from Carol, Bob can counter Alice by smack-talking about Carol's evidence-gathering abilities. On the other hand, many people can vet objective truth, so only the foolish would casually ignore it. And if someone is almost alone in denial, then he or she is likely mistaken.
  • Not all truth is objective. Some statements can't be evaluated objectively, but nevertheless have a definite truth value. Intuitions about someone else's state of mind fall into this category. And some people are correct far too often in order for this facility to be considered wild guessing. Sometimes the mind can extrapolate a large conclusion from an assortment of tiny, fuzzy data points - a process known as induction or gestalt reasoning. None of the individual signs would constitute conclusive proof, but taken together the case is strong. This truth is not achieved objectively but subjectively, because the mind of the observer plays such an important role that no two people would reach the same truth given the same data. Intuitions may be true or false just like any other statement, or half-true or mostly-false. One need only look at an optical illusion to realize that intuitive truth has its own weaknesses, however.
  • Consciousness exists but is not objective by definition. All philosophers, regardless of their opinions about the definition of truth, admit that thoughts and emotions have some degree of reality. In other words, the subjective realm exists, and therefore statements related to it can be true or false. If someone says he or she dreamed about yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye, no one else can evaluate the truth value of that statement, but the statement has a truth value because the dreamer can dream. To put it another way, suppose that someone created the ultimate android, an artificial lifeform that mimicked a person exactly. Could we determine if the android had consciousness? "Sure", you might say. "Just ask it about its consciousness." But if the android mimicked consciousness precisely, we could never know for sure. After all, we couldn't disassemble it to find its consciousness, no more than we can dice a brain and locate consciousness. Yet human consciousness exists, apart from objective truth.
  • The objective and subjective realms are not cleanly separated. I've been writing under the unstated assumption that the objective and subjective realms are disjoint - that is, the two realms have an empty "chasm" in-between. Not so. Just as someone employs binoculars to see a far place, the subjective realm is how someone observes (and interprets!) the objective realm. If event B occurred after event A, then did A cause B? The events A and B are objective, and A may or may not have "really" caused B. But causation is a subjective conclusion applied to these two objective events. A cause and effect relationship is a cooperation between the two realms. In the scientific method, there is a vitally important division between hypotheses and theories and laws (subjective) versus observations and experiments and measurements (objective). One, if not the prime, characteristic of science is a systematic joining of the subjective and objective. Ideally, the resulting synthesis is as objective as possible (Occam's razor). The subjective and objective are unavoidably linked.
  • Ethics always involves more than objective truth. This point is the clincher, although it's more tangential to truth per se. Facts do not compel someone to act ethically. Of course, any reasonable decision should be based on facts, but ethics is more about the question "now what?" than "what's going on?". For instance, two people may be in the middle of a miserable situation. One seeks to alleviate it; the other seeks to exploit it for personal advantage. Goals, values, and such are of the subjective realm. When people agree about a common (subjective) ideal, then they can use objective truth to argue for a specific course of action. And sometimes the facts are not in question, yet the ethical debate remains far from over.
Having flipped all these bits to get the above points off my chest, I feel like I should add that a milder application of the truthiness concept is less problematic (I think). Instead of defining truthiness as "arriving at truth subjectively", define "weak truthiness" as "disregarding disagreeable objective truth". Anyone who founds his or her beliefs on "weak truthiness" is clearly deluded to some degree, no matter what his or her beliefs or (ahem) political leanings may be. Or, to put it in more charitable terms, perhaps a person afflicted with this condition is engaging in wishful thinking or unjustified hope. In any case, truthiness in the strong sense (i.e., as defined other than this paragraph's "weak" sense) is a philosophically shaky invective since its opposite, granting truth only to the objective, isn't realistically tenable.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

impressions of Darth Bane

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction was an entertaining read. Some have commented that this book did a great jorb at making the title character both evil and sympathetic. I disagree. Although Bane is someone thrown into terrible situations who is trying to survive as best he can, somewhat like Mr. Eko in Lost, two of his primary motivations are selfishness and ambition, with revenge a close third. I can't help wondering if he would have ended up like Jedi Master C'baoth if he'd been born into more pleasant circumstances. On the other hand, he demonstrates a certain amount of loyalty and camaraderie on a few occasions--even guilt about his murders. Bane is a natural leader who has a combination of steely determination and cunning. Part of the tragedy of this book is seeing him slip all too easily down the dark path...but don't forget, he also chose it. To the degree that I thought of Darth Bane before this book, I envisioned him as a sneaky, perhaps somewhat weak and cowardly schemer, the kind of Sith who would think "the rest of ya can go ahead and die, I'll be waiting over here when you finish killing each other". The Bane of this book is so powerful by the end that he reminds me of Batman's Bane. Still, he excels at using everyone else as his pawns, to the point of being a recognizable precursor to Sidious.

A sizable chunk of the story, part two, covers Bane's experience in an elite Sith academy. This makes for an amusing counterpoint to the Jedi academy in I, Jedi and a series of books that rhymes with Fairy Hotter (at Sith-Hogwarts, Malfoy would blatantly be cheering for Harry's bloody death and all of the professors would ignore Neville). One of the main themes of the entire story is that a society which inevitably encourages power struggles is inherently on the edge of chaos. Even in the controlled environment of the academy, Sith like to double-cross and kill each other. Imagine applying the Sith paradigm to other contexts. In Sith driving school, road rage would be worth 50% or more of the final grade. In Sith poker, all players at the table could have four aces at the same time. In Sith curling, the stones would explode on impact. Bane's switch back to the Dynamic Duo model of the Sith is not only insightful but necessary. This way, Sith can mostly dispense with the veneer of cooperation for mutual benefit, but still survive. Masters can satisfy themselves by directing their immense powers at non-Sith targets. Apprentices can satisfy themselves by eventually killing their masters, which appears to be a popular route of self-promotion. Sith don't pass the torch so much as pry it from each other's cold dead fingers.

Generally, the book moved along at a brisk pace, building enough momentum to keep me interested. The ongoing war between the Sith and the Republic offered plenty of opportunities for action, as well as Bane's personal competition for attention and survival at the almost-literally-Darwinian academy. The first part of the book, before Bane takes on the Bane identity, is a bit annoying and gritty to plow through, but it's exciting and quick enough to not be a problem. It's also essential to understanding who Bane is. The third part, featuring Bane's climactic, victorious triumph, has its share of both drama and explosive events but suffers from the predictable certainty of fecal matter striking the rotating air circulation system.

Something else to be said for this book is its portrayal of characters beyond Bane. From time to time, the focus shifts from Bane to the larger war and its generals. The first couple instances felt like annoying distractions from the true story. As I learned more about these characters, I enjoyed the breaks. The dark lords of the Brotherhood and the masters of the Jedi had their own unique personalities, quirks, and abilities. They also had their own problems and goals. The other apprentices at the academy don't receive the same level of attention, apart from the two or three Bane chooses to concern himself with. When Bane disposes of almost all of them, it seems like such a waste, but Darth Bane is not the book for celebrating the superiority of good to evil. It's a dark tale about the rise of someone who was destined to sow the seeds of the far-later Empire. As long as we're talking about books written from the perspective of a Sith...

Switching gears altogether, a book I often thought of while I was reading Darth Bane is the Darth Maul "Episode I Journal" by Jude Watson. It was a paperback, wider and taller and thinner than the typical adult novel, published by Scholastic, and about 100 pages of large type (no pictures of course). When I picked it up in the bookstore to sample a few pages out of curiosity, I assumed it would be the book equivalent of journalistic fluff: a straightforward retelling of Episode I that any upper-elementary-school child could enjoy. It was less that than a one-way ticket to the crooked depravity of Maul's thoughts, desires, and memories. The fact that the book is written in such a simple style almost makes it more striking to read. It includes Maul's scenes from Episode I, of course, but also scenes from Maul's childhood under his master's training, his past missions, and what he was doing during the rest of Phantom Menace (here's a hint: he wasn't just sitting around), with varying levels of detail. Have you ever heard of parents dropping their children in a body of water to entice them to learn to swim? There's something like that in here, but much worse. How about making a child go without supper, at least for a couple hours? There's something like that in here, but much worse. Maul's childhood, if that name applies, sucked. And throughout it, he was given wonderful advice like "There is no pain where strength lies", "Never break a fall" (never be prepared for a mistake), "I can do without you", "A punishment is a lesson", "Do not flinch again". Maul's current frame of mind is locked into identification with the Sith tradition, a determination to earn his master's respect, trust in his master's absolute judgment, vivid hatred for the Jedi, joy in battle, projecting all negative feelings outward, and so on. This frame of mind colors and inspires each deranged thing he writes in this journal. Here's a direct quote from Maul's meditation, on page 76, after he has fought but failed to defeat Qui-Gon on Tatooine: "I will destroy you, Qui-Gon Jinn. I will see the shock in your eyes when I run you through, Qui-Gon Jinn. I will stand over your dead body in triumph, Qui-Gon Jinn". As I said, the book is short, but it's so engrossing that it seems longer. Since Maul dies at the end, the final chapter is instead a calculated, regretful analysis, by Sidious, of the battle for Naboo, in which Sidious also muses on the strengths and weaknesses of Maul. I recommend the book, but don't expect it to be satiating like a novel.

Friday, January 05, 2007

a gaggle of minor updates to recent posts

  • I thought up a scenario of House visiting Scrubs, which is mere wishful thinking because the two shows are on different networks. However, the inventive but seldom subtle Scrubs writers explicitly used House as the inspiration/theme for the last episode, "My House", with Cox as a House stand-in. It was okay, but I wish it had been more.
  • Over my holiday time-off, I finally applied myself to trying multiplication and division on my (Japanese) abacus. The experience gave my memory of the 9x9 multiplication table a workout. Other than that, the biggest obstacle I had was keeping track of which rods to add or subtract products from. In the written methods, you can work your way down the page, so each product and addition/subtraction has its own space. On the abacus, I can only move left or right, although the procedure does proceed in a systematic order that feels more natural with practice. This also means that an abacus problem only has a "running" total for the answer; the intermediate steps leave no record. On the other hand, revising an incorrect guess at a digit of a quotient is a pretty simple task (no erasing!).
  • I tuned in to Beauty and the Geek for some reason that I can't remember at the moment. This confirmed to me that I must be almost the very last person to become aware of Freakonomics, because one of the show's challenges consisted of the beauties attempting to carry on an informed interview with one of the book's coauthors, Mr. Dubner. How much do the authors of that book want to be noticed? There's your answer. By the way, I had a guilty conscience about watching a show whose whole premise is based on stereotypes and the attendant mockery, until I remembered that the majority of TV characters are stereotypical so at least this show portrays actual people who are attempting to burst through the boundaries of their stereotypes. And is it so wrong to laugh at the pick-up line, "I wish I were sine squared and you were cosine squared, so together we could be one"?
  • A while ago I noted that Don Syme had made a draft chapter of an F# book available from his blog. Since that time he has added a few more chapters, and updated the old. Taken together, the chapters are great for learning how F# supports the Big Three paradigms: imperative, object-oriented, and functional. Unfortunately, my boss(es) are keen on restricting what languages we can use. I can see their point, but...
  • As some of you may have guessed after reading the small list of Gnome vs. KDE complaints in the post that reported my surrender to the Ubuntu camp, I eventually installed the Kubuntu packages. Couldn't be happier.
Bonus independent mini-rant: I'm starting to hate the sites that have user-submitted, user-judged links. I'm not referring to the usual reasons: too much groupthink (resulting in articles that seem to always be about the same monotonous list of "safe" topics or viewpoints), poor-quality writing in the submissions, links to blogs that link to somewhere else, links to sensationalistic trash, periodically recurring links (cyclic dupes), etc. No, at this point in time I'm referring to the tendency for these sites to act as aggregators for Ars Technica. For crying in the mud, I got the message long (years) ago, when the site used white text on black background, that Ars is worth visiting on a daily basis just because it's Ars. Now please stop trying to constantly bring the site down by directing traffic there 24/7! Gosh!

Monday, January 01, 2007

my appallingly late initiation to the Buffyverse

Lately I pulled out my Angel: Season 5 DVD set, which is the only Buffy or Angel DVD set I own. As I watched, I realized that my introduction to the "Buffyverse" was probably pretty unusual. It makes me smile now to compare my current level of knowledge with the confused thoughts I had back then.

Before seeing Angel, I had seen maybe five total episodes of Buffy, some reruns from late season 5 and some from late season 7. Comparing the airdates, I may have seen the season 7 episodes when originally shown, or shortly thereafter. Spike was the most intriguing character to me after seeing those episodes, although watching Eliza Dushku do anything was also a draw (yep, I saw quite a few of the later episodes of Tru Calling also). I had no idea that Spike was more menacing and evil in other seasons of Buffy, nor that Faith and Buffy had excellent reasons for being tense around each other. I was lost to some degree at all times, but the dialogue and action had drawn me in. I didn't know anything about the Angel character, so I had assumed the show based on him was a weaker spinoff.

Some months later, I was flipping channels when I caught the Angel episode "Harm's Way" in progress, then I watched the rest. What appealed to me from the start was the well-done offbeat premise: a law firm for evil, in which an inner circle works to secretly do good. I was pleasantly reminded of the only good season of Earth:Final Conflict, the first, which featured a mole from the human resistance secretly subverting the seemingly-benign alien visitors. I assumed that the Angel show had always taken place in a law firm, that Angel had attained his rank by promotion, and the main characters were just employees that Angel trusted closely. The more episodes I saw, the more I dropped those assumptions. In the beginning, to me Gunn was a slick lawyer, Wesley was an overly-serious spiritual expert for the firm, Fred was the bubbly scientific counterpart to Wesley, and Lorne was a PR or entertainment advisor. And Harmony was, well, a blonde secretary.

I remember that "Soul Purpose" next blew me away with its emotional journey, as well as reassuring me that I would be able to see more Spike. "You're Welcome" was epic and exciting, but the sudden prominence of characters such as Cordelia and Lindsey and Doyle threw me off. As someone who could count the number of Angel episodes he had seen on one hand, I felt like an outsider again. After that, I began catching myself up through the Web, so any further episodes I saw made more sense. "Origin" was another episode that motivated me to find out much more (Angel has a son - WHA?!). The audacity and hilarity of "Smile Time" sealed my fate as an Angel fan, so I watched most of the rest of season 5. 'Course, not too long afterwards I heard it would be cancelled...

I hadn't seen Firefly yet, so for me Adam Baldwin went from polite and suited in Angel to crude and rustic in Firefly. When I finally saw old reruns of seasons 1 and 2 of Buffy, Angel seemed a lot younger. No wonder, considering the age difference of the actor. When I read about or saw some of the other Angel and Buffy seasons (by recording reruns), everything in season 5 started to fit better. Wesley's total breakdown at the end. Gunn's desperation to keep his lawyer skills. Angel being permitted to keep his job in an evil law firm while also acting good. The casual antagonism between Angel and Spike.

Seeing Buffy mostly after seeing Angel provided me with some bias, too. Compared to the bleak wryness of Angel's humor, the snappy too-cute dialogue of Buffy sometimes grated on me. Compared to the deep and guilt-filled brooding of Angel, the angst of Buffy didn't register as much. Compared to the always-quirky environment of a demonic law firm, the familiar (during the daytime) high school seemed somehow uninspired. Should I even venture to compare Angel-Cordelia and Angel-Wesley with Buffy-Cordelia and Buffy-Wesley? However, I'll certainly admit to liking Buffy-Angelus more than Angel-Angelus, not counting the Angel episodes "Soulless" and "Release". Over time, I've grown to appreciate each show for what it was, but the TV that drew me in to the Buffyverse at the last possible moment, Angel season 5, will stand alone in my mind.