Sunday, December 26, 2010

TRON: Legacy

The main attraction of the original TRON was the immerse atmosphere. The visuals were just so unique that you didn't really care about the plot. The new version is very similar. The plot is weak but it looks so good that it is worth going to.

The basic premise is similar - a human finds himself inside a computer grid. The specifics have changed with technology.

When the original as made most people accessed a mainframe through terminals. Most people accessing computers were programmers. The characters in the computer were programs. Each program looked like the person who created it. Everything was fine until a new security program called the MCP took over and shut down access between the users and their programs. A program called TRON and a user named Flynn managed to shut down the MCP and open up access to the IO towers allowing programs and users to communicate again.

Nowadays everyone has one or more computers. Today's cell phones have more processing power than a 1982 mainframe and much of the computing has moved onto the "cloud". None of that is reflected in TRON: Legacy. Instead, Flynn worked on building a new, perfect world somewhere - probably in a mainframe or cluster. Flynn created a program named Clu to help him. As in the original movie, Clu looks like Flynn did when he created Clu. Flynn became trapped and, years later, his son goes looking for him and ends up in the digitized world.

TRON was the first movie to make extensive use of Computer Generated Images (CGI). These were limited and very simple. Most CGI shots were not integrated with the live action. Most of the movie was shot in black and white with glowing colors added with back lighting and hand animation. This is not an issue with the new movie. In fact, Clu is one of the biggest effects. Since he is supposed to look like Flynn did in his 30s, the computer animators filmed the modern Jeff Bridges and digitally removed years from his face.

In the original movie, Dillinger, the man who created the MCP also stole some game programs from Flynn. Flynn needed access to the mainframe to prove that he actually wrote the programs. By this point MCP had absorbed hundreds of other programs and was much smarter than Dylan's original creation.

The new movie has a quick appearance by Dillinger's son who was in charge of the company's new operating system. Since the original movie the corporation Encom has gone from producing games to making operating systems. There is a dispute about operating systems being free or proprietary. While this could be aimed at Microsoft, these days Encom is closer to Apple since they are trying to create a walled ecosystem around their computers.

One last note - don't bother paying extra for 3D. The real world parts of the movie were filmed in 2D and it makes very little difference to the parts of the movie taking place in the computer.

A bit of trivia - Flynn wrote a program named Clu in the first movie but it was destroyed early on.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 1960s Christmas Toy Season

It's hard to believe how much things have changed over the last 50 years, especially in how Christmas toys are marketed.

Back then there were no huge discount stores like Walmart. The biggest toy stores were mom and pop operations in a strip center. Enclosed malls were still in the future. Toys came from downtown department stores (every city had its own department store which was close to a multi-story mall) five and dime stores, and super markets. The first sign of Christmas was the appearance of toys on top of the refrigerator units in the super market. These were the good toys, too. They were big - 2-3 feet long, often with a transparent section so that you could see the toy inside the box. This is where the Johnny Seven gun and the Tiger Tank were sold.

Not long after the toys appeared in the super markets you would start to see ads for them on tv. All TV was broadcast. Since there were only three networks and a scattering of independent stations, the amount of programming devoted to children was limited. There was a couple of hours in the morning dominated by Captain Kangaroo. A local host would show cartoons after school. Some old kid-friendly shows were syndicated between school and the news - shows like Mr. Ed or McHale's Navy. Then there was Saturday morning when 3-4 hours on all three networks was devoted to kids shows. This is when the targeted ads would run.

The other big source of toys was catalog stores, mainly Sears and Penny's. It was an event when the Sears Christmas catalog arrived. It had page after page of toys, some of them exclusive to Sears.

The department stores had their own secret weapon - Santa. Columbus's department store was Lazarus and they went all out. There was a locally-produced morning kids show called Lucy's Toyshop. This was a half hour show with Lucy and a cast of puppets. Starting December 1, Lucy and the puppets would expand the show, adding an extra half hour featuring Santa Claus himself and sponsored by Lazarus. Every year Santa got behind and needed Lucy and the puppet's help to catch up making toys. They had a toy-making machine that would plop out toys periodically. Lucy would examine the toy and make sure that the parents knew that they could buy this toy at Lazarus. The kids also knew that most "Santas" were just Santa Helpers but the real Santa was at Lazarus.

In addition to sponsoring a half-hour daily kids show, Lazarus featured an animated window and a Santa Land. These were done from scratch every year. These days Santa's main purpose is to sell pictures of the kids on Santa's lap. In those days, his job was to get the family into the toy department. To minimize the time spent waiting for Santa, Lazarus had several. I think that they had five at their peak. I remember one year getting in line and seeing all of the kids in front of us and thinking that it would take forever. The lines split up. I expected them to join together again but instead we went around a corner and there was Santa. It seemed too good to be true but I was so happy at the short line that I didn't question it very closely.

Lazarus also had a Children's Secret Gift shop. Parents would send the kids in along with some an envelope containing money and some suggestions. Gift specialists would then steer the kids to buy the proper present and wrap it for them.

Not all toys came from standard sources. Sometimes gas stations and tire stores would get in on it, selling branded toys at Christmas.

Lazarus was not the only place you could see Santa. Zanesville, where I grew up, also had Santas at the shoping center and at the County Courthouse. Santa arrived at the shopping center by helicopter the day after Thanksgiving. Both Santas had special houses set up for them. A few times the Zanesville Santa had his own afternoon show but it never had the production values that the Lazarus one had.

Downtown was always decorated for Christmas. Every lamp post had some sort of decoration and sometimes lights crisscrossed the main streets.

Even the comic page got into the act. Disney often put out a special comic strip in which some of their movie characters helped Santa in some way. This ran from December 1 to Christmas Eve.

This might make Christmas sound highly marketed and it was to an extent but within reason. No one pushed cars as Christmas presents. Toys might be pushed during kids shows but there was little licensed merchandise. These days the big push is at high-ticket items for adults and most kids toys are tie-ins with movies or other sources. The Christmas season was carefully defined as running from the day after Christmas until Christmas Eve. Everyone was closed on Sunday so the number of shopping days until Christmas was posted in the paper.

Everything changed during the 1960s. Malls covered the country. Sears and Penny's changed from catalog operations to mall anchors. The department stores anchored the other end of the malls. Big box toy stores and discount stores became the norm. Everyone opened on Sunday and Santa began arriving the weekend before Thanksgiving. Santa stopped getting his own tv show and moved to the mall. As Viet Nam escalated, war toys stopped being big sellers.

Like Halloween, Christmas went from being a children's holiday to a general holiday with most of the marketing aimed at adults.

1960s Christmas Gifts

I was an only child and my father was a doctor. We were not rich but we weren't poor, either. That meant that I got a lot of good Christmas presents. I ran across a site listing some vintage toys from the 1950s through the 1970s and as surprised at how many of these I had. Here is some commentary on some of them.

The Johnny Seven OMA set was seven weapons in one. It fired three types of projectiles. It could also be set up as a grenade launcher.You folded the legs down and spread them to make a tripod and flipped up the launcher. The stock detached and the pistol grip became an actual pistol. All together, there were two triggers and four firing buttons plus the release for the pistol.

The James Bond Attache Case was something I really wanted. I think that it was a Sear exclusive back when they were a major retailer. It had a bunch of gimmicks right out of the movies. There was a (plastic) knife hidden in one end. You could shoot a plastic bullet. It had a built-in camera and walkie-talkie and separate receiver. It had a trick latch that would fire a cap if you opened it wrong. Inside it had some secret agent identification and a pistol that could convert to a rifle. I continued to use the walkie-talkie receiver for years.

I had both of these consoles. The top one was ok. It had several controls that you could play with but the bottom one was more fun. The bottom one had controls for an airplane with the airplane mounted on top. The throttle controlled the propellers (this predated  jet airliners) and the yoke make the plane tilt up, down, left, or right.

This car dashboard looks familiar. Either I had one of these or a friend did. Either way, its more fun to pretend to fly a plane than drive a car.

The Johnny Astro spacecraft was a neat idea. It used a vortex to lift a small balloon. By using a joystick and throttle you could control the balloon's flight. I found it frustrating. There was too much play in the controls and I could never get the balloon to go quite where I wanted it to go. You also had to use a feather-light touch on the throttle or the balloon would fly out of the vortex and you would have to start from scratch.

My Give-A-Show projector was red instead of blue but otherwise it was just like this one. It projected four panel cartoons. I got a lot of use out of this one.

This car wash looks familiar. I'm sure that I had one. I'm also sure that using it as a car wash was fun for five minutes. After that I used the parts as other things.

Part of the Mattel Thing Maker series. You squirted some colored goop into metal molds then heated them for a few minutes. After they cooled you had soft, rubbery pieces. There were heads, arms, and legs. You used a pencil to hold them together. It was fun until the goop ran out.

The Wham-o Air Blaster was great. There was rubber membrane inside. You cocked it with a lever on top then fired it by pulling the trigger. It created a blast of air and a cool sound. The air blast moved surprisingly slow. I played with it until I wore out the rubber membrane.

I just auctioned off my tank last Summer. I still had the box, too. The tank was controlled by a "walkie-talkie" with control buttons. The walkie-talkie was on a long cord and also held the 4 D cell batteries. It was ok for indoor play but the electric motor was disappointing. The tank was too slow and did not have enough power for rough terrain.

Thimble City was a city block on legs. The set included cars, people, and a couple of pets, all with magnets in their base. There was a pair of magnetic wands that you could use to move the objects around. This was never as much fun as the ads made it seem. When I played with it my friend and I usually kept stealing each other's characters. The pets were the best for this since they left more of the magnets exposed. I remember having an insane amount of fun that way.

This seems like a lot of toys but spread over several years of both birthday and Christmas it isn't even one present per occasion.

While these were fun, the toys I really played with are not on the site. I'll see if I can find some for a future post.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Marvel's Disturbing Women

Marvel has been releasing digital back issues of Ms Marvel. While reading them I got to thinking about how solo women have fared in the Marvel Universe. It isn't pretty. Most of them end up going through transformations, both mental and physical. Many have been victims or had some form of mental problem.

As far as I know, the first Marvel woman to be featured in a solo story in the Silver Age or later was the Wasp in a back-up story. It was pretty forgettable. The Wasp was on her way to meet Henry Pym while wearing a coat over her costume. She saw someone lifting a man hole cover and investigated. He turned out to be an escaping robber. The Wasp didn't have her sting with her (back then she needed her costume to shrink and her sting came from a device she wore on her forearm). She got the robber to surrender by rolling up a piece of paper to make a megaphone and impersonated the Invisible Girl. The robber was afraid that the Thing and the Torch were following and surrendered to the police.

Compared with the other women I will cover, the Wasp did fairly well - right up to her death. She even led the Avengers for several years. Henry Pym had enough problems for both of them. He was initially interested in her because she resembled his dead first wife. They married while he thought that he was someone else. He had several breakdowns and became abusive.

The next woman to go solo was Medusa in a one-shot. The Black Window had her own half-book for a few issues and also went on to lead the Avengers. Her life up until the Avengers Disassemble plot was straightforward although her life became bumpier later.

This is where things get creepy.

In response to the Woman's movement, Marvel introduced The Cat, the first character created, written, and drawn by women. The comic flopped and an effort was made to bring her back. To do this, she was transformed into the half-tiger, Tigra. That also failed and she ended up in the Avengers. Besides going furry and growing claws, she has had periods where her personality was taken over by her cat impulses. She also grew a tail.

The Cat's costume was found by Patsy Walker who put it on and became the Hellcat. She eventually married the Son of Satan who turned abusive.

One of Robert E. Howard's creations was Red Sonya - a 16th century mercenary. The story she appeared in was adapted as a Conan story and she became Red Sonja (with a "j"). In her first few appearances she dressed similarly to Conan with a mail shirt, silk shorts (hers were tighter and shorter), and high boots. She was immediately popular and was given her own comic. He outfit was changed to a scale-mail bikini and she was given an origin. It seemed that she had been a farm girl who was raped. A goddess appeared to her and gave her skill with the sword. The catch was that she could only make love to a man who defeated her. This came close to saying that she could only have sex when raped.

The She-Hulk was created for trademark reasons. Unlike her cousin, the She-Hulk didn't have two personalities although her personality was different when she was green. She eventually stopped using her human form and for a while she lost it completely. Later she went crazy and destroyed a town before being turned back into her human form. From there she worked back up to being the She-Hulk most of the time. I don't think that she used her human form in the last few years.

More important is how the She-Hulk's personality progressed. She became a party-girl who would sleep with anyone. In a lot of ways she is the perfect male fantasy - a beautiful, sexy woman who wears very little and will hop in bed with men with no strings attached.

The Scarlet Witch has never had a solo strip but she did share a comic book with the Vision for a while. Regardless, she deserves special mention. She started out as a reluctant member of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. When the Stranger took Magneto to another world to study, she joined the Avengers and was a member off and on for decades after that. She fell in love with the Vision, an android (or synthazoid) and eventually married him. She had a few false starts about her parentage before learning that her real father was Magneto. While practicing magic, she managed a virgin conception and had twins. It turned out that the twins were actually a product of her magic and eventually vanished. Over time this drove the Scarlet Witch insane and she began using her reality-warping powers unconsciously. She broke up the Avengers, killing or maiming different members in the process. Next she completely rewrote reality in an attempt to recreate her children. Eventually she lost her powers and her memory (for the moment).

After the Cat flopped, Ms Marvel was created as the company's flagship female character. There were issues from the beginning. The character was created around Carol Danvers who had been a supporting character in Captain Marvel. When she first appeared, Ms Marvel had complete amnesia. Her powers were similar to Captain Marvel's and she wore a costume like his except with a scarf, bare legs and cutouts over her stomach and back. The cut-outs were controversial and a pain for the artist so the were quickly dropped. At first neither Carol Danvers not Ms Marvel were aware of the other. When they did become aware, they resented each other. They regarded each other as different people. It took months before the two personalities merged. After that she adopted the sexy costume she wears now.

Ms Marvel's comic lasted a couple of years. After that she joined the Avengers (I think I see a pattern here). She left after a virgin pregnancy. She came to term quickly and delivered a child that grew to adulthood in hours. She married him and went to live with him in a different dimension. Does this sound wrong? Her husband continued to age rapidly and quickly died of old age. Ms Marvel returned to Earth realizing that she had been the victim of mind-control and angry that none of the Avengers saved her. Not long afterward, the mutant Rogue attacked her, stealing her powers and memories.

Carol eventually regained most of her memories. After being kidnapped by aliens she was subjected to some experiments that linked her with a white star. This put her in the cosmic hero class. Taking the name Binary, she left Earth for some time and joined the group the Starjammers. Eventually she returned to Earth and rejoined the Avengers. Her powers as Binary faded and she was back to a variation of her Ms Marvel powers. For a while she called herself Warbird. She developed a drinking problem and had to drop out of the Avengers.

More recently Carol went back to being Ms Marvel in her own book. During the Civil War she was on Iron Man's side. Afterward she was asked to form a new team of Avengers. All well and good except she also sort of merged with an alien and later died (at least for a while). She was replaced as Ms Marvel by Moonstone who has her own issues despite being a trained psychiatrist.

Even though she did not have a solo book, Jean Gray's life deserves some examination. She was a new recruit to the X-Men in X-Men #1. Eventually she and Cyclops fell in love. In X-Men #100 she sacrificed herself by piloting a space shuttle through a solar flare without shielding. This should have killed her but a cosmic being was attracted to her act of self-sacrifice. It took her place and put her in a healing cocoon. The cosmic being's own powers manifested and it called itself Phoenix. The power of the Phoenix was too much temptation for the Jean Grey construct and it killed itself (after killing a world of asparagus people and threatening the Earth). When the original Jean finally finished healing and emerged from the cocoon she discovered that Cyclops had married her clone and they had a child. Cyclops abandoned both to be with Jean. After a few years, all three versions of Jean merged. She and Cyclops married and spent their honeymoon raising Cyclops's son in different bodies in the far future. Jean broke up with Cyclops, regained her Phoenix powers and moved on to another plane of existence.

Update - I forgot Jessica Drew, Spider Woman. At first she thought that she was one of the High Evolutionary's human/animal creations, a literal spider-woman. She spent several issues convinced that she was inhuman and the people were instinctively repulsed by her. It later turned out that she was a normal human who had obtained spider-powers through the High Evolutionary. The reason that people disliked her was because she gave off pheromones that repelled people. Charming.

Like the She-Hulk, Spider Woman mainly existed to tie down copyright. When the character didn't prove popular she was forgotten for years and replaced by a Spider Woman in a black and white costume. Jessica didn't make a come-back until the 2000s.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Heroes and the Law II

Continuing my thoughts on the relationship between superheroes and the law. Previously I looked at how the real world would handle superheroes. Now I will look at how they related to the law in their own universes.

When superheroes were first created at the end of the 1930s, they were an extension of a long tradition of adventurers who either aided the law or took the law into their own hands. This tradition went back decades and included stories about the wild west, the pulps, and radio dramas. Superheroes were descended from heroes such as the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Sherlock Holmes. There were also newspaper comic strips that featured heroes who were costumed or at least wore distinctive dress who were nearly superheroes. These included The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician and the futuristic heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. All of these characters fought crime on some level without official sanction. Beyond that, Prohibition and the corruption it caused left people with a poor opinion of the police. Naturally, people didn't spend much time thinking about the legal ramifications of super-powered vigilantes with all of these other characters in circulation.

The Phantom deserves special mention. He was the secret chief of the Jungle Patrol making him the first costumed hero to actually head a police department.

When Superman first appeared he was obviously working outside the law. In his first couple of appearances he ran a corrupt senator out of town and stopped a war. Just imagine the consequences of either of these acts today.

World War II began just as superheroes were starting to bloom. Most heroes joined the war effort in some manner. Some heroes like Captain America were officially working within the government. The Human Torch joined the police force early on then recruited the Sub-Mariner to help in the fight against the Nazis.

The Golden Age of Comics ended along with World War II and most superhero comics were canceled. The most notable exceptions were Superman and Batman. By the 1950s, Batman had been deputized into the Gotham Police Force and Superman was officially recognized by the UN and the various law enforcement agencies of the world.

In the DC universe, several Silver Age heroes had relationships with law enforcement agencies one way or another. Green Lantern was part of a galactic police force. Hawkman and Hawkgirl were extraterrestrial police officers on earth to learn human police methods. Martian Manhunter's secret identity was a police detective named John Jones. The Flash was a scientist for the police.

Things were a little different when Marvel started. The three original teams in the Marvel Universe all had ties with the government. Nick Fury, who still had both eyes and was working with the CIA sent the Fantastic Four on a mission to stop the Hate Monger. Professor X had an FBI liaison he regularly met with. The Avengers went several steps beyond this. Avengers authority could be used to order police. An Avengers id was an all-access card. Rick Jones used his to see the President without an appointment. Later on these relationships became strained. After Professor X's apparent death, the FBI ordered the X-Men to split up in order to present a smaller target. This only lasted a couple of issues and was probably a sales ploy. The government took a stronger role in the Avengers, ordering them to diversify their membership and making other changes.

Non-team heroes did not fare as well. No one really cared about Daredevil and Doctor Strange operated below everyone's radar but Spider-Man was actively wanted for general questioning and the Hulk was considered an enemy of any country he happened to be in. He was attacked by the military in the US and the USSR.

The next batch of Marvel heroes operated outside the law as often as in it. This included the Sub-Mariner (who had attacked New York a couple of times) and the Silver Surfer (who had attacked the entire world). The next team, the Defenders, was never officially recognized by anyone. At one point it got out that there was no formal membership and the team was overrun by would-be members. From that point on, most teams existed without any relationship to the government.

There were exceptions. The original X-Force presented itself as a private anti-mutant squad. This was actually a cover for the original X-Men to rescue mutants. After they merged with the X-Men, the team became a government-run team of mutants. The British group, Excalibur had an arrangement with the British government which eventually included having Peter Wisdom, a member of a British secret agency, as a member.

After the apparent death of the FF, Baron Zemo founded the Thunderbolts. This was actually made up of super-villains using new names in order to gain official access to the FF's headquarters. The core members eventually decided that they preferred being heroes and went straight.

Out of all of the solo heroes, Captain America has had the closest relationship with the government. He worked with SHIELD many times, more than any other hero. On the other hand, in the 1980s someone in the White House discovered that the government helds the rights to the name and costume and informed Steve Rogers that he was now reporting to them. In order to retain his status as a free agent, Rogers resigned and a new Captain America was recruited. This continued until President Reagan found out about it and he ordered his staff to give the role back to Steve Rogers.

The 1970s saw the rise of the monster comic along with several monster-related heroes. These included the Ghost Rider, the Son of Satan, the Beast, the Werewolf (by night), and a host of others. All of them were hunted by the police any time they became aware of these characters.

During the 1990s, the various mutant groups shifted membership and missions several times. They started resembling gangs fighting over territory rather than heroes and operated outside of the government.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Superheroes and the Law

I was reading some marvel digital comics and hit a few issues from the Civil War arc. That got me to thinking about what the relationship would be in the real world between superheroes and the government. I'll do a second post on how the topic evolved in the comics.

Civil War was meant partly as commentary on the Patriot Act and other policies of President George W. Bush. Because of this background, many of the plot elements were meant to show the government as being over-the-top. The conflict was over an act that required superheroes to register with and work for the government. The split between the heroes was between the conservatives on the side of the government and the liberals who opposed the act.

So, how would today's real world react to superheroes? This gets complicated because many heroes are not actually super. Some are costumes acrobats using archaic weapons (Captain America, Daredevil, Hawkeye). Batman would also be in this group but the DC universe has always been different from ours while the Marvel Universe is based on more closely on the real world.

Anyway... the next group consists of regular people using advanced technology (Iron Man, War Machine). The final group has the people with actual powers. These distinctions can get a little fuzzy. Daredevil has radar sense, Iron Man's armor has been part of him at times. There are also people who use technology or magic to gain powers. Giant Man originally used a gas and later a helmet to change size. Thor used to change back to a human if he lost hold of his hammer for more than a minute. I'm making the call that Daredevil could (and has) functioned with regular vision and that having real powers is more important than how they are obtained. That still leaves Iron Fist who has a real super power but seldom uses it but no classification is perfect. The fact that he can demolish a building with a single punch puts him in the people with powers class.

Now, I'm going to extrapolate from the real world and assume that conservatives would accept superheroes more readily than liberals. My reasoning is that most gun-control advocates are liberal and that the areas with the tightest gun controls are liberal strongholds. The same goes for militia groups and volunteer boarder-watchers. Conservatives support them and liberals hate them. Real vigilantism is very rare but the few examples break down the same way. Bernie Goetz, the subway shooter, comes to mind. He shot four men who were trying to rob him. Liberals believe that the four men were only asking for loose change and were shot unprovoked. Conservatives believe Goetz's version, that the four men threatened him and would have hurt him if he had not shot them.

So, my extrapolation makes me think that liberals would tend to see superheroes as a threat and might start examining the race of offenders caught for signs of racism. Conservatives would be more likely to take superheroes at face value. That would cover the costumed acrobats. With the exception of the Punisher (who would be on the Most Wanted list), the acrobats use bare hands and minimal weapons against criminals who often carry guns.

Things change when we get to the group that uses advanced technology. It is one thing to take out an armed robber with a stick. It is something quite different when you are wearing the equivalent of a tank. It is illegal to own a tank with a working cannon or a warplane with missiles. I doubt that the government would support someone wearing armor that could tear either of these to pieces. Again, I expect that more conservatives than liberals would support this class of hero but I suspect that the majority of the country would want some sort of official control over technology like this. There are strict prohibitions against using US military force against the citizenry. These restrictions would probably be extended to superheroes. They might be treated like firms such as Backwater Security (AKA Xe) which is allowed to carry weapons under contract to the government. Again, support for Blackwater is higher among conservatives than liberals.

This brings us to the people with real powers. Things get trickier when you have someone who cannot be disarmed. They might be forced to work for the government as in the Marvel Universe or they might be treated as contractors. There might be exceptions made for people with powers who do not use them as long as they do not use them. But how do you handle people who start fires because they are irritated or can wreck a city block in a fight over a girl? And this is just the Fantastic Four (in the Silver Surfer's second appearance the Thing started a fight over Alicia and a block of condemned buildings was leveled).

Liability insurance for these beings would be impossible. They would have to have federally-backed insurance like flood insurance.

Just being close to these heroes can be dangerous so they might be ordered to post their location and stay away from locations where people assemble, especially children. In short, we might end up treating superheroes like sex offenders.

Or we might go the route taken in the Incredibles and offer superheroes a deal - retire and receive amnesty or be outlawed. Regardless, I doubt that the real world would be as hero-friendly as the Marvel Universe.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on Harry Potter

So, the Harry Potter series is half-way through the finale. I'm not going to write a review, just some thoughts on the movie. I don't think I'm including any spoilers that aren't in most reviews.

First, this isn't exactly a Harry Potter movie. True, it features Harry and most of the characters from the other movies but it abandoned the formula. All of the other movies followed a year at Hogwarts. Not this one. Harry never gets near it. The closest the movie comes is when some Death Eaters search the Hogwart Express. So, there are no classes, no moving stairways, No talking paintings, no Quidditch, not even Harry on a broom. We only see a few of the teachers and not for long. On the other hand, this movie refers to the other movies more than most - things like "the wand chooses you" and the composition of the wand.

This is not a kid's movie, either. Parts of it are scary. The rest would be boring to small kids.

Harry and company spend more time in the modern (muggle) world in this movie than in all of the others put together. It is a bit jarring having Harry and company order cappuccinos. An opening scene in Hermione's house underscores how different muggles live than wizards. Wizards tend to live in ancient houses in remote areas. The one exception is an ancient townhouse.

Wizards are also decades behind on technology. They use candles and other flames for light. Newspapers are printed on 19th century presses or by magic. The Hogwart Express is a steam engine. The most modern technology we see them use is at least 50 years out of date - the Weasley's flying car, Hagrid's flying motorcycle, and Hermione's transistor radio. Even the elevators at the Ministry of Magic and the toilets they use are pre-WWII. Harry's uncle's family is more modern but even they seem a couple of decades off.

For something really scary, think of what the movie would have been like if Chris Columbus directed it instead of just the first two.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


During the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, the process for creating a comic book page remained pretty much the same. First the artist would draw the pages in pencil, possibly using a blue pencil for guidelines. Then the pencils would be inked over, usually by a separate inker. Room would be left for word balloons. A letterer would fill in the word balloons in ink. Copies would be made of the pages and sent to a colorist. The printing process was in four colors with different shades of each color. This allowed 32 colors. From there, the colors were separated back into their individual four colors and sent to the presses.

Today I'm going to talk about the inker's role in the process. On the surface, his job is simple - just follow the pencil lines. In practice, the inker had a much stronger impact. Just deciding how thick to make the lines can have a major effect on the art. The inker also added the shading, cross-hatching, and zip-a-tone. An artist with a strong style might overpower the pencils.

For an example of how an inker can affect the finished work, look at issues #6 and #7 of the Silver Surfer. Both had the same artist, John Buscema, but issue #6 was inked by Joe Sinnott and #7 was inked by John's brother, Sal. The Surfer seemed to lose 100 pounds of muscle, going from the Silver Surfer to the White Wipeout.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the inker also enforced the house style. Most of the time during this period, any artist was expected to be able to draw any comic book and the readers were not supposed to know the difference. Neil Adams, who is best known for his ultra-realistic work on Batman, did some issues of Archie. At Marvel (which was still Timely), the artist would come in for a monthly meeting with Stan Lee. Lee had a pile of scripts and would hand the artist the one on the top. There was no permanent assignment. Kid Colt might be drawn by Dick Ayers one month and Don Heck the next. Inkers who knew the house style could cover over any differences in the artists.

When Timely switched to Marvel, artists were assigned to individual books but, even then, there were exceptions. Most of the early issues of the Avengers were drawn by Jack Kirby but a few were not.

Things changed over the next few years. Artists were allowed to develop their own style and were assigned to books for long stretches. At the same time, inkers began to develop their own style. This was especially true of inkers who entered the field after the mid-1960s.

Joe Sinnott was one of the first celebrity inkers, but with a twist. The fans still hadn't noticed inkers but the artists were always concerned with how the finished product looked. Sinnott was in demand by artists because he made them look good. Stan reserved him for flagship books, especially the Fantastic Four which he inked for 16 years.

On the other hand, Vincent Colletta had the reputation of simplifying backgrounds and even eliminating characters in order to make tight deadlines. In his defense - many people consider his work on Jack Kirby's pencils to be the definitive look for Thor. I have a page of original art from a Frankenstein black and white that he inked over Val Mayerik's pencils and it is a really nice piece of art. Marerik had a light, sketchy style that was complimented by Colletta's inks.

One of the first fan favorite inkers was Tom Palmer. He was knows for imaginative shading and cross-hatching. He also colored his own work, combining colors and zip-a-tone to give the impression of more than the standard 32 colors. Palmer was involved in fan favorites such as the Roy Thomas/Gene Colon Doctor Strange and the Tomb of Dracula and contributed a lot to their atmosphere.

Tony DeZuniga was an artist with a strong style that carried over to his inking. He was from the Philippines. While he was working for Marvel in the 1970s, he hooked them up with several other Filipino artists who became mainstays at Marvel. One of these, Alfredo Alcala, became an inking star for his work on John Buscema's pencils on the black and white Conan books. Rather than rely on short-cuts like Zip-a-Tone, Alcala did all of his own shading by hand with intricate crosshatching and whirls. His inking over Buscema's pencils was so popular that their art overshadowed the stories. Robert E. Howard had only written a limited number of Conan stories and Marvel had been parceling these out carefully. Most of the Howard adaptations from the 1970s were done by this pair.

Another popular inker was Klaus Jonson. He is best known for his inking over Frank Miller's Daredevil during the 1980s when it was the top-selling comic book in the country.

I'm not sure why but inkers seem to have declined in importance since the early 1980s. Most inkers also pencil and it might be that the rise in comic books stores and independent comics allowed new artists with strong styles to launch their own works.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Despicable Me vs Megamind

Like the year that Ants and A Bug's Life came out, we have two CGI movies with sort of the same premise - a villain reforms through outside influence. Beyond that, the two movies are very different.

Warning, from here on I'm dealing in spoilers.

Despicable Me features the type of villain that James Bond usually fights. He thinks big and he has someone else actually build his gadgets. He dresses distinctively but is outfit is based on regular street clothing.

Megamind is a super-villain. He is centered on fighting a super hero. He builds (most of) his on gadgets. He wears an over-the-top costume. Even his pajamas are over-the-top.

Both have a main minion and a horde of lesser minions. Gru, the villain in Despicable Me, it is a scientist and a crowd of beings that look like walking Twinkies. Megamind has a minion named Minion (an alien fish in an exoskeleton) and a horde of flying disk-like robots.

Gru is fighting a competitor who is younger and better-financed. Megaman fights a pair of supermen with nearly unlimited powers.

Gru reforms after adopting three orphaned girls in order to infiltrate his rival's lair. Eventually he discovers that he has feelings for the girls and risk his life to save them. Megamind falls in love with a plucky woman reporter (think Lois Lane). He also discovers that his life was entered on fighting Megaman. After Megeman's apparent death, he spends a while looting and vandalizing Metro City but quickly tires of it.

Megamind starts with a flashback to his childhood. He was not naturally evil. He turned to evil after being rejected. We never get any backstory on Gru, just an opening sequence where he consoles a child who lost his ice cream cone. Gru make an elaborate balloon animal which quiets the child - until Gru pops it. He really was evil.

Despicable Me is the better of the two movies. The plot flows better. In the other hand, Megamind is visually better. Both are in 3D but Megamind make better use of it. This is the first movie with a flying superhero to really capture the flight. Regardless, both are very good and well worth seeing.

Both are successes, also. Despicable Me was a first movie from a new studio so expectations were moderate. So far the domestic box office is around a quarter billion. World wide box office doubled that for a total take of around a half billion. Megamind took in $60 million on its opening week and took first place in the box office two weekends in a row. It should make money but nothing like Despicable Me or The Incredibles.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dino De Laurentis

The movie producer Dino De Laurentis died at the age of 91. IMDB lists him as having produced 166 movies, some of them in Italian. Some of his movies have become cult classics. Others, like The Battle of the Bulge, regularly show up on TV decades after they were filmed.

Only a few of his movies are relevant to this blog - King Kong, Conan, and Flash Gordon.

De Laurentis movies emphasized spectacle over everything else. Sometimes the spectacle got in the way of the action. King Kong, for example, is a very ponderous movie compared with the original. It has not aged well. The movie was heavily updated for the 1970s and the emphasis of the love story. The original featured multiple fights between the prehistoric animals of Skull Island and the humans and/or Kong. The remake eliminated all but a fight with a snake. The original ended with a fight between Kong and airplanes. In the remake this turned into an execution. The original set the standard for stop-motion animation. The remake used a man in a monkey suit (plus a very poor robot that is only seen for a couple of seconds). Regardless, the remake was popular when it came up and launched a year-long King Kong craze. The Peter Jackson remake was better (although it had its own problems) but failed to generate the same level of buzz. There was a sequel but the critics hated it and I never bothered seeing it.

De Laurentis's two Conan movies were better but they were also ponderous. Fights tended to be over in seconds in Conan the barbarian, the first movie. The second movie, Conan the Destroyer, is only slightly better. This is ironic since Conan was one of Arnold
Schwarzenegger's first movies. The first Conan movie threw every memorable scene from the stories together. Most of them lost their impact and the plot didn't resemble anything that Robert E. Howard ever wrote. The movie also stole a bit from The Empire Strikes Back with a villain, voiced by James Earl Jones, told the hero "I am your father." It didn't make much sense in Conan. The Conan movies were better than the King Kong ones and were gorgeous to look at, as well.

I don't have a high opinion of these other movies but I think that Flash Gordon is underrated. While it has a lot of the spectacle of the other movies, it also mixes in a stylized, tongue-in-cheek humor. It never bogs down the way the others do and it has aged well. Flash Gordon was made in the wake of Star Wars and was a box office disappointment but since then it has become a cult classic. Of all of De Laurentis's movies, this one shows up on cable most often.  

Friday, October 29, 2010

Portable Devices

Sony stopped making the Walkman cassette player this week. I haven't owned a working portable cassette player in years and I never paid the Sony premium price but it still made me reflect on all of the changes that have taken place over my lifetime.

When I was born TVs were pieces of furniture. The screen was fairly small and oval and the picture was black and white. It used vacuum tubes which were huge and took minutes to warm up. There were three networks and no cable. You used an antenna for reception and your signal quality depended on the time of day (signals carry further at night) and the weather. You had a channel selector for the first 13 channels. There was an outer dial that you had to use to tune the reception once you put it on the channel. For channels above 13, you put the selector on "V" and used a separate VHF selector. That one did not have pre-selected channels. You had to hunt around or leave it on one channel (chances are that you only had one selection, anyway). A "portable" TV could be put on a stand and rolled from room to room but you had to be careful because the cart was top-heavy.

Radios were also big with tubes. The only portable ones were installed in cars. The tubes were so big and used so much electricity that there was no possible portable version. Chances are the radio only received AM.

If you wanted to record something then you needed a tape recorder. This used open reel tapes. The tape was 1/4" and held on a reel. To use it, you had to unwrap a foot or so of tape and start it on an empty reel. Then you carefully fed the tape through the read/write tape head and took up the slack. The length of the recording was based on the length of the tape so an hour tape was much bigger in diameter than a half-hour tape. Again, this was big and heavy with tubes.

Devices based on transistors started becoming common around 1960. The transistor radio was the first really portable entertainment device. The early ones only received AM radio and had lousy fidelity but you could take it anywhere and, compared with vacuum tubes,  it seemed indestructible. If you wanted to listen by yourself you could plug in an earphone and listen through one ear.

TVs changed. Color became common. As transistors replaced vacuum tubes, you started seeing "instant on" sets that didn't need minutes to warm up before you got a picture. Remote controls were invented. The first ones were sonic with four buttons (on/off, channel up, channel down, and mute). Picture tubes became nearly square instead of oval.

By the end of the decade you could get a real portable TV. This had a 5" black and white screen. The set itself was around a foot in each direction.

Cable TV was becoming common with additional channels. These were mainly independent stations offering syndicated shows (mainly reruns of successful series). HBO didn't start until the 1970s.

Small tape recorders were available by the mid-1960s. These were just small open reel recorders that took the smallest (and shortest) tapes. In the early 1970s, new types of tape were introduced. There was the cassette tape which the Walkman used. This was a small version of the open reel tape with the tapes permanently attached to the two reels. The tape had four tracks - two for stereo in each direction. There was also 8-track which had four stereo tracks on an endless tape. 8-track was popular in cars for most of the 1970s because it would play until removed. Cassettes had superior quality and became dominant in the 1980s.

The 1980s saw the Walkman which was a cassette player small enough to carry while running. Radios also became smaller, often being incorporated into a cassette player and FM became the dominant signal.

Sony also introduced the first pocket TV - the Watchman. This had a tiny black and white screen. The screen size increased and the overall size decreased rapidly. While this was a nice innovation at the time, the decline of broadcast TV made these into niche devices.

CDs were invented in the late 1970s but were slow to be adopted. Purists insisted that the digital sounds were too "cold". Also, CD player were very sensitive to vibration so runners could not carry one with them. It wasn't until the 1990s that players could read several seconds ahead and compensate for vibrations.

Early video tape units were available in the 1970s but they really took off in the 1980s. Prior to that there was no way to time shift a TV show or to watch a movie at home except through broadcast. Video disks using disks a foot in diameter were also introduced. They offered better picture but could not time-shift and flopped. Rather than join with other makers on a common format, Sony used their own Beta format. The quality was not much better and the selection of tapes was worse so this flopped.

Hand-held recorders were introduced in the mid-1980s. Prior to that you had to shoot 8mm movies without sound. The film was expensive and the results were usually poor. The first hand-held recorders used separate tape decks. The combination could weigh 20 pounds or more and was bulky. Camcorders combining the camera and recorder came out soon after.

With the camcorder, the biggest constraint on size was the VHS cassette. There were two alternatives - the VHS-C (for compact) which was a short VHS tape in a smaller cassette. This needed an adapter to play on a regular VHS player. Sony introduced their own format (again), using an 8mm tape. In order to play these back you had to hook the camcorder to the TV.

DBDs were introduced in the late 1990s and were adopted quickly. They were sold for less than VHS tapes, they were smaller, they offered a better picture, they never needed rewinding, and they usually had extra tracks. Players reached casual purchase prices quickly and they worked with existing TVs so the price for adoption was very low.

When the CD was introduced home PCs were just coming out and none had hard drives so no one thought about copying. By the early 1990s "multimedia PCs" were becoming standard. These could play CDs. By the late 1990s, they could also copy CDs and save them as compressed files - mainly MP3s.

The first MP3 players either had a limited amount of memory or used removable memory. These could hold at most a few hours of music, probably less. Apple's first iPod was a major innovation because it had a built-in hard drive that could hold megabytes of music. Later models could also play video. Sony tried introducing its own players using proprietary formats and failed (does anyone see a pattern here?).

Which brings us to the end of the Walkman. It was an innovation in its day but today's MP3 players and phones are infinitely better. During the 1980s Sony was the biggest name in portable entertainment devices. Now they are an afterthought.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Overlooked Horror Movies

I've seen a few lists of best and scariest horror movies. There are a few that have been overlooked.

Black Sunday - 1960. I've always been hard to scare but I watched this movie alone at night when I was around 13 and it scared the crap out of me. My wife who saw it at the same time with friends and it scared them, also (and they were two years older).

The movie stars Barbara Steele in dual roles as a witch and as her decedent. It was an Italian production at a high point in Italian movies.

It begins with the witch being executed by having a spiked iron mask driven into her face. She was supposed to be burned after that but a rainstorm put out the flames. She was buried in a tomb in a stone coffin with a cross on top and a window so that her corpse could see the cross.

Two centuries later a pair of doctors are on their way to a convention when their carriage loses a wheel. While waiting for it to be repaired, the doctors explore the witch's tomb. A bat attacks the older one and he tries to hit it with his cane, breaking the cross and the window. He reaches through the window and takes the mask as a souvenir but he cuts himself in the process and a drop of blood drips onto the witch's dried-up remains. This is enough to revive the witch a bit. She brings her servant back to life.

The doctors have taken rooms for the night. The servant poses as a messenger for the local noble and summons the older doctor and leads him through the castle. He does not notice it but he has been led into a secret passage.

The doctor stops to look at some old furniture. The servant with the lantern continues on for a ways. When the doctor catches up he finds the lantern floating. He reaches for it but it drops, leaving him in the dark.

There is a door but it opens into the tomb and the door to the outside is swinging shut. He rushes to it but is too late. Then the door he entered through swings shut. Trapped in the tomb the witch's coffin starts to vibrate then explodes, exposing the partly restored witch.

I'll leave off the description from there.

The Others - 2001. This movie is best seen in a dark theater. That's how I saw it. The audience was mesmerized. In the light with people talking you completely lose the tense atmosphere.

The movie is about a woman and her children living in a haunted house on an island off the British coast just after World War II. Nichole Kidman stars as the mother who is so tightly wound you expect her to snap any moment.

Son of Dracula - 1943. This is a real oddity for 1940s vampire movies. There is no real heroine and the hero is insane by the end of the movie. While poor by today's standards, this movie is the first to show Dracula changing into a bat or a mist. Lon Chaney Jr. as the Count makes no attempt to imitate Bela Legosi. Still, it is one of his better roles. He is much more impressive as the Count than the tortured Wolfman.

The Beast of Morocco - 1968. Not even IMDB has much information on this movie except that it was an independent production. It is sort of a cross between the movie She and a vampire movie with an ageless vampire queen living in the desert. By day she has to take shelter but at night she comes back to life and the ruins of her palace are whole again. Will the hero join her in her half-life? Does he even want to?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Looking back at Trek

Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) has been in syndication for over a year. It has been over 20 years since this show premiered and more than 40 since the original show (ST) began. That is enough time to properly compare them. Here are some random thoughts on the two shows:

In general, ST:TNG was better done. It had higher apparent production values and the characters were better-developed. This does not make it the better show.

ST was more exciting. Kirk and company were usually saving planets, eliminating space monsters, or overthrowing repressive governments, Prime Directive be damned.

The crew on ST got out more. Nearly every episode involved a trip to an alien planet. Granted, these were often sets and looked like it. ST:TNG has many more episodes taking place entirely on the Enterprise. This gives the show a more claustrophobic feel.

There was too much techspeak on ST:TNG. Writer Ronald Moore takes about it here.

Moore said he used to put the word tech in his scripts as a placeholder, which led to stultifying dialogue like this:

Picard: "Mr. La Forge, I need you to tech the tech."

La Forge: "But Captain, if we tech the tech then the tech will override! The tech main engines might tech too much!"

It didn't seem so bad at the time but looking back at the show, this is a major fault. It also shows up with the number of "level 1 scans" and "level 2 diagnostics". They tossed these terms around constantly like they meant something.

ST:TNG was closer to real military structure. On Star Trek, Kirk was in charge and Spock was second in command. After that, the chain of command became murky. Any time Spock was in charge, one or more crew members became insubordinate. Then there is the whole issue of the bridge crew being the first to beam into a hostile situation.

ST was brutal. Having characters die, even red-shirted extras, was a new thing in the late-1960s. This was cutting-edge at the time. I remember watching the show in first run and being shocked a few times when someone died unexpectedly.

The crew members of ST:TNG were too competent. Anyone could make anything from anything. Warf could generate a force field from a communicator. Data could make anything from his own spare components.

The Holodeck was too real. People were constantly getting trapped in the holodeck. In one episode, Picard and Data couldn't even tell that they were in the holodeck. It was just a room. You should be able to walk in a straight line until you hit a wall then feel for the door.

ST only had two good seasons. When it was in first-run, I knew that the third season was the last. The show felt tired. Most of the episodes revolved around Kirk falling in love (again).

The first season of ST:TNG stank. Episodes were just plain boring. Some were also dumb like the time Wesley was sentenced to death for breaking a window on the planet of joggers (seriously). The first season seemed bad at the time and it has not improved with age. In contrast, some of the second season episodes are among the best.

Even though ST:TNG lasted longer, it did not run out of energy. Some of the episodes in the last couple of seasons were weird but the show never felt as tired as the original did in its last season.

Both shows were much better than Deep Space 9 or Voyager.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

In the last year we have seen two very different interpretations of Sherlock Holmes. The first was a movie, set in Victorian England and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. The second is a series set in modern England and currently running on PBS.

Both versions offer new interpretations of Holmes and Watson. The traditional movie version of Watson as an older, befuddled foil for Holmes is gone, replaced by one who is Holmes's friend and contemporary. More jarring, both versions also show Holmes as someone who becomes self-destructive unless occupied by mental challenges.

The Holmes stories hinted at several things not shown in prior movies. Holmes was a drug user who practiced the pistol by writing "VR" and engaged in prize fighting.

The TV show Holmes is somewhat better behaved but still goes out of his way to be annoying.

After seeing the pilot for the PBS series, I want to see the Downey version again. It was a lot more fun.

There is also the issue of bringing Holmes into the present. I know that it was done in the Basil Rathbone movies in the 1940s but I never considered those movies to be very good. Also, they did not go out of their way to reinvent Holmes the way that the PBS version did. Holmes was very much a product of his time. Move him and you have a completely different character. Naming him Holmes is intellectual dishonesty.

------------------------------------------- SPOILER -------------------------------------

I also have an issue with the plot of the pilot. Holmes didn't really find the serial killer or deduce his motives. The killer relieved himself to Holmes and explained his motives. Worse, the final question was left unanswered - who was smarter?

The serial killer made people poison themselves. He did this by pointing a gun at them an making them choose between two identical bottles containing identical pills. One was poison, one was harmless.

Even after Holmes realized that the pistol was a fake (do they actually sell convincing gun-lighters in England?), Holmes took the killer's challenge and seemed to be about to swallow one of the pills. This left the question unresolved, did Holmes pick the right pill?

There is also the Princess Bride scenario - both pills were poison and the killer as immune.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Walled Apple Garden

Apple has long exerted total control over the IPhone. Now it is expanding this trend to its Mac line of computers.

First the is the app store for the Mac. Potentially, a few releases in the future, you will get all of your programs and much of your web content from apps with Apple getting a cut and selecting what is allowed through arbitrary standard.

The new Macbook Air shows several interesting developments. It does not have an optical drive. This is in keeping with Steve Jobs's belief that the only proper way of getting content into your computer is through his store. An optical drive lets you rip tunes from the CD you already bought or play the movie you just got in the mail from Netflix. Apple doesn't get a cut of either of those. Granted, you can use the USB port to add a separate optical drive but Apple has made it clear that they will never support Blu-ray.

Just to cover all bases, you can't change the hardware, either. They use proprietary screws to keep you out and proprietary memory to keep you from doing your own upgrades.

None of this is surprising. When the Mac was introduced in 1984, it violated your warranty to connect it to a peripheral made by anyone else. Apple did not offer a hard drive so for the first year, customers had to choose between violating the warranty or living with a single floppy drive.

It looks like those days are returning.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Phone Wars 2010

The Microsoft Windows Phone 7 was released this week with the first units actually being delivered early next month. Only a few phone companies will offer the WP7. Verizon and AT&T are not among the first adopters. There is also a report that Verizon will begin offering IPhones in 2011.

So what does this mean to me? Nothing. Ask me again in a couple of years when my current plan expires.

I suspect that the majority of the smart phone users are like me. I recently upgraded to a Droid Incredible. The WP7 would seem like a downgrade since there are so few apps for it. The IPhone might have been a bigger deal if Apple was offering it through Verizon last Summer but Steve Jobs is so heavy-handed about managing his phones that this was enough to make me prefer a Droid, regardless.

Apple has a good thing with its AT&T contract. They actually get a cut out of everyone's monthly phone bill. In exchange for this, only AT&T could sell IPhones. That gave the rest of the market an incentive to come up with an alternative and some breathing room for it to mature. The IPhone is supposed to have a slicker interface but a lot of the features of the most recent IOS were there to catch up to Android. Then there are the problems with the antenna and the glass back. When Verizon finally does start carrying IPhones they will be just one in an assortment of smart phones.

Microsoft may have missed the boat completely. By all accounts, their new phone is solid and has a unique interface. It is still missing several features like multi-tasking and cut and paste. I just used both of these to copy a phone number from an email to a contact.

There has been a lot of talk about how fractured the Android market is. There is no standard phone so developers must write for a variety of screen sizes and allow for touchscreen and hardware keyboard. By contrast, there is only one IPhone model per year and Microsoft has very strict requirements. This actually gives Android an advantage. Not everyone wants the same phone. The huge screen of the Droid X may appeal to some but I wanted a smaller phone. Android also allows the carriers to add branded content. Some of this is junk but it offsets the price of the phone.

The phone market has a very real chance of replaying the early 1980s PC market. Then, as now, Apple made their own computers with little variation. You could be certain that anything would run on any of their computers. Regardless, the PC was more open and quickly left Apple behind. Ironically, this time around Microsoft looks more like Apple.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Spider-Man Big Time

Wired has a preview of a new Spider-Man story arc, Big Time. They say:

Peter Parker finally gets a career and nets A-list supporting acts in Big Time. In the upcoming Spider-Man story arc, writer Dan Slott and artist Humberto Ramos give the wise-cracking superhero a maturity upgrade.

Who cares? Peter had already grown up, married, gotten real work. Then Marvel decided that they preferred him as a single, poor student so Mephisto whipped out nearly everything that happened since Gwen Stacy died. They proved that Peter will not really grow up. At any time they can just say, "oops, do-over".

The new Spider-Man movie has him in high school. When it comes out, will Marvel roll back even more of Peter's life and make him a teenager again?

Monday, October 04, 2010

When Vampires Were Scary

Last Friday, TCM showed four Dracula films by Hammer Films. Three starred Christopher Lee s Dracula. Two had Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. This was from back when vampires were scary. They didn't sparkle and if they made you into a vampire you became a souless monster instead of a brooding teenager.

The first of the movies, the Horror of Dracula is loosely based on the novel. There were significant differences. Johnathan Harker was an undercover vampire hunter and became one himself. Dracula attacked Harker's fiance, Lucy, as revenge after Harker destroyed his companion. They never said where Lucy lived but it was not England since Dracula was able to return to Transylvania by hearse.

When they made the movie, Hammer made several artistic decisions. Their vampires were more realistic - they could not change form. The movies were shot in color which was still unusual for horror movies so they made the best of it. There was lots of bright red blood. There was also a generous amount of cleavage. They were sensitive to how easily a horror movie can turn into camp so they were careful to understate the wooden stakes. These were short and business-like with lots of blood spatters.

At the time, Peter Cushing was Hammer's star. Christopher Lee was cast in lesser roles, often as the monster. Hammer's Frankenstein also starred Cushing with Lee as the monster.

The movie was a big hit. Hammer made two sequels that did not have Dracula. One of them was terrible and barely had vampires. The other one, the Brides of Dracula, featured Van Helsing and a blond Baron Meinster as the vampire. Meinster wasn't nearly as scary as Lee's Dracula but the movie does have some memorable scenes. In one, a vampire's victim is lying in state in a locked coffin. One of the padlocks falls off. The caretaker is trying to figure this out when the other locks fall off.

After that, Hammer revived Dracula but left Van Helsing out for several movies. In Dracula Prince of Darkness, a quartet of tourists gets lost and are offered shelter in Dracula's castle. That night one of them is killed, hung upside down over Dracula's ashes, and his throat slashed. Dracula revived and feasted on the tourist's wife then pursued the other couple. He ended up drowning in a frozen lake.

While Dracula was in this movie, he did not have any lines beyond snarls. Either the director thought that he was more menacing without lines or Lee refused to say the dumb lines written for him, depending on which version you believe.

In the following movie, Lee did have some lines although they were kept to a minimum. The movie was "Dracula has Risen From the Grave or You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" - a typical title from the late 1960s. While exorcising Dracula's castle, a priest falls down the mountain and his blood revived Dracula. Angered because of the exorcism, Dracula attacks the Monsignor's daughter. He is eventually impaled on a giant cross.

According to IMDB, this last movie was Hammer's most profitable. Feeling that there was an inexhaustible demand for vampire movies, they pushed them out as fast as they could film them. By the early 1970s they had flooded the market and Hammer went bankrupt.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Flintstones

The Flintstones turned 50 yesterday. It lasted six seasons with several follow-up spin-offs and sequels. It held the record for longest-running prime time animated show until the Simpsons blew them away (season 21 just premiered last week).

Basically the Flintstones were an animated version of the Honeymooners. There were a few differences besides the obvious. The Flintstones were more affluent. They lived in the suburbs and Fred had a fairly good job in the construction industry. During the 3rd season the Flintstones had a baby, Pebbles. Half-way into the next season their best friends adopted a boy, Bamm Bamm, the strongest baby in the world. In contrast, the Honeymooners lived in a run-down apartment building and were childless.

The show had a number of running gags around how prehistoric life was the same as modern life. The Flintstones had stone-age equivalents of all of the modern comforts. Dinosaurs provided power. Birds and small mammals acted as vacuum cleaners and garbige disposals. An instant camera had a wood-pecker who would carve a picture into a small piece of stone.

The show was an example of Hanna-Barbera's limited animation. The characters were designed so that entire episodes could be filmed with no or limited new drawings. Each character had a torso that never moved and covered the hips and shoulders. This only left the lower arms and legs and head to move. The heads were oversized so that the mouth could be animated on a stationary head.

Even though the animation was primitive, it did give the writers a lot more freedom. The Wikipedia entry dismisses the plots as standard 1960s sitcom plots but that understates the show. New locations were cheap - they only required a new background painting - so the show was freed from the fixed set. Because of budget constraints, most sitcoms took place in a few regular sets. Shows seldom ventured out into the sunlight.

By the show's sixth season it had jumped the shark. It introduced the Great Gazoo, an advanced alien with nearly magical abilities who could grant any wish. Gazoo was unreliable and the wishes always came out wrong. This is usually considered an example of a show that has lost its novelty.

The show moved from prime time to syndication and Saturday morning. Pebbles and Bamm Bamm became teenagers and received their own hour-long Saturday morning show.

The show inspired a pair of big-budget, live-action movies produced by Steven Spielberg. The movies were box office hits but won some Razzies.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Great Race

Tony Curtis's obituaries include the first time he worked with Jack Lemon in Some Like it Hot but overlook their second movie, The Great Race. That is a shame. The Great Race is a marvelous piece of slapstick.

The movie centers on the rivalry between The Great Leslie and Professor Fate. Curtis played Leslie who was always perfect. He wore white outfits which never got dirty. His (white) car was always clean. His teeth sparkled. He was a noted escape artist (a nod Tony Curtis's role as Houdini) and held various speed records.

On the other hand, Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemon, always failed, often crashing into a barn and landing in a pig wallow.

The race itself was from New York to Paris, the long way. A race like this was actually held in 1908. The organizers expected that the cars could drive across the frozen Bering Strait. This didn't work out and the racers had to ship their cars across. In the movie the cars rode an iceberg.

While most of the movie was a straight-out comedy, it did have an adventurous side-plot near the end. This involved a Prisoner of Zenda plot around Professor Fate. The Professor's assistant, Max, and Leslie had to rescue the others climaxing in a duel between Leslie and an evil baron played by Ross Martin. This gave Curtis a chance to show off his fencing skills and his buff physique.

Jack Lemon and Peter Falk as Max got to chew the scenery. Curtis as the straight man managed to keep from being overshadowed.

The Great race also starred Natalie Wood at the peak of her career.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Onslaught Crossover and Thor

Marvel recently digitized Thor #502. This was the last continuous issue of Thor dating back his first appearance in Journey into Mystery #83 (prior to that Journey into Mystery was a horror comic. It continued to be "Journey into Mystery Featuring the Mighty Thor" for years and kept the numbering when the name was finally changed).

The early 90s were not kind to the original set of Marvel heroes. Tony Stark was replaced by a teen-age version of himself. The Human Torch had married the Thing's girl friend who later turned out to be a skrull impersonating Alicia. The Thing had gone through various mutations and scars.

Thor was replaced with an architect for a while then went crazy. In the last few months leading to issue 502 he lost his powers and started speaking like a regular person. He regained his powers and got a new, rather silly, costume. He and Odin had one of their many arguments and Odin created a "new" Thor from a mortal named Red Norvell. The rest of the Asgardians, including Odin, had been transformed into humans to hide them from the god Seth.

As far as sales were concerned, Spider-Man and the mutant titles were doing great but the other comics sales were doing poorly.

The Solution was a total reboot. This came about through Onslaught - a company-wide event. Onslaught was a psionic being in almost indestructable armor. Once his armor was breached, he could be destroyed if enough humans entered his psionic body. The Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk did this, apparently dying.

As part of the continuity-wide event, the comics for the various heroes would would "die" had a final issue taking place the night before the final battle. This is where Thor #502 comes in.

Thor and Red Norvell are camped across the river from Manhattan, preparing for the battle ahead. At one point Thor tries to induce a berserk rage and fails. He reminisces about his early life and how be came to be transformed into the mortal doctor Don Blake. His old girl friend, Jane Foster, appears and asks for his help as a doctor. Near the end of the issue the death goddess Hella appears and offers Thor a spot at her side. He considered the offer but opted to fight beside his companions even if it meant certain death.

It was a quiet recap of Thor's run and a nice finale to his original run.

The follow month the comic book Thor again became Journey into Mystery with a rotating series of stars.

In the meantime, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were transported to a different world with a similar history to ours. In this world, Thor was trapped in ice instead of Captain America and the newly-formed Avengers freed him. That Thor turned out to be unstable and was killed and replaced with our Thor.

Eventually the heroes returned to the Marvell Universe.

Journey into Mystery continued until #521 when the heroes returned. It was replaced with a new Thor title and the numbering was started over at #1. With the "Heroes reborn", Marvel put new creative teams on all of the relaunched books. Most of the continuity from the last few years was conveniently forgotten and the new creative teams were given a blank slate to work from.

In Thor's case, he was merged with another mortal, this time an EMT named Jake Olsen, and sent to free the missing Asgardians.

The Thor comic book started using a dual numbering until it was canceled with issue #85/#587. It was brought back as volume three with a new #1 but picked up the original count at issue #600.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Black Hole

Rumor is that Disney is going to remake 1979's The Black Hole.


The original was rushed into production after Star Wars became a cultural (and box office) phenomenon and came out months before The Empire Strikes Back. The Black Hole promised great special effects, cute robots, and a Star Wars style plot.

What it delivered was ok special effects (the effects got an Oscar nomination), most done through puppets on wires, annoying Disney-style robots, and a confusing plot with a mystifying ending. The black hole itself changed from an astronomical and physical oddity into a metaphor for hell.

The movie featured an all-star cast, all of whom were slumming. The critics hated it. At the time it was the most expensive movie Disney had ever produced with a $20 million budget. It did manage to turn a profit but Disney swore off big-budget productions like this for a time.

This was also Disney's first PG-rated movie.

Word is that the remake might feature a little science.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cross-comic Events

For decades the events in one comic book pretty much stayed in that comic. No matter how momentous, only one hero or team would be involved. Marvel changed this a bit. When city blocks in New York started sinking, the FF had to convince the Avengers to let them handle the situation. Regardless, this was confined to a few panels in a single comic book.

Heroes did meet each other but not often. Marvel had a lot more cameos and team-ups than DC but, again, these were limited. One of the most memorable was an Iron Man/Sub Mariner fight that was continued across both characters' strips.

During the 1970s, there was a little cross-over between comics. Newly-hired writer, Gerry Conway, introduced a common villain to all three comics he was writing - a mysterious and forgettable figure called Mr. Klein. Artist Jim Starlin came with a stable of characters that followed him from his first assignments on Iron Man to Captain Marvel and eventually Warlock.

Steve Englehart was a huge fan of Starlin's and wanted to be part of Starlin's plot. Accordingly, in Captain Marvel, the mad titan Thanos sent a fleet to attack the Earth. It was stopped by the Avengers, in their own comic book. The Avengers battled the Defenders in a multi-issue cross-over.

For Halloween one year, Conway, Englehart, and Len Wein did a crossover between Thor, Batman, and the Beast (this was the first Marvel/DC cross-over and was unauthorized). The cross-over was limited to the supporting cast and some events (i.e. a car being stolen).

In the early 1980s, Jim Shooter changed everything with the Secret Wars. This was a 12 issue limited series staring nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe. It was also the first company-wide cross-over. All of the affected heroes were called to Central Park where they vanished. When they returned things had changed. Some changes took place during the Secret Wars. Others took place in the heroes' absence. A few happened right after the heroes' return. Spider-Man returned with a new costume. Tony Stark, who had been drunk and living in a cardboard box finally sobered up. Storm lost her powers.

A follow-up changed the formula. Secret Wars 2 was a nine-issue limited series but each month additional chapters took place in different comic books.

That set the stage for DC's original Crisis event. Crisis took place in a limited series but spill-over events happened in nearly every comic.

For the next couple of decades, Marvel would have cross-comic events but they only had a lasting affect on a small core of comics featuring Warlock and Thanos. Marvel also had some cross-mutant events that mainly affected the various "X" teams. DC did some fine-tuning on their original Crisis reboot.

Things changed again in the last few years. Marvel launched their Civil War story arc which covered a total of something like 80 comics. It seems like they have had one major event after another since then. DC has done the same thing. In both cases the goal seems to be packaging a major story arc so that it can be sold as graphic novels.

I think that these big events have been overdone. They lose their impact after a while and they become self-limiting. It becomes too difficult for the casual reader to follow a few comics.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Predicting the Future

It's a tricky business showing the future. Novels and movies usually get it wrong.

The Back to the Future trilogy was on last weekend and the middle movie begins with a trip to 2015. The movie was made in 1989 so they were predicting how things would be around 25 years in the future. We are not quite to 2015 yet but we can make a pretty good guess at how accurate Back to the Future was. Lousy.

Things they got wrong:

Hovercars, hoverboards, portable fusion reactors, self-fitting/self-drying jackets, dust-free book covers, holographic movie ads, weather control, electronic sleep inducers, and artificial intelligence waiters. The legal system streamlined by the elimination of lawyers.

Things they got right:
Self-tightening shoe laces (just announced last month and inspired by the movie). Teleconferencing. Wide-screen/flat screen TV.

In addition, there are a few things that are close enough to get partial credit. It looks like USA Today will still be around. The teens in the movie walk around with their pockets pulled out or their pants worn inside-out. That's close enough to the continuing trend of guys wearing their pants pulled down to the crotch and showing their underwear.

This is one in a long line of failed predictions. 1984 was not like 1984. 2001 and 2010 have passed without manned flights to Jupiter or talking computers.

It is tough predicting the future. Often writers take current trends and project them. In the 1960s, everyone expected the space program to continue so lunar colonies and trips to other planets seemed likely.

It is also tempting to throw in major technological advances like flying cars. The physics breakthroughs needed to do this may never happen but nothing says future like some form of personal flight.

Some things are totally skipped. Hardly anyone predicted today's interconnected computers. The best example that I can think of was Shockwave Rider by John Brunner. This was written in 1975 and had a "data-net" that corresponds to the Internet. It even had computer worms (this is where the term came from, nerly a decade before the first actual worm was written). Even that version of the future was passed years ago. I am not aware of anyone who predicted that all of the world's knowledge would be available through my phone.

While writers missed the interconnected computers, artificial intelligence seemed so easy, usually with negative results. For every Robby the Robot, there is a HAL 9000.

In the end, the future is never as interesting as predictions make it out to be but it is safer and more comfortable.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Blogging from a Droid

Ok, it can be done. The touch screen isn't too bad. It will probably get ea sier with practice. The autocomplete could be a lot better. I'm not going to do any long posts this way.
Published with Blogger-droid v1.5.8

Friday, September 03, 2010

Substitutes and Inferiors

One of the funniest superhero comic books ever published featured a team-up between Superman and the Legion of Substitute Heroes. A close second is on sale now, featuring the Legion of Substitute Heroes and the Inferior Five.

Some background. The Substitutes were people with superhuman powers who failed the try-outs for the Legion of Superheroes. Considering that the Legion accepted members who could bounce or eat anything or make things lighter, you had to be pretty lame to be in the Substitutes. Members included Night Girl who had super strength unless she was in sunlight and Stone Boy who could turn into immobile stone (a sub-plot in the Legion/Ambush Bug story involved figuring out how to dig Stone Boy out after he got embedded head first in pavement).

Both groups lived in the 30th century and started out as a backup feature to Superboy. The Legion eventually got its own book and the Substitutes made occasional appearances along with the Legion of Super-Pets.

The comic in question also featured Ambush Bug in his second appearance. At the time Ambush Bug was a slightly crazed guy in a head-to-toe green suit with gold trim and antennas. He could teleport almost instantly. In his first appearance, Superman realized that Ambush Bug had a swarm of bug-like drones that acted as receptors for his teleports. Eliminate the bugs and Ambush Bug was powerless.

In the Legion team-up, Ambush Bug hitched a ride on Superman's cape just as he started traveling to the future. They ended up in the 30th century. Ambush bug released a new swarm of bugs from his antenna tips and started having (destructive) fun. The Legion proper was away so the Substitutes tried to reign him in. None of them were up to the challenge and they finally had to resort to a Looney Tunes bit - putting a "do not touch" sign on a Phantom Zone projector. Ambush Bug just had to touch and ended up capturing himself.

The new comic builds on the Substitutes long-standing inferiority complex. After reading about the Legion saving the world with the help of the Doom Patrol and a time bubble, they decided to steal a bubble and save the world before the Legion did. After a few mistakes and alternate worlds, they ended up with the Inferior Five instead of the Doom Patrol.

The Inferior Five was created during the Silver Age as a parody comic. The team was a group of second-generation heroes who (sort of) inherited their powers. Their leader was Merry Man, a 98 pound weakling. Other members included Awkward Man who had super strength but tripped a lot, the Blimp who could float, White Arrow who was a skilled archer and afraid of nearly everything. The final member was a curvy blond with super strength named Dumb Bunny. There is a telling line in the Legion/Five team-up where she says, "You have to be pretty smart to act as dumb as I do."

I'm giving all of this background because the comic skips over it. The book is entirely plot-driven. The heroes are rather interchangeable and have little time to use their powers. Which doesn't keep it from being hilarious.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Using the Droid Incredible

I've had my Droid Incredible for a few days - long enough to put it through its paces so I can put down my general impressions.

First, size. The screen is nice. It is almost exactly the same size as my Zune HD although the whole package is larger (after all, the incredible does everything the Zune does plus it is a phone and camera and it has speakers).

The phone is very responsive. Programs just come up. The only time there are waits is when an application is refreshing its data. The phone is fairly intuitive. I figured nearly everything out by myself although I still recommend reading the manual.

It works well as a phone. Calls are clear.

I've only taken a few pictures but they look good. There is an option to upload photos to a variety of common sites. It did have some trouble uploading the photos to Picasa. It would make it part-way through and fail then repeat a minute later. This runs in the background and I might not have noticed it if I wasn't paying attention to the process. The camera was set to its highest resolution (8MP). I reduced it to 5MP to see if it helps the upload time but I have not tried it yet.

I don't have any hand-on experience with the IPhone but my understanding is that you have to do some functions through your PC. Droid is not like that. You can connect it to a PC and it will function as a USB disk but everything else is stand-alone.

I've tried playing a little music and a few videos on it. They work fine - as good as on my Zune. It comes with a 2 gig MicroSD card and I want to replace this with a larger one before loading it up. I probably will not use it to replace my Zune since the Zune has much better battery life (that may be inaccurate - I keep my Zune turned off when I'm not using it and the phone is on all the time, so the Zune may only appear to have better battery life because it is used less and usually does not have WiFi on).

I got spoiled with my previous phone. I had a long-life battery on it and it could go for days without charging. The Incredible needs daily charging. I used it a fair amount of time yesterday. I checked emails, did a little web-browsing and a lot of poking around the Marketplace. That used up around half the battery.

I've check out the Android Marketplace. Supposedly the IPhone has several times more apps than Android. I suspect that a lot of these are duplicates of each other. There are a lot of duplicate Android apps. Many of them are add-supported but the ads are subtle.

I downloaded a couple of ebook reader apps and some free ebooks. I already had the Borders one for my PC and it downloaded the books to my Droid that I already had on my PC. My only complaint with this one is that it will only display in portrait.

The virtual keyboard isn't too hard to use in landscape mode but I have a lot of trouble with it in portrait. Good thing that most applications support either orientation.

I was able to compare web browsing between my Droid and my Zune. Both reformat according to orientation and both support pnching to resize the display. The Droid does a lot better job with this. On the Zune, zooming does not reformat the text, it just pushes it off to the side so you have to move the display back and forth. The Droid reformats the text which prevents this.

I can check my home email but in text only. It is not formatted for HTML.

Android is a full multi-tasking operating system. You can leave a program, return to it, and it is still open with all of its data. This is a strength but there is no explicit way of closing many programs. There is an app that will list running programs and allow you to close them. My battery would probably have lasted longer if I had installed that earlier. This is about my only complaint with the android implementation.

Android 2.2 (Froyo) has been released for the Incredible but was not installed yet on mine. Even without it, I was able to play some video but I didn't do enough to really test it out. I will update this when Froyo arrives.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Choosing a Droid

I spent a while at a Verizon store comparing Droid models. There are currently three top-of-the-line Droid models - the Droid X and the Droid 2 from Motorola and the Droid Incredible from HTC. All have similar CPU and memory and all have or will have the newest version of Android.

I eliminated the Droid X right off the bat. This model is just too big. I know that some people want the biggest phone they can get but this is too big to carry in a pocket.

The Droid 2 and the Droid Incredible are similar size. The Incredible is slightly smaller and the corners are more rounded. The Droid 2 has a slide-out keyboard which makes it a bit thicker. The Incredible has a better camera, the Droid 2 comes with more memory.

Originally I thought that the keyboard would be the deciding factor but after trying the Incredible's virtual keyboard I decided that I could live with it.

Outside of the keyboard, the biggest difference between the two is the user interface. Both makers have made their own tweaks to Android. This ended up being the deciding factor. The Incredible was a bit more intuitive. Even after I figured out how to do the same thing on the Droid 2, it still seemed a bit more complicated. Also, I preferred the Incredible's smaller size and rounded edges. I use my phone for taking pictures so the higher-definition camera should come in handy.

The store had the Motorola models in stock but the Incredible had to be shipped. This was fairly painless. It arrived the next day.

More after I've had some hands-on.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Windows 95

I got an invitation to the live-via-satellite launch of Windows 95 which was held 15 years ago today.

Prior to that most people used a variation of Windows 3.1. Gaming was a nightmare. Most games ran from DOS and needed a custom boot disk in order to get the right configuration.

I was using IBM's OS2 which was a big improvement. It could run Windows programs from within OS2. You could also set what configuration DOS programs were to have so you could run most games without having to reboot with a special disk. In many ways, Windows 95 was a step back from OS2. Regardless, it overcame so many problems that OS2 became irrelevant overnight.

Windows 95 had four main advances. One was the new GUI featuring a Start Bar which Microsoft still uses. Another was that it allowed long file names. Prior to Windows 95, you were limited to eight characters plus a three character extension. It had a new memory manager which solved the problems with boot disks for games. Finally, it supported networking, out of the box.

It is hard to believe but prior to Windows 95 most PCs were stand-alone. If you wanted to connect to another local PC then you had to install a network card and special drivers. If you wanted to connect with the Internet then you normally needed a modem (which was usually built-in by then) and different drivers. Windows 95 came with network drivers. It also came with drivers for most CD-ROMS and some other common hardware.

Technically, Windows 95 was two products - Windows and DOS. Microsoft decided to package the two of them together to sink OS2 and DR-DOS - a strategy which worked perfectly.

The launch event didn't go perfectly. At one Bill Gates picked a couple of people from the crowd at Microsoft and sent them off to install Windows 95. This was supposed to show how easy it was. When they checked on the installers a while later they said that everything went perfectly but you could see that one of them had gotten the Blue Screen of Death.

With Windows 95, Microsoft squelched its competitors. I already mentioned DR-DOS and OS2. It also took over the office suit world. Prior to Windows 95, most people used Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 for their word processor and spreadsheet. The Windows launch was delayed for more than a year. During that time, corporate purchases dropped. Businesses did not want to buy new software that would be obsolete as soon as the next operating system came out. Microsoft had deeper pockets than it competitors and could handle the lag in sales better.

When Windows 95 finally did come out, a new Office 95 suite was released at the same time. There was a long list of programs written for Windows 3.1 that did not run perfectly on Windows 95. Rather than waiting for new versions of the programs, many businesses switched to Microsoft. Consultants recommended that this was the only safe approach.

In 1994 Microsoft was the dominant desktop operating system vendor but was, at best, second place in office suites. By 1998 it was a near-monopoly in operating system and office software, all because of Windows 95.

Late in 1995 it became obvious that Microsoft had missed something important - the World Wide Web. Windows 95 came with a buggy web browser. Most people used Netscape instead. Somehow Bill Gates had become so focused on upcoming technology that he missed the importance of the existing Internet. In his book, The Road Ahead, he only mentioned the Internet a couple of times.

Back then, Microsoft was nimble. By 1998 they released a new version of Windows. This one had a perfectly good web browser pre-installed. In fact, Microsoft swore under oath that it was so deeply embedded in the operating system that it could not be removed. Netscape quickly lost market share after that and eventually ended up providing the basis for the free Firefox browser.

Te last few years have not been kind to Microsoft. It has lost desktop market share to Apple and Linux. Firefox is challenging its browser share. The "cloud" has made the operating system irrelevant. It's smart phone operating system, which was originally based on Windows 98, is dated and the replacement is not due out for weeks or months. It had a couple of operating system flops with Windows ME and Vista.

Still, on this anniversary, we can look back fifteen years to when it seemed like Microsoft was unstoppable.