Sat, Apr 25, 2015

: High Expectations: Apple Watch

Recently I helped a friend with her iPad. I’d showed her how to use FaceTime for free phone calls, but she panicked when she couldn’t figure out how to hang up on a call. She’d switched away from the phone screen and no longer saw a red phone “disconnect” button. Her problem was trivial and utterly obvious to anyone who’s used an iPhone — touch the colored status bar at the top of the screen that returns you to the active call — but since she only has an ancient dumbphone, it wasn’t at all obvious to her.

This experience made me realize just how much user interface we take for granted. Sure, today’s devices are remarkably easy to use for all the power they give us — but that’s because they’re built upon decades of computer use. No modern person would have a problem in using a simple calculator — but give that to a person 100 years ago accustomed to doing math on paper and they wouldn’t have a clue how to use it.

I bring this up because today we have a new user interface paradigm: the Apple Watch. On the one hand, I’m really impressed with all the incredible work Apple has done. The Watch is deep, full of thoughtful design touches, remarkably powerful, and surprisingly useful. On the other, it’s more complicated than any 1.0 product in history.

If we look back at the original 2007 iPhone, it wouldn’t even be sellable today: no third-party apps, tiny low-resolution screen, feeble hardware, not even support for copy-and-paste! Apple Watch 1.0, in relative terms, is far more advanced.

And yet, in a way, the original iPhone’s limitations were key in making the device acceptable. It was a huge leap forward in capability, but too big of a leap can be overwhelming for many users. That’s the first impression on Apple Watch for most people: “Wow, that’s… neat… but way too complicated for me!”

Apple Watch is new. Apple Watch is different. Just because you know how to use an iPhone doesn’t mean you know how to use an Apple Watch. It uses a different design language, a different metaphor, and has new use cases.

This makes sense. Apple understands at the deepest level that Apple Watch is not a phone. However, if you don’t understand that, it might frustrate you. You might not understand the point of it, wonder why you need it, or chafe at the device’s limitations.

Here’s one example. I received my Apple Watch yesterday (stainless steel with Milanese Loop, if you’re wondering) and allowed the default of installing all available third-party applications onto the watch. (This isn’t all apps in the world: just the ones on my phone that also have watch components.) This meant that a number of apps I barely use or haven’t used in years suddenly showed up on my watch. I didn’t even recognize the icons and most of the watch apps have such a minimal interface that you can’t even tell what app is running. Many of the apps basically showed me an empty screen with a message along the lines of “configure our iPhone app so something shows up here.”

I could look at this as frustrating and annoying. I’m sure many people will. I bet tons of people will just delete these apps as being “useless.” But this is the nature of watch apps: attempting to configure gobs of options on a tiny watch screen isn’t practical. Apple has done a very clever thing in making watch apps be tied in with iPhone apps. Perhaps some day that won’t be required, but for now it makes installing, managing, configuring, and using watch apps a lot simpler.

To elaborate on this with a practical example, I’m heading on a trip next week, one I booked through Orbitz. I noticed the Orbitz app on my watch, but it was empty. I realized I had downloaded but never even run the app on my phone. Sure enough, I wasn’t logged into my Orbitz account. Once I put in my login and password on the phone — not something you’d want to have to do on a tiny watch screen — all the details of my trip were on my watch! I can see my upcoming flights, travel times, eticket codes, etc. That’s awesome info to have on my wrist and will be incredibly helpful and convenient during my travel.

This illustrates the ideal use case for the watch: it is purposely simple and limited (I can’t log into my Orbitz account on the watch; that’s a complicated task that must be done on the phone), but what it does do is even better than on the phone as when I’m going through airports carrying luggage I don’t have to fuss with my phone to find my travel details.

Some will chafe at the watch’s limitations. For instance, you can read emails and delete them, but you can’t move them or reply to them. Text input is via either canned responses (typed on the iPhone, of course) or Siri dictation; Apple Watch has no typing keyboard. Most apps are “baby” versions of the main iPhone app with minimal features.

Yet I think as we use the watch, we will see these limitations make sense. Why would we want to reply to emails on the watch? That’s a complicated task much better suited to the bigger screen on an iPhone. Who would be masochist enough to want to type even a few words on a 1” watch screen?

In demonstrating the watch for my mother yesterday (she happened to arrive just a few minutes after the watch’s delivery), I discovered that just holding my arm up to use the watch for more than a few minutes was quite agonizing. There is no way you’ll want to actively interact with the watch for more than a few seconds. In that use case, it is useful. Having Siri available on your wrist for quick reminders or questions, being able to do a little email triage when you’ve got a minute in a checkout line, glancing at the screen for the latest stock quotes or weather report, or using your wrist to pay for something — these actions are all accomplished in seconds, not minutes, and are more convenient than fishing out your phone.

Once you wrap your head around the watch’s intentional limitations, you’ll start to think about how interact with it in a different way and its user interface, which seemed confusing a first, will begin to make more sense.

The Watch That Isn’t a Watch

It doesn’t take much foresight to realize that just like the iPhone isn’t really a phone, Apple Watch isn’t really a watch. And yet Apple has specifically engineered Apple Watch to revolved around a watch-like interface and features.

This is smart on several levels. It makes Apple Watch more approachable, and it also sets up expectations. While Apple Watch really is a computer on the wrist, it doesn’t work like that. It works like a watch.

The main screen when you activate the watch (by merely raising your wrist) is a clock face. You can add “complications” (extra information widgets) to customize the display if you want, but it’s still basically a watch.

Contrast this with an iPhone or computer screen where the default thing you see are app icons or the contents of your storage device (apps or documents).

On Apple Watch, the watch face is the main screen. While there is an app screen — that colorful collection of circular app icons you’ve seen in pictures — it requires an extra step to get there.

And only from the watch face can you access Notifications and Glances. Notifications are a swipe down from the top of the watch. They consist of alerts from various apps (you can configure which ones and perhaps even what kind of information they’re alerting you about). Notifications are a big part of the watch for many, as if you’re busy they can be faster and more discrete than pulling out your phone all the time.

Glances are far more interesting to me: you can set which Glances are available (and their order) and they provide a simple screen with a little bit of information. For instance, the weather one could show you weather, the stock one the value of your stocks, and so on. Apple includes several for monitoring your watch’s battery level, your own activity level, your calendar, heart rate, music playback, and more. You access Glances with a swipe up (and then swipe left/right to move between them). I’m new to the watch, but already I think these will be used much more than actual apps. (They’re also a really handy way to actually launch the full app as a touch on them opens the app without having to search for it in the icon grid.)

Speaking of apps, prior to playing with an Apple Watch, I was most concerned about the overwhelming nature of the potential of too many app icons. While that’s still a concern, it’s not nearly as bad as it seems. First, you can disable any third party apps you don’t want to see. Second, you can arrange the icons in whatever order you’d like (for instance, putting your most used apps front and center). Finally, I suspect most people will only use a few key apps or access them via Glances. Remember, the watch is not a phone!

A Personal Device

Apple likes to describe Apple Watch as the “most personal device” they’ve created. That sounds like vague marketing-speak, but I believe it’s sincere. Not only is the watch intimately tied to your body, but the way it’s used means that it must be highly customized to your specific needs. You’ll organize the apps you want, the Glances you want, and the watch faces you want. After a while, I imagine putting on someone else’s watch would feel as weird as using someone else’s computer or phone. Yet I suspect the feeling would feel more like a violation, as your watch is you.

While Apple Watch is configurable — especially the watch faces — Apple has limited what you can change in ways that will probably annoy many. For instance, you can’t create your own watch face with a photo. There are no third-party faces, either. There aren’t that many built-in faces (I miss some of the classic watches from my iPod nano), and worst of all, not all support the same complications.

Currently you can add only a handful of complications — the date, temperature, battery level, stock quote, stopwatch, etc. — and you don’t always have a choice of what can be added where. That can be frustrating for tinkerers. I don’t believe it will always be this way, but I think Apple deliberately did this to keep things simple for the initial release. Over time the watch will open up, just like the iPhone. I’d love the ability to design my own custom watch face!

A Learning Experience

Though it feels like I’ve read everything written about Apple Watch since last fall and I played with an actual watch at the Apple Store for over an hour the other day, I discovered I still had a lot to learn. Some things made sense: I’d never gone through the pairing process to tie a watch to my phone before, so that was new (and incredibly well-done by Apple).

Other things were a bit more awkward and the experience wasn’t magical. For instance, I successfully paired my Bluetooth headphones with the watch but couldn’t get music to play through them. It was bizarre and there’s really no trouble-shooting possible on the watch. I searched through every setting I could find and nothing worked: music kept playing on my iPhone instead of the watch.

I finally decided that perhaps that was because the music was stored on my phone, not on the watch, so I figured out how to sync some songs to the watch. That took longer than I planned, because I didn’t notice Apple’s subtle text on the Apple Watch app on the iPhone that explained that syncing would only happen while the watch was charging. Once I got the songs onto the watch, there was still more info needed: I had to read the manual (free on the iBookstore) to discover that I need to hard press on the music app on the watch to bring up a “source” option that lets me choose between watch music and iPhone music.

Once I got through all that, I managed to get tunes playing through my headphones. But I still couldn’t do phone calls. After a lot of frustration, more research finally revealed something shocking: while Bluetooth headsets are required for music playback, they aren’t supported for phone calls!

I don’t know how I missed that info, but my initial reaction was a bit of outrage. It seemed like a critical feature that was missing. While I’m grateful the watch does have a tiny (tinny) speaker on it, it’s not very audible and you wouldn’t want to use it for more than a few sentences. (It also runs the watch battery down fast.) I pictured myself out for a walk while listening to music from the watch, receiving a phone call, and struggling to communicate in the wind and outdoor noise. If that was the situation, it pretty much meant no phone calls with the watch.

However, once I calmed down, I believe the solution for this simple enough: forget pairing a headset to the watch. Just pair it to the iPhone instead. Then it works like always, except you can keep your phone in your pocket and initiate the call answer via the watch. You’ll have more music, too. The disadvantage is you have to have your phone with you, but for phone calls that’s required anyway. The only reason to pair headphones to the watch is if you went jogging without your phone.

I wish that had been communicated more effectively, but it’s not a dealbreaker. Using a Bluetooth headset seems like a natural, but I suspect this is a technical issue: if Bluetooth is already being using to connect the watch to the iPhone to handle the phone call, perhaps there isn’t enough bandwidth to do both at the same time.

Not all the watch’s surprises were negative: I hadn’t realized that Siri could be activated with a “hey Siri” command while the watch is awake. This makes it really easy as you don’t even have to press a button. Just raise your wrist and say something like, “Hey Siri, what movies are showing?” and she’ll give you a list of all your local movies. (Not only that, the listing includes mini-reviews and a synopsis, not just show times.)

I’ve also been pleased by some third party apps. I mentioned Orbitz, but I was delighted to discover that my food diary app (Lifesum) includes a watch app. It is clever in that it doesn’t ask me to enter specific foods and calorie calculations on the watch (which would be convoluted), but simply choose the size of a meal (small, medium, or large). The app then shows me how many calories remaining in my daily quota. Really nice and useful.

It’s also cool that my new Elgato Avea LED lightbulb is controllable via the watch!

Much More to Learn

I haven’t yet had time to use the watch’s fitness features, but already it’s bugging me to stand up every hour (which I find incredibly helpful). We shall see how useful it is during exercising (keep in mind I don’t do anything athletic), but I’m hopeful. I’m really curious about the heartbeat history. I don’t know if that’s useful info to have right now, but it could prove invaluable in the long run (there’s a history of heart trouble in my family).

I have yet to try Apple Pay, though I set it up, and I haven’t tried the remote control features. (Apple Watch will let me control my Apple TV, which is potentially useful. I find the iPhone app too cumbersome.)

There are plenty more watch features I haven’t used yet, but I haven’t even had this thing for twenty-four hours! And much of the watch will be judged by what I’m still using months from now, not what seems interesting during my initial exploration. Plus, there’ll be new apps coming out and who knows what will prove useful.

Is It For You?

The big question that everyone has about Apple Watch is: “Should they get one?”

I honestly can’t answer that. While there are some people who could argue that due to the nature of their jobs (i.e. hands are occupied) they need an Apple Watch, that’s not very many. For most, Apple Watch is a convenience, not a necessity. While it has a lot of useful features, there’s little it can do that your iPhone can’t already do. Even if you want the fitness tracking, there are simpler, cheaper trackers that are possibly more effective.

But Apple Watch is interesting and fun. The value of convenience can’t be underestimated. While saving a few seconds now and then doesn’t seem like much, once you’re used to it, you won’t want to live without it. I can picture Apple Watch becoming essential in a few years.

Apple Watch is complicated. There’s a lot to learn. There’s not much info out there and few experts to help you. Right now I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not into gadgets or if it seems expensive to you. For many, waiting until version 2.0 or 3.0 is probably the best course.

That said, Apple Watch is useful. I’m not disappointed, nor do I regret buying it. I even splurged on the more expensive stainless steel version. I’ll wear it for a while and see if it feels too heavy (I may decide I prefer the light aluminum version). Right now it feels slightly too heavy, a little too noticeable. That could change with time — it’s been years since I’ve worn a watch regularly.

I do really like the Milanese Loop band I chose. The rubbery sport bands, while not a bad fit or feeling, just seem too cumbersome to put on for me. If I have to hassle with it every morning I probably wouldn’t bother. I love that the loop fastens with a magnet so it’s always perfectly sized to my wrist, but I have had some trouble with the magnet sealing against itself while its off requiring a bit of fidgeting to get it ready to put on in the morning. (I suspect that will change as with experience I figure out what works.)

There are many who say that Apple Watch isn’t jewelry and shouldn’t be priced as such, especially since tech goes obsolete so quickly. While that’s true to an extent and for most the cheaper sport models are all they need, the truth is that if you’re wearing this every day, it by definition is jewelry, and for some folks it’s worth paying a bit more for something more stylish. (I don’t wear any jewelry at all, but even I wanted the higher-end steel watch.)

One thing that occurred to me regarding those who think Apple Watch is expensive is to compare it to the original iPod. I was an early adopter there as well, spending $399 on launch day for a device that was bigger and heavier than a modern iPhone, had only 5GB of spinning rust storage, a tiny black-and-white LCD screen, no wifi or Bluetooth, no sensors, and less battery life than Apple Watch. When you look at it that way, putting all the sensors and electronics into a thing about the size of a stack of six quarters is a steal for $399!

Topic: [/technology]

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Mon, Apr 20, 2015

: The Future Is Thin

I’m writing this on Apple’s new radically-thin MacBook. You know, the controversial one with the single USB-C port, ultra-flat keyboard, and gorgeous Retina display. The thing’s about as thick as an iPad — and that’s for the full clamshell, including the keyboard.

Granted, this clearly isn’t the laptop for everyone. For the same money you can get a laptop with a bigger screen, a more powerful CPU, and lots of ports for connecting stuff. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s only computer (unless all you did was email and typing), but as a secondary device or travel laptop, it could be ideal.

For me, this replaces my cute little 11” MacBook Air which I used as a writing and travel laptop. While some are criticizing this new MacBook as being underpowered, compared to my slow 2010 MBA with 64GB SSD and a mere 2GB of RAM, this guy is a speed demon. (According to my Geekbench tests, the new one is three times faster than my old one.) With my MBA, I really could only run one app at a time. Anything more would just put too much of a strain on the machine, both memory and CPU. I didn’t even try to run anything complicated on it and pretty much only used it for word processing and even there it lagged on occasion.

On the new MacBook I already have been able to have iTunes playing music in the background while type, have email and chat running, and Safari open for web research, and the thing runs without a hiccup. It doesn’t even have a fan, so while that means the base can get warm during intensive tasks (it got quite hot when I was installing many gigabytes of data onto it during initial setup), it also means that it’s blissfully silent no matter what you’re doing. Combined with its lightness and thinness, that means this guy feels a lot more like an iPad than a Mac.

What you’re really paying for with the new MacBook is simplicity. For some, that feels too expensive, and that’s understandable. Not everyone values simplicity. As a writer, however, simplicity means less distraction and the ability to focus. That’s incredibly valuable, and to me makes this new laptop feel well worth the price.

While some are calling this MacBook a “compromise,” that’s because they don’t understand it. One of those ugly cars with the pickup truck beds is a compromise — not quite a truck, not quite a car — this ultra-thin laptop is a design choice. By getting rid of things you hardly ever use (ports) and simplifying others (lower-power CPU, flatter keyboard), you’re able to create a lighter, more portable laptop. Somehow adding in an ultra-high-resolution Retina screen while still providing incredible all-day battery life, and you’ve got a new class of machine.

Personally, I like the limitations of this device. I’m not going to install Adobe Photoshop on it, or try to do video editing or make it my main computer. This is my distraction-free writing machine. It’ll also be awesome for travel, because it’s so thin and light but still a full Mac and can do anything I need (just a little slower).

I still prefer my iPad for consuming content — reading blogs and ebooks is a joy on iPad — but though I’ve tried hard to use iPad for writing, even with an external keyboard the process just isn’t the same. While a real keyboard provides the essential cursor keys I need, I still find navigating documents awkward, and no iPad word processor I’ve found lets me open more than one document at a time. Writing on a Mac is just more familiar and more powerful. With the new MacBook, I’ve got the best of both worlds — the size and weight of an iPad with the power of a Mac.

(I also find a Mac better for lap typing; since an iPad’s screen also includes the battery, iPads with keyboards tend to be extremely top-heavy. That’s made worse by the fact that they’re touch screen devices, so when you have to touch the screen — and you must on occasion as not everything can be done via the keyboard — the thing tips over.)

That Keyboard

Beyond the shock of only providing a single port on the laptop, the keyboard is the most divisive aspect of the new MacBook. It’s so thin that there’s less key travel so if you like a keyboard you can really press down on, this isn’t it. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say it’s not much better than typing on glass and that’s absurd — it’s far better than that, as not only are there key shapes for your fingers to feel, but there is a millimeter or two of travel; the keys do actually press down.

I can pretty much guarantee that the first time you try it you’ll hate it for a few seconds. It definitely feels different. But try typing and you’ll soon see that you can type on it. It’ll still feel weird, but it works.

I wasn’t ever able to get comfortable typing on the demo unit at the Apple Store, but it wasn’t at a proper desk height with a chair and a regular kind of typing position. Here at home I’ve been able to sit back and actually use the new keyboard for more than a few minutes and I’m delighted to say that already the “weirdness” is wearing off. I can’t say I’m completely comfortable yet, having only typed a thousand words or so, but I’m getting there much faster than I would have expected. I still make some typos as the positions of some of the keys are different, but it’s not as bad as I feared.

(I thought it might take me a week to get used to it and it’s now just thirty minutes in and I’m already typing at near my maximum speed. Note that I’m not a particularly fast typist. I think I range between 60-80 word per minute. Most of the time that includes me thinking about what I’m writing, though, so it’s not just pure typing. What matters to me is how my speed feels and already this is feeling pretty normal in terms of speed.)

The biggest change on the keyboard are the arrow keys. I’d read about them but forgot to test them at the store. Apple did an odd thing: with the previous MacBooks the arrow keys are all half-size. In the “inverted-T” configuration, this meant there was blank space above the left and right arrows. The new layout makes those keys full-height, so the empty space above is gone. I hadn’t thought that was that big of a deal, but so far about 90% of the problems I’ve been having are with the arrows. Because some are bigger, I tend to push the shift key above the up arrow when I want to go up. It’s like my mind assumes that they’re all the same size. I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker — it’s just going take me a little while to get used to the new layout. Since my main computer’s a MacBook Pro with the old layout, it’ll be interesting to see how I adapt switching between them regularly.

All that said, I’ve long maintained that keyboard preference is a bad thing (in the past I’ve purposely tried not to get too tied to one keyboard by frequently switching). Getting so addicted to one particular keyboard that you can’t use a different one is terrible, especially for a writer. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t prefer one over another, or choose a particular external keyboard that fits your needs better, but I just don’t like getting too attached as you’ll never know if that keyboard will be available. I think that attitude has helped me over the years as I transitioned from desktops to laptops and now to this new keyboard.

Force Touch Trackpad

In a way, the new trackpad isn’t worth mentioning. That’s because if I didn’t tell you it was Force Touch, you’d never even know. Force Touch means there is no trackpad button — the thing has taptic feedback which vibrates under your finger and tricks your brain into thinking you pushed down on something.

What’s really creepy is that if you keep pushing down you’ll feel a distinct second click. You’ll swear on your mother’s cookie recipe that you felt the trackpad descend an extra notch — and yet it didn’t.

I played around with it at the Apple Store and came up with two ways you can tell Force Touch from a regular trackpad. The first is that second harder push. A traditional trackpad has only one level of press. You can also tell if you push down on an older trackpad as you’ll feel it depressing on that side, sort of wobbling. With Force Touch, you can tap anywhere and the feedback is right under your finger so it feels like the trackpad went down wherever you pushed it.

You can prove this is an optical illusion just by shutting down the new MacBook — without electricity, the trackpad is utterly dead. Turn on the MacBook and instantly the trackpad starts clicking!

Force Touch isn’t an essential feature right now — though Apple’s already incorporating it in some neat ways, such as that extra-hard push bringing up a word’s dictionary defintion or activating QuickLook — but eventually it’ll be the way all trackpads work. That’s when we’ll see a lot of app developers try to take advantage of the new tech.

Retina Screen

The 11” MBA has long been a favorite of writers and travelers, simply because of its portability. However, the screen was never large or pixel-dense. On the 12” MacBook, however, Apple’s found the sweet spot. With the high-res screen you can choose between several resolutions — my preference is the 1440x900 mode, which gives me more screen real estate. Though menubars, text, and icons are smaller in this mode, everything is still readable and incredibly crisp and sharp. (You may find it easier to make the font size in your word processor larger, though.) The default 1280x800 isn’t bad, though other modes really make the screen seem too small.

Technically when you use the 1440x900 mode it’s no longer a true two-to-one Retina as it’s scaled, but it’s still Retina in the sense that you can’t see the dots. I didn’t find the scaling impacted performance in a negative way, but then again, this is a lightweight laptop for lightweight tasks. If you’re doing anything that’s making this guy struggle, you’re using the wrong tool.

Some might not see Retina as a critical feature, especially for a “low-end” laptop, but if you’re a writer or simply used to Retina on all your other Macs and devices, it’s this machine’s killer feature. Simply put, if this MacBook didn’t have Retina, I wouldn’t have bought it. Then it really would be overpriced. But with Retina you’re getting an amazing machine. I thought it would be years before Retina made it to this form factor — you’d think the extra pixels would be such a battery hog that it would just kill battery life.

If you don’t need Retina, the 11” MBA is fine for you. If you need Retina and having the thinnest and lightest laptop isn’t crucial, the 13” MacBook Pro is for you.

Battery Life

I haven’t had this thing long enough to really test the battery, but so far it’s not bad. I’m not quite sure it’s good enough to truly last an entire day of constant typing, but you might be able to dim the screen and turn off certain features to help you survive longer. For my uses, it’s just fine, and certainly better than my ancient MBA that gets three to four hours.

Just sitting around doing nothing but with the screen on, the MacBook seems on target for the nine hour range Apple claims. Typing in a word processor doesn’t impact the life much (after forty-minutes of typing, it now projects nine hours left), but web browsing, installing applications, multitasking (i.e. playing music in the background), and other activities do take a noticeable chunk out of the projected battery time. In short, if you push the processor, you’ll see worse battery life.

The problem with that is that it can be a significant drop. It’s not like if you do twenty-five percent more you’ll see a twenty-five percent drop in life: it’s more like a forty percent drop. (This is not a scientific judgment, just my rough guess after using this thing for a few days. It’s just the way it feels to me. I haven’t actually measured it.)

The conclusion I have is that if you’re doing simple things: email, word processing, etc., this thing will last all day. But mix in more complicated activities and you may start looking for a wall socket. Certainly not a deal-breaker for this type of lightweight machine, but if all-day battery life is crucial for you, then you need one of the bigger laptops.

One Port

When I first heard about this MacBook, I immediately dismissed it as an option for me. While the size/weight sounded attractive, and I loved the Retina screen, the idea of having only a single USB-C port for power and accessories was just too radical. What would happen when I needed to charge and connect something? I’d be toast!

Then I started to think about it. How many times have I connected something to my MacBook Air? A few times a year I hook up a hard drive for a full backup. (I don’t do it more often since all work on it is on my Dropbox and automatically synced and backed up to the cloud.) I might have plugged in a thumb drive once. Other than that, it’s only connected to power.

Since you can buy a USB dongle for $19, if I did need to connect something to the MacBook, I could. I realized that with the new MacBook’s long battery life, even if I needed to hook up something to it for several hours it wouldn’t be a problem.

Suddenly the lack of ports wasn’t as big of a deal as I’d thought. I do almost everything wirelessly anyway, and this laptop really does represent the future. While it would be nice if this had at least one extra USB-C port (I’d get rid of the headphone jack and put a USB-C port there and just use Bluetooth headphones for audio), it’s not a deal-breaker. If you’re in a situation where you need to connect something full-time (like an external hard drive) while still connected to power, this isn’t the laptop for you. Its whole purpose is to be light and portable, not connected to a bunch of stuff. So even though I’m positive a third-party will come out with a dongle that includes a regular USB and a USB-C port for charging, that’s not something the buyers of this laptop should be needing.

The Perfect Machine

No machine is perfect. A two-seater sports car is fast and nimble, but it’s useless for carrying cargo. A truck is great for hauling, but not so good for passengers. A mini-van is great for the school carpool, but it won’t win any races.

Certainly there are some computers that hit a sweet spot of size, weight, performance, capabilities, and cost — but any extreme machine like this MacBook is going to have specific use cases.

What I do like about this MacBook is that while it isn’t the most powerful and has some hardware limitations, it is still a full Mac. That means that while an app icon might bounce in the Dock during launch a few more times and a video make take a lot longer to encode, you can still do it. The same is true of the single port: you might have to fiddle with ugly dongles and there’s occasionally some inconvenience, but when you really do need to connect something, you can.

For many, those times we need hard-core processing or external accessories are rare enough that this is the ideal machine. Certainly if you’re a heavy traveler or writer and like the idea of working anywhere, this is nirvana. It’s now my favorite Mac for writing.

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, Apr 10, 2015

: Exoskeleton

Author: Shane Stadler

Very strange book. I’m not sure how I ended up with it, but it was not at all what I expected. I assumed from the title it was some sort of science-fiction story involving exoskeleton technology and someone would be doing cool, superhuman feats. It’s nothing like that.

Instead, this book is about torture. And not the good kind. The main character is convicted of a crime and chooses one year in an experimental “accelerated punishment program” instead of twenty-five years in prison. He’s then installed inside an exoskeleton which tortures him every day, taking him to the brink of death but using the exoskeleton’s tight connection with his body to just keep him alive and then repair him after his ordeal so he’ll be ready for more the next day.

Thus about 65 percent of this book is ready about a trapped guy having dental surgery without anesthesia, having his limbs stretched and bent the wrong way, and so on. All in excruciating detail. Literally.

There is sort of an absurd point to all this. I won’t spoil it by revealing it, but let’s just say it’s really out there, involving a government conspiracy, Nazis, and the supernatural.

Yeah. I’ve no idea what genre this book falls under — it’s some sort of bizarre scifi/horror/paranormal category.

In short, the book is an extremely unpleasant read, it makes no sense, and the twist is so ridiculous it’s just silly. I’m baffled at how this even got published, let alone why it’s getting good ratings on Amazon.

Topic: [/book]

Link

Thu, Mar 26, 2015

: Chappie

I had such high hopes for this flick. Coming from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, I thought he’d do something amazingly realistic and awesome.

Unfortunately, it’s clear in the first few minutes that Neill knows next to nothing about robots and artificial intelligence. While the humanoid robots look mildly interesting, they’re nothing remarkable (very similar to the robot in the 80s comedy Short Circuit), and they’re full of nonsensical items such screens on the back of the neck that stay on all the time, running the robot’s battery down for no purpose.

The plot was also not what I expected. I knew it was about a robot that becomes sentient, but it turns out the robot’s “adopted” by a band of moron criminals who proceed to teach the “baby” their questionable morals and ways. While that could have been interesting, the way it’s done is depressing: we don’t really like the bad guys and watching a robot swear like a gangster just isn’t as amusing as Neill seems to think.

The film just has tons of serious flaws. The title is stupid and awkward (there isn’t even a creative way the robot gets the name), about half of the movie’s dialog is delivered in severely accented South African English that’s difficult to understand, and there are dozens of bizarre and puzzling aspects. For instance, the “rich” robot corporation looks like a dump with crappy cubicles for their top engineers and even the CEO has an average-looking office, and I didn’t why on earth the kidnappers just let the kidnapped scientist go home after stealing his robot.

Almost all the characters are cheap stereotypes, from the gun-toting ex-military madman to the Indian programmer, and even the more interesting people (the weird-looking drug dealers) are never defined outside of their profession. You’d think the titular robot would at least be fun, but even it doesn’t have much personality.

Even worse are all the scientific inaccuracies and absurdities, from the way software is written (the compiler reports no errors so presumably the program is perfect though even a first year programmer knows that 99.9999% of bugs are only revealed through empirical testing), to a lot of jargon that means the nothing or the opposite of what the writers think. That’s all magnified by an absurd ending with even more over-the-top implausibilities. In comparison, Short Circuit is a marvel of scientific accuracy!

What’s really sad is this movie had so much potential: while the idea of a sentient robot is nothing new, one that emerges as a naive baby and learns about life from criminals is innovative, and it would have been cool to see moral conflict and emotion from the robot. There was also a lot of room in the film for exploring the differences between artificial intelligence robots and robots controls by human means (like drones), but while that was touched upon in the plot, it was never explored. I wouldn’t even recommend this to robot fans. Sad.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

Wed, Mar 18, 2015

: New Car

I just bought a new 2016 Mazda CX-5. Yeah, that’s not a typo: we’re only three months into 2015 and I’ve already gone ahead to next year and brought back a car!

It’s wonderful. I took some amazing pictures of it up at a local vineyard (click to see all the pictures):

While I love small, sporty cars, they just aren’t practical unless you also own something bigger for cargo. The CX-5 is the perfect blend of a mid-size SUV with reasonable gas mileage (30 highway, 26 average), while still retaining some of Mazda’s renowned “zoom-zoom” sports car drivability. (Comparing the CX-5 to Jeeps and Hondas and others I test drove, the Mazda was way better.)

No, it won’t win any races, but it sure is fun to drive. It has a “sports” mode button that gives you extra pep when you need it, and there’s even a “manual” mode where you can control the gear shifting yourself (without the hassle of a clutch). It’s the best of all worlds.

With the all-wheel drive, this thing is fantastically stable, even in the pouring rain. It doesn’t feel too big, either. I had been nervous about switching both vehicle type and manufacturer (my last three cars have all been Chryslers — not planned — it just worked out that way), but from the first test drive I was as comfortable in the Mazda as if I’d been driving an SUV for years. All the buttons were right where I wanted them.

I got it with lots of amazing tech. Some stuff I knew about and wanted (Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, support for iPods, keyless entry, push-button start, backup camera, dual climate control, navigation, moonroof, gas usage info, etc.) but there’s a lot I got that’s new to me. There are blind-spot sensors (the side mirrors light up when there’s a car in a blind spot), fantastic headlights (LED and they rotate with your turn), garage door opener buttons on the rear view mirror, rain-sensing wipers (ideal for Oregon), automatic braking (front collision detection), and much more. My favorite is the rear cross-traffic alert: it beeps when you’re backing up and cars/people are passing behind you. It’s great for busy parking lots, but also really useful when I back out of my driveway (I have a tree that makes it hard to see if a car’s in the road).

There are many habits I’m going to have to relearn: I keep wanting to shift (my previous cars have all been stick shifts), take my keys out of my pocket, turn the headlights and wipers off, etc. It’s really hard to just walk away from the car without locking it (it auto-locks when the key moves out of range), but I’m sure I’ll adjust from all these terrible hardships!

Topic: [/car]

Link

Tue, Mar 17, 2015

: Android’s Dream

Author: John Scalzi

What a crazy novel! It begins with the assassination of an alien via farting during a peace negotiation, and then things get odd. The plot has something to do with a custom breed of blue-haired sheep called Android’s Dream that’s key to preventing a war, but I won’t say more than that because it’s really impossible to explain anything about the story without a lot of detail that would spoil everything.

Just understand that while the book is hilarious and absurd, it’s extremely clever and doesn’t take any cheap shortcuts. (It’s actually plausible in terms of science.) Reminds me a lot of the HItchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Two thumbs up.

Topic: [/book]

Link

Thu, Feb 19, 2015

: My First Windows Tablet

As most know, I’m pretty thoroughly a Mac guy. I last regularly used a non-Mac in the 1980s (I bought my first Mac in 1989 and never looked back). In many ways, I missed the whole Windows era (when I used PCs, they ran DOS). Now that doesn’t mean I never used Windows: I ran it via emulation and even bought a used Dell back in the day (it’s in my garage now). But I found I didn’t like doing Windows development (too much hassle) and since I don’t actually use Windows, my Windows apps weren’t very good anyway. Why bother?

That said, I’ve always been a gadget fan. I’ve bought a lot of crappy tech over the years, just to learn about it. So when Paul Lefebvre mentioned a cheap Windows tablet on the Xojo blog, I decided the price was so good ($80 on sale) that it wouldn’t hurt to try it.

The tablet in question is an HP Stream 7, a petite 7” 32GB tablet. What’s fascinating is that this little guy runs full Windows 8.1, so you can run touch-optimized apps as well as regular desktop programs. Granted, the latter aren’t guaranteed to work that well, text and menus can become microscopic, and the hardware for this tablet isn’t particularly speedy, but overall I’m impressed that it works as well as it does. It’s rather cute seeing a full desktop computer in the palm of my hand, and quite useful.

Hardware

Among computer manufacturers HP has a better reputation than most, so I figured something they made couldn’t be too terrible. The screen (1280x800) is quite nice — perhaps not quite “retina” as Apple defines it, but certainly better than most tablets I’ve toyed with in stores.

The unit itself is plastic, heavy, and a little thick, but not so much as to be unwieldy. It feels like it’s heavier than my iPad Air 2, though it’s not, because it’s so dense. For reading ebooks, while the tablet’s size is like a paperback, it might be too heavy (more like a hardback dictionary). I may experiment with that with Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader (which works on any web browser).

The Stream is shockingly iPad-like in many ways: a single “Windows” touch button on the bottom of the front, with power and volume controls on one side. In terms of ports there’s a micro-USB for charging and adding accessories, and a headphone control. There also is a micro-SD slot, but it’s buried inside: you have to pry off the plastic back, which, while it works, doesn’t feel good (it looks and sounds like you’re breaking the thing).

The built-in storage is 32GB of flash memory, which really means closer to 24GB with about 19GB available after a basic install. (After I added Office, I have 17GB free.)

There also isn’t much RAM, just 1GB, but I didn’t notice any significant lagging and the unit was impressively responsive (though note I just fooled around and wasn’t trying to do actual work).

For instance, I painted with my finger in a drawing program and it kept up with my finger no matter how fast I zoomed around the screen. (I wasn’t painting just solid color, either, but “oil painting” strokes, which are a lot more complicated.)

In another test, I streamed several movies from my Mac’s Plex server and they worked just great over my home network. There was no skipping and I could jump to different places in the movie. (Though the playback controls are pretty minimal — there’s no fast-forward, rewind, or jump forward/back by 30 seconds like a lot of movie playback services offer.)

Launching Word from scratch takes long enough to be slightly annoying — three to seven seconds. Not terrible, but not instantaneous. Typing in Word and using it seemed fine, in terms of speed. (I haven’t used Word enough yet to comment on the interface, but I wasn’t wildly impressed with the “touch enhanced” UI.)

I even installed the Xojo IDE, though its minimum specs are above this tablet’s, and it seemed to work just fine. Launch speed and use wasn’t bad at all, though screen’s cramped.

Overall, this isn’t going to be a speed demon and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as your only computer, but as a secondary device and for mostly consumption use, it has plenty of power.

The Stream 7 has two cameras (the front one for video conferencing), but both are of mediocre quality. (Not bad, just not great, and certainly worse than even older iPad cameras.)

One real disappointment is the included speaker. It has so little volume you can barely hear it. On my iPad I can watch a movie just fine without headphones. The volume isn’t great, and in a noisy environment you might miss a line of dialog, but it’s usable. Not so on the Stream: the built-in speaker is fine for beeps and alert sounds, but you couldn’t use it for music or a movie without headphones.

Another annoyance is that the tablet doesn’t seem to use Apple’s anti-fingerprint technology. iPads fingerprint terribly, but this Stream is even worse. Nothing fatal, but you’ll find yourself wiping it off frequently.

Software

Of course, a tablet’s hardware is just half the equation. It can only do what the software allows. In this case, we’re talking about Microsoft’s strange merging of desktop and mobile in Windows 8.

Coming from a Mac, it’s probably no surprise that I found Windows 8.1 to be a challenge. There are lots of things I don’t like from a personal perspective, and some things that I don’t know how to use because I’m coming at the from a different viewpoint. But I was really shocked at how impressed I am with Windows 8.

Microsoft was very late to the party, and there are still a lot of rough edges, but the overall experience of a Windows tablet isn’t bad at all. They’ve managed to copy so much of Apple that at least on the tablet side of things, it was easy for me to use. Let me give you some examples.

Take the on-screen keyboard. On a whim I tried holding down a key and sure enough, alternative characters popped up. This was especially useful for quickly accessing numbers when I was entering passwords. On Apple’s virtual keyboard, you have to toggle the keyboard to a different numbers keyboard to type numbers (though Apple’s keyboard does let you long-press to access accented and other special characters).

Another thing that impressed me was features like privacy, such as me having to grant apps permission to use the camera, microphone, and so on. That’s something Apple pioneered and it’s good to see Microsoft following suit. Granted, Microsoft does have a million other settings that probably aren’t that necessary and are overly confusing to newbies, but most of that you can leave to the defaults and Microsoft does have an “express setup” mode which sets up most things they way you’d want.

The “tile” metaphor for apps is still sort of weird to me, and feels gimmicky. Some of that may be my lack of knowlege (I can’t figure out how to set the size of tiles, as some are larger than I’d like). I also don’t get why not all apps show up as tiles. However, tiles do work quite well and the “live” nature of could be useful (like the weather tile shows you the current temperature and a few other details without having to launch the app). Some are a little odd: the photos tile shows you one of your photos at random, which can be sort of bizarre if it’s something like a receipt or screen shot. (My OneDrive photos were sucked in from my iPad, so they contained a few weird items.)

I also liked the configuration options for the Lock Screen and the way the tablet automatically animates my pictures in a screen saver. Everything is similar to Apple, different, but well done.

Microsoft has also done a great job incorporating the cloud. I’d signed up for a free Microsoft OneDrive account a while back and I used that account to set up the new computer, which worked wonderfully. Automatically all my OneDrive content shows up on the Stream and there are options during setup to use it as the default location for certain things (such as your photos directory). You can also set it to automatically save everything to OneDrive in addition to the local device.

Speaking of setup, while the process was sort of lengthy, and there was a long “setting up” window (about ten minutes, I think), it was complete and pretty nice. The installation of Office was also smooth: I received a notification that a year’s subscription to Office was included with my device and I should redeem it before the offer expires (next August). I touched the button and it began the install process. It verified my subscription and also upped my OneDrive storage to 1TB (from 30GB).

Note that this particular tablet was bought as a “Signature” edition on the Microsoft store, so it came without viruses and spyware and junky bloatware. I’d highly recommend that. For me, as a non-Windows user, that’s even more important, both because I’m used to that on a Mac (which have no bloatware) and because I wouldn’t know what was bloat and what was normal so I’d either be afraid to delete or I’d delete the wrong thing.

Key Flaws

While overall I am surprised by how well Windows 8 works, that isn’t to say it’s perfect by any measure. The mix between traditional desktop and touch apps is confusing and doesn’t quite work. I definitely will have to do more learning and exploring there. For the non-tech user, I’d still strongly recommend an iPad, and it’s a much more uniform experience and there’s not as much confusing legacy stuff.

Part of the confusion is that there are multiple ways to get to the same thing. For instance, some OS settings are enabled via the touch interface, while others (sometimes addition ones, sometimes the same ones) are via the traditional desktop interface. It’s hard to remember which one is where, and even harder to know which ones you should mess with.

Another issue is that traditional Windows struggles with certain tablet standards. For example, both rotation and “small” screen size on this tablet caused me some problems. A few times I noticed that a button I supposed to click was actually off-screen (I rotated the tablet to change the view so the button was accessible). But the worst was when I compounded that problem with one of my own making.

I found out the hard way that certain settings should not be modified. While I was exploring the tablet I came across a touch settings control panel. There was a button to “calibrate” the touch and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to do that. (Decades ago I had a Palm that you needed to calibrate like that.) The calibrations screen had crosshair targets you’re supposed to touch to teach it where things are located.

However, while I was doing that, I accidentally rotated the tablet. It took a second or two for screen to update, but it did, redrawing the crosshairs at the new orientation. I continued doing the calibration. When I finished it asked if I wanted to save the new settings. I said yes.

Big mistake. Huge mistake.

Almost immediately I realized something was dreadfully wrong. What happened is that while the calibration screen had redrawn when I rotated the tablet, the software behind the scenes didn’t realize I’d changed orientation! The result was that I’d basically taught the tablet that my touches were nowhere near where they were supposed to be.

This was not a case where my touch was say, a half inch off of where I expected. This was a case where my touch in one spot could be identified as a touch anywhere else on the screen. We’re talking crazy, almost random touch placement.

For instance, I got out some paper and tried to make a “map” of the touch. I drew a diagram of where I actually touched and connected that where the touch actually reported. (Fortunately Windows 8.1 really helped out in this regard — it has a circular highlight that glows at where it thinks you touched. So I could touch in the upper right and I’d see a circle in the middle of the screen showing me it thought I really touched there.)

My diagram proved useless, however. The touches were so out of sync in was crazy. Just moving my finger by an eighth of an inch might move the actual touch location by two or three inches! I discovered there were many areas of the screen I couldn’t touch at all. Worse, the locations of these touches changed completely when you rotated the tablet!

I spent several hours trying to fix this. It was impossible. I couldn’t make anything work. For instance, just trying to launch a particular app was crazy hard: if I touched the app tile with my finger, the actual touch might be reported as several inches away and it would launch some other app!

I tried to get back to the calibration screen which had a “reset” button on it — but even when I got there, I couldn’t “touch” the button! Tapping around the screen had me tapping in all sorts of places and usually switched me to a different app. I never could tap the reset button.

It occurred to me that since this is a full Windows computer, in theory I should be able to connect a mouse to the thing. With a mouse I’d be able to tap what I point at it and it would take me just seconds to find and click the touch settings “reset” button. Except that I didn’t have a Bluetooth mouse (and couldn’t activate the Bluetooth button anyway). My corded USB mouse would have worked, I think, except that it had a traditional USB connector at the end, not a micro-USB like the port on the tablet. I considered running to town to see if a store had an adapter, but worried that might be a wild goose chase (I’ve no idea how rare those adapters are — I don’t recall ever seeing one).

Eventually I started looking for help on the Internet when a real disaster happened. Earlier I’d set up a four-digit PIN code password as my OneDrive password is auto-generated and a bear to type in (random letters and numbers). While I was on my Mac looking for answers, my Stream went to sleep and locked me out. That’s when it hit me: I had no way to type the PIN code as I couldn’t type on the on-screen keyboard!

Yes, I’d effectively hosed myself. I now had a useless brick. I tried and tried and got so I could enter a number or two (and sort of remember where on the screen I’d pressed for that number — remember, it was often nowhere near the actual number on the keyboard), but it was really easy to touch the wrong place and insert in the wrong number. If I was lucky, I noticed and was able to hit the delete key and erase it and continue. Once I managed to hit the first three letters of my passcode and I was so close… but then when I tried to type the fourth digit, it put in the wrong one. Microsoft conveniently tried to allow me in immediately (since it knew my PIN was four digits), but since the last digit was wrong, of course the PIN failed and I was kicked out. And Microsoft erased what I’d typed, so then I had to start all over!

This was a really frustrating nightmare, but I finally came up with an interesting solution. On the lock screen Microsoft has a button to turn on some assistive use features (like a screen reader for blind users). I managed to turn one of these on and it helped a lot. What it did allow me to tap on a target and then it would speak what I’d touched. To actually press that button I had to double-tap it. This helped because with my taps hitting keys pretty much at random, it didn’t type random numbers into the passcode field but merely spoke the key I’d touched. This way I was able to test out various places to touch until I got the right one, then double-tap in the exact spot (not easy), and finally I got the four-digit PIN entered and the tablet was unlocked. Whew!

But I was still back to square one. I’d gotten back in, but how could I erase my touch screwed-up touch settings? Fortunately, the experience with the number pad had taught me a few things. I finally managed to get into a Windows screen that lets you reset the computer (the “recovery” section). There were several options there and I had I devil of a time tapping one of the buttons. I ended up touching one that was pretty much an “erase and start over” which wasn’t ideal, but at this point I was so desperate, I didn’t care. From there I had several more “Next” buttons to press, but after about 15 minutes of grueling work, I got through the series of dialogs (Thank God it didn’t ask me to confirm the reset with a password!) and Windows rebooted.

After the reboot I had to redo all my setup: put in my wifi password, my OneDrive account info, redo all my preferences, etc. A pain, but at least touch was working correctly again!

During my troubleshooting research I learned that the touch calibration thing is primarily for desktop computers with a secondary touch feature. For tablets, where touch is the main interface, it’s not necessary. That’s a perfect example of a key flaw in Microsoft’s one-OS-for-everything approach: why include a feature on my tablet when that feature isn’t needed and is actually incredibly dangerous? (Not to mention that the feature is clearly buggy as it doesn’t anticipate rotation during calibration.)

Conclusions

Despite this serious flaw and a lot of wasted time on my part to fix it, I still rather like the HP Stream 7. For my needs, it’s more than adequate. It’s not going to replace my iPad Air 2 for tablet use, but it’s great for me to learn more about Windows and I can test any Windows apps I write to see how they work for touch use.

For others, this might be great as a secondary tablet or computer, though depending on your usage and needs, you could research better tablets at a slightly higher price point. But for this price you really can’t get too much better. I expected a lot worse. I have no idea how HP or Microsoft can make any money on this thing! Fortunately, that’s not my problem.

Topic: [/technology]

Link

Sun, Feb 15, 2015

: The Fifth Estate

I vaguely heard about this movie about Wikileaks in theaters and wanted to see it, but the negative reviews killed my enthusiasm. I figured it was like most Hollywood attempts at showing technology where they muck everything up and didn’t want to see that.

But it turns out most of the negativity was from fans of Julian Assange, who didn’t like how he was portrayed. Apparently the film is based on material from his ex-partner after they had a falling out. But I didn’t feel it was that negative. Sure, it paints him as an eccentric genius, difficult around people, and incredibly arrogant, but I suspect those things are probably true. I also felt the debate over whether he should release secret material without redacting names of people who might be in danger was worth exploring (and there really isn’t a right answer as both sides are correct).

In terms of story, they did a good job. I found it compelling and interesting. There’s a bit too much emphasis on certain kinds of artificial drama (arguments and personal bickering) and while the film hints at spies and black ops shadowing and such, there it feels phony, like it’s just there for the film. There’s also not nearly enough technical info about exactly how Julian hides his identity and travels without being followed and such, which I found weird. If he’s really worried about being followed, shouldn’t he be taking measures against that? Yet we’re not shown any of those, just his paranoia and mentions of tech like “cryptophone” as though that solves everything.

On the other hand, what impressed me the most was a better understanding of just what Wikileaks is and how it was created. I knew little about it other than it was a way for whistleblowers to anonymously post secrets on the web. I never realized the incredible amount of work it took to make that happen. I just figured people used an anonymous email account and emailed in documents, but it’s not that simple.

For one thing, Wikileaks had to verify all the sources and info, so they acted like editors. They didn’t just post whatever they were sent, but checked it over throughly to make sure it was accurate and truthful.

For another, it’s one thing sending a website an anonymous tip about the next Apple iPhone, but it’s quite another posting the secrets of governments. That requires some amazing encryption and obfuscation to mask the identities of the sources. I didn’t realize that Julian was a mathematician who create his own encryption techniques just for the website, nor did I think about the difficulties of hosting a site that many governments all over the world want shut down.

In the end this is a cool story: dramatic and interesting, a bit grandiose, but revealing an important new type of journalism. It provokes thinking and debate and it worth viewing. It doesn’t quite live up to The Social Network in terms of quality of story, but it’s similar and I enjoyed it. Perhaps it is biased, but I didn’t find it that negative. I came away feeling that Julian is a real hero.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

Sat, Feb 14, 2015

: Donovan’s Echo

Fascinating little movie from a few years ago. It stars Danny Glover as a former physicist who was involved in the Manhattan Project when his wife and daughter are killed by a drunk driver. Thirty years later and he’s still mourning their deaths when he starts to think that history is repeating itself.

His neighbor is a woman and her daughter, who happens to have the same name as his daughter, and he starts having psychic visions that convince him that the two are going to die just like his wife and daughter. The weird thing is that he had similar visions 30 years ago. Now he’s terrified that if he doesn’t do something, he’ll lose the neighbors just like he did his own family.

I’m not usually much into movies about psychic phenomena, but this one is kind of cool. I love the idea that the visions are so confusing that when he had them thirty years ago, he couldn’t tell they were about the distant future. That’s because so many of the events are parallel: when he saves the modern girl from a falling object he remembers having that vision 30 years earlier and trying to save his daughter the same way, only nothing happened back then. Everyone just thought he was crazy since no object fell. Now he realizes the vision was about the modern girl, not his daughter.

Because his visions are confusing, and so many of the parallel events seem like coincidence, he comes across as a crazy person. No one believes him.

Overall this isn’t a great movie, but it is compelling. I was just going to watch a few minutes to see what it was about and I got hooked. Glover is excellent, as is the rest of the cast. The film is low-budget and not that much happens in the story — but enough does to make it interesting, and the conclusion is pretty good. Worth watching if you’re into this kind of movie.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Feb 13, 2015

: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Fun film that’s somehow both a throwback to classic “gentlemen spy” films of yesteryear and a modern retelling of such movies. It involves a super-secret organization of spies independent of any government. A street ruffian is recruited to join and has to pass dangerous tests to qualify. Meanwhile there’s a billionaire bad guy who’s got a plan to “save” the planet by eliminating most of the population.

Yeah, the plot’s simple and familiar, but what works here is the style. The action is fantastically cool, the characters awesome (best is the acrobatic killer lady with deadly swords on her artificial legs), and the dialog clever. The violence is an odd combination of super-deadly and cartoonish, so we see everything from a guy cut in half to teeth floating through the air after a punch to the jaw.

I also really liked the novice’s character development: it wasn’t rushed, and the changes in him were appropriately subtle. Even as a newbie he had hints of greatness, and by the time he’s fully trained, we believe he’s really capable. Excellent casting.

There’s plenty of humor and silliness, but it’s mixed with subtlety, which is a fascinating blend. Overall, thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not going to strain your brain, but it’s not an insult to it either.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Feb 06, 2015

: Jupiter Ascending

I couldn’t make head or tails of this from the promos, but it looked like it might be cool. It is fun, but sadly the plot is bare. It’s simultaneously too convoluted, however they managed that!

Basically the story’s about an anonymous girl who cleans houses who suddenly finds out she’s alien royalty and “owns” Earth. Other aliens want the Earth, so they’re all trying to kill her or manipulate her.

The problem is that in the first half of the movie we don’t undersand what’s going on so nothing makes sense (and the girl seems far too relaxed about seeing aliens and everything wild that’s happening around her). Once we figure things out, the second half of the movie has no surprises and is too simple.

To cover all those flaws in story, we have a lot of ridiculous action. Some aspects of it are cool — there’s some nice tech and special effects — but most of the action is so high-speed it’s a meaningless blur and there’s zero tension. We can’t even tell if the heros do anything heroic because everything happens too fast!

Despite all that, though, the film’s not terrible. It has no depth, but it’s just a popcorn flick, with fun visuals and action and pretty people. There are some funny moments (watch for a Terry Gilliam cameo), some tender moments, and decent performances. My favorite aspect of the film was the psychological manipulation of the girl by creepy villains. I wish there’d been more focus on that.

By and large this isn’t a classic, but it’s better than most scifi films and it doesn’t take itself too seriously (its universe reminds me a lot of the silly one in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jan 30, 2015

: Project Almanac

The concept of teens inventing a time machine was intriguing, but there’s so little science here it might as well be magic. There’s minimal realism, and several odd time machine side effects that aren’t explained and make no sense at all. (Like when you go back in time and run into yourself, both versions of you vanish.)

But the worst crime is that it takes forever for anything to happen. It’s halfway through the movie before the time machine is ready, and almost the end before the bad side effects start to happen. And then the resolution is far too simple and weak, wrapped up in thirty seconds like a cheap sitcom.

Despite all that, however, the movie is still a lot of fun. The cast is pretty good, and there are few glimmers of good ideas in the cool stuff the kids do with the time machine. (My favorite was buying expired VIP backstage passes cheap on eBay after the concert was over, then going back in the time to the concert and using them to meet the band.) There’s certainly nothing profound or innovative about this picture, but if you go in with extremely low expectations, it’s entertaining.

Topic: [/movie]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sun, Jan 18, 2015

: BMOC

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.

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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.

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: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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