Shouting Into Darkness

Smoke Screen

Posted in Political, Ranting and Raving by Chris W. on March 8, 2011

I’m about to shock everyone out there. The first politician to publicly introduce a bill that will outlaw smoking in his or her respective state will get my respect and admiration. You know why? Because someone will finally have the gumption to admit it.

It’s time that we all stop pussyfooting around and admit that what certain people really want to see is tobacco smoking to be banned everywhere. This hypothetical person would want the government to step in and declare the product and its consumption illegal in whatever state cooks up this claptrap* because the whole “persuading that smoking might not be the best thing for your health” idea has crashed and burned. Seriously, if you buy a pack of cigarettes today in the city of New York, it comes with a big black-and-white sticker on it that says, in no uncertain terms, SMOKING KILLS. And yet I still see people buying them in my local pharmacy, and walk past discarded packs or stamped-out butts. Smoking not only kills, but it causes you to litter, too! Maybe the government should get on that as well?

I’m not a smoker. At all. I grew up in a house where my mom smoked regularly and my dad on occasion. I’ve deduced that my brother smokes as well, judging by the sound of him hacking up his lungs from three houses away. I never have smoked any substance in my life and I probably never will. I have no love loss for smokers as a general population. To me, they’re just regular people with a hobby that I don’t partake in, no different than people who really enjoy hip hop. Both are equally sentient, and at times equally annoying, but the choice to smoke or to listen to music at an absurd level is one made by an individual with the capacity to make that choice.

I know some people are going to throw the argument of “loud music is just an annoyance while second-hand smoke could potentially be deadly” at me, and I wouldn’t be well equipped to argue to the contrary. I’ve seen some evidence that second-hand smoke is not as dangerous as it’s trumped up to be, but the general scientific consensus is that second-hand smoke could be as dangerous as smoking yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s to respect the opinions of scientists and doctors, not politicians and lobby groups. I haven’t reviewed the evidence of whether or not second-hand smoke is as bad for you as first-hand smoke because I don’t think I possess the brainpower to understand the research, and will probably continue to not understand it until it gets distilled to an episode on “Mythbusters”. But that’s not what my point to argue. What I’m trying to do is argue the quasi-legal status tobacco consumption is currently stuck with, a status that finds itself shrinking every passing year.

When I took Social Psychology at NYU (purely for gen ed credit, mind you), one of the things I learned is that people are more likely to accept a sweeping change if it’s done in gradual, easy to digest bits. Car salesmen and con artists use the same trick. Get you to agree to one easy and agreeable condition and the door is open to then introduce further terms on a gradual incline until what you ultimately agree to bares little resemblance to what you started to agree to, Dawkins’ Mount Improbable in the social arena. While I can’t speak for everyone lobbying against tobacco, I think it’s pretty clear what the end game for most of those groups are: a smoke-free city/state/nation. When I look at my own mayor, Michael Bloomberg, writing praise of the Brazilian government after they practically ban tobacco outright, I know that’s what’s on his mind.

But there’s the problem. He wants to outlaw tobacco, but approaching the issue head-on has a very high risk of failure. First of all are the civil libertarians like me, who will make such a stink over the loss of another personal freedom (to chose to smoke or not) that cigarette smoke will seem like gentle spritz of a Glade Plug-in. But libertarian nutjobs like myself and the ACLU – while loud and annoying – can be overlooked. What can’t be overlooked is that the tobacco industry in America is huge. Tobacco is a gigantic cash crop for the US, rakes in billions of dollars, and has a lobby as powerful as Skynet’s army of Terminators. And what about the smokers themselves? It’s often forgotten that they have rights, too.

What is clear is that the status-quo cannot be sustained for much longer. Politicians are trying to have it both ways. Tobacco-use is being outlawed in more and more places, so the anti-smoking people are happy, and at the same time being taxed to hell, so the local governments get to wet their beaks with every singe purchase. The tobacco companies don’t really care that much, because the cost of all the taxes and regulations gets pushed to their customers. And let’s face it, in all these situations, it is the smokers that are getting screwed. It is their choice to partake in this habit, so I don’t feel bad with them having to pay the admission fee, but the government is simultaneously wagging their finger at the entire smoking population while at the same time benefiting from the taxes that tobacco brings in.

If you’re anti-smoking, the solution is easy. “Just quit,” they say.

Really, they’re right. Quitting smoking will instantly make you healthier, and you won’t risk the health of the people around you. The problem is that we currently classify tobacco as a legal substance while demonizing its use. There are no campaigns or advertisements on the subway that say “smoke responsibly” because we’ve outlawed tobacco adverts. If this is the path we’re on, why not commit and just go all the way? Let’s make the discussion of whether or not tobacco should be all the way legal, or all the way illegal. At least then, both sides of the argument will be – for once – honest with everyone.

*I’ll bet you it’s California. It’s gotta be California. California always comes up with these kooky laws that spread around the country like wildfire. Ten’ll get you twenty it’s California.


Thoughts on The Social Network

Posted in Film by Chris W. on March 7, 2011

I write this at 2:21 AM on Sunday, March 6, 2011 (Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, if you were wondering.) Meaghan and I just got through watching The Social Network, what some critics were calling the film of the social-networking generation. While it was well-made, thought provoking, and had great performances all around, I come away a little underwhelmed by the whole experience. I was expecting The Graduate and got Dog Day Afternoon.

I’ll try to keep this brief because everyone and their pet larvae has heard how good The Social Network is and seen now many awards it was up for. This isn’t a review, just a collection of thoughts I want to get down before the virginal experience of seeing the movie fades from memory.

First, the best thing about the movie are the performances. Everyone from Eisenberg to the sperm-jar co-eds was on the ball. I can’t point to a single person that stood out as being “bad.” Everyone was complex and worthy of discussion. Jessie Eisenberg gave the performance of his young career as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as someone who operates on a different mental plane than everyone else. He’s a brilliant mind, but when it comes to the human stuff, he may as well be another species. Zuckerberg isn’t the usual casting of a geek, where he steps on people’s toes while dancing, makes inappropriate noises in public, and can’t pick up on seemingly obvious social cues. He just doesn’t work the way that everyone else works, and that makes him come off as a serious douchebag. Meaghan characterized him as “Spock if Spock were an asshole.” I agree, but I’d also throw in some of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, a high-functioning autistic whose mind works faster than yours and can see problems in four dimensions instead of three. I was even shocked by how good Justin Timberlake is. I don’t dig his music, but he’s proven himself to be an actor of considerable talent.

I won’t get into the plot because most of it is fiction. The movie is based off of the book “The Accidental Billionaires,” which is a largely inaccurate depiction of young entrepreneurs. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has admittedly twisted people and motivations around to fit the mold of a Hollywood story, since a movie about people sitting at a computer writing code for six years is just as exciting as it sounds. I did want to touch on two issues…

Issue one: the movie is not about Facebook. I didn’t want the movie to be about Facebook because it didn’t need to ride the wave of Facebook’s popularity to be good. I hate it when films try to attach themselves to fads in other areas of the culture in an attempt to prove that movies are still a relevant medium. The Social Network is as much about Facebook as A Hard Day’s Night is about The Beatles. Instead, The Social Network resembles a modern-day Wall Street. You could replace Facebook in that movie with a made-up website and the film would be almost unchanged. This movie is not about the modern social zeitgeist, where we live in a world of status updates, friending and unfriending, and geotagging. Our private business is public all the time, and we’re the ones who put it out there. These issues are not touched upon at all in the film. Instead, this is a “going into business” story. It’s a very good “going into business” story about betrayal, intellectual property, and ambition, but ironically, The Social Network has very little to do with social networking.

Issue two: I didn’t get the accusations made by Leo Laporte of TWiT fame that the film was anti-geek or resisting the change of social media. Like previously said, I didn’t see much influence that social networking had on the plot, so any value judgement that Facebook and similar sites have placed on it is miniscule. The film more concerns itself with the facts surrounding Facebook’s creation, even though most of the “facts” are made up. Also, I think that Zuckerberg is portrayed the way that he is not to stand in for all computer geeks everywhere. The coders that exist in the background to build Facebook as the company gets bigger are characterized as people who know how to code, not as socially inept aliens who code because they can’t speak Human, which is how computer people are usually treated in the media. Saying that Zuckerberg is the film’s statement on all computer people is like saying that DeNiro in The Godfather: Park II is Coppala’s statement on Italian Immigrants to America at the turn of the century. Each director is creating a character, with their own personalities and ways of expressing themselves.

Finally, there is the ending scene, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It shows Zuckerberg being advised to settle the lawsuits and pay out. After being told “You’re not an asshole. You just try to hard to be one,” he gets on Facebook, the site he created, and sends a friend request to a girl he mistreated a few years ago. The film ends with him refreshing the page every few seconds to see if his friend request is accepted. Captions explain how he settled the lawsuits for vast sums of money, how huge Facebook is, how he’s the youngest billionaire in history, and we are played out by “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” by the Beatles. I have no fucking clue what any of this means. At first, I thought it was a double middle finger to all the problems, saying that Zuckerberg is a Rich Man, so who gives a shit, right? Fantastic moral for a movie to have, by the way, especially as the world comes out of a recession. But the more I think about it, I think it shows how his own creation changed Zuckerberg at the end. For someone who didn’t get the social experience and revolutionized how people interact with each other, he ends up being swallowed by his own creation, falling victim to the new social parameters. He’s got all the money in the world and he too is using Facebook as a barometer to see if someone likes him. Like the spinning top in Inception, whether she accepts him or not is inconsequential. Just the fact that he’s doing it shows some type of character change within Zuckerberg.

…Now that I’ve been proven to be a liar (this was not a short post) I’m going to bed. Good night, all.

Is the iPad 2 Right for You?

Posted in Technology by Chris W. on March 2, 2011

Surprising almost no-one and yet still setting the Internet alight, Apple today announced the next generation of iPads, dubbed the “iPad 2”. All the anticipated updates were there. iPad 2 is faster, lighter, and sports two cameras for FaceTime or general photo/video taking. There were a few surprises in the mix as well. I don’t think anyone called the mirrored HDMI out functionality, and the addition of iMovie and GarageBand to the iPad suite of productivity apps might be enough to divorce some teens from their netbooks.

Now that the excitement is over and the iPad 2’s launch is just about a week away, the question poses itself: is it worth it to buy for you? And if so, which one?

For full disclosure, I will admit that I had a first-generation iPad, and I loved it. It was everything I needed it to be, nothing more, nothing less. A few weeks before this announcement, I sold it to raise the funds to pay some bills and save up for the new iPad. Now those funds are gone and I’m put in the same position as a lot of other people: to buy or not to buy.

For all the hype, for all the advances the iPad has made in just one year, the decision in my eyes is very simple. If you have an iPad now, you like it just fine, and you don’t have a camera fetish, then I’d recommend skipping this hardware cycle and enjoying the hardware you already own. It hurts to say so, but I don’t think the iPad 2 is worth ditching the iPad 1 for. (Somewhere, off in the distance, a single tear drips down the cheek of a lonely Apple Store employee.)

A colleague of mine narrowed down the reason why to just one feature: Retina Display. The iPad looks gorgeous as it is, but the MacBook Air I’m typing this on has more pixels on its 11” 16×9 screen than the iPad does on its 9” 4×3 screen. The iPad handles video beautifully, but it’s on a collision course for HD and somewhere within the next two hardware refreshes, a Retina Display will be added. Then everyone will look at the iPad and say, “Wow, this is what the iPad should’ve always been.” Not to say that the iPad 2 isn’t stunning as it is, but the engineers are getting closer and closer to Plato’s Table as the years go on, achieving that perfect mental picture of what an iPad is and can do.

This advice only applies to people who already have the hardware and don’t feel the burning need for a FaceTime camera. But if you’re in the general population, if you haven’t bought an iPad yet and were waiting to see what all the hubbub was about, then this is your time. Jump into the iPad with both feet and feel good that you’re buying an amazing piece of technology. If you don’t already own an iPad, then there is no longer any reason (apart from financial) why you shouldn’t own one now.

My advice on the models remains the same as it did last year. I’m a big fan of the iPad with WiFi only, its cheaper price making it a no-brainer. The benefits of an internal 3G radio and GPS don’t offset the cost of the 3G service (which is pay-as-you-go, still) and the greater initial cost for the iPad itself. This effect is compounded if you have an iPhone 4. The iPhone will soon be getting a Personal Hotspot feature, allowing your iPhone 4 to be turned into a mobile WiFi router for pairing up to five devices on one network. For AT&T, that amounts to an extra $45 a month for 4GB of data. Getting the iPad 2 with 3G has an extra $130 attached at the start, and then you’re paying either $15 for 250 MB a month or $25 for 2GB. Over a 5 month period, the Personal Hotspot will cost $225 while getting five months straight of 2GB on the iPad 2 with 3G will be $255. That’s a savings of about $6 a month. Clearly, if you have an iPhone 4 and are already paying for data, you are better off just using more of that data than buying a device to use its own data system.

Now we get down to the personal question: Will I be buying one? If I somehow came into possession of $500, I’ll definitely pick one up. But if I have to work for it and save my money (perish the thought!), there are better ways to make my money work for me. Unless I suffer serious iPad withdrawal, this hardware cycle will be one I’ll sit out on.

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Crystal Ball Time: Predictions for Apple March 2011 Event

Posted in Apple Predictions, Technology by Chris W. on March 1, 2011

It’s that time again. We’re mere hours away from another Apple event and that means the entire Internet is abuzz with what it could be. Surprisingly, there are even some odds-makers taking bets on tomorrow’s proceedings. Strange, considering that – unlike last year – Apple has flat-out admitted what will be on display tomorrow. But the details are still debatable, so if you’re considering gambling with Junior’s college fund, here are a few helpful thoughts from one jerk with an Internet connection:

The Sure Thing: iPad 2
Yeah, Apple’s not being subtle about this one, are they? The time is right for a hardware refresh, and with the iPad peeking out from behind the invitation (a trend Apple has been using in their invitations recently: drop a big hint about a highly-anticipated product release to distract everyone from their latest controversy), this one is guaranteed. The iPad 2 (or whatever it will be called) will be debuted tomorrow. Also guaranteed: as soon as it’s announced, I will want one.
Probability: 100%

The Real Question: iPad 2’s Features
While it’s the unspoken truth that the iPad 2 will be announced tomorrow, nobody really knows what that entails. You can be sure that a FaceTime camera will be involved, but beyond that fact, it’s kind of up in the air. There are good arguments on either side for “Will it get a retina display upgrade?” or “Will it sport an SD card slot?” For my money, here’s what you can expect:
Thinner, lighter, partially inspired by MacBook Air. The 11” MacBook Air has been a huge success for Apple and the company, like a Formula 1 team, will look to shed weight and increase aerodynamics in any way possible. As much as I loved my iPad, the only drawback was that it felt heavy in places, and the iPad 2 will look to rectify that.
FaceTime Camera. Well… duh. Apple is trying to push FaceTime and I think that the iPad 2 will be the platform that allows the software to really take off. Everyone bemoaned the lack of cameras on the first iPad. What will be interesting will be how many people who cried for the feature will actually use it once it’s available.
SLIGHT Display Upgrade. As pretty as the screen on the original iPad was, I think Apple will find a way to cram a few more pixels into it. I’m of the mindset that a true Retina Display is in the future and unless Apple is ready to make a serious commitment to HD, the iPad 2 won’t be sporting a super high-rez screen.
No Back-Facing Camera/SD Slot. I’m just personally predicting that these features will be left out because I can’t factor in where they’d fit in my daily use for the tablet. If you’ve got an iPhone 4 or an iPod Touch (which is a very large sample group, to be honest), then you’ve got a high-quality camera that you can easily pull out of your pocket/already have in your hands and snap a photo. Where do you usually use an iPad? When you’re sitting down. To me, adding a rear-facing camera to the iPad would be like adding a rear-facing camera to my MacBook Air just because they could. On the other hand, I will admit that there is a subset of the market that could have a use for an SD card slot (eliminating the need for that awkward Camera Connection Kit) so if I’m wrong on that one, I can understand why. People on the go want to take high-quality pictures with a Canon or Nikon camera and get them on the iPad quickly. It’d be a great feature for someone who used their iPad as a mobile computer. I think Apple would much rather use streaming/cloud software that they own (more on that later) but this is an acceptable stepping-stone to that ultimate conclusion.
Price Drop. In the electronics game, you use the early adopters to recoup your R&D costs. I don’t have exact numbers on me, but last year the number of iPads sold by Apple ranges somewhere between an assload and a shitload. Consider that the cheapest one was $499 and (according to iSuppli, cost around $260 to manufacture) and that’s a nice profit margin. By now, Apple has probably made back or come close to making back the money needed to develop the iPad and can afford to bring the cost down. And to be honest, it is a move that is needed. The iPad surprised the entire computing industry; even when it was mocked for its name or being “just a big iPod Touch”, it was such a huge success that companies like Google and Motorola are scrambling to produce competitors. With about three big tablets on the way in 2011, and many tech pundits giving thumbs up to Google’s Honeycomb OS, the iPad’s biggest advantage is its price. If Apple can make an iPad 2 that sells for $400 – $450, its dominance in the tablet market will be almost assured.

As you can see, my prediction for Wednesday is that we will have a modest upgrade to the iPad, similar to the 3GS two years ago. There will be one or two big features that will turn heads, but for the most part, if you have an iPad now and don’t have a camera fetish, you may be well served to ignore this hardware cycle.
Probability of being 100% accurate: 22%
Probability of being wrong about the Retina Display: 50%
Probability of a price drop: 15%

The Long Shot: Free Cloud-Based MobileMe/iTunes Locker
People in the tech world have been predicting a drastic shift in the iTunes model since Apple purchased start-up company a few years ago. The service allowed you to upload music into the “cloud” for streaming to any device. In practical terms, “Do you like Men at Work, but not enough to eat up valuable disc space on your iPod? Well, upload it to the cloud and stream it whenever you get the urge for some Australian 80s pop rock.” It’s been put off and put off for ages, but now that MobileMe has vanished from online and retail stores, the mood in the air is that a refresh is imminent. I normally would brush this off as just tech buffs yearning to give their hard drives some relief, but I’m inclined to agree this time. MobileMe’s disappearance from the sales world is a sign that something is up, but what put it over the edge for me is the tagline in the invitation. “Come see what 2011 will be the year of.” If this was 2010, the iPad would be sufficient enough, but for that much hype, I don’t think that the iPad is the only thing they’re talking about. Something else is afoot. I’ll even scale it back a little bit and say that Wednesday’s event will only set up the groundwork for an overhaul later. iTunes itself usually gets a make-over in the Fall Music event, so tomorrow will concern itself with MobileMe, with possible expansion into iTunes later in 2011.
Probability: 45%

The Misguided Guess: Preview of “Lion”
Apple just released the developer preview of Mac OSX “Lion.” It’s getting praise from developers and non-developers who happened to scam a copy as a seamless blend of iOS’s ease-of-use with Mac OSX’s computing power. We mere mortals (including those not brave enough to put their primary computer at risk by running an OS that technically isn’t finished yet) will be able to download “Lion” in the summer, and I hope that Tim Cook or someone gives us another peek at Lion’s new features to whet our appetite. It would fit in with the theme of “Come see what 2011 will be the year of”, but I’ll bet that Apple would rather focus on the iPad 2/MobileMe. There’s a slim chance “Lion” will get some love tomorrow, but I wouldn’t bet my last chip on it.
Probability: 10%

The Second Coming (Again): Steve Jobs returns to the stage
Today, some rumors started to get floated around that Steve Jobs will make an appearance tomorrow, probably not taking center stage for the entire presentation, but to demo the iPad 2 or something similar. It would make sense and be poetic. Everyone has seen the pictures of Jobs holding the original iPad as it was announced to the world. Nothing against COO Tim Cook, but it would be slightly weird to have someone else demo the product that has been so associated with Jobs and his philosophy at Apple. I also think back to the iPhone announcements: Jobs was there for the iPhone, the iPhone 3G, and the iPhone 4 (the major hardware refreshes) while Phil Schiller took the stage to announce the iPhone 3GS (seen largely as a minor upgrade and not worth buying if you had the 3G). It’s no secret in the tech world that, although Jobs is on medical leave from Apple, he’s still involved with the company, and this would be a great opportunity to put to bed any rumors of Jobs’s declining health or departing Apple for good, which have reeked havoc on Apple’s stock prices. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The products are what we are there for, and Jobs will return if and when he’s ready to. But wouldn’t it be cool? Wouldn’t it?
Probability: Immeasurable

So there we have it. That’s what I think we’ll see tomorrow at Apple’s March 2011 Event. Thanks very much for sticking with me to the end, and if you want to see the news as it happens, please follow me on Twitter as I’ll be live-tweeting the stream of the event. As always, stay tuned for the wrap-up on Shouting Into Darkness!

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Review: Easy A

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on September 20, 2010

Easy A was not a film that was on my radar whatsoever. My only knowledge about the movie is that it did the same thing with The Scarlet Letter that Stephen King did with ‘Salem’s Lot and Dracula, which is to say it’s the same story in a modern setting. If given the option, I probably wouldn’t have watched it and left the review for the week blank, given that there are no new movies about middle-aged men who sweat tequila and kill more people in 30 seconds than the H-Bomb. But my girlfriend wanted to see it and I relented since I wanted to make her happy and maybe use it as leverage to get laid that night.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that Easy A was a pretty good movie. It may give off the “chick flick” vibe a bit too much for the average Joe, but underneath its girly exterior is a story with heart that speaks to both sexes, especially if High School is fresh in his or her memory.

The movie belongs to Emma Stone, who stars as Olive Penderghast, a cute 17-18 year old high school student who talks like she swallowed a thesaurus at birth and is, ultimately, too smart for the social scene. After a series of miscommunications with a friend (or what the kids might call a “frienemy”), the rumor starts to spread around school that Olive lost her virginity to a college student. At first Olive shuns the attention, but soon discovers that she enjoys the spotlight and starts to advertise her faux promiscuity to the point where she accepts money from shy misfits to claim she deflowered them. Needless to say, the journey into whoredom is not an easy, smooth one.

There are solid performances all around, mostly by the cast of students, but Emma Stone makes the movie worthwhile. I loved her delivery, the way she made a mouthful of dialogue seem natural and sharp. (Dialogue and English lovers will really get a kick out of this movie.) She was easy to like, not bad to look at, and I found myself honestly caring about her plight. Recently, that’s been a pretty difficult stage for me to get to in the movies I’ve seen. Maybe it’s because I see a lot of the teenage me in her, but I also think she’s an example of archetypes gone right in a movie. Her character is mostly a stereotype: a slightly nerdy teenage girl that doesn’t fit in despite being more attractive than average, but she takes a few steps to the left to make the character feel more real and not just a cookie-cutter insert to the movie. Olive Penderghast is an outsider because she doesn’t fit in to the molds. She’s too cute to be a nerd and yet too nerdy to be popular. If it sounds like I’m back in high school writing a gooey love-letter to a girl way out of my league, it’s because I am.

The other performance of note comes from Nickelodeon alumni Amanda Bynes, who plays the school’s not-so-lovable zealot Marianne Bryant. Again, this is a character that is a few steps away from being a stereotype, but keeps a bit of distance from the mold she grew out of in order to feel real. I thought she’d play like the religious wackos from Hamlet 2 or Princess Clara from “Drawn Together”, but her character is closer to Tracy Flick from Election, a young woman who looks prim and perfect on the outside but is hiding pure, barely-contained evil on the inside. Unlike Flick, everyone in Easy A hates Marianne Bryant and her evil is on prominent display. She’s just another one of the mean girls who covers her meanness with religiosity. I expected to hate her character, but came away with just a mild dislike, since she alone doesn’t pose much of a personal threat to Olive.

There’s not much more to talk about with the cast except for the adults. You know how certain shows or cartoons show the children as being more competent and interesting than the grownups? Well, this is another one. The adult cast surrounding the teenagers has some great names on it: Malcolm McDowell, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, etc, but only Thomas Haden Church made me really like him. He’s the English teacher that identifies with the students, mostly Olive. Malcolm McDowell plays the principal, so of course you have to hate his guts. Then we get to some of the gripes I have with the rest of the cast, namely the repeating. Patricia Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow both at different times in the movie have to pad for time, so they just repeat what they’ve said previously until another character jumps in to restart the movie after it stalls. If you think that sounds annoying, it is, so annoying that it makes me wonder if Easy A wasn’t trying to make the adults seem more childish than the children they’re supposed to be teaching.

That wouldn’t be so bad if it were just straight-up satire. I think back to shows like South Park and all the “Peanuts” specials, where the adults are barely a force in the lives of their children. Those work because of they are not meant to be taken seriously. In the case of Easy A, on the other hand, this is meant to be taken at face-value. You are seeing this snippet of Olive’s life, and what you see is what you get. This wouldn’t be so bad except that the parents and authority figures (with the exception of Haden Church) are excruciatingly incompetent in their roles. Olive’s parents are these California neo-hippies who are progressive to the point of being ineffective as parents. They swallow the trend that your parents should be your friend, and it annoys the piss out of me. Those performances would’ve been flat-out offensive if it weren’t for my feeling that Olive wished her parents were a bit more old-fashioned.

I also couldn’t get past the feeling that the movie’s self-referential moments; they felt like a cop-out. Nobody likes Fourth-Wall shattering devices more than I do, but Easy A is filled with clichés and bad jokes that the film references as clichés and bad jokes. I don’t want to point too many fingers, but this feels like lazy writing. The script is trying to have it both ways, using bad clichés in its dialogue and making fun of movies that use bad clichés in their dialogue. Do you remember being in an argument and some says “If I were a lesser man, I’d say…” and then goes on to list all the stuff he’s supposedly not supposed to say? That’s the feeling I get from this movie.

In the aftermath, I could remember something Stephen King wrote about teenage confessional stories in the 70s and the theme of the Three Rs (Rebellion, Ruin, and Redemption). While you could definitely see Easy A as a movie about Olive rebelling against herself, I think that would be too clichéd. Easy A is more of a comment on the public nature of privacy for the youth of today. As much as I love them, social networking sites have made it seem like everyone’s personal goings-on are as important as someone who gets stalked by TMZ. No thought is kept to ones-self. Thanks to the Internet, your business is everyone’s business and information can spread faster than a lice infestation. Olive is a victim of this side-effect of the modern social media zeitgeist, but partly because she played into it. She enjoyed the spotlight; she finally stepped out from the background and took center-stage, even if it was for a bad reason. In today’s world, fame and infamy are indistinguishable.

That’s the main reason why I like the movie. Before The Social Network comes out and starts it’s run for the Oscars, Easy A is a light-hearted comedy that nails the trials of growing up in the world of Facebook and Twitter. It also helps that the movie is not overly crude. In a movie about sex, there’s very little to object to. No nudity is present, the language is a solid PG-13, and even the hanging cloud of Sex over the movie is very thin and transparent. Like Sex Drive before it, Easy A may talk about sex, but it is not about sex. (The only difference is that Sex Drive had a lot more dildo jokes in it.) Easy A has a lot of heart, some great performances and writing, and is very easy to enjoy if you can get past the fact that it almost begs you to bring a date to it.

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Summer Movie Wrap-Up 2010

Posted in Reviews, Summer Movie Wrap-Up by Chris W. on September 15, 2010

I apologize for being a little late with this post. We’re already halfway through September and that means that the Summer Movie Season of 2010 is already cold to the touch. It’s been a better outing this time around then at the same point last year, but that doesn’t mean that some awful films haven’t sprouted up from amongst the pack and needed to be cleansed with hellfire. So, as is my one-year old tradition, I’m looking back at the exemplary and the embarrassing Summer Movies of 2010.

(Note: I haven’t the time or the funds to see all the movies the summer had to offer, so I will do my best to issue a balance between what I’ve seen firsthand and what I’m cobbling together from other sources. An asterisk (*) will mark a movie that I have not seen.)

The Big Splash Award: Iron Man 2
To be honest, I wanted to give the award to Kick-Ass for being an awesome bombshell of a movie that felt like a summer film released in April. But doing so would be disingenuous, as April is way too early to declare as the “start” of the season. So I bumped it up a few weeks and declared Iron Man 2 to be the official start of Summer Movies 2010. And really, what other movie would you pick? Robin Hood? Shrek Forever After? Give me a break. When your movie features two dudes in robot suits fighting in a mansion to the beat of a Queen/Daft Punk mash-up, you know the summer has arrived.

The Weeping Nerd Award: Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 gets major points for being the first blockbuster of the season, but as far as the content itself, the movie is a shadow of its predecessor. With such a huge cast and an unbelievable build-up, we all expected Iron Man 2 to live up to the pedigree. (Granted, a pedigree of only one film, but a damn good one!) For me personally, this movie was a bit of a disappointment, failing to capitalize on the plight of its hero and turning a villainous Mickey Rourke into a surprisingly bland character. Also, if you had the bad luck to check your text messages at the wrong time, you would’ve missed the climatic final battle.

The Not-So Surprising Disappointment Award: MacGruber*
Yes, I didn’t see MacGruber, and neither did anyone else. Yet another addition in the legion of ill-advised films based on Saturday Night Live sketches, MacGruber actually tried to take a character that existed as a MacGyver parody in one-minute vignettes into a character that could sustain a full 90-minute movie. I have seen worse ideas, and for a while, it seemed like MacGruber might break the SNL curse. Free preview screenings happened almost daily here in NYC, and I even spotted MacGruber holding a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I was expecting a stunner when the movie opened, but then Reality came knocking and MacGruber took a beating at the box-office. US gross stands around $8,000,000 for a $10,000,000 budget. Didn’t help that it opened up against the fourth Shrek film, either. While certainly not a flop, MacGruber’s performance told us all what we already knew: the guy may be a freakin’ genius, but his place is on Hulu.

The Vaginas-Only Award: Eat, Pray, Love*
This was a toss up between the eventual winner and Sex and the City 2, but I argue that it is possible, however unlikely, for a guy to enjoy Sex and the City. Eat, Pray, Love, on the other hand, will literally reject you if you walk into the theater with a Y chromosome. I’m not trying to be a misogynist or say that women don’t deserve a movie that caters to their interests, but this movie takes the goal of empowering women and turns it into a two-hour long Oprah episode that, from what I’ve seen, speaks down to its audience. It was also placed head to head with The Expendables, just begging to ignite a clash of the genders with the local multiplex as the battleground. And we all remember who won that battle, right?

The That Came Out Already? Award: Survival of the Dead*
Here’s a lesson: Summer is not the most effective time for horror movies. If you’ve got a big installment in the franchise, maybe, but the colder months where the moods are more sour and the competition weaker is the best time for a horror flick. Case in point: Survival of the Dead. I had forgotten that the movie even hit theaters before researching this article on IMDB! It’s a shame, too, because George A. Romero zombie movies should be treated like events, like when the Olympics come to town. It should be a showcase of the best and brightest that the genre has to offer, and instead it got blown away at the box office, failing to make back even a quarter of it’s $4,000,000 budget domestically. Maybe it was because the movie had been available On Demand before the theatrical release (smart) or because the public’s interest in Romero’s zombie stories could be waining. I sure hope it’s the former.

The Oh, Sweet Jesus, No Award: Marmaduke*
I understand that kids need movies, too. I was a kid once, and I watched my fair share of crap during my formative years. I even dragged my parents to see Pokemon: The Movie. So, I propose a new law: any child must, on the 20th anniversary of making their parents see a crappy kids movie, must re-watch that entire movie, alone and stone-cold sober. Maybe then we can teach our kids to think ahead and avoid neutron bombs of Suck like Marmaduke. Pulled – against its will, I’m assuming – out of the Sunday Funnies, Marmaduke was a shameless attempt to cash-in on family-friendly properties with a movie that could be shat out by an intern with a thimbleful of talent. Even worse was the cast that was assembled: Owen Wilson, George Lopez, Christopher Mintze-Plasse, Keifer Sutherland, Sam Elliot, and the Wayans Brothers. That list has to be the most unholy alliance since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Marmaduke also loses major points from me by soiling a MINI Cooper (my favorite car of all time) in one of its posters.

The Completely Pointless Award: The A-Team/The Karate Kid* (Tie)
Remakes/Adaptations are like bullets: they can be used for good or evil. In the case of The A-Team and The Karate Kid, the bullets are used… just because? Try as I might, I can’t see a reason for these movies existing. I guess The A-Team might’ve been eager to catch the tail end of the “TV Show Adaptation” fad before the train left the station and Karate Kid might’ve just been a Christmas present for Jaden Smith, but beyond that, there are no conceivable reasons for these movies to be. Even the addition of big stars like Liam Neeson and Jackie Chan weren’t enough to rescue A-Team or Karate Kid from being what they were born as: projects to keep their franchise alive in the public consciousness. Both movies are still enjoyable in their own right and totally harmless in the grand scheme of things (unless you believe that the new Karate Kid has somehow tarnished the memory of the original).

The Everyone Saw That One Coming Award: Toy Story 3
If you didn’t think Toy Story 3 would be one of the best movies of the summer and rake in more money than Guatemala’s entire GNP, then you probably have some issues with reality perception. Here were the facts: a third movie in a very successful family franchise headed by a studio that hasn’t produced a real clunker being released in the middle of June. Disney could already count the money this project would rake in. And not only that, but the film turned out to be moving, well done, and not insulting for either kids or adults to watch. If Toy Story 3 doesn’t win Best Animated Picture next March, the skies will open up and little devil mice will pour out and attack the streets of Los Angeles. You just wait and see…

The Clear Loser Award: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
This one bums me out, as I really liked Scott Pilgrim and thought it was a good movie despite the critical bashing it got. But I can’t argue with the statistics. Scott Pilgrim was a damned expensive movie that failed to make half its production budget domestically. While it’s not the biggest flop of the summer, it was the most high-profile. Like MacGruber, there was a metric shitload of preview screenings and build-up to the movie’s release, hoping to drum up good word of mouth. But the movie was too quirky and offbeat for the mainstream audiences, who instead went out to see The Expendables and Eat, Pray, Love instead. It feel into the Watchmen trap: fans loved it, but everyone else couldn’t care less. Scott Pilgrim’s cult following is already forming, however, and the movie is scheduled to get a huge DVD/Blu-ray release this November. Perhaps it’s a money grab to recoup some of the losses, but fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World shouldn’t worry too much. This movie is bound to be a cult classic.

The Clear Winner Award: Inception
This is a no-brainer, right? Christopher Nolan returns to screens with a new movie that takes the summer by storm. It doesn’t matter if you thought it was overrated, or if you couldn’t wrap your head around the story, or if Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in it. Something with Inception hit big with audiences to make over $700,000,000 worldwide. Now, I can admit that it’s not really a ground-breaker of a movie and it tries really, really hard to be The Matrix of this generation, but I still loved the mythology, the rules behind it, and how in some weird, twisted way, it all made sense. I loved it in theaters, I’ll buy it on Blu-ray, and in the meantime, I’ll curl up on the couch with the screenplay if I’m in the mood for some light reading. In almost every conceivable fashion, Inception was, hands-down, the best movie of the summer.

The Event Film of the Summer Award: The Expendables
I didn’t like it as much as other members of my gender, but there was no doubt that anyone with even a passing interest in action films wanted to see The Expendables. And we all know why it takes this award: the hype surrounding this film could only be matched by a surprise reunion of the Beatles with the Rolling Stones and Jesus as opening acts. (In my worldview, Jesus would be the roadie.) You got the feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and you would never see this much action talent on one screen again (although that seems to be getting less and less true as the days go on.) The film was sold on the strength of its cast alone and delivered on what people wanted to see: action, adventure, explosions, and Sylvester Stallone slurring his own dialogue.

After this movie, it was pretty much over. We’d seen all the summer had to offer us and we were spent like lovers collapsing onto the bed after a mutually enjoyable ride. Machete and Resident Evil: Afterlife closed the book on the summer and would usher in the new season of films that would probably all be knifing each other for awards come 2011, but for some reason, I’m sad to see it go. This was an above-average summer, and I’ll be glad to revisit a lot of these movies in a few months, when the DVDs arrive and remind me what a pleasure it was to sit through the Summer of 2010.

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Twisting in the Wind: Quran Quran (Hungry Like the Wolf)

Posted in Ranting and Raving, Religion by Chris W. on September 8, 2010

I’m sensing a pattern here. “Twisting in the Wind” is turning into a place where I can chastise the general populace for talking about an issue that really doesn’t matter while offering up an opinion on said issue like everyone else is. It might as well be called “Hypocrite Corner.” But that doesn’t bother me, because as one lone voice quacking in the void, what I have to say is pretty inconsequential and, as a libertarian atheist, I feel I should record my thoughts on the issues of the day so that when the Cyborg Scientologist Nazis* take over the world, the Resistance can find this archive on an antiqued MacBook and learn that there was one person who lived in the Before Time who guided his life by logic and reason. I hope they find a book by Dawkins or Hitchens too; I don’t want to carry the hypo-thetical hopes and dreams of the last chance humanity has on my shoulders alone. I can barely get out of bed for work in the morning, after all.

The issue of the day again centers around the connection between Islam and 9/11, and how some people are exploiting that connection for their own gain. This time up, it’s Florida Pastor Terry Jones (no relation to the brilliant director/”Monty Python” member of the same name), who is organizing a protest against Islam by burning Qurans (the Muslim Holy Book) on Saturday, the 9th anniversary of 9/11. The announcement was almost instantly condemned by everyone who heard about it, and gained more media exposure when Gen. David Petraeus commented that the move might wind up endangering troops. Someday, someone will win the Nobel Prize for finally answering whether America hates the terrorists more or loves the troops more. Today, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg did his best Obama impression by commenting on the protest, even though it doesn’t affect him or any of his constituents (theoretically).

I want to get my position clear right from the start. I’m an atheist, so Christians protesting Islam is like a negative being multiplied by a positive (if you’ll forgive the middle-school math reference): it just cancels itself out. While these two groups start arguing about who has the better imaginary friend, I’ll stand on the sidelines reading a comic book. The reason why I’m writing about this issue is because it speaks to a statement I’ve tried to hold myself to: Confront Stupidity. Stupidity and intellectual laziness exist only when they are allowed to fester, like mold underneath a rock. When you expose it to the light, the mold will shrivel up and die. That’s why I can understand the conviction when people condemn this loony. It’s obviously stupid, obviously hate-driven, and the only moral way to attack this is with speech. I’m all for that. In fact, it’s why I’m writing this article, to do my part in confronting this bit of stupidity.

The cynical side of my brain thinks that this whole thing is a PR stunt, to get a little nub of infamy and maybe a few more followers as well. It makes a lot more sense than the wacko, hateful explanation that has already been offered: one big “Yay America, and Jesus, too!” ejaculation that would’ve been ignored if not for our modern culture’s pension for political correctness and moral grandstanding. This, like the Mosque issue I wrote before, is getting so much airplay because it’s easy to choose a side and have a strong moral conviction that you’re right, wrapping yourself in the protective ideological blanket of your choice – religion or cultural sensitivity.

While I loathe religion and over-sensitivity of any kind, Pastor Jones is in the wrong. His actions derivative from a hatred of Islam (or an overvaluing of Christianity) and doing more to advance agendas of hate here and abroad than any real discussion on the shortcomings of Islam. He claims Islam to be a religion of violence, and he combats this with more violence. Hard to spot any flaws in that plan. Now, it is true that Islam plays host to some pretty violent people who justify their actions through their faith, to the point where several in the media and politics are afraid to even make fun of the religion out of fear of losing their lives, but you don’t need to turn into that kind of monster to make your point.

This is the point where I fuck with everyone’s heads: Pastor Jones is clearly doing something wrong, stupid, and hateful. And he has the right to see it through.

Before people take up arms to accuse me of bigotry, hypocrisy, or whatever, let me explain. From my understanding of Freedom of Speech, and including some personal credos I’ll get to in a moment, Pastor Jones can go forth with his protest and cover it by invoking his Freedom of Speech. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has ruled time and again that Freedom of Speech does not extend to include Hate Speech. If someone wanted to make the argument that the Quran burning represents Hate Speech, I couldn’t stop him or her, and might even agree in the end.

It’s also true that this protest could be used to incite Anti-American sentiment abroad, and most likely will. You remember how much of a stink the Muslim community caused over a couple of cartoons of their prophet? Imagine how pissed they’d be when they find out that some cracker was burning their holy book! The phrase “poking the bear” comes to mind. But, while the news will most certainly reach the Middle East and paint a picture of institutionalized antagonism toward Islam, I would hope that the vast numbers of people counter-protesting the protest would be enough to show that not everyone’s on Pastor Jones’ side.

I turn again to the Penn Jillette quote I used to end the last “Twisting in the Wind” article: “If you don’t have the freedom to do stupid, ill-advised things, then you aren’t really free.” I believe that very heavily, and think it applies to this situation, even when the stupidity of one man and his 50 cronies has the potential to cause harm to people not associated with his stupidity. But Free Speech does not exist to protect popular speech; it exists to protect unpopular speech, and as unpopular as this protest is, I think it’s still constitutionally protected. By no means am I defending Pastor Jones or his reasons for burning books, but I am defending his right to do something completely stupid and be ostracized by anyone with a decent bone in their body.

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Review: Machete

Posted in Film, Reviews by Chris W. on September 3, 2010

2010 is the year of the Poorly-Timed Movie. In February, Kevin Smith gave us Cop Out – a film about a straight cop with his goofball sidekick – only to find that, a few months later, Will Ferrel would whack us over the head with The Other Guys, another film about a straight-laced cop with a kooky partner. Later on, in the summer, Warner Bros. released The Losers, a comic-book adaptation about a special-ops group betrayed by the government, and almost got in head-to-head competition with The A-Team, a film about a TV show about a group of mercenaries that gets double-crossed by the government. Sensing a theme, yet? Finally, we have The Expendables, one of the largest action movies ever made with an ensemble cast, and a few weeks later Robert Rodriquez gives us Machete, an exploitation movie with a huge cast and a big budget for stage blood. And they say creativity is dead in Hollywood…

Watching Machete, you do get a sense of dejá vu, especially after seeing The Expendables. The films have similar feels and an emphasis on stylized action over substance. The difference is that where The Expendables felt suffocated by its huge cast, transparent plot, and horrendous dialogue, Machete thrives. I came away from The Expendables just liking it. I walked out of Machete loving it.

So here’s the plot in a nutshell: Danny Trejo plays Machete, a betrayed Federale agent who goes underground and makes money as a day-laborer in Texas. When Mr. Bloom (Jeff Fahey) takes notice, he offers Machete $100,000 to shoot an aspiring senator (Robert DeNiro, giving the worst Southern accent I’ve heard since Larry the Cable Guy) who appears tough on illegal immigration. But, of course, it’s all a trap and Machete must unravel the mystery behind who tried to frame him, all while dodging flying lead and killing more people than cholera.

You want to know why Machete works? I think it’s the humor. Most of the movie is played for laughs, but not in a Naked Gun way where the laughs are put front and center. Machete has plenty of moments of extreme violence and nudity (both things that make it a winner in my book), but when those moments are over, the film allows you to break the tension with a small joke usually caused by winking at the audience. Let me explain: a lot of the cast is there to look pretty/tough, but some of the cast is there because their presence in the roll makes it funny. As mentioned above, Robert DeNiro might want to stop getting scripts that require him to do an accent, because he’s not very good at some of them. Cheech Marin gets a few big laughs because he’s Cheech Marin and that’s what he does. Don Johnson plays a very good bad guy, but every time he drops a racial slur, I have to remember that it’s from the same voice that sang “Heartbeat.” But the queen of unintentional comedy is Lindsay Lohan. She plays April, who is… basically Lindsay Lohan in the context of the movie. She’s addicted to meth, she makes sex tapes, and she’s generally stupid. I’ll bet this is her first Method Acting job ever.

The obvious winner in Machete is Machete himself: Danny Trejo. He may not have the best acting chops ever, but the camera loves him. Whenever he’s on screen, your eye is drawn to him, even if he’s surrounded by a wall of boobies and a thick wad of cash in an easily reachable area. Nobody plays a badass as good as he does. I usually like my action heroes to have a personality or ability to relate to me before I’ll respond, but you can show me a picture of Danny Trejo with the caption of “Badass” and I wouldn’t need any more information. In the movie he’s stoic, brutal, and at times, really funny. I don’t want him to succeed because I feel for his plight – the murder of his family by Drug Lord Torres (Played by Steven Segal, I shit you not) is well done in the movie, but you don’t feel that it’s a motivator for Machete’s character – you want him to succeed because it will allow him to keep kicking ass.

Now, you may notice that the style of the film is a bit… extreme. This is another Grindhouse movie, although not under the Grindhouse banner. The opening sequence and credits have the same warm 1970s film look where the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns bring you back to the days of shag carpeting and 8-track tapes. And just like in Grindhouse, the film is scratched and abused to represent age or perhaps bitter memories. It’s a shame that the whole film doesn’t get that treatment, but I can let go of that desire. The rest of Machete looks normal, at least technically, but the heart and soul are still back in the 70s. Blood gags are performed in a visceral, low-budget style that relies more on sound effects and editing tricks than a million squibs and guacamole guns. It may sound corny and low-tech now, but trust me, Machete’s editing and sound effects blow Stallone’s CGI blood out of the water.

Machete himself is a throwback to exploitation cinema characters, specifically characters like Shaft or Foxy Brown. These characters are the alphas. They represent everything that’s good and desirable both in the film and to its audience. Not in an upturned-nose, “take the moral high ground” sense – Machete does everything BUT take the moral high ground – but in the sense that Machete is a vessel for wish and ego fulfillment. You know that line “Women want him and men want to be like him”? That’s what Machete is: a macho, badass, tank of a man who can kill a hundred Navy SEALs with a bobby pin and instantly fuck anyone with two breasts and a vulva (a trait which becomes a running gag later in the film).

The film is also heavily stacked in his favor. You know how some video games have hidden cheat codes that give the player unlimited ammo and health, making the player invincible? Machete’s cheat code is “T-R-E-J-O”. It seems that everything in the movie goes his way just because he’s the hero, like he drew the “protagonist” straw in the cast lottery before shooting. Granted, it’s no less absurd than other action movies and certainly doesn’t reach the lucky streak that Adam West possessed in Batman: The Movie. But for some reason, I could notice it this time around. Maybe it’s how the rest of the cast acts around Machete. Women instantly drop their panties at the sight of him, people rally around him like he dispensed free cold soda, and some bad guys will literally give up and walk away when facing him down. That’s a level of badassery that has yet to be officially charted!

As to what the film “means”? You might be able to find some deep message in the movie if you suck on it hard enough, but that’s not the point. Given today’s political climate, it would be easy to portray Machete as a rallying cry for immigrants everywhere to showcase their influence and worth in modern America. The film almost begs you to jump to that conclusion, but while Machete may have some political/social relevance in the moment, I don’t think it’s making a fist on the manner. The characters are so over-the-top, the motivations so ludicrous, that to draw any parallel between Machete and real life is to lose all credibility. DeNiro’s character is so corrupt that he goes on an Immigrant Hunting Spree with the local Minutemen, even going so far as to have himself filmed while shooting at fleeing illegals. If you can predict how well that will work out, congratulations, you’ve clearly completed third grade.

Machete doesn’t comment on the issue of Immigration in America, but chooses to satirize the hoopla that it generates. Like Kubric taking the piss out of the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove, Rodriguez blows up every aspect of the immigration debate to point out how unimportant the whole thing is to the grand political picture of America, and how easily a non-issue can be made into an issue by those who know how to manipulate. Senator MacLaughlin’s political ads are the slimiest, most despicable things you’ve ever seen, and yet they aren’t that far off from the real political ads of today. The crowds at his rallies swing back and forth faster than a tetherball in a wind tunnel. Machete doesn’t try to serve up a moral or a message amongst the carnage; it gives its middle finger to the whole ordeal and goes back to slicing necks with sharp blades.

With all that I’ve said about the movie, there is also a LOT you can make fun of, the usual absurdity of action movies and how Rodriguez always chooses to cast a caucasian action as a Mexican drug lord. The adrenaline and fun of the movie makes me forget about or fail to notice those things, but I’d be fooling myself if I thought they weren’t there. Also, Machete is not a movie for everyone. If you’re not hooked within ten minutes, I’d recommend walking out and trying to get your money back as it won’t get any better for you. But if you’re a lover of SMFC films with great action and a sense of humor about themselves, sharpen your blade. Machete awaits…

Final Verdict: 3.5 intestines out of 5

Examining the new AppleTV

Posted in Technology by Chris W. on September 1, 2010

As predicted by me and practically everyone else with a blog (Thanks, Engadget!) the rumored AppleTV update is now available for pre-order, to be delivered by the end of the month. It’s a little bit off from what people were expecting, but despite what’s missing, the new AppleTV could be the one that will finally catch on with consumers. Or, it could miss the boat entirely and flounder about while Apple stands on the shore and wonders whether or not it’s worth saving again. So in another bit of consumer advice, I’m going deep inside the AppleTV and hope to emerge on the other side with an answer. Let’s hope I don’t encounter any acid-fried photographers and AWOL military personnel along the way…

To start, the $99 price tag makes the AppleTV a lot more appealing at first glance than its older brother, who clocked in at a much heftier $229. According to Jobs, those who took the plunge loved the device, but not enough AppleTVs were sold to make it a bona fide hit. Apple hopes that the new price will entice more people to take a chance on the device, which could very well happen. $100 is a large amount to just throw around willy nilly on something that may or may not work for you, but that might be the magic figure. $100 is just about what I’d be okay with losing at an Atlantic City casino, and there all you get is a small throbbing void where your soul used to be.

So what do you get for your money? Physically, not much. The AppleTV is fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand small and only requires two cables to operate it, or three if you don’t have WiFi. The only method for getting your content from the AppleTV to your television screen is streaming. The AppleTV will not purchase content for download on a local storage device. Instead, you pay a much lower price ($5 for first-run movies when they’re released on DVD, $1 for TV shows the day after air) and rent your content. You’ll have 30 days to press “Play” and either 24 or 48 hours after that before the content expires and must be re-rented. AppleTV will even manage your content for you, letting you know when new episodes of TV shows you mark as “favorite” are available to watch, which I appreciate, but I already am annoyed with all the unwatched free podcasts in my iTunes. I don’t need my television set letting me know that there’s more stuff out there to buy.

But the AppleTV goes beyond iTunes. In a move that was not unexpected but universally praised, AppleTV gained Netflix support. You can now watch movies and manage your Instant Queue from your television, similar to how Netflix works on your PS3 or Xbox 360, but with an Apple aesthetic. Sorry, Hulu people, there is no Hulu playback on the AppleTV, but I have a feeling that will change, as I’ll discuss later. The usual band of Internet Media Sites follow Netflix: YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe. What’s even better is that the new AppleTV can stream media not only from your local computer, but from iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches) that are hooked up to the WiFi network. So, you can buy and watch a TV show while on the way home from work, get halfway through it, and finish it on your TV just moments after walking in the front door. If there were popcorn and a cold Arizona Arnold Palmer already made and waiting for me, I might just die of happiness.

That’s essentially what the AppleTV is all about now: pick your content and stream it. This is very close to what people were asking for with the AppleTV all along; Jobs and Co. seem to have listened to the customers when they said that they don’t want to manage too much content, pay higher prices, or require eventual synching with iTunes. On that front, it’s Game Over/Flawless Victory to the company from Cupertino. It fixed the biggest issues keeping people from the AppleTV, but is it enough to attract consumers that were less partial to the AppleTV to begin with?

On that front, I’m less sure. It will probably convert people who were on the fence about the AppleTV to begin with, but for someone who’s never heard of the product since its inception four years ago, the sell will be much, much harder. Especially at the beginning. TV show rentals are the dangling carrot for this market, a sign that cable and satellite providers might have some real stiff competition if you can rent whatever you wanted á la carte and pay two thirds less if you don’t watch a lot of television.

The problem is content. The movie studios are on board and maybe eliminating the ability to buy the movie on your AppleTV will encourage more renting (although I get the feeling that the store on AppleTV is more for “what do you want to watch tonight, honey?” situations) but the real winner is TV show rentals. So far, they’ve only been able to sign up ABC and FOX networks to offer their shows at 99¢. While those networks offer some quality shows, the content will be lacking for the first few months. It always is. Do you remember back when Movies first came to iTunes? They were all Disney films and the most adult of them was Death Race 2000. Now, almost every studio is on board offering movies day and date with the DVD release. I have no doubt that more networks will come along, but one wonders if by then it’ll be too late? Probably not, but it’ll require a serious advertising push, and I can’t figure out how a TV ad on a network telling you that you can get your TV content elsewhere will work. I’m not saying that it’ll lead to a Steve Jobs/Ted Turner steel cage grudge match, but a boy can dream…

My biggest gripe with the new AppleTV is that it, like its predecessor, falls just short of perfection. What we were all looking for was the cloud model, where you could buy or rent anything on any iOS device and watch it on any other iOS device. That’s still the golden dragon that the tech world is collectively chasing, and to be fair, the new AppleTV comes really close to that by eliminating the local hard drive and allowing streaming via AirPlay. But, there are some features that should be present, and I’m not sure if they are. For example, will the AppleTV keep track of what you’ve rented in case you want to re-rent it later? It had better, because I’m not in the mood to make a spreadsheet of my entertainment choices. Also, is it possible to purchase a movie/TV show you like right from the AppleTV and have it download to your computer later? A promotional shot shows a ubiquitous button you can select that says “More.” Oh, the possibilities are endless with vaugery like that! Again, this would be a big time-saver that was not mentioned by any press I saw. Maybe it’s time to drop Steve a line and find out.

Finally, the elimination of the internal hard drive (or a very sizable portion of it) makes it near impossible for someone to carry ALL their media with them at one time if they leave to go on vacation. I know this is a small segment of the population and most people will be just fine streaming their purchased and ripped movies off their iMac, but like I said above, Applephiles are waiting for the day where you can go anywhere and access all your media at any time. Plus, I’m trying to get rid of my old laptop and go all iPad; I don’t want to have to carry that laptop around with me just because it has a larger hard drive to fit more movies onto it. This functionality doesn’t seem to be accomplishable with the hardware out of the box, but there will probably be Third Party hacks (such as ATV Flash) that will open up the AppleTV experience and make it more than what it was originally intended. Perhaps hard-drive support will come back (as the AppleTV does have a Mini-USB jack for service purposes) as well as Video Playlists (a feature I adore), DviX/AVI Playback, and maybe even Hulu. We won’t know until their lab rats get ahold of the device, and besides, you should review the product based on what can be done with it out of the box, not what the potential is to a hacker/modder.

UPDATE: I realized when updating the site that this post was left slightly unfinished. Since “Oopsie” is not appropriate for an error of that sort, why don’t we finish up, especially since I have an AppleTV sitting proudly underneath my TV right now…

The price and functionality of the AppleTV is enough to make it a “Buy” for anyone looking for a cheap way to get Netflix and iTunes content to your TV. I’ve got one and I love it to pieces, even though I also have an Xbox 360 and a PS3 that are just as capable of playing Netflix and iTunes content (after a few software workarounds). I spend most of my Netflix time on my AppleTV, as I love the UI (beats the pants off of the 360, in my opinion). With new software updates that will allow AppleTV to accept video from the Internet and even apps coming on March 11, 2011, the AppleTV has come into its own. If you live with both feet firmly planted in Apple’s ecosystem, this is a gadget you must own.

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Twisting in the Wind: Mosque we Go On?

Posted in Ranting and Raving, Religion by Chris W. on August 30, 2010

Before the story disappears from the newspapers and becomes even less of an issue than it is now, I wanted to offer my take on the whole “mosque” situation that will only affect Lower Manhattan, but everyone in the country seems to have an opinion on. Even our Fearless Leader (unwisely) offered his two cents on the matter, despite the issue not affecting him and only giving his opponents another political thread to unravel. Like our president, this issue will not affect me personally, but it does affect the city I call home and I feel that I can offer a rational and fair view of the situation from the libertarian point of view.

Like most things in life, your position on whether a mosque should be built a few blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center, whose destruction was caused by Islamic radicals, will depend heavily on your own personal biases. If you feel that protecting the feelings of the victims of 9/11 and their families is more important, you’re overwhelmingly likely to oppose the mosque (although that is not the lone reason for opposition). On the flip side, if you look at the religious freedoms of Muslims as more important, then the mosque and its position probably isn’t that big of a deal to you. This is a situation where there is no “wrong” side of the argument, although the lines already drawn in the sand have served to bring up some very intense passions who believe that their position is “right.” In fact, this situation could and is being turned into a divisive issue that will decide elections in September and could potentially influence foreign views of America in countries where “compassion” is not the defining characteristic.

Now that the groundwork has been laid, I’ll offer my point of view, for what it’s worth.

For clarification, I go past the reconstruction at Ground Zero perhaps once a week. The experience is moving to say the least, to watch the wound caused by 9/11 to be, at least physically, made whole again. The emotional wound that the survivors and widows still suffer will never be closed, and that’s the real lasting effect of 9/11. It was a dark, sad day for the country and kick-started a conflict that has cost thousands of lives on both sides due to military action. But I blame that on leadership, both past and current, not on the attacks on the World Trade Center. The communal feeling, the country coming together to pick itself up when it was knocked down, that’s all gone. The very fact that I’m writing this is an indicator that we are more divisive than we’ve been for almost a century. The true lasting effect of 9/11 is the pain felt by those survivors and widows.

But that pain, no matter how much it breaks your heart for those who feel it, is an abstract concept. There’s no way to quantify it. Pain and suffering is a liquid concept, floating out in the ether of human consciousness. The freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution is very real. Black and white real, in fact. Unlike the hurt felt by the victims of 9/11, which we all understand, the First Amendment freedoms protect everyone, regardless of their creed and how popular (or unpopular) it is.

Supporters of the mosque put the proposed site up on a pedestal, claiming it is a symbol of the tolerance of America (something not shared by Islamic nations, ironically) and a sign that The Muslim community is reaching out to those who were harmed by followers of Islam. That sentiment is only half right. Is the Ground Zero Mosque a symbol of American tolerance? Maybe, considering that its presence in lower Manhattan would be a victory for private property owners doing business in the matter they saw fit, and possibly people putting aside differences to respect individual rights? But as a symbol of tolerance, of growth and understanding? My newspaper this morning spoke of protests and scuffles that broke out at the site over the weekend, both sides trying to demonize the other. Tolerance, that is not.

And a mosque so close to the site of the World Trade Center would certainly not be a symbol of the Muslim community reaching out a helping hand. When asked about the whole situation, Kentucky Senate hopeful Rand Paul remarked that if the Muslim community really wanted to build bridges, they should donate to a relief fund for the victims, not try to muscle in on territory which is symbolically theirs, a sentiment I happen to agree with. To put it another way, if I wanted to be a good guest and honor you at your birthday party, graduation, retirement, whatever, I come over and and make the event about you, not try to take center-stage and do my Elvis impression (unless I was asked, in which case my jumpsuit just got back from the cleaners).

As much of a hardcore individualist as I am, this smacks of trying to plant your flag in the site, making it more about you and less about what’s really important. This is made evident by the constant refusal by those who are in charge of the project to even consider moving their mosque out of respect for the victims.

But again, I hate to use phrases like “symbolically theirs” and “respect” to make an argument when we have clear-cut tools like “dominion of private property” and “the First Amendment” to use. It all boils down to this: the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion covers everyone: Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, Satanists, everyone. And, if the owner of the building signed off in a private business deal with the Imam to make the mosque a reality and he was okay with it, then there’s no solid argument against the mosque to be had. Plain and simple. You can dislike it all you want, but unless new evidence comes to light, there is no legal blockage for this mosque that I can see.

Which brings us to the dividing line that so many arguments that get too much airtime often return to: Is it wrong? Technically, no. Is it ill-advised and stupid? Oh, hell yeah. To be honest, I can’t even believe why an Imam would want to subject himself to that kind of scrutiny unless he was being pressured externally. All you’re doing is painting a target on your back. The site would be plastered all over the news (which it has) and would become the focus of hatred, vandalism, and other bad mojo. Even worse, if you are a peace-loving Muslim, keeping the mosque there could easily do more to hurt your cause of promoting peace and acceptance. All because you appeared insensitive to the feelings of those harmed by others in your clique.

This is one of the things that distresses me about religion, or generally too much pride in one’s own background. You can be a Muslim, or a Pisces, or a Libertarian all you want and it doesn’t matter one bit because you should be a human first. Having the mosque that close to Ground Zero smacks of lacking basic human decorum and sensitivity. But, the moral and American stance to take is to just let it be. Respect the rights of the Muslims that commune there and hope that they have the decency to respect yours back. The Ground Zero Mosque may be beyond stupid, but as Penn Jillete said, “if you aren’t free to do really stupid stuff, than you aren’t really free.”

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