Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Jurassic World

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

jurassic world

Last weekend, Daniel (12), Aaron (7), Camilla (10) and I went to see this movie.  Despite being PG-13, Gabi and I determined that these three could see the movie, Nika (6) was too young.  Mind you, the kids harangued us all summer to see this; it was popular enough that it was still in theaters three months after the opening. Not only have the kids seen all three movies from the 1990’s, but I’ve been reading them the original novel at bedtime … and they’ve loved it.

I’m writing since this was probably the most enjoyable movie experience I ever had.  The movie was just fine, but the kids’ reactions were even better. Camilla was hiding behind a seat for parts of the movie, bobbing her head out to look every few seconds.  Aaron had a different reaction. Just as the dinosaur attacks a pair of kids in a spherical plastic golf cart, Aaron looks at me and says, “I need to go to the bathroom.”  He does this three times during the movie; I’ll have to wait until we rent it at home to find out what happened then.

The experience brought me back to Michael Crichton, one of my favorite authors. I read Pirate Latitudes for the first time (quite good, very much like playing Sid Meier’s Pirates in book form); I re-read Sphere, a book that does not do well on a second reading. Very much in the Michael Crichton vein is the new book, the Martian, by Andy Weir. Solid, well-researched, informative. I miss Crichton.

Island in the Sea of Time by SM Stirling

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

I forget how I stumbled on the Nantucket series, but I did so when I was re-discovering sailing with Gabi a couple of years back. I’m not a big fan of alternative history fiction; it always strikes me as medium-lazy thinking. Change one thing in history (Hitler defeats England and invades the US) and follow it to its logical conclusions. Not very interesting.

This was different. The Island of Nantucket, along with a Navy training sailing ship, are transported to 1250BC. Stirling really worked in a wealth of information and data. Is a lathe really able to create another lathe from scratch? Sailing information is all accurate, so far as I know. Geography, economics, social interactions and, naturally, history are all interwoven here at an apparently high level.

When I first read this, I thought of it as a guilty pleasure (“I’m not supposed to like these books, but this one is cool.”). Recently, I bumped into a Charles Stross blog where he praised Stirling and specifically the Nantucket series.

Now armed with the warm recommendation of my favorite current era hard science fiction writer, I pull out the book again. Wow, this is more fun than I remember! And I’m going to read it with Wikipedia open the whole way through so I can really appreciate the data dump that Stirling weaves together here.

Highly recommended.


UPDATE: Funny reading this book, as it was written in about 1996. For all time shifting problems that are in the book, there are several that you have to put yourself through to enjoy this pre-Internet series. Cameras still had film, computers were not ubiquitous (or really necessary, for the most part). Cellular phones were highly unusual and are mentioned in passing once (someone uses one in the first couple of days after the Event). The only mention of the Internet is that a number of Internet addicts were badly hit. Odd the substantial things that change in 14 years.


Monday, October 4th, 2010

I really wanted to blog about this months ago, but held myself back. Around July 4, I started on a diet. It’s strictly a calorie restriction diet, run on a website or a iPhone/iTouch/iPad called LiveStrong, a Lance Armstrong sponsored site.

Every time you put something in your mouth you enter it into the site. It gives you a running tally of exactly how many calories you’ve consumed.

You preset your activity level (“Lightly Active” for me), current weight and goal. I set mine at losing one pound a week, which didn’t change my diet all that much. I eat less for breakfast and substantially less for lunch, but have a normal evening meal. I’m down 15 pounds, my blood pressure is lower than it’s been in a decade and I’m running more and faster. I’m five pounds off my goal, returning to my college weight, and I want to achieve that by Thanksgiving. No problem.

Some surprises in the calorie counts. Alcohol is surprisingly low in calories, especially when compared to sugared soft drinks. Store-bought bread has a very high calorie count, though Gabi’s homemade bread is much better. Mayonnaise, cheese and salted almonds are all high in calories and off my list unless I’ve gone jogging that day.

Processed foods in general are bad, but I don’t get too many of those. Gabi homecooks just about everything, and we can pin down calorie counts from the individual ingredients. Gabi started a more aggressive version of the diet later than I did. I can really tell the difference, though most people probably can’t see the change yet.

Anyway, the link is here. Strongly recommended.

Mad Men

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

The three best minutes of TV I have ever seen

Summertime. Gabi and I watch one or two TV shows every night throughout the year after the kids are in bed. Our favorites (24, Lost, Fringe, Survivor, CSI) are all in reruns or canceled now. Summer is the time to find a newish show, one that has been on-air for awhile which we’ve heard about but never watched. One that we can see from the beginning of the series. We discovered 24 and House this way in previous summers.

This is the summer of Mad Men, a biography of advertising men in New York, starting in March 1960 and moving forward. It can be viewed as science fiction in reverse: everyone smokes, everyone drinks too much, no car seats or seat belts in cars, no cellphones, no computers, no internet, and dozens of other things we take for granted.

But concept and setting do not make a show. Personalities do. Writing does. And this is one of the most finely written pieces of TV I have ever witnessed. And it begs my imagination to try to describe it in any cohesive way, other than to say I like it. The clip above (linked here) is so fine and elegant and moving, but I can’t tell you why, since it requires viewing the previous 12 episodes to know why, simultaneously on four or five different levels, this presentation is so hard for Donald Draper.

Part of my attachment is, no doubt, the passing of my father this year, for this is his era. In 1960 he was 36 years old, the same age as the protagonist, Donald Draper. While the show is clearly a reflection of our time, it is my father’s world being shown. Smoke. Martinis. Scotch. And more.

Nine hours before we watch the next episode.

The Dead Hand, a review

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

For awhile, when I started reading the Dead Hand, winner of this year’s Pulitzer for general non-fiction, I felt that I was finally in the grip of the definitive end-of-the-Soviet-Union book. Even while living through the events of those years, I figured that a lot of the events forming it would not come to light for decades afterward. Think of the decoding of Enigma and JN-25 (the Japanese wartime code), which did not come to light until the 1970’s. I’ve been waiting for a final, historical conclusion, but none has been satisfying yet. (I can go into the role of history-as-fiction written by the winners at some later date.)

However, after 150 pages, one has to scratch one’s head. Why so much time on biological warfare? A fair time is spent on nuclear command and control elements (and much of this new to me). Almost nothing on the other aspects of the war.

By page 250, I started deconstructing the author’s work. Why did it ring so true, but so hollow and partial? I finally realized that Hoffman was at the mercy of the interviews he’d been granted. Yes, some of them were startling — Gorbachev, members of the Reagan White House (Robert McFarlane), officers at the nuclear command centers, scientists from several of the biological warfare centers. This does not make it a bad book, but it is not a complete overview. I class this as an important part of the end of the Cold War canon, but far from the definitive tome it wants to be.

As always with books like this, I’m surprised at how much was done on the Russian side of the table leading up to the collapse and how little was done by the West. Of course, the Russian’s were the ones feeling the pressure – falling behind, atrophying economies, unable to compete.

iPhone vs. Droid: The Authoritative Review

Friday, March 26th, 2010

I’ve now had the Droid as my defacto cellphone for two weeks. It’s time for a comparison. Which is better? Why? After all, Google handed me a free $600 phone to do a review like this. I feel honor-bound to present it.

First of all, this is not a post for the ages. 18 months from now, one or even two generations will have passed in the smartphone market. Almost anything available in 2011 will be better than either of the entries we have today.

Droid +2
The Droid’s screen is precious. At 854×480, it has a greater density than Standard Definition TV and one approaching low end HD TV’s. The Droid’s screen is physically slightly larger than the iPhone’s. If placed side-by-side, the diference is obvious. Further, there is an effective light sensor on the Droid which adjusts the brightness of the screen. No more blinding yourself when turning on the phone in the middle of the night.

On the other hand, this is only a +2 for Droid. While it’s a clear difference, you’ll never pick up an iPhone and say, “Dang! I wish this was the Droid’s screen.” Both phones have adequate screens.

Browser/Web Experience
Droid +3
Really, really fast. Mind you, I’m comparing this to an iPhone 3G, which is an older version. But the speed difference is quite incredible. Further, the Droid’s default web browser uses windows in an effective way, allowing me to comfortably read the Economist. With the iPhone, it’s always a case of load and wait. And wait. And wait.

Call quality
Droid +1
Does anyone use these phones to make calls anymore? I felt very antiquated using the Droid to call Aunt Mary from the gazebo yesterday afternoon. On the other hand, I would not have made the call with the iPhone – the call quality on the iPhone precludes extended conversations. And, yes, we have a strong AT&T signal here – we installed a femtocell in the house just so we could make use of the iPhone. It’s a big, very noticeable difference between the phones but, heck, who uses it anymore?

Network Reliability (AT&T vs. Verizon)
Droid +3
This isn’t big for me, as I only spend four or five days a year outside of urban areas. Here in Southern California, AT&T has an adequate spread. The femtocell we installed means that we have access inside our house. That’s something we wouldn’t need with the Droid, since it works on Verizon. Also, the Droid would work perfectly well in New Glarus, Wisconsin when we make our semi-annual visits there.

iPhone +1
I’ve been reading books on cellphones for two years now. iPhone wins for the Kindle app, unavailable at this point for the Droid. Reading a book is marginally easier on the Droid’s bigger, brighter, denser screen, but the iPhone is adequate. I’ve used a series of eReader and eBook apps on each, and in every case the iPhone versions are better supported, cheaper, easier to use. Also, the one that worked best on the Droid did not allow me to increase the font size of the text. This is important as my aging eyes no longer can easily read the smallest print.

Droid +5
The Droid’s camera is WAY superior to the iPhones. I’ve posted videos and photos taken on the website already. The Droid’s camera is a very workable, always with you picture and video taker. The iPhone is not.

Droid +2
Really a big difference between the two. The Droid can spot your location in a couple of seconds, with better accuracy and no hiccups. iPhone requires that you wait for one to two minutes for it to determine where you are. Not a big deal for me, but a nice plus for Droid. Note, however, even during the trial phase I used the iPhone for jogging, despite the Droid’s superior GPS. Why? The running app for the iPhone is free and let’s me record and post my jogs. The Droid’s is expensive ($30), without all of the features. Go Runkeeper!

Ease of Use
iPhone +1
Dang, but the iPhone is easy to use. We’ve given ours to toddlers and they can navigate effectively to find games, photos and videos. There is no way that the open software derived Android operating system is going to do this. On the other hand, you get used to the clunky ways of the Droid within a day or two, and then you don’t notice it. In the end, it’s just not a big difference between the two for an actual user.

Driod -8, iPhone -10
Epic failure by both parties. Neither offers a robust, reliable way of receiving and sending email. The Droid tries to do a good job of connecting in real time to Gmail. Often, when I get a new email, the Droid will make a loud tone in less than minute after receipt. The key here is the word “often”. It seems to work about 60% of the time. The other 40%? No tone, no indication that an email has arrived. I have no idea why.

At least the Droid tries. iPhone appears to have purposely hobbled their email system. Arriving emails are indicated within 20 minutes of receipt. The tone produced by the iPhone is so quiet I frequently don’t hear it. And there is no way to change it.

For such an important service, there is simply no excuse for this sloppy work. Let me tell you what I need in a mobile, email client:
-> Loud alerts when receiving emails from clients.
-> Quiet or no alert at all from other emails (I don’t need to see my library notices immediately, guys). This means an editable list of filters for alerts.
-> Ability to set “Reply to” and “From” email addresses. My primary business address is actually an alias on the company server. Neither iPhone nor Droid will support that kind of setup.
-> Reliable, fast notification of arriving emails.

Blackberry does all of these things. Why can’t these other two products from Silicon Valley technology titans? Droid gets slightly higher marks for being more usable and at least trying, as well as opening their system for third party products. Apple has no excuse.

Droid +10
Epic failure on the part of Apple. Easy to set up on Droid. For non-techies, tethering is when you use your phone’s internet connection on your laptop. This isn’t something that I need very often (internet failure at home, important project when traveling and no wifi connection is available). When I need it, I need it to work RIGHT NOW. Droid does fine. AT&T and Apple have purposely blocked it on the iPhone. It’s one of the reasons that so many techies jailbreak their iPhones.

Apps Available
iPhone +20
Every app first appears on iPhone, which also has a plethora of inexpensive or free highly useful apps. Apps on Droid are expensive (+$10). I’ve already mentioned Runkeeper, my jogging companion. This is also true of games, utilities and the whole gamut of software for smartphones.

The situation strongly reminds me of the days of when Macintosh computers were built on different chipsets than PC’s. I was always jealous of the availability of games and free downloadable utilities for PC’s, while Mac’s had only expensive, crappy versions. This is one area where I guarantee that each and every Droid user will, once a week, look at his/her phone, sigh, and say, “I wish you were an iPhone.” Guaranteed.

Final Score
iPhone +12 (mostly on apps), Droid +18

Don’t take the final score too seriously. Look at what you will use your smartphone for. Are you going biking across America, like my sister Helen? Droid is the clear answer. Are you chasing the latest videogame and mobile utility? iPhone.

Once my trial period is over with Verizon, I’ll keep the Droid as a wifi only terminal around the house. I’ll be going back to my iPhone at the end of the month. The availability and ubiquity of iPhone apps wins the day at the very end.

Up in the Air: A Review

Friday, March 19th, 2010

George Clooney is not my favorite actor, but he was born to play this role. He plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant whose only job is to fire people. When I first heard about this movie, my first thought was, “I could do that job!”

It ends up being a treatise on relationships, work and self-esteem. It’s deep without going over the edge; funny in a casual as-it-so-happens way.

((Minor spoilers below))

The settings that the movie uses are endearing. Instead of the usually coast-oriented movie production, this one is in St. Louis (site of most principal photography), Detroit, Wichita, Des Moines, and rural Wisconsin. Indeed, the hotel in Wisconsin could easily be the family-run hotel we use for our retreats in New Glarus.

When Clooney confronts the groom at the wedding to entice him back to the altar (“You really want *me* to do this?”), some of the basic underpinnings of the story come out. “I don’t want to. What happens next? Kids, a job, a house, school, I get old, grandkids and then I die. I don’t want that.” A beautiful, succinct scene.

On a personal note, I really appreciated when Clooney achieves his personal dream — becoming the seventh person to log over 10 million miles on American Airlines frequent flier program. In 1992, I became the 47th frequent flier for Czech Airlines. It didn’t take too many miles, either 25,000 or 50,000. Virtually everyone I knew in Prague’s computer business community was a frequent flier. But to be #47, handed a simple card with that number and my name on it. Free upgrades to Business Class, free flights overseas on vacation, learning the names of everyone on the Prague to Moscow leg. I recognized the thrill.

Highly recommended. Worthy of the Oscar Best Picture Nomination (though Hurt Locker is better).

AR Drone at GDC

Friday, March 12th, 2010

The highlight of my trip to GDC in San Francisco was flying the AR Drone. Wow! It flies like it’s on rails. Completely smooth controls. And you control it with your iPhone, which has a live video camera feed from the cockpit of the plane/helicopter/thingy. Great fun!

I blogged about this earlier here, and included the marketing video the company made to promote it. It’s a really cool video, particularly now that I know it’s not hype.

Taleb Quote

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Nassim Taleb from Twitter: “What they call philosophy, I call literature; what they call literature I call journalism; and what they call journalism I call gossip.”


Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I’m not sure exactly what prompted me to put Beowulf on my Netflix list, but I’m glad that I did. It was thoroughly entertaining.

The entire movie is a CGI animation that doesn’t quite work – anyone looking at the characters sees them as so human that they are revolted by the imperfections of the images. It’s called the Uncanny Valley by robot creators, with some of very reasonable possible explanations as to why people are universally revolted by these near-perfect representations. In order to enjoy Beowulf, you need to ignore the impulse.

My favorite part of the movie (besides a nude Angelina Jolie, which has to top any male viewer’s list) was the mead hall that Grendal attacks in the beginning of the movie. While the speeches describe it as a grand hall, it really looks like a large wooden shack thrown up by near savage woodsmen in Scandinavia 1500 years ago—it basically looked really accurate. The castle that shows up later in the movie is a more typical, unrealistic Hollywood fantasy, but at least someone was thinking early on in the movie. I credit Neil Gaiman, though his input in the film may well have disappeared ten years before anyone started filming (animating).

I don’t know much about the original story. It never interested me like much older tales (Gilgamesh, the Bible, Homer). I always figured it for a Johnny-come-lately of the epic tales, interesting only for being in Old English. I’ll need to revise that opinion since discovering one of the premiere scholars of Beowulf was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien. An early Middle Ages tale of monsters, dragons and heroes. Does this sound familiar … ?