Tue, Jan 27, 2015

: Twelve Red Herrings

Author: Jeffrey Archer

I’ve never read Jeffrey Archer and I think I thought these were mystery stories, but they turned out to be simply little quirky things, sometimes about crime, but often about ordinary life. Not bad, but nothing truly remarkable. My favorite was one in which a guy meets a beautiful woman and it had four different endings, ranging from him getting the girl to not getting her. Quite fun.

I did really enjoy the short story format — it’s been years since I’ve read short stories and I need to get back into writing them.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Jan 25, 2015

: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally stopped watching the TV Show Agents of SHIELD because it got too annoying (all the good guys turning Benedict Arnold and SHIELD disappearing), but lo and behold, that’s pretty much the plot of this movie.

If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have watch the movie, but it turned out it didn’t bother me the way it does on the show. Here it made more sense as that is the plot. It didn’t work at all on TV, where it felt like the show was going in the wrong direction. (How can the show be called Agents of SHIELD when SHIELD doesn’t exist? Stupid. I think they started writing the series before they learned the direction of the movie and had to rapidly — and incompetently — change course.)

This movie isn’t as good as Captain America, but it’s not bad. Too long and the action is over-the-top, though I do find Captain America’s fighting more interesting as the shield he uses both as a weapon and as a defense is unusual. But the whole “keep the identity of the ‘Winter Soldier’ bad guy a secret for as long as possible and then have him stop wearing a mask” was just silly. Nothing makes that much sense, really, but it was fun and there are some good set pieces. Still, I wish Hollywood would put the kind of effort they put into these popcorn flicks into real movies.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 24, 2015

: Automata

Interesting low-budget Spanish-produced science fiction movie about robots. It has some big stars like Antonio Banderas and Dylan McDermott and Melanie Griffith, but I’d never even heard of it (and it’s a 2014 release so it’s not old).

The story is about an insurance investigator looking at why some robots are repairing themselves — supposed to be against their programming (the bots follow rules similar to Asimov’s three laws) — and he basically uncovers artificial intelligence. That part is very weak, as everything is implied and we don’t really see the impact of anything. There’s no good reason given as to why robots shouldn’t be allowed to repair themselves (the theory is that they’d quickly advance beyond our understanding), making me think it’s all just a way for the manufacturer to keep charging for repairs.

Supposedly the setting is in the future after sunspots destroy all but 21 million people and leaving the planet heavy with deadly radiation, so robots are made to help rebuild civilization. Except I kept trying to figure out how such a devastated society could build robots we can’t build with all our technology today!

The bottom line is this is a gimmicky film. It has interesting visuals and the story sounds intriguing, but there’s little depth and nothing much actually happens. There’s weird conspiracy side story which brings action and violence into things, but I found that strangely out of place and tedious. I didn’t care about any of the characters (except maybe the one robot). But it was still an interesting film for robot and Asimov fans.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jan 18, 2015


Author: Warren Meyer

An interesting book. I discovered the author after reading a free story of his on Amazon, and there were some positive comments about his novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have the right idea of what it was from the description. The idea sounded neat: something about a company that invents a way to market coolness to teens. The reality is a lot more prosaic, however, as the novel isn’t something innovative but descends into a mere trivial thriller with murder and mayhem.

That said, it’s still a pretty good read, and I would have had a lot more fun if my expectations hadn’t been so high. I was anticipating something intellectual and the book hinted at a lot of that. There’s a really cool character of a certain rich guy who seems to be able to see money-making ideas in unusual places. For instance, he notices people throwing coins in a mall fountain and wonders who gets the money. He talks to the mall owners and finds out they donate the coins to charity. So he creates a company that gives fountains to malls and other locations, and offers free lifetime maintenance… in exchange for keeping all the coins. It turns out to be quite profitable.

There’s also a shady underground organization which controls a media empire and has hooks into senators in Washington and a powerful attorney. The three of them help each other out. The media can make the politician look good, while the attorney sues the politician and media guy’s enemies. They decide that BMOC (Big Man On Campus), the rich guy’s new radical company to sell coolness to teens, will ruin the media business, since that’s basically what they do in a less direct manner. So they organize a plot to ruin him. They murder a teen and make it look like suicide, with her note blaming BMOC.

Everything up to this point is excellent: great characters, interesting conspiracies, and a terrific plot. Then everything just becomes a bit of an action farce, with shootouts and chases and an ending that’s far too wimpy. That’s disappointing, as the first 70% of the book was outstanding. The book’s also slightly hampered by a few amateurish typos and glaring errors (such as using “site” when he means “sight”), but then it was only a $1 in Kindle format. It’s still a fun read, and even the weak ending is fairly exciting.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Jan 10, 2015

: The Imitation Game

This film is about Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who basically invented the computer, and his efforts during WWII to build a machine to crack the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code-making device. We basically follow two stories: one during the war, and one a decade later, when cops following up on a break-in at his house figure out he was a homosexual and decide to arrest him. There are also occasional flashbacks to Turing’s school days.

That dual storyline is a little confusing — the time jump between scenes was not always well established (at least the childhood ones were clear) — but the concept did help propel the movie and provided some additional tension.

Overall, I thought this was fantastic: the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing was excellent, with just enough drama to be compelling without going over into hysteria or melodrama, and the supporting cast was also terrific. The story was good, well-paced and interesting, and the personal revelations were helpful in understanding the man.

The film is heavy-handed in overemphasizing the discrimination Turing faced (a bit “preachy”), and I really wanted more details about exactly what his machine did and how it worked. (The film is remarkably short of technical details, perhaps out of fear that it might bore viewers — but without it we really don’t understand half of what Turing is doing in the movie! It also makes it more difficult to truly appreciate his genius since we don’t know what he actually did.)

Despite these flaws, the film works. There are tons of absolutely fabulous scenes. Turning’s “job interview” at Bletchley Park is absolutely masterful in revealing Turing’s personality. I loved it when a guard tries to send Joan, a woman applying to be a codebreaker, to the “secretarial pool,” and then she solves a crossword even faster than Turing. But my very favorite scene scene was when young Turning is at school and a mate gives him a book on ciphers and explains that they are encrypted messages that everyone can see but only those with the key can understand. Turing asks him, “How is that different from talking?”

For him, you see, everyone seemed to be talking in a code he couldn’t break. He was oblivious to the hidden communication that most humans practice. (Example: a colleague mentions three times that they’re going to lunch, obviously inviting the still-working Turing to come. Finally, exasperated, he tells him this, and Turning is surprised and says: “You didn’t invite me. You merely said you were going to lunch.” Which was literally true.)

Ultimately, the film is a little sad, as Turning’s work was kept secret for fifty years and he never received the recognition he deserved. Breaking Enigma pretty much won the war for the Allies — at minimum it shorted the war by years and saved the lives of millions. I found it fascinating that a man who really didn’t understand other people could be responsible for saving so many. And Turning’s work on early computing is responsible for all the computers we have today. That’s an amazing legacy for a man almost forgotten by history simply because he was an “odd duck” and hard to work with.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Counselor

What a convoluted shambles! This film has a terrific cast, an intriguing script, and a semi-interesting premise (a lawyer gets involved in the drug trade and learns the cost of that when things go wrong), but bungles it all by shrouding everything in so much mystery that it’s incomprehensible.

Things start off bad right from the beginning as we’re suddenly inside an intimate sex scene between two main characters. There’s no setup, so we have no idea who these people are, and thus the scene feels invasive, as though we’re voyeurs. Later I realized the purpose of the scene was to establish how much the two genuinely loved each other, but that completely backfired: because the initial focus was on their physical relationship, I assumed that it was just about lust and kept thinking that there would be a twist later in the film where all their lovely spoken promises proved to be just words. Instead, their love is supposed to be the heart of the entire film!

From there the film goes into the drug business and makes its second big mistake: it assumes we understand everything about the drug business. There are a dozen characters doing a bunch of seemingly unrelated things and there’s very little to connect everything.

Some of that is acceptable, of course. As the viewer I’m willing to give a film some time, but this film never does explain everything. It’s also virtually impossible to gain an understanding through the convoluted dialog — which is pretty and colorful, and sometimes interesting, but obtuse and vague and never speaks plainly.

Another problem is that several of the characters look similar to each other and the way the movie is shot — with angled views that don’t show a clear view of the character — makes that even worse, creating more comprehension problems. Few people refer to others by name, except in later conversations, so everything is quite baffling.

There are moments of interesting action and some dramatic scenes, but everything’s piecemeal. It’s like instead of the jigsaw puzzle coming together as the film continues, the pieces are just rearranged. By the end, we’re just as confused as at the beginning.

I’d caught part of this on one of my movie channels and it looking intriguing and I really wanted to like it, but it’s a wannabe, not real movie.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 09, 2015

: Rio 2

I liked the first one but this feels like a by-the-numbers sequel. Is the fact that I fell asleep during about a third of it and didn’t feel like I missed anything indicative of failure?

It’s not bad and there is a lot of fun, but the “plot” is incredibly tired (evil woodcutters are cutting down the rain forest and it’s up to Blue to stop them). I did like the music and the crazy animals, though it did seem rather childish. The bottom line is that it’s a typical sequel: harmless, but rather pointless. I’d have been better off watching the first one again.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jan 08, 2015

: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I was curious where this was going since the first two movies pretty much exhausted the book. Like the previous film, this basically drags out small scenes into elaborate action sequences. So instead of a thirty-second sword fight we have a 20-minute one.

Fortunately, the action is excellently done (though wildly over-the-top and a bit fake at times), but at least Peter Jackson doesn’t forget that characters matter and the action is paired with occasionally emotional performances and character scenes. Though he does take some liberties with the story (i.e. the elf-dwarf romance), it’s mostly all based on stuff that’s actually in the book. Still, storywise, this is unquestionably the weakest of the three Hobbit films.

But overall, I really enjoyed it. Though it’s a long movie, it doesn’t feel like it, and it somehow captures that magical quality of Middle Earth and the world of Tolkien. It’s really great to go back there and visit that land. I’m sad that the movies are done.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Dec 28, 2014

: Her

Director: Spike Jonze

I think I find my reactions to this movie more interesting than the movie itself. I was curious about this when it first came out. On the one hand, it sounded like something I would love: a quirky story about a lonely joe who falls in love with his computer. But on the other side, the promos insisted that this was a relationship with an operating system, which just made no sense at all.

(To anyone that knows anything about computers, operating systems are very low-level. Humans really don’t interact with them at all: we interact with programs which run above the operating system.)

This fundamental error of computer knowledge turned me off and made me skeptical about the film. Even though I respect the director and the reviews of the film were fantastic, I still hesitated to see the movie.

Now that I’ve seen it, I will say that it’s a fantastic film. It does, however, continue with the silly “operating system” error throughout, and there’s no reason for it — nothing about the film would change if they simply called it a “program” instead of an OS.

Beyond that error, almost everything else about this movie is flawless. The way the “OS” interacts with the human characters, the way the relationship slowly develops, and the existential crisis that’s at the heart of the everything is just wonderful and amazing. The plot is beautiful simple and elegant and tragically beautiful. It really makes you think about the nature of relationships and what it means to be human.

For instance, while the whole human-machine relationship sounds crazy, we see the human having “phone sex” with another human… and later he has a similar sexually-charged conversation with his computer. Both are just voices in his ear so we see how similar they are and suddenly a human-machine relationship — even a sexual one — doesn’t seem so unbelievable.

I also liked the world that this story is set within: just enough advanced from ours to be different, with more voice-controlled computers, which makes the human-machine interaction (via voice) seem like a natural evolution.

In terms of performances, everyone is just perfect. It’s my favorite Joaquin Phoenix role to date. He’s just amazing: funny, shy, confused, sweet, and dark all at once. Amy Adams is terrific as the sweet best friend. But most impressive of all is Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the computer — we never see her but she manages to express so much via her voice that it’s entirely believable that someone would fall in love with her, computer or not.

My only other complaint is that some of the swearing felt excessive and unneeded. At times it was entirely justified and appropriate, but many times it came out of left-field and was just awkward and weird, like hearing the F-word in a Disney film. I’m not sure why they did that. Sometimes it was for humor’s sake, but it didn’t always work.

But beyond those nitpicks, this really is an impressive and marvelous film. I really should have seen in the theatres.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Dec 22, 2014

: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of a NASA astronaut who gets stranded on Mars.

This is written with modern-day technology in mind, not magic or future science, so the problems the astronaut faces are truly insurmountable. He’s millions of miles from Earth and missions to Mars take years to plan and execute. He’s only got a limited amount of food, but will have to live for at least four years before he could possibly be rescued. It’s basically a cross between Apollo 13 and Gravity — except his odds of survival are even lower.

Though the novel is extremely realistic with details on math, chemistry, botany, engineering, and other sciences the astronaut has to master to survive, I was impressed both in the elegance of the explanations and how they aren’t boring in the least. That’s because they’re so crucial to the story — like when the guy has to extract hydrogen from jet fuel to make water. It’s just amazing.

The book sounds like it could be a depressing and overly dramatic novel, but what makes it work is that it’s written in first person from the astronaut’s viewpoint and he is absolutely hilarious. He writes with snark and self-effacing wit and makes the most awe-inspiring tragedies seem like ordinary obstacles.

For example, in one sequence after his supplies are running dangerously low, he writes: “Today I had Nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. Just take hot water and add nothin’.” This upbeat attitude makes his circumstances bearable for us.

This is just a terrific tale of remarkable survival and the fact that it’s fiction does not lessen its drama in the least. It’s a fast, fun read, and I highly recommend it.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Dec 21, 2014

: 300: Rise of an Empire

I really liked the first movie, but this one was very strange. It had a similar cool style, but the story was very weak. It was too convoluted and with most of the battles taking place in ships at sea, it was hard to follow what was going on. It also isn’t about the Spartans but the Greeks, and we just don’t get the same sense of overwhelming odds against a small group of people. This one features far too much about who the bad guys are, building them up and actually making them seem not quite as evil (since we understand them). In the end this is simply a lot of action. In that regard it’s okay, but it’s not a standout film like the first one.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 20, 2014

: Divergent

The sounded like such a rip off of The Hunger Games — set in the future, postapocalyptic society divided into different groups with a female hero — that I avoided it in the theaters. But it’s actually pretty good. It’s still somewhat hampered by its gimmick, but it has a surprising amount of depth that I didn’t expect and actually works pretty well.

In this world, everyone belongs to one of five factions based on personality type. All except our heroine, Tris, who is “divergent” and doesn’t belong to any faction. This makes her dangerous because she can’t be controlled.

The actual story of this movie is her joining the Dauntless (warrior) faction and having to go through their rigorous initiation and training to become a member while hiding that she’s divergent. Eventually she stumbles upon a plot to overtake the government and manages to stop it because of her divergent personality.

Nothing too remarkable there, but it’s interesting enough to keep your attention. What really makes everything work is the performance of Shailene Woodley in the lead. She’s physically perfect as an underwhelming soldier, yet not so feeble that she can’t convincingly portray the later action scenes when required.

I like that this particular movie finished its storyline and didn’t end in the middle of a sentence like so many of these trilogies do, but the ending was a little confusing and left a lot of questions unanswered (presumably stuff that will be explained in the next movie). In the end, this isn’t a film without major flaws (there are many), but it’s fun enough that you can overlook them.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Dec 17, 2014

: Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

I haven’t read this since high school. I thought I didn’t remember much beyond it’s about book-burning, but I was really surprised at how much I did remember. There were little futuristic touches — like billboards hundreds of feet long because cars zoom by so fast — that I hadn’t remembered came from this book.

But what really impressed me is the quality of the writing. It’s been a while since I’ve read Bradbury. I’m a big fan, certainly, but I mostly remember reading his stuff for the stories. With this book I was struck by how masterful a writer he is (was). The descriptions, pacing, and artful way he tells a simple story is just brilliant. It’s no wonder this is a classic.

Another thing that I noticed is how prescient the book is — the book-banning in the novel was not caused by a dictatorship or evil plot, but simply out of convenience to keep the mobs satiated. It developed gradually over a hundred years of publishing fluff and nonsense, where people read less and less and focused more on mindless entertainment via TV. That’s really the core of Fahrenheit 451: it’s an attack on stupidity. Reading it now, it sounds like a diatribe against reality TV and 200-word “articles” on Internet sites! So scary that a book written 60 years ago would describe today’s world so accurately.

Topic: [/book]


: Mr. Monk On the Road

This is one is weak on mysteries and focuses more on the relationship between Monk and his brother, Ambrose. It’s Ambrose’s birthday and as a present, Mr. Monk has the far-fetched idea of renting an RV and taking his brother out on the road (since Ambrose hasn’t left his house in 30 years).

It’s definitely well-done and I did enjoy reading about familiar places I’ve been (like Santa Cruz), but in the end it’s not a very satisfying Monk book. Sure, he finds some murders and solves them, but they’re minor, and the resolution isn’t that great. I like the Ambrose character, but this book just didn’t work as Monk book for me.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Dec 06, 2014

: The Day

Usually I fast-forward through these kinds of movies and don’t bother to comment on them. This horror film about a small group in an apocalyptic world who fight off cannibals at a farmhouse had an interesting cast (one of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings is in it), so I recorded it. It’s not a great movie — but it’s got some unusual appeal and I ended up actually watching it.

It starts off really slow with a rag-tag group of survivors finding a deserted farmhouse and making camp there. Everyone is on edge and terrified, but we don’t know why. There are hints that the world ended ten years earlier, but there’s no explanation of exactly what happened. I liked that. There are a couple of flashbacks from some of the characters, but they’re brief and it’s not too heavy-handed.

One of their group is a strange woman who doesn’t talk. She’s an outsider and a loner. Then suddenly the men are attacked: the farmhouse is a trap by cannibal tribe who plan on eating them. The odd woman fights them off and kills them, but not before one of them talks to her and reveals that she’s a cannibal, too. That’s when things get interesting: suddenly her friends attack her and torture her and plan to kill her. One of the men had his wife and daughter killed by cannibals and he’s the most avid about making the odd woman’s death as painful as possible.

But this isn’t really the right time for that: reinforcements of the cannibals are coming, and if the group is caught on the open road, they’d be easily slaughtered. At least at the farmhouse they have a fighting chance. And they decide to keep the woman alive for the moment, as she knows the cannibal ways and can help them fight. She reveals that her baby sister got sick and was eaten by her tribe, and so she killed them and ran away. The others don’t think that she’s really changed and plan to kill her for her crimes anyway.

That whole “Is she a friend or not?” question was fascinating and well-done. The actual cannibal fighting was merely okay. Really annoying was the high-frequency sound-effects the director used — we’re the talking dog whistle variety that grates on your nerves and was clearly designed to freak out the viewer but just pissed me off and trite and far too obvious. The ending was unusual and pretty cool.

In the end, I have to recommend the film if you’re into gory horror of the dark variety. It’s got some intriguing ideas. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, and even fans will find it dry at times, but it’s got just enough depth to take it slightly above routine horror.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I wasn’t a big fan of the “original”, and my feelings remained in this one. It has similarly non-sensical plot problems (particularly galling is how regular people turn into villains with little provocation and the way they master their superpowers with zero effort or practice), and though it has a few clever ideas (I liked the explanation for why the spider bite worked on Peter Parker), those good things are offset by other flaws. Combine that with a bizarre and sad ending and I’m still asking, “Why’d they bother?”

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 04, 2014

: Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out

I remember when I got this I wasn’t too excited: the premise sounded too depressing. Basically Monk loses everything in a Ponzi scheme, so 80% of the book is him and Natalie struggling for money. Yeah, lots of fun. They get low-end jobs and are promptly fired when Monk is Monk (i.e. telling pizza restaurant patrons they’re all going to die because they’re eating with their hands). Only mildly amusing.

Fortunately, there are a couple of “impossible” murders for Monk to solve, and though those aren’t impossible to figure out, they are clever and well-done.

Overall, this is a below-average Monk book: limited humor, only a handful of mysteries, and a rather depressing economic situation. But that still is better than most books and if you’re a Monk fan, it’s not a bad read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Dec 03, 2014

: Mr. Monk on the Couch

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a Mr. Monk book. They’re usually great, but because they each have to be written as somewhat standalone books, they get rather repetitive when you read several in a row as the whole Monk premise (a severely obsessive-compulsive detective) and I got rather burned out on them.

This was a delightful way to get back into it. I loved that the book is full of tons of little mysteries he solves while the big murder mystery continues in the background. In this one the big mystery was predictable (several murders that turned out to be related), but it didn’t bother me as it was an entertaining read. As always, it’s full of terrific humor and Monk insanity. One of the better Monk books.

(I still can’t believe they canceled the TV show. I miss it so much! But at least there appears to be a slew of new Monk books for me to check out.)

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Nov 16, 2014

: The LEGO Movie

When this movie came out last spring, I boycotted it. I had numerous reasons to dislike it without seeing it. I thought the idea was too artificial, a movie forced into being by a toy company. I’m huge fan of Legos — they were my favorite toy as a kid — but I abhor the little Lego people. (Back in my day, we didn’t have those. If you wanted people in your Lego town, you had to build them up from blocks!)

Despite those obstacles, I might have still seen the movie, but the trailer was awful: a bizarre mix of pop culture references and a plot about “the chosen one” seemingly ripped off from the Matrix and a few dozen other films. When the film became a huge hit, I stayed away out of spite. I didn’t want to encourage such cheapness.

Well, tonight the film debuted on HBO and out of curiosity, I watched it. It’s terrific. It opens with an ordinary Lego guy in a totalitarian society where everyone is supposed to follow the instructions. This is clearly a metaphor of those who build Legos via imagination and free will versus those who rigidly follow step-by-step instructions.

This society is pretty cool in some ways — the “rules” are often hilarious — but lame in others (the bad guy is the unimaginative and bizarrely named “President Business”). As the movie continued into a weird mishmash of popular culture — suddenly Batman and Superman and even Star Wars characters are in the movie — I was even more puzzled (and slightly revolted, if I must be honest).

At one point I had the wild idea that perhaps everything that seemed lame was actually part of a brilliant plan by the screenwriters and everything would actually make sense in the end. Of course, that was ridiculous and impossible.

Guess what? The ending of this is what did it for me. The bulk of the movie is a rather crazy high-speed adventure story of the ordinary guy being forced into the hero role… but while everything seems to be haphazard and crazy for the sake of craziness, everything is there for a reason. The ending actually does explain everything! It’s freaking genius. I’m in awe of this ending. All the nonsensical stuff in the middle is perfectly rational once you know what’s really going on. (And that reason really appealed to the child in me.)

And to top it off, there’s a great moral lesson in the story about being true to yourself, that everyone (even the most ordinary of us) is special, and there’s no wrong way to build — which is not only a great life lesson, but is particularly amazing when connected (Ha ha, see what I did there?) with Legos.

As a kid the thing I hated more than anything was when someone else tried to tell me the “right” way to build something with Legos. (I can remember dozens of times when adults would show me the “right” way to do something and I would pretend to listen and as soon as they left, I’d destroy what they did and redo it my way. That right there should tell you everything you need to know about me as a person.)

The whole point of Legos is that you can use your imagination and do whatever you want. Clearly these filmmakers understood that, and that I think that’s why they made this movie.

So the bottom line is that while the promotion of this film failed for me as it tried to look hip and cool and just came across as bizarre and confusing, it actually is an ingenious invention, and utterly worth your time. It’s a blast.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Nov 13, 2014

: The Scarecrow

Author: Michael Connelly

Apparently this is a sequel to a previous book, The Poet, that I hadn’t read. That’s not a big deal as this one happens ten years later. In that one our journalist hero tracked down a serial killer and it made his career. In this one he’s a victim of the fall of the newspaper industry and is being downsized. He’s got two weeks left and in those few days, he uncovers the biggest scoop of his career.

Random women are being murdered and left in the trucks of cars, but the murderer is a technical genius who is incredibly careful to not leave any clues and to vary his crimes so that no one even realizes it’s a serial killing. He always sets up a patsy to take the fall.

What I liked about this is that how our journalist uncovers this truth is believable and not forced. He’s soon on the trail of an unknown subject, while at the same time, the hacker already knows he’s being stalked and is hunting the hunter. The result is a cool cat-and-mouse game with some thrilling suspense.

The book’s a few years old (2009), so some of the tech is dated, but it’s surprisingly realistically done. The ending is a little anticlimactic, with Connelly trying too hard to be unpredictable, but it’s still a fun read and above average. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Nov 12, 2014

: Interstellar

This is a masterful film. While I went to see it mildly curious about the science fiction elements, what made me fall in love with it were the human relationships. The heart of the story is about the love of a daughter for her father. The ten-year-old is unconventional, a square peg in society’s round hole, and her father adores her for it and encourages her to think for herself.

The setting is a future where the earth is running out of food. Blight is gradually ruining all crops, turning the earth into a dust bowl, and the world is starving. The father’s a former astronaut, now a farmer, since the world needs food and not engineering.

The film begins with the daughter talking about ghosts in her room, as books have fallen off her shelves. The family humors her, but later the father decodes a hidden message written in the dust by the “ghost” which leads him to the location of a secret installation run by NASA.

There he learns that an expedition is underway to save the human race. As there’s a scarcity of experienced astronauts, he’s elected to lead the mission. A wormhole has been discovered near Saturn, and via it we can travel beyond our solar system. There’s hope for humanity, but the man must make the terrible decision to leave his family with the possibility of never seeing them again. Or, equally grim, returning home to find that while only a few years have passed for him, decades have passed for his daughter and everyone on earth, due to the effects of relativity.

Thus we’re set up with our key premise: the fate of our species versus the fate of our families. Which is more important? What sacrifice is too great? This same theme is beautifully echoed in smaller ways during the space mission as the crew of the ship must make similar decisions, due to lack of resources (fuel, oxygen, etc.).

It’s difficult to reveal much more without spoiling the story, but I’ll just say that everything resolves itself in a fascinating, and though wildly improbable, scientifically sound scenario. The film is gorgeous, dramatic, frightening, exciting, and thought-provoking, and yet because it’s so grounded in a “simple” father-daughter relationship, heart-breaking. The greatest testament I can say is that though the film is nearly three hours long, I didn’t look at my watch once. It didn’t even occur to me, as I was mesmerized, holding my breath about what was going to happen next. Definitely the must-see film of 2014.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 08, 2014

: Non-Stop

This was not really what I was expecting. Obviously it was promoted as being similar to Taken, but there’s a lot less action — it’s more of a psychological thriller. That is more interesting, except that this is by-the-numbers and far too implausible.

The basic concept is a troubled air marshal is on a transatlantic flight and he starts receiving text messages from a passenger who says he’s going to kill somebody every 20 minutes if he doesn’t receive $150 million. As the air marshal investigates, it turns out everything is set up to frame him for a hijacking since with his past he’s a perfect patsy.

That part is intriguing, but then the whole thing becomes bogged down with texting technology (we have to read long conversations between the terrorist and hero) and turns into a “island” mystery where everyone is a suspect and no one can leave. The problem with that kind of thing is that we can’t trust the screenwriter: we soon don’t believe anything were told and we’re looking for secondary motivations for everything anybody does.

As always in such stories, the resolution is a letdown and not nearly as interesting as all the alternative scenarios we dreamed up while we were watching the movie.

Because of the cast and certain other aspects of the film it is watchable, but not nearly as good as it should’ve been.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 07, 2014

: Big Hero 6

I didn’t know anything about this going in except that it was about a boy who builds a robot that looks like a giant marshmallow. (It turns out the story is actually based on a graphic novel series.)

Right from the beginning I was intrigued because it was clear this was not a “little kid’s movie.” Our hero teen — a tech genius — is engaged in illegal gambling and gets arrested, and soon there’s the death of a major character, storylines you don’t usually find in lighthearted cartoons.

That death motivates our hero, who soon figures out that someone was trying to steal his invention and use it for evil. It is at this point that the film becomes a superhero movie as the boy enlists some friends and with his tech they all become superheroes and go try and stop the villain. It’s really fun, unusual, and totally cool, but it’s also grounded in real characters and a real story with heart. Two thumbs way up!

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Oct 03, 2014

: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

Author: Steig Larsson

This is the third book in the Millennium trilogy. It picks up right where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, dealing with the aftermath of Lisbeth being sought and caught for murders she didn’t commit. We also continue to explore the conspiracy that was revealed in the second book, and we learn a lot of Lisbeth’s history which helps make the entire series make more sense.

In this one, the main plot involves preparation for Lisbeth’s trial and her defense, with many friends coming to her aid, while enemies plot to convict her. I really enjoyed this, particularly with how Lisbeth, despite being confined to a hospital and under guard, is able to do her computer hacking and help stop bad people. I also like that this finally concludes all the storylines and is a satisfying finish to the series.

(I hear that Larsson left behind a half-finished fourth novel and plans for more, and those might be written by a ghost writer. I’m not sure I’m too excited about that, but that mainly depends on how complete his notes were.)

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Sep 10, 2014

: The Real iWatch

Yesterday’s Apple presentation provided much to ponder, but, as usual, I have some preliminary thoughts.

Most fascinating to me is what a machine Apple has become. Products like the iPhone — despite being Apple’s most important product by far — were barely mentioned, at least in comparison. That’s mostly because little needs to be said. Every year Apple improves the iPhone and this year is no different (though there isn’t something as ground-breaking as TouchID).

Apple Pay has the potential to revolutionize a whole new industry, and yet that’s the future, and everyone wants to talk about the watch.

No one was sure before the announcement if Apple was going to actually release a watch or some other wearable, but a watch makes more sense in so many ways: there’s a lot more information presentation available on a watch than a bracelet or clip-on device, and a watch is a much more socially acceptable type of jewelry than glasses.

That said, many will be “disappointed” that it’s “only” a watch. Or that the price is so high (keep in mind that the $350 is the starting price, and there’s no word if that includes a strap or which band that would be).

But it’s clear from several aspects of the Apple Watch announcement what Apple is doing.

The Apple Watch is high-end jewelry.

This is required to make the watch palatable by those who no longer wear watches. The price is high because of the craftsmanship involved more than the embedded technology. It’s not hard to predict that less expensive Apple Watches will be available down the road with less expensive bands.

Apple is going all-in on the watch.

The fact that Apple would launch a new product like this with not one model, but 18 is astonishing. Apple is famous for being a company that can fit their entire product line on a single table. This is just beginning of the watch variety, too — undoubtedly they’ll release more designs later (I predict new bands coming out all the time, part of why Apple has recently hired several famous designers).

Apple is not testing the market with the Apple Watch. Apple believes it will be hugely successful and is putting huge engineering, design, and marketing efforts behind the venture. That tells me they are more than confident that this kind of wearable is the future.

Since select Apple employees have been using the prototypes in daily life for a long time (perhaps years), I suspect they know something we don’t. With technology this personal, it’s very hard to understand it without actually experiencing it.

I just recently found an article I wrote back in 2007 where I talked about how, though I admired the upcoming iPhone, I wasn’t going to buy one. Why didn’t I want one? Oh, I wanted one, I just didn’t think I needed one. Back then it was enormously expensive — $600 up-front just for the phone, plus $75/month in a cellular contract. Back then I barely used a cell phone except for emergencies.

Flash forward today and you’ll have to pry my iPhone out of my cold, dead hands. I could not live without my iPhone. It’s essential to my everyday work and life. I cannot begin to detail all the things it does for me. The list is practically endless.

I think the Apple Watch will be similar. Right now most of us are going, “Neat. Great tech. But nothing I need.” Of course, just like the original iPhone, many of us will buy the thing. Though it’s a lot of money, I suspect I will.

Once I start using the watch, it will transform my life in subtle ways I can’t predict. Tiny hassles like a text message I can’t read today because my phone’s in my pocket and I’m driving will be a thing of the past (it’d be trivial to read a few words on my wrist without distracting me from the road).

The fitness monitoring would become standard (already I have such technology and it’s amazing how quickly it becomes the “norm”), as would many other features, such as being able to see weather forecasts just by raising my wrist or having walking directions without having to look at a map.

I bet I’d be able to keep my iPhone hidden away much more, using the watch for routine things, like seeing who is calling or emailing, or for quick responses or questions. The convenience of a computer on my wrist sounds extravagant, but I suspect it will soon feel essential.

Apple knows all this because they don’t release products without using them for a long time first. I bet even within Apple their were many skeptics about how “useful” a smartwatch would be, but after using the Apple Watch for the last year or two (in various prototype configurations, no doubt), they’ve realized that a watch really is more convenient than a phone. Even if the watch requires a phone nearby for certain activities, it’s still much easier to have the phone in a pocket and a screen on your wrist.

We shall soon see if Apple’s right, but I wouldn’t bet against them. They don’t release products just because it might be successful. They already know. (Remember how Steve Jobs changed the name of the company from Apple Computer to just Apple on the day of the iPhone launch? He knew it would utterly transform the company and he was absolutely right. Pundits weren’t sure if the iPhone would succeed — many predicted failure — but Steve knew.)

Heart of a nano

I can’t write about the new Apple Watch without mentioning the previous “iWatch,” the square iPod nano I’ve used as a watch since Steve Jobs died.

I was extremely puzzled by Apple’s decision to change the nano’s design and “kill” the tiny square that could be adapted into a watch. I thought the form factor was awesome.

As a watch, it has some key flaws: battery life isn’t great, you can’t see the time unless you press a button, it takes a few seconds to wake up from sleep if you haven’t used it in a while, the screen is invisible in bright sunlight, and it’s a tad bulky. Of course, it’s not really a watch — it’s an iPod with a few watch faces — so there’s a lot of missing functionality.

But it’s clear to me that the folks who worked on the nano quickly realized the potential of a computer on the wrist. I’m now convinced that Apple killed that nano design as a way to hide the fact that they were designing a real watch. This new watch has nano roots, but this time it’s not an iPod that happens to be small enough to put on your wrist, but a device designed from the ground up as a watch.

That’s really cool. The nano is my favorite watch in many ways, but its limitations are frustrating. Having a real watch that’s very similar is compelling. Though I’m not excited about having to spend $400 to get one, I do love the concept and I can’t wait to try out an Apple Watch in a store.

Topic: [/technology]