Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Chronicle and Superheroes

What would happen if some ordinary people suddenly received super powers? Superman and the Fantastic Four are the best case examples - they decide to devote their lives to helping people. Everything about Superman revolves around his mission. Even his secret identity was chosen to give him quicker access to emergency reports. The Fantastic Four didn't even keep secret identities.

Spider-Man is a second-best case - after encountering personal tragedy while cashing in on his powers, he devoted much of his time to helping people.

The recent movie The Chronicle is a less optimistic view. It follows three normal high school seniors as they acquire telekinetic powers. At first their powers are weak. They can stop a baseball in flight or put Lego blocks together but anything stronger gives them a nosebleed. Their powers increase rapidly, though. Pretty soon they are using them to play pranks. They make a woman's shopping cart roll away and scare a child by animating a bear. They even confuse a woman by moving her car to a different parking space.

So, where do you go from there? Do you put on the ultimate magic show? Take revenge on some bullies? Give your girlfriend a little extra excitement? Fly to school instead of hitching a ride? What do you do if your drunken father attack you?

The movie covers all of these possibilities and more.

The movie is shown in a hyper-realistic manner. The title refers to this - it is a chronicle of the three boys. One of them, Andrew, had started filming his life shortly before they got their powers. At first he tapes everything but later he concentrates on their increasing abilities. This become easier after he is able to move the camera telekinetically. At times the other two take over the camera. There is also Casey, another student who also tapes her life. Other sources including security footage are used. The result is that the entire movie could have been assembled from footage

The three telekinetics are Andrew, Matt, Andrew's cerebral cousin, and Steve, the popular black guy. Of the three, Steve is the best-adjusted and least affected. Matt actually becomes better-adjusted after becoming telekinetic.

Andrew is a bad choice to suddenly become powerful. His mother is dying. His father is drunken, abusive, and suspicious. He is shy and targeted by bullies. Matt studies philosophers and quotes Jung. Early on he starts making rules for how they use their powers. Steve is more empathetic and just naturally does the right thing. When a car runs off the road into a river, Steve jumps in to save the driver. Matt follows while Andrew watches.

Of course things finally come to a head.

A lot of the plot is predictable but the framing device of the found footage and the naturalistic acting still makes the movie feel fresh. I was a little surprised as its rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is one of the best-rated movies playing which is very rate for this subject matter. Unfortunately, it is also a grim view of what life would be like if people with super powers really did exist. These kids are a long way from being Superman.

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Nook Color

Around a year ago I got a tablet - a 10" G-Tablet from Viewsonic. When it came out it got fairly bad reviews, mainly because of the way that Viewsonic changed the Android interface. I installed a custom ROM and was quite happy with it.

There were some drawbacks to the Viewsonic. The custom ROM gave me access to the Android Market but many apps do not work on it and some break it (good thing it supports backups). As time went on, other apps stopped working. Any time I used the Google Market it downloaded an update that refused to run. More recently Google Talk stopped working. I never use this but it is also needed for GMail which I use all the time.

Some of the hardware the Viewsonic is based on is out of date. The ROM I was using was based on Android 2.2 but some of the drivers had not been updated since 2.1 which is probably what caused the problems. This means that the problems in the tablet are not going to get any better.

I had a coupon for a Nook Color for $150 so I decided to switch. I got the Color instead of the Nook Tablet for two reasons - one was the price. The Nook Tablet is still $250 and I don't think it offers enough additional functionality. The other reason is that the Color supports dual boot so all it takes to transform it into a full Android tablet is a memory chip with the right files on it.

I used my wife's Cook Color for a while before getting one of my own. Between that and playing around on my own Color I have a good idea of its usefulness. I wrote about this a week ago so some of this is a review.

The Color was meant to be an ebook reader with tablet capabilities added later. The current release is a big improvement over the previous one but still has some annoyances.

The biggest is the lack of a consistent "back" button. This is probably the most used function in android but the Color has a haphazard implementation of it. Sometimes it is a button at the bottom, sometimes it is at the top. Often it is completely lacking which means you have to use the Nook button (which functions as a Home key in the current release) then restart whatever you were doing from scratch.

The next complaint is a relic of it being an ebook reader first. Tablets work best in landscape mode but the Nook home screen and other functions are portrait-only. Barnes and Noble has a full line of covers and most of them are not suitable for landscape mode. I went with a protective sleeve instead of a cover.

Finally, their app store leave a lot to be desired. It is poorly stocked and charges for many apps that are free elsewhere. You can't even get a passable, free live wallpaper. The native email application is very limited (it does not work with Exchange) and there are no improved apps, even for sale. They are also missing the native apps for GMail and Facebook.

As an ebook reader, it is fine although I would recommend the Simple Touch if all you want is an ebook reader. The Touch is smaller, lighter, works in bright sunlight, and has great battery life.

So, that is how the Nook Color comes from B&N. But, if you install a memory card with the dual boot then things change dramatically. What you get then is a slightly customized version of Android. The one I have is still running Android 2.2 so I may have some hard choices when Ice Cream Sandwich become more common but for now everything works.

Except for rendering pages with heavy Flash, the Color makes a perfectly usable Android tablet. I found every app I wanted and they all work (with one exception noted later). I can still read my Nook books plus Kindle and EPUB books. YouTube through the browser can be choppy but the YouTube native app works great.

I do have to zoom on text fairly often which I didn't have to do on a 10" tablet but otherwise the 7" size is much handier. It is much lighter and easier to carry around.

My only complaint is that it does not recognize the USB cable when running straight Android and the Android partition is not recognized when it is in Nook mode or when the SD card is plugged into my PC. I got around that with a product called AirDroid which lets me move files over WiFi.

So, what is the app that doesn't work? Ironically, it is the Nook app. Older versions work fine through release 2.6 but after that they refuse to run. From the comments, this is a common problem that B&N has yet to fix. Fortunately, the 2.6 version works so I can still use it as an ebook reader without having to reboot. Synchronization is spotty but it supports landscape as well as portrait.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Hugo and the Artist

I suspect that this year's Best Picture Oscar will go to either Hugo or The Artist. Both are good movies. They also play to one of the Academy's weaknesses - both of them are about the early history of film and both of them take place around the same time.

Spoilers are likely from here on. You were warned.

Hugo starts as a movie about a young boy who services the clocks in a train station and, on the side, is trying to finish restoring an automaton that is his last connection with his father. Along the way he discovers that the old man who runs a toy counter is George Melies who was a major film maker prior to WWI. Through Hugo's efforts, Melies is recognized and his films recovered.

Although the character of Hugo is fictional, most of the events in the movie really happened.

The Artist is about a silent film star who is left behind when talkies come out. Although the transition killed many careers, this is a fictional story. The artist is also unusual for being shot in black and white and as a (mainly) silent movie.

It would not surprise me if the Artist wins but it has some problems, mainly because it is a silent film.

Keep in mind that in the 1920s, movies were silent for technical reasons - they didn't have the technology to add sound. Actors had to go to extra effort to make their performance visual because their voices could not be heard. The Artist recreates this but it puts a barrier between the movie and the audience. I didn't really care for the characters the same why that I did the ones in Hugo. They also come across as one-dimensional.

Keep in mind that The Artist is not really a silent movie. There are times when it has sound. Possibly the most effective scene is when the main character, George Valentine, suddenly becomes aware of sound. He, and the audience, spends time just listening to various natural sounds. But Valentine is unable to make any sounds himself.

One of the least effective scenes comes when George is asked to the screening of some rushes. It turns out that this is test footage with sound but the effect is completely lost. We see the director entranced and George laughing but we can only imagine what they are reacting to.

Hugo left me wanting to watch the movies of Milies (many are available on YouTube). The Artist did not make me want to see any other silent movies.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Nook Color

When Amazon and Barnes & Noble announced their new tablets everyone focused on the price difference between the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet. Few people noticed that B&N already had the Nook Color, a tablet for the same price as the Kindle (after B&N dropped the price). Recently they sent me a $50 off coupon for the Nook Color making it only 2/3s the price of the Kindle.

The Nook Color started as a color ebook reader but it has received a couple of software updates this year. It is now a functional tablet.

My wife got one last Summer to take on vacation. I've been testing it the last few weeks since the last software update.

The Color compares fairly well with the Kindle Fire. It is slower and a bit heavier but it has a better display and volume buttons. It can also take Micro-SD memory which makes it more expandable than the Fire.

The web browser is the standard Android browser. It works fairly well and supports Flash. YouTube videos work fine which means it meets my minimum test for a tablet. Pinch to zoom does not work. Most pages offer a zoom button when you scroll through them. I discovered that some mobile pages cannot be resized. Changing the browser setting from mobile to desktop usually fixes that.

B&N has its own app store which is smaller than Amazon's and a tiny fraction of the Google Market and there are very few free apps. The bright side is that all of the apps there are guaranteed to work with the Color. B&N has set the Color so that it will not install untrusted apps (ones that they did not sell you).

B&N does not have a GMail app or a Facebook app. They do have a free app that will work with Facebook and Twitter and the web view for both of these works fine. You can also set up the native email to check GMail although the native email app is pretty poor.

The Color has two annoyances and a major advantage. One annoyance is the home screen. It is always portrait which is fine if you are reading a book but at right angles for most web browsing. The other annoyance is that lack of a hardware "back" button. There is a soft "back" button in some apps but it changes places and when it is missing then it means you have to go back to the home screen. This is worst when looking at email attachments. You can't go back to the email. You have to reenter the email app and reselect the email you want to read.

The big advantage is that it supports dual boot. This means that you can have a standard Android image on a MicroSD card that supports places like the Google Market and Hulu. You can even load the Kindle app.

I have been using a 10" tablet for the last year but I really like the convenience of a 7" tablet. I had been seriously considering the Nook tablet but for $100 less (with coupon), the Nook Color is really attractive. I don't think that the extra memory and processor speed is worth the extra money.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Facebook IPO

In case you are tempted by the Facebook IPO, remember, this is a company that has nearly a billion clients and most of them hate Facebook. There is some speculation that they have already peaked. There is a very good chance that most of their users will tire of living their lives in public and move on or move to a different platform.