Mon, Feb 18, 2013

: A Good Day To Die Hard

This is an odd “review” to write, since I didn’t see the end of the movie. The theatre I was at had technical problems with about twenty minutes to go and basically said they’d be too long fixing it for us to see the rest of the film. They comped us replacement tickets and said we could wait around for the next showing, but I didn’t want to wait 45 minutes for that… and have to endure the hour of the movie I’d already seen over again.

The sad thing is that I wasn’t upset. I was bored silly and I think I fell asleep. I loved the concept of a new Die Hard movie (the original’s one of my all-time favorites), but this one barely even attempts to be anything Die Hard-like.

It begins terribly, with Bruce Willis’ character rushing off to Russia to save his arrested son. They’re estranged, but we have zero back story on why or what’s happening, and basically the two just yell and scowl at each other and we’re not in on the history. They don’t even get to communicate much, as immediately the action starts and doesn’t stop — but without any meaning behind anything, there’s nothing to care about. I found it excruciating, despite the fact that some of the scenery is interesting and the opening car chase is jaw-dropping in terms of outrageous stunts.

I’ll probably catch the end of this movie someday on cable — but in the meantime, I’d suggest you don’t bother.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 15, 2013

: Hard Drive

Author: David Pogue

This is a technothriller I got way back in the 1993. Back then Pogue was an editor for Macworld magazine (he’s now world famous as the New York Times’ tech editor) and I read it out of curiosity. It seemed a little like he was just taking advantage of his reputation to make a buck selling a novel, but it’s actually a decent book. (I got mine for free with the purchase of a hard drive from APS — a brilliant marketing gimmick.)

Rereading the book now, two decades later, is quite thrilling. It’s extremely dated — hilariously so. For instance, at one point there’s talk of this thing called the “InterNet” which then was limited to big institutions and government agencies. David also is very focused on Apple computers, detailing them in almost every scene (and since this was back when Apple made about five million different models, there’s plenty of variety). It’s also delightfully refreshing to go back in time and remember what was considered state-of-the-art in 1993. Back then it was bulletin-board systems accessed via modems, everyone exchanged data with floppy disks, 8MB was a massive amount of RAM, and a 250MB (megabyte, not gigabyte) external hard drive was considered monstrous.

I especially liked remembering how much of society has changed since then. There were so many things I forgot about: ordering boxed software via mail order companies that charged $3 for overnight shipping, programmers having to be sure their applications were small enough to fit onto a 770KB floppy disk, user groups, printed software manuals, the power and importance of computer magazines (the fictional PowerMac magazine in the book has a circulation of half a million), etc.

The plot of the novel is so tied with tech that it’s unfortunate, as it really dates the story. It’s about a computer virus. It’s rather ironic, as the Mac is famous today for not having viruses, yet the whole novel’s about a Mac virus that’s going to destroy the world. Also, the spread of the virus back then was much more difficult, and the numbers are hilariously small compared to today. Today a virus can spread via an email and infect millions of computers within hours. Back then, it took weeks for it to spread to thousands of computers and yet the novel makes that seem like it’s potentially the end of the world.

There are also some questionable technical flaws. For instance, a significant part of the novel has the virus spreading from Macs to UNIX systems (thereby harming satellite and air traffic control systems). The way this is done is via some sort of Mac-to-UNIX virtualization software, but that makes no sense at all in spreading a virus as it would require all those other systems to also have the virtualization software. (There’s one sentence where it says something about “converting” the code for UNIX, which could allow a virus to be translated and spread, but elsewhere it’s very specific about it being an “interpreter” which means it’s live, on-the-fly translation, not converting the a Mac app to a UNIX standalone app.)

Even stranger is some basic math errors. A key part of the plot is the software company’s potential takeover by a Japanese conglomerate (this was back in the days when Japan had money and was buying up everything in the U.S.). There’s talk that if they don’t repay the $1.2 million investment by Tuesday, the Japanese company will take ownership of the U.S. software company. Yet the company has just sold 40,000 pre-orders of their exciting new software product… at $799 each! With my math, that’s nearly $32 million in income… more than enough to pay back the Japanese investors. Of course that limits the drama, but still seems like an obvious mistake that isn’t explained in the novel.

All that said, the story’s actually pretty good. It’s surprisingly well-written, and it reads quickly, despite being tech heavy — Pogue is excellent at simplifying the tech and explaining it in ways that non-technical people can understand. I also really liked the graphics: there are lots of Mac screenshots, demonstrating various dialog boxes and error messages, as well as BBS transcriptions, emails, computer magazine advertisements, computer source code, etc.

Too much of the drama is forced (the idea that a virus interferes with a military testing of a missile is just ludicrous), some scenes are cliché, and none of the characters are especially memorable, but Pogue does a great job of establishing the Silicon Valley setting and making the 1993 computing world come alive.

Ultimately, this is a minor novel, sadly so tech-specific it’s too dated to be very good as a story, but fascinating as a glimpse into a world most of us have forgotten. I really liked rereading it. I have no idea how easy it is to get a copy of the book these days, but it’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane and worth the read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Feb 06, 2013

: Lincoln

Fascinating story about how Lincoln was a master politician in getting the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives in the waning weeks of the Civil War. I expected to be long and talky, and it was, but it wasn’t boring at all.

It was a little difficult to follow everything — there were so many characters (many tiny roles played by familiar actors), the language and speaking style was of the period and occasionally difficult to understand, and I’m not at all familiar with that time in history so some of the events lost me — but the key plot moments are fairly clear.

I am critical in that the movie expects us to know some of this history in order to understand things. For instance, I’m still confused about the relationship between Mary and Abraham. It was very dramatic and she’s a fantastic character, a worthy rival to Lincoln, but they argued about a dead son I knew nothing about, and at times they seemed to despise each other. That was not the impression I had about them from my history classes in school and while it was interesting, it left me bewildered.

Another confusing thing was that the whole movie is about the opposition to the Amendment, and since so much time is focused on that, we rarely get to see those that supported it. In truth, since passing a Constitutional Amendment requires a two-thirds majority, more people were for it than against it, but the film feels like it’s the entire world against a handful. I was shocked at the end when the whole Capital is throwing hats and cheering — making it seem like there was huge support for the Amendment.

I also was slightly disappointed in Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln. Not that he did anything wrong at all — he was fabulous and flawless, as usual — but simply that the role was somewhat understated and not as dramatic as I expected. That was my own fault for bringing that into the theatre with me; in truth I love that they didn’t try to exaggerate Lincoln and I really appreciate Daniel’s low-key portrayal. He didn’t try to do too much but did just enough that we got a rare glimpse into the mind of a special man.

Other than that, there’s not much to be said. The film is in some ways predictable and typical Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful and emotional. It’s a good story and if you don’t know much about that time period, you’ll learn a lot. I found it fascinating throughout and really enjoyed it, despite my minor quibbles. Highly recommended, but don’t go in thinking it’s revolutionary or earth-shattering. It’s simply a really well done film.

Topic: [/movie]


: Redshirts

Author: John Scalzi

I saw this on Audible and snagged it. All I knew was the title, which is from a joke about the Star Trek franchise where minor crewmen wearing red shirts are always killed off on away missions, and that the book was read by Wil Wheaton, a ST:TNG actor who has something of a cult following.

That gimmicky idea forms the basis of the story, which is about a ship in a Star Trek-like universe in which a disproportionally high number of low-ranking crew members are killed off in bizarre ways on away missions. A new member of the ship finds this trend disturbing, to say the least, since he’s exactly the kind of extra that’s likely to get killed off. He investigates and discovers the absurd truth — that their world is somehow warped in with a twenty-first century TV show. Whatever happens on the show happens to them in real life. So he and his friends go back in time to stop the TV show and save themselves.

This outlandish plot would be silly in any other book, but here it’s brilliant: the conceit is that this is a bad science fiction show, so any bad writing here (e.g. science that violates the laws of physics) is caused by the TV show and therefore makes sense.

The whole novel is hilariously snarky and perfectly delivered by the awesome Wil Wheaton (who does snark better than anyone — I highly recommend the audiobook). It’s just terrific.

But then the novel ends and we have three codas. These are extra stories, sort of a follow-up, if you will, on what happens to certain characters in the aftermath of the events of the novel. For instance, one is an amazing saga about a writer on that crappy scifi show who starts an anonymous blog on the Internet asking for help with his writer’s block because he’s just discovered that everything he writes gets people in the 25th century killed and now he’s too scared to write. This is just awesome; I can’t tell you how well it’s done. It feels like a real blog with real reader comments and this poor writer struggling to figure out his life. (It helps that the writer is snarky and funny, too.)

But what’s amazing about these codas is that they take what’s a very light-hearted and ultimately sort of silly gimmick novel into a place that’s very serious and cerebral. These codas are written as though everything that happened in the novel really happened and suddenly we’re looking at the entire novel in a new light. Instead of silliness, we’re feeling real emotion and genuinely thinking about the ramifications of what happens if a writer’s characters are real people in another space and time and everything the writer writes comes true. Totally awesome, and it makes the gimmick seem much less like a gimmick.

So basically the novel itself gets a solid B — it’s funny, wild, and well-written — but the codas turn the entire thing on its head and bring it up to A+ level. It’s just mind-blowingly good. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]