Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Lost Rerun?

During its first two years, the most infuriating thing about Lost was the reruns. In a series with strong continuity and constant cliff-hangers, the show lost all momentum when reruns intruded. Sometimes it seemed that they ran more reruns than new episodes. During the second season, they ran through the reruns so fast that they had to show some first season episodes as fill-ins.

Someone started a web site devoted to the question Is Lost a repeat? The site features a single word - either "yes" or "no". The site seemed out of date after ABC pledged that they would never show another rerun, ever again (not counting the times that they showed the prior week's episode at 8:00).

But today the answer is YES.

What happened?

Sweeps month. ABC preferred showing a rerun in April and having the show run an extra week during the May sweeps. Also, they preferred showing double episodes at the beginning and end of the season.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How to Train Dragons vs Kick-Ass

How to Train Dragons finished the weekend in a box-office dead heat with Kick-Ass. This is unusual in several ways. First, it was the second weekend in a row with a virtual tie. Second, Dragons was in its 4th weekend and was only number one its first weekend. Now it rose back to the top.

Kick-Ass opened to disappointing numbers. It earned around $20 million when it was expected to earn $25 million.

What happened? I think I have a couple of explanations.

First, How to Train Dragons is a good movie. It is probably benefiting from word-of-mouth. I didn't write about it because we saw it in its third week but it is certainly worth seeing. My wife's comment when we left the theater was, "Why are all the good movies animated?"

Dragons has shown a lot more staying power than most movies. Clash of the Titans, which was number one the last two weeks, dropped to a distant number three.

Then there is Kick-Ass. It got good review, but the reviews make me unlikely to see it. The movie is supposed to be violent and profane. This bothers me because of the age of the cast. It seems troubling that the cast couldn't see the movie without a parent.

For years, studios have been convinced that an R rating helps the box office because the target 20-something audience thinks that anything less is a kid's movie. This is part of why people under 30 tend to use language that makes older people shudder - they took their cues from movies which did not reflect the way that people talked. Over time, the younger generation started talking like the movies.

Regardless, the biggest movies of the 21st century have not been R rated. Maybe the studios will get the message and tone down their content.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tomb of Dracula

As the Silver Age of Comics ca to a close, Marvel and DC were looking for a new hook to bring the readers back. The recent changes to the Comics Code gave them an opportunity - horror comics. Marvel in particular launched a full line of horror comics. They started comic books staring vampires, werewolves, mummies, swamp monsters, zombies, and mummies. Vampires were given the star treatment beginning with Count Dracula himself.

Gerry Conway wrote the first couple of issues. Gene Colon was the artist for the entire run. They took advantage of the more adult setting.

The first issue began with Frank Drake, his best friend, Cliff, and his lover (who had been Cliff's lover) on their way to Drake's castle in Transylvania. Drake's original family name was Dracula. He had run through the family fortune and all he had left was the ancestral Castle Dracula. Cliff suggested opening it to tourists.

It was a dark and stormy night and their car got stuck. A peasant gave them a lift in his carriage. As soon as they arrived, Cliff separated from the group, fell through a rotted floor, and found Dracula's skeletal remains. He removed the stake from Dracula's ribs (of course) and Dracula came back to life. He attacked Cliff then moved on to Frank's girlfriend. Frank used a silver compact to keep Dracula at bay for a while so he flew off and killed a barmaid. The villagers formed a mob, Dracula killed Frank's girlfriend and the villagers set the castle on fire. Frank escaped with his girlfriend's corpse but she came back to life as a vampire.

In the second issue Frank Drake searched the burned-out castle for Dracula. He didn't find him but he did find his friend Cliff, imprisoned a pit. Drake rescues Cliff and steals Dracula's empty coffin and takes it to London. Dracula follows along with Jeanie, Frank's newly vampirized girlfriend. Jeanie tries to seduce Frank but he takes her prisoner and ties her to a chair. She manages to seduce Cliff.

Dracula forced a Transylvanian doctor to treat his pale skin so that he could pass as a human (a point that the colorist missed until issue #4). He traveled to England, picked up a girl in a bar and killed her then attacked Frank and Cliff. Jeanie hypnotizes Cliff who attacks Frank. During the fight, Jeanie is staked and the rising sun forced Dracula to flee.

The issues were poorly written, especially the first one. I remember wondering at the time how much research went into it. Looking back on it - none. Transylvania has not existed in decades. It was part of Romania which was a communist country at the time. Conway and Colon's version of Transylvania was straight from a Universal Picture - full of peasants in 19th century clothing. The plots were trite.

Still, the strip was a huge success. Soon Dracula was staring in a monthly comic, a quarterly double-sized comic, and a monthly, oversized black-and-white magazine.

In issue #3, Archie Goodwin took over for a short time. He introduced a supporting cast - Rachel Van Helsing (the great-granddaughter of that Van Helsing), Quincy Harker (from the novel), and Taj - a mute giant from India. Goodwin had been writing Vampirella where he also introduced Van Helsing descendants. Goodwin answered the question of why Dracula followed his coffin across Europe - it had a bunch of gold coins concealed in the bottom.

Goodwin's writing was better than Conway's. The inking changed from Vince Colletta.to Tom Palmer. At the time Palmer was becoming one of the premier inkers and colorists. The Colon/Palmer team quickly became fan favorites.

More as Marvel posts the digital versions.

Friday, April 09, 2010

IPad Anger

In the days preceding the actual release of the IPad we were repeatedly told that the release if this device would be the most significant event of the year. It made the cover of both Newsweek and Time. It was covered on the national news. Every talk show host had one. articles gushed over how it made all other computing obsolete.

The actual device does not live up to its press and some people, including me, dislike Apple's role as gatekeeper for content and the model for content which assumes that you will be buying everything, sometimes for more than retail price. Personally, I resent the pressure to buy a $500 device (which costs more that $1,000 after warranty and extras) so that I can buy content that I get free now.

I've vented on the IPad several times already and I wasn't going to do so again until I saw this post on Huffington. Basically, the author, Daniel Sinker, is offended that some people don't like the IPad and mounts a spirited defence of it.

First, to prove that the virtual keyboard is usable, Sinker used it to write his post. That doesn't convince me. I have used virtual keyboards on other devices and there is no way that you can touch type. You can enter text but it is more of a stunt than proof of anything.

Sinker moves on to the expectation that moving content from paper to the IPad will cause people to start paying for subscriptions again.

In his day-after critique, Jarvis says "it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn't create." The "their" in that sentence are big media companies, who are furiously building iPad apps in an attempt to rescue their broken business models. And he's right: the apps these companies have released are for consuming conglomerate content. But what do you expect from a pig but a grunt? It's not Apple's fault that big media companies don't know how to create new things. It's not Steve Jobs who told the Wall Street Journal to charge more for an iPad subscription than a print subscription or Time magazine to make the bizarre decision of releasing a separate app for every issue. Big media has done a great job of making bad decisions for a couple decades -- who'd expect them to stop now?

Since Steve Jobs made a big presentation on the IPad to the Wall Street Journal, he may have told then to charge more. At minimum he gave them the impression that they could. Jobs made the rounds to Big Media and told them that the IPad was their salvation. That means he made them expect that they could charge their newsstand (not subscription) price for content.

Sinker also dismisses Apple's gatekeeper role:

A lot of the "there" there is about control: do we want a gatekeeper to devices we own? It's a valid argument, but one that applies equally to game consoles, mobile phones, most real-world content distribution, and many other corners of life both digital and physical (I can't walk into a Japanese restaurant and order latkes, in the same way I can't upload a Word file to Flickr). But for some, there is a line in in the sand and the iPad, apparently, is one grain too far

This is a very strange argument. No, you cannot go into a Japanese restaurant and order latkes but you can go to a different restaurant that does server them. There are no competing stores for IPad apps. If you want a WiFi-finder app or a subscription to Vougue or FHM then you are out of luck. Apple has rejected these, and, since on-line subscriptions to these magazines require Flash, you cannot get them through the web browser, either.

Sinker indirectly bring up another sore point about the IPad but I will have to point it out:

But the only thing locked down on the iPad are the apps. The web is (wonderfully) wide open. Reading, Listening and Watching, also open -- I can drag in any epub-format books, mp3 audio, or mp4 video that I want. But you can't execute arbitrary code on the iPad. And if you know what that means, my guess is that you've already got a device that can.

When talks about dragging in content he means that he had to use a real computer to download or rip the content then connect the IPad to his computer with a sync cable and use ITunes to move the files. I have yet to see anyone say that they love ITunes. For a company that is supposed to make things that "just work", ITunes generates a lot of hate. Plus, what's with the cable? Microsoft has supported wireless syncing on the Zune for years.

Sinker finishes with three paragraphs of ranting about how great the IPad is and how it will be transformational in ways that we cannot appreciate, yet. This isn't worth arguing with. He is speculating on things that may or may not happen months or years from now. If these new, unimagined, paradigms emerge then they will speak for themselves. In the meantime, the IPad is still just a toy instead of a serious tool.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Different Ads

Currently Verizon is running Droid ads fairly often and Apple is running IPhone ads. I noticed a big difference between them. The current IPhone ad has someone deciding to buy the album she is listening to. While she is doing that through her IPhone, it tells her that the group is giving a local concert so she also buys tickets for that. There are a couple of Droid ads but they center around all of the things you can search for with your Droid. Do you see the difference? The IPhone ad is about the things that you can buy with your phone and the Droid ad is about things you can do with your phone.

This isn't surprising. Apple has redefined itself as a company that sells content. Google is still a search company.

Dick Giordano

Dick Giordano died recently. Wired has a quick overview of his career here.

I became aware of him when he started at DC in the late 1960s. DC was in the process of upgrading itself. Several of the characters had become stodgy, 1950s relics. This included their flagship characters, Superman and Batman. DC had done one upgrade of Batman in the early 1960s but the Adam West TV show ended that. Superman hadn't had a change in style since the 1950s.

DC's overhaul consisted of two parts. One was to bring in new arch-enemies for the characters. This wasn't particularly successful. Who remembers Tera-Man (a cowboy with high-tech alien weapons) or the man with ten eyes (someone grafted his optic nerves and his fingertips together)? Other changes were longer-lasting. Robin graduated and went off to college and Clark Kent was moved from being a newspaper reporter to a news anchor.

The biggest change was in the artwork. Neil Adams and Dick Giordano gave the books a fresh, new look that still influences today's comic artists. The two defined a new house style for DC. Since Giordano was a prolific inker as well as penciller, his influence went further, giving other artists a touch of the new style.

Giordano did a little work for Marvel. The most memorable was an serialized adaption of Dracula that ran in the back of one of the black and white comics that Marvel produced in the mid-1970s. Regrettably, Marvel killed their black and white line before the adaptation was complete.

In the 1980s, Giordano became editor-in-chief of DC during one of its most creative and audacious periods.

Monday, April 05, 2010

IPad - Reviewing the reviews

Coverage of the IPad has been ... interesting. When the device was first announced several correspondents live-blogged it. Their initial reaction was "it's just a big IPod Touch". While the world waited to get its collective hands on units, a few select journalists got pre-release units. Suddenly the reviews went from positive to glowing, even gushing. The most extreme example I have seen is here. This reviewer believes that we all secretly hate our computers (even ones from Apple). He goes on to insist that the IPad is different. Using it is so natural that anyone can use it without thinking, even a three-year-old or an 80-year-old.

Why the big change? John Dvorak points out that the dying media are clinging to the IPad as their lifeline. Beyond that, Apple was selective in only handing them out to people with a history of Apple boosterism. Put the two together and you have a conflict of interest where the people writing the reviews have already been given units worth hundreds of dollars and their editors are hoping to promote the new business model. No objectivity here.

I can understand why the old media is making the attempt. The Wall Street Journal is an example. You can get their content for free here or you can download their "free" app and pay $3.99/week for the same content. I know which the WSJ wants you to do.

There have been numerous articles that mention reading ebooks and magazines on the IPad. All of them make a point of how the experience mimics the real thing. I think that basing an interface on an older technology is a mistake for several reasons. The biggest one is that newspapers and magazines are laid out like they are because of the limitations of ink on paper. Some people have a fondness for the tactile experience. I suspect that they have associated the media with the experience of reading the content. People who have not been taught this relationship will be confused by it and probably reject it.

Now that people actually have IPads in their hands, people with no vested interest are weighing in. They still call it an impressive device but some are questioning the idea that it is a replacement for notebooks or even netbooks. For example, this article lists 13 glaring shortcomings. To those, I would add the lack of email folders, the lack of tabbed browsing, the lack of handwriting recognition, and the inability to print and its tiny amount of memory. During the gushing phase, some reviewers suggested that the IPad could run business applications. Given these problems, it is hard to see how this could happen.

The bottom line is that the IPad is an expensive toy that hopes to create a niche.

I could afford to buy an IPad but I'm not going to. I really don't know what I would do with it. My Nokia N800 is much smaller and good for checking emails (it supports folders), quick web browsing (including Flash). I can also read ebooks from Project Gutenberg on it.

Most anything else I do is handled quite well by my notebook or my netbook. All of these have more storage available than the starting IPad and I can run the same software on the notebook and netbook. Also, none of them cost what the IPad costs (I got a good deal on the notebook - it came with Vista just as Windows 7 was being rolled out). Given all of that, the IPad would be nothing but an extra toy that I don't need.

Now, if someone would just port an ebook reader to the Zune HD...

Speaking of the Zune HD, my biggest disappointment was that it could not connect with  WiFi that redirects your to a terms of use page. Microsoft just released a firmware update that solved this problem. I verified this at dinner tonight.

Friday, April 02, 2010

IPad Mania

The IPads are about to arrive and the press is frantic. Presonally I hope that it fails or is nothing more than a marginal product. I have nothing against the concept but there are two things about the execution that makes me root against it:

First, it is an attempt by Apple to take over computing. Apple has already said what standards they will and will not support. Their various stores have been successful but they have also given Apple enormous power. Jobs can now tell the recording companies what they will charge. Amazon can's do that. They tried to set the price for ebooks at $9.99 but had to back off. Expect to see the ebook price rise to match print editions even though you have much deeper rights with a printed book. You can keep a printed book until it falls apart, you can lend it out, or you can sell it. Try doing any of that with an ebook on a Kindle (or an IPad).

Apple rules its app store with an iron fist. It has no set standards. Developers often have their apps rejected without comment. Even when a reason is given, it is often too cryptic to be useful. Even if an app is accepted, it might be rejected without notice in the future. If you bought an app more than a month ago and Apple rejects it, they will remove it from your phone or pad. They will not notify you that this was done and they will not refund your payment. It just vanishes.

Then there is Flash, Silverlight, Javascript, and other similar technologies. Apple does not allow any of them. The reasons they give are excuses. The real reason is that they want to control content. They do not want you using Flash to watch videos for free when they can sell it to you.

And this brings me to my second reason for wanting the IPad to fail - Apple is trying to monetarize the web. By funneling everything through their stores, they can put micro charges on things that have been free. Newspapers and magazines are overjoyed by this prospect. Most newspapers in the country are going broke. They cannot compete with on-line news sources. They hope that they can sell you content through the IPad that is currently free. Others are also lining up for this gravy train. Marvel Comics announced a new IPad application. 500 titles are currently available. You can read the first three pages of any of them for free and pay $2.00 for the full comic. That may sound like a great deal but there are thousands of comics available through the digital service and the subscription rate is so low that a half dozen comics a month through the IPad is more expensive. I lost count of the number of digital comics I've read in the last three months but it is well over 100. Just catching up on the She-Hulk would have cost more on an IPad than a year's subscription.

If the IPad is a major success then we can expect to see the Internet drained of content and moved over to Apple on a pay-per-view basis. I have my doubts that this will be the salvation of the content producers but once it becomes established it will be like ITunes - you may not like it but it represents too big a market to ignore.

Consider the IPhone apps developers. There are currently something like 150,000 apps available. It costs money to produce all of these apps but only a few make any real money. The real winner here is Apple. As the middleman, they profit regardless of what apps sell.

A few years ago people worried about Microsoft taking over the Internet and locking down content. Now Apple is trying to do the same thing but no one seems to care because of how polished their product.

None of this is new. Apple tried to lock people into the original Mac. For the first year it was produced you violated your warranty if you plugged a non-Apple printer or disk drive into a Mac and the only way to write a program for it was to buy a $10,000 LISA computer. Steve Jobs never got over his desire to control everything. I prefer not to be a co-enabler.