Fri, Oct 28, 2011

: Puss in Boots

I liked the Shrek films and as this is spin-off of one of the characters, I expected more of the same. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed. My favorite thing about the Shrek films are the puns and mix of the modern with classic fairy tales. There was very little of that in this film. (There are just a few fairly tale characters and they are given no context or reason for being in the film which is set amongst humans.) In fact, this is nearly a serious film instead of a comedy. The Shrek films are multiple laughs per minute while this is perhaps one laugh per ten minutes. A lot of the humor is subtle, the smile-at kind instead of the laugh-out-loud variety, and though I like that, there were parts where it felt like all the jokes were falling flat (especially the first twenty minutes).

Still, it’s not a bad film by any means. The story is surprisingly good — about the betrayed friendship between Puss and Humpty Dumpty who were orphan children together — but I didn’t find the resolution that satisfying.

The best parts of the film, for me, were the send-ups of various genre tropes, such as the Western motif at the beginning, and the cat jokes (like Puss suddenly becoming distracted by a moving spot of light on a wall). The “dance fight” between the cats is hilarious. In the end this is a good film, solidly done, with great visuals and casting, but it doesn’t break much new ground.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Oct 15, 2011

: MLS: Portland Timbers 0, Houston Dynamo 2

I went to the Timbers’ game last night and it was a frustrating night. Everything was on the line: the Dynamo were three points ahead and in the final playoff position. A home win would have put Portland right back in the mix, and with our final two games being on the road, a victory was essential.

Things started off with cool fireworks:

(Click here for the bigger version.)

But they went downhill from there. The Timbers were oddly disjointed. They were eager and showed some aggression, but they always wanted an extra touch on the ball and that allowed Houston to shut them down every time. I thought Houston had a poor first half, with only one good chance on goal that our keeper saved. But then the ref muddled things up. He failed to call a clear foul on our Sal Zizzo, who went down injured, and when Houston went to the other end, he called a much weaker foul against Portland. With Sal still injured, that meant Portland had to face that free kick a man down, and of course Houston somehow got the ball in through the box.

I hoped after the half things would get better, but they actually got much worse. Houston, filled with confidence with a leading goal, played much better and the Timbers’ struggles just got worse. Lots of pointless giveaways, sloppy passing, more strange delays before shooting or crossing, and a certain sluggishness that always allowed Houston to get on to any loose ball or close down any breakaways. Within minutes the Dynamo got their second, what appeared to be a cross that turned into a perfect shot from the wing, and after that there was no looking back. The Timbers did produce a couple of good moments, forcing two great saves out of Tally Hall, the Houston keeper, but overall their chances were too few and the away team fully deserved the win. A sad way for Portland to end their home season.

There are still two games left on the road so I suppose there’s mathematically a chance for the playoffs, but I find that absurdly unlikely, given the team’s road record and the way they are playing now. Even if they did somehow manage to get in, they’d be out in a heartbeat. It’s still been a remarkably good debut for an expansion team. I’m sure the club has learned a lot and I look forward to some needed improvements to the team next year (perhaps a real designated player).

Topic: [/soccer]


Sat, Oct 08, 2011

: iWatch

Product design is something that has fascinated me since I was a child. Though back then I didn’t know what it was or anything about the field, I knew what I liked. Watches and cameras and gadgets were my passion. I loved to take things apart and try and figure out how they worked.

I will never forget my first digital watch. I got it for my tenth birthday. We were in France. Compared to today’s watches, it was unbearably primitive. It had red glowing digits for the time. That was it. No date, stopwatch, or any other features. I don’t think it even had an alarm. You couldn’t even see the time in sunlight.

But it glowed.

I still remember going to school and crowding with my friends under some trees to create shade so I could touch the button to make the time light up. It was fantastic.

I suppose I’ve been searching for that feeling in every gadget I’ve bought since. But it’s a rare thing, that childish wonder, and it doesn’t last long. I’ve felt it only a few times since. My first computer. My Mac II. My first laptop. The original iPod. The first iPhone.

Back then when I dreamed of new gadgets, I did it with zero knowledge of the realities of engineering. I knew what I wanted, but not how to achieve it. (That’s still my problem today, now that I think about it.)

They didn’t have Transformers when I was a kid, but I probably would have been mad for them, because I love the concept. I remember wanting a watch that would let me change its appearance. (I wanted clothes and cars that could change colors and styles at the push of a button, too.)

In high school I discovered calculator watches and that’s all I’ve owned since. Yeah, really geeky, I know. Though I love mechanical watches, I favor the practical over the fashionable, and back then I used that calculator a lot. Today, not so much. In fact, with my iPhone capable of doing just about anything, I really don’t need a watch any more. But I still like the idea.

Recently two things happened to impact my thinking on this issue. The first was that last spring my watch suddenly got stuck in 24-hour time, which I hate. I tried and tried and couldn’t figure out how to switch it back. In desperation, I went on the web and eventually found a PDF version of the original manual on Casio’s website. The instructions were mind-numbingly insane. I’d barely used the watch for anything but the time in a decade and I’d forgotten just how complicated it was to use. This is a watch that stores phone numbers and has lots of gimmicky features, in addition to being a calculator. In other words, it’s useless and obsolete.

More recently the watch’s low-battery indicator went on and I lost some functionality (the light and some features are disabled to save power). I started thinking that maybe it was time I got a new watch and for the first time, I was thinking of not getting a calculator watch. But what would I get? I had no idea.

Then on Tuesday — my birthday — Apple lowers the price on their iPod nanos and shows off the nifty new watch faces.

I was never very impressed with the 1” square nano. It seemed too small to be usable and it was expensive for such a limited device. But using it as a watch is something that has always intrigued me. Apple, seeing that usage, and adding tons of new watch styles, caught my attention and suddenly that form factor seemed ideal.

In an instant you can transform your nano into any watch you’d like. I already knew that bands were sold to turn your nano into a watch, but those bands used to be expensive. They’re cheaper now, too. The whole thing isn’t cheap — in fact it’s the most expensive watch I’ve ever owned — but I got it for myself as a birthday present. A rare treat.

Let met tell you, this is the watch I dreamed of when I was a child. The touch screen interface is gorgeous. I didn’t think much could be done with a 1” square. I figured the nano was a pretty limited device, barely more than a shuffle with a tiny screen.

I was wrong. Look at everything this “iWatch” can do:

  • There are eighteen different watch faces — including a Mickey Mouse watch! Now a single watch can match your mood or style of the moment. The level of detail in these faces is amazing: one of them shows actual gears that rotate as the watch “ticks.” You can set it to display the clock on wake, so it acts like a real watch. Swipe left and the clock becomes a stopwatch. (A sophisticated one, too: the lap counter can remember a whole list of laps, not just one or two.) Swipe left again and it’s a countdown timer.

  • This thing has a fantastic FM radio in it. It gets great reception, I don’t know how. It can memorize favorite stations, shows you the names of songs and artists as they play, lets you tag songs for later checking out on iTunes, and can even buffer the station so you can rewind and pause live radio!

  • There’s a Nike+ fitness app on the thing for tracking your runs and walks. It’s a pedometer.

  • It can hold your photo library and display slideshows. They’re only one-inch in size and there’s only one level of zoom, but the quality of the display is excellent.

  • Oh yeah, it’s a real iPod, too. I got the 8GB model and I’ve put 1700 songs on it, which is plenty for me. (I’ll take some music off my iPhone, which will free up space on it.)

  • I’m also surprised by how customizable Apple has made this: you can pick from various backgrounds, control the order and placement of the “apps” on the home screen, and easily tweak many aspects of how the thing works (i.e. a double-tap on the wake/sleep button can be set to either pause music or skip to the next track). The coolest thing is that you can easily rotate the screen to any orientation you’d like. You just put two fingers on the display and spin! (Have you ever tried to show someone the time on your watch? With this just rotate the watch instead of your arm!)

The interface is actually very impressive. It’s iPhone-like, but different — it’s a slightly new style, tweaked for the size of the nano. It’s incredibly easy to use. Just a few seconds and you’ve mastered it. Most other companies would have tried to adapt or force an existing interface onto the smaller device, but Apple came up with the best interface for such a size. It’s really quite brilliant.

If you’re curious, you can watch a little movie I made of the iPod nano watch in action.

Now I’m not suggesting an “iWatch” is ideal for everyone. It’s a little larger than most watches (about the same as my old calculator watch). It’s not cheap (though cheaper than many luxury watches and way more powerful). But it fits my personality to a T. I love gadgets and the ability to change the watch face to suit my mood is unbelievably awesome. I’m feeling giddy like I did as a kid with my first digital watch!

Topic: [/technology]


Fri, Oct 07, 2011

: Real Steel

This movie is a fascinating blend of genres. On the one hand, its plot is the same as Rocky or Invictus, yet it has a sci-fi twist that makes it feel fresh and little different. It’s a robot movie with heart, if you will.

The story’s set in the future where robot boxing is the norm. It’s a realistically done future, raw and gritty, with just a few differences from today. I really liked it because it made robots seem normal. The robots are extremely well done, too: I couldn’t tell if they were animatronic or CGI.

The movie’s key flaw is that the mechanics of robots and robot boxing are never explained. We get hints and shadows of hints, but it’s very unclear exactly what the rules are, if there are rules, or how anything works. For instance, the robots are apparently not autonomous: they are controlled via remotes by humans on the sidelines. Yet the championship robot (“Zeus”) supposedly has an AI that can anticipate anything. Isn’t that a contradiction? The film also never makes it clear exactly what makes our hero robot so special. It’s hinted that he has special capabilities, but those are never revealed. His human operators are obviously special, but if it’s their specialness that helps him win then what does he offer? Wouldn’t any robot body work?

Despite these major flaws, though, the full is a rousing success. I mean that most literally. The young boy who finds the robot in a junkyard and encourages his former-boxer father to teach it to box is a triumph and rules the movie. He’s such a spunky kid you can’t help rooting for him. The kid’s such a wonderful blend of childish innocence and hard-luck toughness that you want him to succeed. It’s actually believable his dance moves with the robot before each boxing match create a world-wide phenomenon.

Is Real Steel a perfect film? Definitely not. But it’s surprisingly fun, warm, and a great family film. Though there’s violence, it’s mostly robot-oriented. It’s a film that doesn’t succumb to its own cheesiness, doesn’t talk down to ten-year-olds, and has a number of genuinely teary-eyed moments. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Oct 05, 2011

: Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs

Today is suddenly a very sad day. If you go to right now, this is what you see:

It’s not like his passing was totally unexpected, but the timing is always a shock. It’s even more so considering that just yesterday Apple held their big “new phone” event. People were hoping Steve might make an appearance there and were sad he didn’t. Now the drama over whether or not the new phone is called “5” or “4S” seems really silly and petty.

The world has lost a unique man. I admire Steve mostly for his bluntness. He had a way with words and a way with getting to the true heart of the matter, bypassing the BS most of the world indulges in. That occasionally made him antagonistic, especially in his younger days, but the world needs people like that.

I am very sad.

Topic: [/personal]


Tue, Oct 04, 2011

: First Take on Apple’s Announcements Today

Today Apple had a big press conference — the first sans Steve Jobs — and unveiled their newest iPhone, the 4S:

For some reason, Apple right now is receiving a bit of a backlash. People are “disappointed” the new phone isn’t an iPhone 5 — whatever that would be. The stock is down (don’t worry, it will be right back up) and bloggers and idiot tech journalists writing hit pieces.

I really don’t get this sentiment. Today’s announcements were fantastic and typically Apple. Apple has traditionally done minor upgrades every other upgrade (this applies to everything from OS updates to hardware products like iPods and Macs). Just look at history:

Product Improvements
OS X Leopard Radical upgrade, many new features such as Spaces and Time Machine
OS X Snow Leopard Minor upgrade, with most improvements “under the hood”
OS X Lion Radical upgrade, with many features improved in ways people notice
iPad2 Same design, faster processor and a camera
iPhone 3G Same design, faster cellular connection
iPhone 3Gs Same design, faster processor, better camera
iPhone 4 New design, faster processor, better camera, Facetime
iPhone 4S Same design, faster processor, better camera, voice control

The new phone is what I expected. I love the current design of iPhone 4 and I don’t see a need to change it. There are some who talked about Apple making the screen larger; that’s insane. I never expected that. That’s not how Apple does things. Apple isn’t like other companies that ship every possible product variation in the hopes that someone will buy it. Apple ships the best version and that’s it. Apple has already spent years figuring out the optimal size for a phone: big enough to hold and use, but not so big it’s awkward and heavy. Apple isn’t going to change that now.

While the new phone has a lot of impressive tech inside (faster dual-core processor, better camera, etc.), the biggest improvement is on the software side where Apple is adding amazing voice control. This isn’t mere dictation (though that’s supported as well), but actual artificial intelligence so you can ask your phone for information and it will provide it. You can schedule meetings, looking up info on the Internet, and more, with just your voice.

I’ve been critical of the voice control concept for computers (imagine an office building with everyone talking to their computers) but for phones, it’s the ideal interface (we already talk into them). This is a huge revolution. (My only gripe is that it seems to be limited to the new iPhone: I can’t tell if that’s really a hardware issue or if Apple is just restricting the feature for marketing purposes.)

We also can’t forget everything else Apple announced: lower prices on iPods, the new Cards app (for snail mailing greeting cards from your phone), iOS 5 (huge improvements for those who aren’t buy a new iPhone), and the “I-can-hardly-wait-for-it” iCloud. The latter two are gigantic and the only reason people aren’t more excited is because Apple had to show that stuff off to developers last spring.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating game about expectations. People expect the revolutionary and fantastic from Apple. But so often in the real world, revolutions aren’t spotted as such at the time. People criticized the first telephone and even electricity. Apple itself was lauded as crazy with the first iPhone.

I predict all this will blow over and sales of the new phone will be insane. Me? I’m not in the market for upgrade since I’ve got a year left on my contract, but I am tempted. Meanwhile, I can’t wait until next week when I can start using iOS 5 and iCloud.

Topic: [/technology]