Thursday, December 24, 2009

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

We were watching the Grinch (the classic Chuck Jones cartoon, not the overblown Jim Carey movie) last night and marveling at how well it has held up. The show was made in 1966 and all of the principles have died (at ripe old ages) but the show still seems fresh.

Part of this is the source material. This was the only Seuss book that is really aimed at the entire family instead of very young children. It is similar to Dickens's A Christmas Carol with a lonely character having a life-changing experience revolving around Christmas.

Part of it is the animation. This is Chuck Jones at the top of his form. You don't have to see the credits to know that he directed it but it is not as stylized as some of his work. It is also the best animated Christmas special that I can remember from the 1960s through the 1990s. The Charlie Brown Christmas special was done on a very limited budget and even that was nearly twice what CBS paid to show it. It didn't make a profit until its second showing (which was once per year back then). The Rankin Bass programs like Frosty the Snowman were poorly done and got progressively worse into the 1970s. The Grinch is theatrical-quality animation.

Then there is the voice talent. I'm sure that Boris Karloff would be pleased to know that his best know work turned out to be a classic children's tale instead of horror roles. Then there is Thurl Ravenscroft who sang "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" and June Foray who did Cindy Lou Who. While best remembered for voicing Tony the Tiger and Rocky the Flying Squirrel respectively, these voice actors were mainstays of animation for decades.

The splashy new Christmas special this year was Disney's Prep and Landing. While very well done, you wonder if how it will hold up in 40+ years.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Story

I haven't seen anyone mention it but the events in Christmas Story take place 70 years ago this year (1939).

The movie was not a big hit when it came out but it has gained a huge following thanks to repeated showings on cable, especially USA's annual 24 hour marathon.

I think that the secret to the movie is that it is a realistic depiction of Christmas from a child's point of view. While I was born too late for radio dramas, classrooms had not changed appreciably between the 1930s and the 1960s. And who among us hasn't had fantasies about what we will do with a new toy? Or had a classmate dare another one into doing something dumb?

The kids act like real kids but the adults don't act like real people. They act the way that kids think they act.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Zune HD Review

I got a Zune HD for my birthday. It is a fun device.

Previously I had been using a Sansa View and a Nokia n800 Internet Tablet for viewing media. The Zune falls somewhere in-between these. It has similar dimensions to the Sansa and can do a lot more than the Sansa but it isn't up to the Nokia. The Nokia has a larger screen and more applications. On the other hand, it is too large to carry easily and the battery life is too short.

The Zune is incredibly small and light and the battery life is rated similar to the View - up to 33 hours of music or 8+ hours of video.

Like other Zunes, the HD supports WiFi. It can use this for wireless syncing and it comes with a web browser. The browser is slow and automatically switches to mobile pages where available. It does not support Flash so you cannot watch Youtube on it. Besides Flash, I would also like to see an email application on the Zune. It does support a Zune-only messageboard. It also has an app that supports Twitter.

There are several apps available. The Zune Marketplace has some, both general and games. All are free but the games have ads that play when they start.

Microsoft has released a game developer kit and people have already used this to create some freeware. The best part about this is that it is not as tightly controlled as the iTunes store.

Microsoft has a special program for communicating with the Zune. This will automatically sync content or allow you to drag and drop. Personally, I prefer the directory model where I can move files directly into the Zune's directories.

As a media player, the Zune is easy to use. The touch screen makes navigation easy. I have a wide selection of videos I've saved from YouTube or ripped from DVDs. All of them played without any problems, even a couple that always caused my Sansa View to hang up for unknown reasons. The display is sharp and there is no sign of choppiness, even when playing a movie I had ripped for my netbook.

It is a long-standing rule of thumb that it takes Microsoft at least three releases before they get a product right. That puts the Zune right on schedule.

Update: I found a major limitation in the Zune's implementation of WiFi and the browser. Most hotspots redirect the first page to a form where you either log in or at least agree to their terms of service. The Zune will not connect with these. It just gives an error and tries connecting again. It does not connect with WiFi that requires a security key, either. The only place that it can connect is to a completely open WiFi. That makes it useless as a mobile browser since almost all hotspots have a redirected opening page. I hop that Microsoft issues a fix for this.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Platform wars

Things are getting interesting in technology. A lot of new players have entered the arena and there will be a lot of shake-out in the next couple of years. Lines are blurring between PCs, netbooks, phones, MP3 players, and digital book readers. All of these can now play music and most of them can browse the Internet.

The big loser is Microsoft. I'm not sure that they've noticed yet but they have become irrelevant to all of the interesting technologies. Yes, they have a new operating system out. You can run a crippled version on netbooks. That's about it. It doesn't do anything that the old versions of Windows didn't do and it doesnt' run on anything except PCs.

Microsoft did introduce a new touch-screen Zune which got good reviews. This may be their salvation if they can expand it into phones. It's long-term success is doubtful. Previous versions were easy to find at places like Walmart and Target. The new Zune HD is not. Walmart offers "ship to store" which means placing an order and coming back in a day or two. There is no sign of it at Target.

Regardless, touch-screen MP3 players are the little brothers to the new breed of touch phone. Microsoft has a version of Windows Mobile that runs on these but it is a third-tier player.

Several ebook readers came out this year. All of them have significant flaws. The biggest one is that you still pay twice as much for an ebook as for a paperback. On top of that, you don't really buy books. You buy the rights to read them on a specific platform or device. They only make sense if you carry a lot of hardbacks around with you. The real purpose of these devices is to tie you to one book-seller. I expect them to eventually vanish.

For the last few years Apple owned the touch phone market. That is over. There are a slew of competing phones on the market. I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Google android will be the eventual winner. The phone market right now looks a lot like the PC market did in the early 1980s and the lesson from that is that the operating system that runs on the most platforms wins. Google's Android is not tied to a specific phone company or manufacturer the way that all of the other phones are. They have also announced the Chrome operating system which is designed to run on netbooks. Nothing will actually run or be stored locally. Chrome will do nothing except run the Chrome browser and everything else will be a web service running somewhere else. This is a direct threat to Microsoft.

Microsoft practically gave away MSDOS in the 1980s in order to spread as far as possible. Google is giving away their operating system. Their goal it to get as many people onto their search engine as possible. With wide acceptance running across multiple platforms they could easily be the default operating system for everything smaller than a business workstation.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Good by Mr. Monk

Something over eight years ago Tony Shalhoub came up with an idea for a TV detective. This one would be obsessive-compulsive name Adrian Monk - sort of an anti-Columbo. He would also notice and remember everything. The networks passed but USA picked up the show. The show was a hit, such a hit that NBC showed Monk reruns.

Monk had a fair amount of back-story. He was a cop who had married in college. When his wife was murdered, he had a breakdown and had to leave the force. When the show started he was trying to get his badge back and doing police consulting to make ends meet. He also had a full-time nurse who accompanied him everywhere and handed him hand wipes whenever he touched anything (or anyone).

The early shows featured crimes that only Monk could solve because he noticed and remembered everything.

Somewhere along the way the format changed, possibly when USA adopted their "characters welcome" promotion. Monk episodes were no longer about the crimes. The crimes were just a way of placing Monk in new and (usually) uncomfortable positions. Often the crimes were an afterthought. At the same time Monk seemed to pick up new phobias weekly. The writing became lazy.

When it was announced that Monk was in his final season, a few questions remained - would he solve his wife's murder? Would he get his badge back? Would he become involved with his assistant?

The series finale is a two-part episode. Prior to that they answered the question about the badge - yes he got it back but he decided that he preferred consulting and resigned again. This was very disappointing since it was something he had been working for the entire run of the series. Just a couple of episodes earlier he had been meeting with the review board.

As for his wife's murder, it was pretty obvious from the first part who had her killed and the episode ended with him about to receive the final clue. The big question is if he will survive since he was poisoned in part one.

Even if the way that the series is closed is unsatisfying, at least it came to an orderly close. Many series, Columbo to name one, just trail off.