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.