Fri, Jun 22, 2012

: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I’ve never read the novel and I didn’t see any previews so I had very little idea what to expect. I did accidentally see a Rotten Tomato splat, meaning that critics didn’t like this, but I don’t know why. I got just what I expected: Abraham Lincoln killing vampires.

I wasn’t sure if the ton of this would be cartoonish and jokey or if it would take the premise seriously, and I’m pleased to report it is the latter. There are of course many liberties taken with history, but the film isn’t a comic. The vampires are modern and rather scary in vampire form (more monstery than most vampire movies). There’s definitely a lot of blood as Lincoln’s weapon of choice is a sliver-bladed ax. We follow Lincoln’s grow from a child (where his mom is killed by a vamp) to his manhood where he learns his trade of killing vampires while studying law and working at shop and eventually gets into politics. Once he’s president, the war between vampires and humans is set up along the same lines as the Civil War (the vamps are the South).

I wouldn’t say there’s anything extraordinary or remarkable about this premise, the story, or the execution, though it is fun. I really liked the filmmaking style, which has some playful elements similar to the techniques of Zack Snyder. For instance, one of the flashbacks begins with a historical oil painting and then the painting comes to life with all the stuff happening in oil paintery style. In another sequence, items on a map animate and become part of the film. It’s surreal, and a bit over-the-top, but it adds to the fun of the movie.

The story is where the film is the weakest. Nothing much happens and what does is fairly predictable. There are hints that things could have been deeper, such as exploring the conflict between Lincoln and Douglas, and while the character of Mary Todd was charming and definitely had her moments, the romance between the two was oddly incomplete for being such an important part of the proceedings (it was never clear to me why she fell for Lincoln and what happened to her fiance, Douglas). There is some depth in the best friend black characters and the issue of slavery and the conflict with the South, but it doesn’t go very deep and is just the stereotypes of greedy slave owners and righteous Northerners we get with most Civil War portraits. (I would have much preferred if the film had explored the vampire-slave metaphor more and provided us with some important lessons about racial issues.)

Still, overall the film is enjoyable. Again, nothing earth-shattering, but well-done and it lives up to its title. Probably not for all tastes, but if the title appeals to you, you’ll probably get a kick out of the flick.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jun 19, 2012

: Surface Error

Here’s an amusing picture. This morning, while researching material for my article on Microsoft’s new Surface tablets, I couldn’t remember the URL to their site about the tablet. Thinking that maybe Microsoft organizes their website in a logical manner (the way Apple does), I typed in into my browser. Here’s the page I got:

[Click for full view]

Hilarious! What a brilliant and 1978-style design. More genius from one of the largest companies in the world.

It turns out the real URL is: — now that’s intuitive!

[Update: This apparently has been fixed, because now takes you to the correct page. Glad I got the screenshot when I did!]

Topic: [/technology]


: Below the Surface

Yesterday Microsoft announced their new Surface tablet, an obvious attack on Apple’s iPad. As a technologist, many things about this fascinated me.

First, it is interesting to see the change over the years in how Microsoft copies Apple. In the old days, Microsoft would make deliberate changes — basically doing everything upside-down and backwards — just to be different. (See Windows things like the arrow cursor direction, the “recycle bin” versus “trash can,” the menubar on each window instead of fixed at the top of the screen, etc.) But more recently, particularly with Microsoft’s “stores” physically duplicating the Apple Store look and feel (but not the swarms of customers), Microsoft has grown more comfortable mimicking Apple exactly. (And probably the legal systems’ sluggishness in penalizing Samsung for its blatant copying of Apple products has emboldened Microsoft to do the same.)

Nowhere was this copying more evident than in the presentation, where Microsoft copied Apple in ways that were eerie they were so similar. Microsoft started things with a rundown of their “success” in hardware, unveiled two new tablets, and touted their innovative manufacturing process.

Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities ended. Like Microsoft’s new tablets, the presentation was all surface, and lacking in many critical details. My favorite bit was when Microsoft actually introduced a segment by saying, “And now for pricing and availability…” and revealed nothing at all. No availability beyond “about the time Windows 8 is ready” (which most presume to be next fall) and no pricing details except for “competitive.” Why even bring it up if you’re going to be so vague? Apple always includes full pricing and availability information. (Occasionally, such as with the original iPhone announcement, Apple will say “Summer” or “Fall” instead of a specific release date, but Apple always knows what their pricing will be.)

What this tells me is either the products are such vaporware that Microsoft still doesn’t know their pricing, or they know the pricing will be high and didn’t want to distract from their announcement by people grumbling about the cost. I believe it will be the latter; Microsoft’s tablets will be more expensive than Apple’s, and Microsoft’s going to hope that their “improvements” and “advantages” will still make people want to buy their stuff. (The sad truth that Microsoft will painfully learn is that people only buy Microsoft’s stuff because it is cheap.)

But let’s move to the actual products. Once again, we need to go below the surface of what Microsoft revealed. On the surface, they unveiled a tablet with an integrated keyboard (attached magnetically, an idea stolen from Apple, of course).

For many people, that’s all they will hear. Undoubtedly Microsoft will sell a few of these based on that premise alone. Many people are intimidated by Apple’s iPad because it doesn’t have a keyboard. The idea of typing on glass doesn’t sound practical (though it truth it works quite well for anything but long texts) and purchasing a separate keyboard sounds expensive and a hassle. These morons will be suckered in by Microsoft’s ploy and buy this thing simply because it “comes with a keyboard.” There will be no thought to if and how well the keyboard works, or if the person might be better off with a traditional netbook or ultrabook.

Interestingly, journalists were not allowed to use the keyboards after Microsoft’s unveiling, so either the keyboards don’t work yet or the experience is a negative one. I suspect it’s a combination of both. From the appearance of the keyboards, they are flat and extremely thin, meaning not much key travel and probably an awkward feel. I vastly prefer Apple’s approach, which lets me use a full-size external wireless keyboard. It’s also a solid keyboard instead of flexible rubber, meaning I actually can use it on my lap instead of requiring a hard surface like a desk.

(Note: there are two keyboards for Microsoft’s tablets. One is a “multitouch” keyboard, meaning no moving parts, and other than some indentations on the surface to help position your fingers, little different from typing on the iPad’s glass screen. The other keyboard is a physical one, but still very thin and presumably nothing like typing on a genuine keyboard.)

Other than the keyboards, Microsoft’s tablets are unremarkable. (I guess some think the integrated kickstand in helpful, but honestly I stand up my iPad so rarely it’s not a feature you’d use often.) Microsoft conveniently left out critical details such as battery life, performance info, availability of software, and glossed over the fact that they are making two different versions of the tablet that are completely incompatible with each other! (The “RT” version will only run new tablet apps, while the more expensive “Pro” one will run traditional Windows software — though without a touch screen interface.)

The bottom line is what Microsoft introduced are tablets that aren’t quite tablets and an ultrabook that isn’t really an ultrabook. While size-wise, the “pro” tablet competes well with ultrabooks, we don’t know the price or performance — it’s quite probable that ultrabooks would give you a much better experience if that’s what you’re really wanting. An Apple 11” Macbook Air, for instance, has a similar-sized screen and specs and sells for $999 — yet it’s got a real hardware keyboard, a rigid unibody chassis for durability, and it can run Mac OS or Windows. I bet it would run circles around the Surface Pro. If you’re really wanting a laptop, why not just get one?

As for the Surface RT, if it sells at the same price (or more) than an iPad, why would anyone buy one? Just because it has a floppy keyboard attached? Don’t forget, it will only run software from the Windows Store. That’s new software written exclusively for this tablet. It will not run traditional Windows software. There is very little of such software written, and without huge sales of the new tablets, why would developers neglect the giant iOS and Android markets to pursue a third platform?

But this will come with Office, won’t it? I’m not so sure: according to the fine print on Microsoft’s site it will include “Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview” — that sounds like beta software to me. It was telling that there was no demonstration of Office running on a Surface RT at the event: Apple always shows their tablets running new versions of their desktop applications specifically rewritten to take advantage of the tablet format, such as iMovie and iPhoto and their iWork suite. Without information, we don’t know if the RT version of Office will be the full Office or some crippled variation. And since it’s a “preview” that could mean it expires and customers will have to fork out more dough to buy the real thing later when it’s finally released. So much for any advantage of it being “included.”

Some might look at the “better” compliment of ports — the Surface includes HDMI out and a USB port — but again look at the fine print. The HMDI port requires an adapter, and Apple’s wireless solution is a million times more convenient anyway. The USB port only “works exclusively with printers, mice, and keyboards certified for Windows RT.” That means all of your existing USB equipment probably won’t work (I would guess it draws too much power). So what good is that? (And those in the know are aware that you can add a USB port to an iPad via an adapter, though few accessories work because of the power draw problem.) The Surface RT has a Micro SD slot (not full size) which some might see as a plus (again, an SD slot is added to an iPad via a tiny adapter).

The biggest problem I see with Microsoft’s Surface tablets is that they aren’t really tablets. By saddling them with a keyboard, they are wimpy laptops. The entire point of a tablet is that it is a tablet. The tablet form factor is what makes it useful. It should be something you use instead of a laptop for when a laptop isn’t appropriate: sitting on the couch while watching TV, in a warehouse walking the aisle, a doctor checking on a patient while making rounds at a hospital, a sales guy making a presentation or demo, reading ebooks, students learning in school, cooking in the kitchen, etc. In those situations the keyboard is a liability.

Granted, some will say that you can just tear off Microsoft’s magnetic keyboard and you have a tablet, but if that’s the case, what “advantage” does the device have over Apple’s iPad? In every category it seems worse: screen resolution, thicker and heavier, with less battery life, more expensive (speculation), less software, buggier, a weaker ecosystem, etc. With Apple’s device you can have an external keyboard if you like: there are tons of third-party cases with built-in keyboards and you can use any Bluetooth external keyboard.

Microsoft’s idea that the magnetic keyboard somehow makes it more convenient is a joke. Software keyboards pop up instantly and are far more convenient than any physical keyboard. If you want to do some long typing, using a real keyboard is easier, but you have to weigh the hassle of finding the keyboard, connecting it, etc. In the case of the Surface, you also need to find a desk. I don’t see how it’s any advantage over an iPad with a keyboard. Either way, fussing with a keyboard is a hassle and trust me, you rarely bother. (My mom bought one for her iPad thinking she’d prefer it, but she’s found she uses the virtual keyboard 90% of the time. I predict that 90% of Surface RT buyers will hardly ever use their keyboard.)

Another point I should make is that Microsoft’s lame design means that the keyboards can only be used in landscape orientation. I use my external keyboard with my iPad in portrait (vertical) orientation almost exclusively. It looks like a letter-sized page in that view and that’s what I prefer. With Apple’s solution, it’s my choice — I can rotate the iPad and use the keyboard any way I’d like. With Microsoft I’m stuck using it widescreen, the way they designed it. Ugh. (And by the way, I hate the aspect ratio of the Surface. It might be fine for movie-watching, but for just about every other task, especially reading, which is the thing I do most on my iPad, it’s horrible. I noticed Microsoft never showed the tablet in portrait mode, always widescreen. That’s because in portrait mode the screen looks skinny and bizarre.)

So the bottom line is that Microsoft’s iPad-like device is still inferior to the iPad, and unless it sells for significantly less, will have an uphill battle against the leader. Microsoft’s ultrabook device faces a similar problem: unless it’s cheaper or more powerful than ultrabooks, why buy it? It’s an uncomfortable cross between a tablet and a laptop. I suppose if you’re the type of person who takes both devices on a trip getting a Surface Pro would be easier, but how many people do that? I see this is a very niche market device, odd for Microsoft.

But we’ll just have to see. I am glad Microsoft’s at least trying in this arena. It nothing else, it confuses the tablet landscape and gives Google something else to worry about. (I see Google and Microsoft competing more against each other than either hurting Apple.) It’s also going to be interesting to see how Microsoft’s former hardware “partners” react to their software source branching out into hardware. How many of them will divorce Microsoft and go to Google or elsewhere for an operating system? The next six months are going to be fascinating.

Topic: [/technology]


: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Utterly silly and too predictable, but heart-warming and harmless. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t judge the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I had a surprising amount of fun. Jim Carrey mugs it up a little too much and the bad guys are just dumb, but his witty verbal streams are delightful, the family-united-by-penguin-pets story is sweet, and the penguins are fun. Worth the watch.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jun 17, 2012

: The Goonies

Somehow I never saw this “classic” — I put that in quotes because I wasn’t that impressed. While the young cast is a terrific collection of future stars, the film surprised me with its hokey B-movie feel. It’s quite cheesy and some of the over-the-top scenarios and bad acting are just idiotic. There’s a wild collection of Rube Goldberg-type devices that, while interesting, are unbelievable and very silly.

Still, the film has heart, and some of the scenes are very good. The plot — about kids trying to find an ancient pirate’s treasure — gets overrun by some real bad guys (counterfeiters) that try to kill the kids. The criminals are so dumb the film feels too much like Home Alone. Fun, and I can see why people like it, but probably my expectations were too high as I didn’t really like it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 15, 2012

: Ramona and Beezus

Based on the books by Beverly Cleary

I like children’s books but their movie adaptations can leave a lot to be desired. While this one is rocky in a few places, they did a surprisingly good job overall. The tone fits the original classic books, with mischievous 9-year-old Ramona’s overactive imagination getting her into trouble, yet they modernized the language in such a way that it doesn’t feel out of date.

The core plot is about Ramona being worried that the bank’s going to take their house (in her mind the bank literally takes it on a flatbed truck) and so she’s trying to raise money and of course everything she does is a disaster. Usually in such a film the hijinks are slapstick absurd and just dumb, but here they are not that bad. For the most part they are believable and don’t feel forced.

The young lead actress is perfectly cast as Ramona, with just the right blend of mischief and heart-touching cuteness. Everyone else is fine, except the father felt miscast (too young and good-looking).

I really liked the ending and the way everything was wrapped up so perfectly, down to the perfect detail of Ramona getting to use her vocabulary word from earlier in the film and especially the way she and her teacher made up.

Overall this is a touching family tale. It may not be all edgy and hip like some modern stuff, but it’s a deeper, much more emotional experience. I’m surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. It’s definitely worth seeing and was much better than I expected.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jun 14, 2012

: The Last Werewolf

Author: Glen Duncan

I really wanted to like this and it seems like the kind of book I would like. It’s not all action but a lot of existential angst, which should have made things deep and thought-provoking. Unfortunately the novel is sluggishly paced and tediously boring, and without context, the philosophizing is just random noise.

For example, our main character’s a 200-year-old werewolf, the last of his kind. He moans and groans about how he killed his wife (I guess we’re supposed to sympathize that he’s such a monster) but since we only know about that event via sketchy flashbacks, there’s zero emotional impact. Eventually I ceased caring about anything.

There is a bit of a plot, eventually, as our hero is being preserved for something by people he doesn’t know for reasons he doesn’t understand, but the payoff of that mystery isn’t that great and it’s not worth hundreds of pages getting there. The very end of the book is actually not bad, with a tiny twist or two and something interesting happening, but by that point my disillusionment with the novel was a foregone conclusion.

There are some interesting moments and a few intriguing ideas, but this is definitely not a book for all tastes. I imagine it’s a love-it-or-hate kind of thing and I didn’t love it.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jun 11, 2012

: Paul

I really wanted to like this — I’m a fan of Simon Pegg’s work — but from the very beginning it seemed like a cheap rip-off of the alien on American Dad. That one is just barely tolerable on the TV show and I figured a movie version would be even worse.

It turned out the alien really isn’t so bad (he’s perfectly voiced by Seth Rogan), but the people around him are irredeemably vulgar. Let’s put it this way: the film’s biggest source of “humor” is swear words. Now that’s genius.


Actually, there are aspects of this I liked and it wasn’t as bad as I expected, but even the film’s high points aren’t very high. The plot’s very slight and linear (British sci-fi geeks help a rude alien get back to his spaceship), and the supporting characters are just plain idiotic (in a bad way).

Just watch the trailer and you’ll get about as much out of this as you do from the entire film.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jun 09, 2012

: Hatfields and McCoys

I just heard about this History Channel miniseries yesterday, reading that it got the highest ratings of any cable show ever (beating out all the main networks in prime time). I didn’t know anything about the Hatfields and the McCoys other than they had a famous bloody feud. Since it sounded interesting, I started watching it.

I couldn’t stop. It affected me deeply, which is fascinating. I don’t like war movies, and family squabbles annoy me, but this was done in such a way that it felt like regular everyday humans caught in a terrible web of their own making. I felt sympathy for almost every character; most were just woefully foolish, and even the villains had their good sides. The filmmakers brilliantly set things up so neither side is completely right or wrong, and there’s a sense of inevitability about the characters’ fates and situations.

I really liked that the film gave us insights into the characters to show that though they made stupid decisions and let their emotions rule their actions, they were not dumb. Often they were quite clever, in devious ways.

I was also fascinated by how much I learned: I never realized the feud involved so much legal wrangling (the families were bordering states, West Virginia and Kentucky, and that created all sort of legal complications in terms of extradition). Aspects of the feud went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to get it figured out.

Best of all, I’ve often heard that in these kinds of feuds that after a while, no one really knows who started it or why. Even with a film adaptation like this, that happens — by the end you can’t remember how it started either. It’s just a long series of minor inconveniences, insults and slights, and unfortunate accidents that devolves into violence, murder, and all-out war. While I’m sure this film version isn’t exactly what happened, it is brilliant in how it conveys a realistic way such a thing might have happened.

In terms of negatives, it’s a little hard to keep track of the many characters dying all over the place (though not as bad as I expected), and I also wasn’t always sure of the timeline (occasionally text came up mentioning the year, but not often enough). There’s an ill-fitting and unconvincing love story which feels like an obvious rip-off of Romeo and Juliet and that bothered me at first, but it is very interesting and creates some good drama.

Overall, this is an incredible and mesmerizing story, well-directed and performed, with an amazingly believable set. It’s tragic and shows the stupidity of feuding, but in a way that’s realistic and human, making you think this could happen to you or people you know. Heart-wrenching.

Topic: [/television]


Fri, Jun 08, 2012

: Prometheus

Director: Ridley Scott

I purposely tried not to learn much about this beforehand, avoiding reviews and the trailer, not that the brief TV commercial I saw gave much away, and so I went in cold. I’m glad I did. I think it works best that way. The little bit of plot you need to know is simple: it’s about a space exploration to seek the origins of humankind.

Of course you may have heard that it is a prequel to Alien, but the links are so tiny it’s pretty much a standalone film. It’s very different from Alien and not so much a monster movie. Instead there’s a lot more about who or what humans are and the nature of our existence. Nothing much comes of that, sadly, but at least the film toys with some interesting questions.

It’s very well directed and acted, with plenty of interesting tension. Once the alien creatures start getting involved it devolves too much into a monster movie, but it still has some actual story left. It’s also a beautiful film, with many photogenic and dramatic shots. The ending leaves open a door for sequel which I’d love to see. Definitely worth checking out. I saw the 3D version just because it was a more convenient time, but I don’t think the 3D, while not bad, adds anything.

Topic: [/movie]