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January 28, 2010

Launch Pad

OK, now it's time for another techno-blather post.

Since everyone else is talking about the recently-announced iPad, I thought I'd weigh in.

Like nearly everyone else, I have not seen the iPad in person so I can only evaluate it from what I've read so far. My initial impression is that the hardware side of this device is very nice and the software seems good, but could use some improvement. A few technology writers have already written some first impressions:

Farhad Manjoo in Slate wrote a piece called, "I Love the iPad". 'Nuff said.

The collective editors of Engadget, a site I read pretty regularly, posted their thoughts on the device. They're not exactly thrilled about the thing and if you want some real Apple/iPad hate, read the comments.

Slate's sister site, The Big Money, had a good piece on the potential effect the iPad could have on other businesses here.

And of course David Pogue of the New York Times had his say (positive on the whole).

Right off the bat, I have a few pros and cons:


The good:

1. The Apple-built processor, the product of a recent chip maker buyout, looks fast and energy efficient. Battery life is good, with a claimed 10 hours. Very nice.

2. The size of the device seems good for many uses. The mobile Safari browser should be quite usable. I don't always find the screen on the iPhone/iPod large enough for some extended web browsing.

3. Apple is offering this thing with 3G (cell carrier data) optional. You can buy this thing with wi-fi only and if you still want 3G, the pricing is quite reasonable without contracts.

4. The price seems right to me, considering what the iPod Touch goes for. Comparing its price to the Kindle is completely bogus. The hardware and capabilities don't come close to matching.

5. The iPhone apps will work on this thing. This opens up a lot of possibilities for developers to make some great stuff for this device.

6. Apple is using ePub for its electronic books. Thank you Apple for not introducing yet another proprietary book format.


The not so good:

1. The iPad, as of now can't run more than one application at once (save perhaps for Apple's own stuff like playing iTunes while checking mail). This can't be due to the hardware. I can only hope this will be addressed when the next iPhone OS is released.

2. No Adobe Flash. The iPhone doesn't run it either. This is a long-standing complaint against Apple and one that I agree with. Make Flash work with the iPhone OS, preferably with some kind of disable mode.

3. The iPad has no camera. Neither does the iPod Touch. It'd be great for this thing to have a built-in camera so one could do video chat on it. Let's hope both devices get it soon.

4. The screen, a back-lit LCD, won't be as easy on the eyes for reading books as e-readers that use e-Ink screens. This issue is a tough one because e Ink screens are pretty much only good at one thing: reading monochrome text. The iPad has many more uses. Will this thing be a good e reader?

My opinion right now, again not having used the thing, is that I will wait and see how it does and what software developers do with the platform. I believe there could be a lot of potential in this device. Right now, I think it'd be cool to have one of these to use at home for basic use like surfing, email, and social networking. As many have pointed out, the screen isn't really movie-friendly (it isn't widescreen) but that doesn't bother me since I don't find watching video on portables all that attractive, save for the occasional Youtube clip. I have a real video system in my home for real movie/TV watching. Many people have slammed the iPad for its inability to access Hulu. This is of course part of the Flash problem. While I want Apple to make Flash work on these devices, I don't think Hulu is going to be the downfall of the iPad. I've never found Hulu to be that great and Comcast might kill it off anyway. Of course I think it's fair to slam Apple for limiting its products to protect its content sales. Apple sells a lot of video content and they probably aren't in a rush to help their competitors. This is a real downside of being in the Apple ecosystem.

I've read a lot of bile-filled comments about the iPad, often referred to as the "MaxiPad" by those commenters who like to talk like 12 year olds, and they are so very certain of its impending failure. To them I would say the following:

Get a life. Screaming about the evils of Jobs/Apple is incredibly lame, especially when your favorite company Microsoft still owns the PC OS market. I think some people would only be happy if this thing ran Windows and cost $99. Go buy a Zune and shut up already.

Bet against Apple in the portable device realm at your own peril. These same people were certain that the iPod/iPhone were going to be a colossal flops. There is a chance that this product will flop, but it seems foolish to predict it at this point.

This product is not aimed at the tech press or people that comment on Engadget. Yes, I realize that includes myself. As much as I like having control and flexibility on my home desktop PC, I also find myself wanting a more appliance-like computing device at times. The iPad and its siblings are locked down and controlled: this is one reason why they work well and have a consistent experience for the user. Sometimes I just don't want to screw around with the same ongoing maintenance that is required on pretty much all laptops or netbooks. I just want the thing to work and I believe this device is a step in that direction. It won't replace my main computer, but it will find a use. We'll see if Apple and the other developers really make use of this thing beyond what they have now. I might be wrong and the techno-weenies might be right; the iPad could be the next Apple Cube. Stay tuned.

And one more link: Stephen Fry went to the iPad launch and wrote up a compelling, IMO case for it. He's always an entertaining writer and his comments can be found here.

January 26, 2010

"We deserve better villains."

So I caught Inglorious Basterds over the weekend. Like most Tarantino movies, this one can be appreciated, or despised on several levels. As a film fan, there were many references to WWII movies, Westerns, and even nods to old school film tech. QT does like to write the film nerd part of himself into his screenplays. I found the film a bit uneven with some scenes going on a bit much; pacing could have been better. The performances were quite good overall with the actor playing the head Nazi character a real standout. His performance alone made the movie worthwhile for me.

As you'd expect, there is a certain amount of violence, though there was less than I was expecting. Are some of the scenes gratuitous or needed for the movie's impact? Some of it served well and a few didn't: the thing that makes the violence work better here is the war setting. The film goes back and forth between serious drama/tesnsion and outright farce. Is it fun to watch the Basterds kick Nazi ass? Yes and no. The characters aren't always easy to settle in with. The potentially positive idea of Jewish revenge is undercut by a nasty scene involving a baseball bat. I find it very interesting that the movie can straddle those lines as often as it does. I feel like I need another look at it to decide whether it works as a whole or not. Is the movie an embrace or critique of the old WWII movies it references? Right now, I see both.

Here we go again with another round of new releases:

The Boys Are Back (2009)

Fuel (2009) Also on BD.

Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus - The Historic TV Broadcasts

Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009) Also on BD.

Paris, Texas (1984) Criterion releases the Wim Wenders indie classic on BD.

Saw IV Also on BD.

Southland: Season 1

Whip It (2009) Also on BD.

WWII in HD Also on BD.

January 25, 2010

TOS Rewind #38: "Friday's Child"

Today we take a look at Friday's Child (12/01/1967)

And of course, Eric, Rob, and I did a podcast: listen or download it here.


Ah, more Federation intervention in the Cosmos...

As Rob and I discussed on the podcast, neither one of us remembers being very excited about this one when were kids. In retrospect, that seems odd since there is a fair amount of combat and some time playing cat/mouse with a Klingon ship. As Rob mentioned, maybe it was the "birthin' babies" stuff.

Hot on the heels of "Journey to Babel," we get another episode that builds the political background of the Trek universe. Sure, it isn't nearly as rich as that one, but the plot surrounding the negotiation between the Feds, the Klingons, and the Capellans raises some interesting questions about the mechanics of the Federation and its dealings with other non-member worlds. I have to assume that Capella IV is not a regular Fed member, but they obviously have had contact in the past (McCoy was part of a previous mission to this world). Seeing how primitive this civilization is, why would the Prime Directive not apply here? One argument could go along the lines that since the Klingons are already vying for the minerals, the Feds have no choice but to talk to them, but apparently there were earlier contacts. What's up with that? Wouldn't McCoy and the others previously offering them medicines/hospitals be interfering with their development?

Eric mentions how much of a disappointment the Klingons are in this episode. True enough. The one Klingon we get to see is a bit of a weasel, really. He's also a coward who's chicken to take on Kirk when the chance is offered! For something so important, a crucial mineral, the Klingons could have sent someone more competent. For all the buildup surrounding the Capellans in the teaser, they sure don't seem that impressive. It often looks like some guys hanging around in tents with bad Ren Fest costumes. Sure, the costumes are always an easy target in TOS Trek, but these were quite silly. They tried to make them more than the stereotypical "noble savages," but much of the time it comes off as a retread of an old movie where the Americans are trying to "reach" the natives to explain why our superior Western values are worth siding with. I feel like the intrigue over the negotiation between the Capellans, the Feds, and the Klingons was interesting at the beginning. Instead of an exchange of ideas between the two sides, we have an introduction that breaks down into a chase sequence. In the end, Kirk just has to hold out long enough for the Klingon to prove his treachery. It does work, though it doesn't really compel me to take anyone here as serious adversaries. A similar complaint can be raised about "The Trouble With Tribbles," though that episode gets away with it due to its less serious nature.

Despite the plot issues, the familiar characters are written with their usual flair and there are some genuinely funny bits in the episode, particularly the end where it's revealed that the new Capellan regent is named Leonard James Akaar. Spock's eyes practically roll to the back of his skull. McCoy has a few fun scenes with Eleen, the expectant mother (I'm a Doctor, not an escalator!") and the penultimate scene where Maab pays his price for trusting people too much.

The music is a lot of fun here, as it often is in TOS. The score almost has a jazzy feel during the scenes where everyone's running around the hills making homemade bows and arrows. I continue to view TOS on blu ray and love the picture quality. The new effects didn't do much on this one, though the (wussy) Klingon ship looked more realistic.

---

And now, here's Eric:

According to the old nursery rhyme, from which this episode takes its title, Friday's child is loving and giving. Cool enough, but who is Friday's child? Eleen? Her baby? Or, as Doc Dregs suggests in our podcast, McCoy? I've never been able to answer that question. Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, who wrote the episode, is still alive, so maybe I should email her...hmm...

Anyway, Friday's Child is another Star Trek episode that is good but not great. It is enjoyable from the standpoint of getting to see an interesting alien civilization, and there are some funny scenes--I always get a laugh out of the going-out-of-orbit joke at the end. Scotty also gets a turn in the center center seat in one of his few opportunities to take command of the Enterprise.

Still, for a warrior race that prefers combat to sex, the fight scenes with the Capellans are wholly unconvincing. And the portrayal of the Klingons is...wrong. Kras, the Klingon emissary, is a sniveling, almost sycophantic, coward. He shows none of the ruthless, but honorable, cunning we saw in Kor ("Errand of Mercy," first season) or the courage and nobility we will find in Kang ("Day of the Dove," third season).

With that said, the theme I found in this episode is that true leadership requires accountability and often, as a result, self-sacrifice. We see this demonstrated by Maab when he upholds his duty to fight and die in defense of his command. It is further shown by Akaar (who kills Maab and assumes leadership) when he sacrifices himself to take out the Klingon who betrays his pledge and threatens the Capellans. Both of these leaders are honored, Akaar in particular, as is fitting.

So there it is. The theme and the episode are worthwhile, if not especially profound or deep, which explains much of why "Friday's Child" is good but not great.

Next time: "The Deadly Years"

January 19, 2010

"A bakery is virtually impossible to run without drug money."

A busy week for me and my fellow U of M drones.

So here is is:


According to Greta (2009) Also on BD.

Across the Hall (2009)

Che (2008) Also on BD.

Death in Love (2008) Also on BD.

Gamer (2009) Also on BD. Just waiting for that World of Warcraft movie...

The Invention of Lying (2009) Also on BD.

Pandorum (2009) Also on BD.

Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball (2010) Also on BD.

Weeds: Season 5 Also on BD.

Whiteout (2009) Also on BD.

January 11, 2010

"You look like a radioactive tampon."

Before I get into the new stuff, I wanted to note that after a LONG wait, the classic film The African Queen (1951) will finally be available on DVD/BD on March 23. This is really good news as I've been waiting for this one to be released for a long time. According to the press release, which can be found here, it will be a fully restored special edition. It will be great to have this one available here in the US (it's been available, albeit unrestored, in Europe for a while). It's also the last AFI 100 listee to be released on DVD. I really hope Paramount didn't botch the video transfer on this one.

So on to this week's new stuff:


10 Things I Hate About You: Vol. 1

8 1/2 (1963) Criterion releases the Fellini classic on BD.

The Brothers Bloom (2008) Also on BD.

The Burning Plain (2008) Also on BD.

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009, HBO Docu)

ER: Season 12

Fame (2009) Also on BD.

Halloween II (2009) I love it when they remake old sequels. Also on BD.

The Hurt Locker (2008) James Cameron and his ex (director Kathryn Bigelow) face off at this year's Oscars. Also on BD.

In Praise of Older Women (1978) As Steve Martin once said, "they know what they're doing!"

In the Loop (2009) Also on BD.

Jon & Kate Plus Ei8ht: Season 5: Big Changes For all of you who want to watch these people over and over...scary!

Moon (2009) I'm looking forward to seeing this one; it looks like a pretty intelligent sci fi film. Also on BD.

Post Grad (2009) Also on BD.

Robin Hood: Season 3 (BBC)

The Simpsons: Season 20 I wonder, has there ever been a TV show that did a feature film while continuing to be on the air? Also on BD.

Top Gear: Series 11 Series 12 is also being released this week.

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009) And the Tyler Perry machine grinds on...

January 4, 2010

"You're trying to be smart, and that's lame!"

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Happy 2010, everyone. Will it actually be the year we make contact (sorry, couldn't resist)?

I didn't bother posting last week since I was a little busy and let's face it, there's not a lot of action on the home video front right now. Stacie got me a Harmony remote which has been pretty sweet. It's nice to be able to set all the devices it controls up on a computer and have the thing just work. It's the first universal remote I have been at all impressed with. As a bonus, it also eliminates the need to use the PS3's game controller to navigate BD/DVDs (really annoying).

The guy who writes the DVD Savant site released his wishlist of titles for 2010 and an interesting end-of-year essay on the state of home video with some comments on the future of classic releases. It's worth a read and can be found here.

If you want to see the list of what came out last week, click here. And on to this week:


50 Dead Men Walking (2008) Also on BD.

Big Love: Season 3

Chuck: Season 2 Also on BD.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) Also on BD.

Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus (1964)

Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (1984)

The Super Friends: Season 1: Vol. 1 Ah, some pre-Wonder Twins bliss.

January 2, 2010

TOS Rewind #36 and #37: "Metamorphosis" and "Journey to Babel"

This time we present a two-fer: Metamorphosis and Journey to Babel. The podcast also covers both episodes.

Download it here.

I'll have Eric start us out this time:


"Metamorphosis" is an odd episode, which may be why I like it. It's not action/adventure; there's no discernable sociopolitical commentary; and it's not farce or satire. So what is it? On one level it's an examination of the needs of the human spirit, but mostly it's an odd, almost surreal, love story. There are some disturbing elements, such as the way the Companion took over Commissioner Hedford's body. (Although we aren't privy to any discussion between the good commissioner and the Companion.) And Kirk is amazingly nonchalant about having to explain, as he surely would have, how they managed to lose the commissioner they were supposed to save.

Still, this episode is a refreshing change of pace, and in many ways. it's a touching love story. I've been trying to think of more literary analysis, but I couldn't come up with anything. Sorry. If you're really interested, though, our podcast gives a more detailed discussion. (Yes, a shameless plug.) In the meantime, let's move on to the next episode.

"Journey to Babel" has always been one of my favorite episodes. It's got everything: drama, action, lots of strange aliens, and we get to find out a whole lot about Spock, including meeting his parents. And the underlying theme of this episode is one that is echoed throught all of Star Trek (perhaps most profoundly in Star Trek II and III): the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one...except when they don't.

This is demonstrated by several characters. To begin with, Sarek, Spock's father, knowingly risks his life to personally attend the Babel conference because he is committed to making sure that the rights and welfare of the Coridanians (presumably millions if not billions of people) are protected. Their needs outweigh his own and those of his family. And when he falls ill, Spock volunteers to take a dangerous drug so that he can provide enough blood to make a life-saving operation for Sarek possible. The needs of the one win out in this case, at least until Kirk is attacked and injured and the Enterprise is pursued. At this point, Spock's priority shifts to his duty to protect the Enterprise and her crew, as well as the passengers and their mission. Amanda, Spock's mother, argues that Sarek's life is more important, and Spock is agonized over the decision. Until, in the final demonstration of self-sacrifice, Kirk leaves sickbay to resume command so that Spock can give his father the transfusion with a clear conscience. And all ends well.

But this leaves an important question unanswered: Do the needs of the many actually outweigh the needs of the few or the one? Sarek, Spock, and Kirk all demonstrate that putting the needs of the many first is noble and worthy, yet they also demonstrate that giving priority to the needs of the one is equally commendable. Quite a quandry, and it's one that is never resolved in this episode, or in any other Star Trek episode or movie, because it is entirely dependent on the particular situation. It can't be decided by logic--it's one of those pesky conundrums that we emotional humans have to feel our way through, hopefully with family and good friends to help.

---

"Metamorphosis" is one of those episodes I really hadn't seen in a long time. The neglect comes from the fact that it's not one of those great classic episodes, but it isn't an amusing stinker either. In my Trek consciousness, it gets a bit buried. And that's actually too bad really. This episode, while flawed has some very thought-provoking elements and manages to defy the typical formula of the series.

The story and ideas presented here are something I would usually attribute to a series such as The Twilight Zone; it's actually quite self-contained like a short story and could have been written with unfamiliar characters. One of us mentioned on the podcast that it had the feel of a meditation, if you will and that actually fits pretty well for this one. The things that nag about this episode are the sections that feel rushed and resolve themselves too quickly to be satisfying. This would have to include the part where Kirk and co. deduce the nature of the Companion and of course, the resolution. I have to wonder how this episode would have played if they'd stripped out the scenes back on board the Enterprise entirely. It would have been a bit strange not to know what the ship was doing while the shuttle and its occupants were missing, but it might have added a touch of mystery as well as given the story back on the planet some breathing room. Of course, the scenes between Scotty and Uhura on the bridge are very pleasant and gives us some small personalty development for these characters. Or, maybe they could have abridged the bits where Kirk and Spock are writhing around on the floor after attacking the Companion.

In any case, the way the secrets are revealed comes off as abrupt and the way that they suddenly have the Commissioner's fate resolve can be read as creepy. Was the decision really mutual? And, does she always have to talk with that boomy reverb in her voice? Aside from that, the exploration of the idea of love displayed here is interesting and can also be read as a message of tolerance. That message is one that could still be used today, quite frankly. This episode can be looked at from a "gender studies" POV: the Hedford character is conveniently without any personal attachments and has "never known love." She is of course a successful career woman and emotionally damaged. This is a very old-school way to write career women, there are many examples in classic Hollywood cinema. Usually the woman, in some kind of high-powered career, is never truly happy until the right man comes along and she can leave it all behind...for love. This time, it's the combination of the "right man" and an energy being that show her the way to true happiness. That whole business surrounding galactic peace was really a crock. If I seem a bit harsh here, consider that fact that they would never have written a male character into this sort of situation, would they? After all, Kirk is "married" to the Enterprise and while it may have some real impact on his love life, he seems to get by all right (the counter-argument to this would have to be the "no beach to walk on" speech in "The Naked Time").

The actor who plays Cochrane does so in a combination of "gee-whiz astronaut" and thoughtful world-weary man. The woman playing Commissioner Hedford does fine; the main faults with her are they way the character is written. Shatner and Nimoy are a bit restrained here and, as Eric pointed out, Kirk seems awfully chilled out about leaving Cochrane and Hedford on the planet.

I viewed the BD version with the new effects. The Companion effects were cleaned up a bit and the shuttlecraft footage no longer looks like it was reused from The Galileo Seven. The one place where the new effects fall down is the look of the planet: the original planet matches the color scheme of the set sky while the new planet effect looks quite different.

I often found this episode to be on the boring side when I was a kid. It was too slow-moving and I remember finding the Hedford character to be, shall we say, bitchy?

Okay, on to "Journey:"

This episode is up there in the top tier of the series. It is tightly constructed, has great character writing, some wonderful guest actors, and a good mix of action, drama, and humor. The episode also provides a great deal of insight into the world the Trek characters inhabit, particularly Spock. Yes, this is a real Spock/Vulcan embarrassment of riches, really. Between this one and "Amok Time," we get some very rich Spock character background. The contribution to the Trek canon of this episode can not be understated. New Federation races are introduced and we even get a glimpse into the way the Federation operates, politically. I find it interesting that this is one of the first times we get any idea that things aren't always perfect in the happy Federation: how un-Roddenberryesque! I have to wonder if the writers of the new film took a lot of the Vulcan backgrounds they used from this episode. One of the best lines from this one, spoken by Sarek: "Threats are meaningless and payment is usually expensive."

Of course the main attraction here is the story between Spock and his father. The opening scenes between them are particularly icy as we learn how the two of them interact. The scenes are written and played in a subtle way that gets the point across without too much exposition to bog down the pace. Mark Lenard and Nimoy really make it work here. D.C. Fontana also handles the relationships surrounding Amanda and Spock/Sarek well. We actually get a sense of how this unlikely family operates. I also like the way that the warmth between Amanda/Sarek comes across in a way that's believable.

The story moves along at a good pace with events that all culminate nicely for the climax: risky surgery and a cat/mouse space ship game. The ending is quite satisfying with the main characters in sick bay and McCoy grinning from ear to ear.

The effects on the remastered version were pretty decent. More new shuttlecraft and landing bay sequences are here (the original re-used earlier footage) as well as a redone alien space ship.

In the past, I tended to like this one a lot. I dug the space battle as well as the back and forth between Spock and Sarek. The fight between Kirk and the Andorian was effective (and still is today, actually).

Next time: "Friday's Child"