Thursday, August 30, 2012

Goodbye Zune

On August 31 Microsoft will begin removing apps for the Zune HD from its Zune Marketplace. Some Zune services will also be shut down. There are details here.

It is a shame. The Zune HD was a nice alternative to the IPod Touch. It had some advanced features like being able to sync with a PC over WiFi. The interface was fast and fairly intuitive. And, it was very friendly to music ripped from (legally owned) CDs.

As originally shipped the Zune had some drawbacks. It could not connect to a wireless network that required an agreement. This is how most commercial hotspots work so it was limited to home wireless routers. Email, Facebook, and Twitter were a long time coming. All of these were eventually fixed and several games created for it but by then the IPod and IPhone had hundreds of thousands of apps.

Probably the biggest thing that hurt the Zune were timing. The window for marketing a non-phone, touch-screen music player came and went pretty fast and they launched at the tail end of it. Even then, the device was not totally ready for the market. It was fine when playing music or movies but, as I said before, the social aspects of the device were not ready when it launched. It also lacked the ability to do any multiprocessing except to play music while using one of the limited number of apps.

Regardless, I got one of the early ones and found it to be a good music player. It has good battery life and the touchscreen is much handier for large music collections than the touch wheel on the Sansa player I used before it.

It is not perfect. When restarting the device after pausing it, it often wants to start playing the first music track on the device instead of restarting the playlist I was on. The interface is menu-based and some choices are buried further than on Android.

My biggest complaint is the lack of external storage.

Recently I upgraded my smart phone. This left me with a perfectly good Android device that can still connect to WiFi and has external storage. I put a 32 gig memory card in it and have been using it as my music player instead. One advantage to this is that I can play music without having to use earphones or an external speaker.

I can understand why Microsoft would not keep supporting a device that they no longer produce but I am not sure why they would start killing existing services. This is just the latest in a line of music players that they introduced and later abandoned. It is actions like this that make me dubious about trusting Microsoft again.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


ABC has announced a new TV series based on Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. with episodes written by Avengers-director Joss Wheden,

Before I can talk about SHIELD (I'm going to drop the periods from now on) I need to backtrack to Goldfinger. This was possibly the most influential movie of the 1960s. It was actually the third James Bond movie but this is the one that really made an impact. For years afterwards spies, often laden with high-tech gadgets, were popular on TV and in movies. There was even a popular sub-genre of parodies of spy movies (for example, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine). TV series included the Man from UNCLE, the Woman from UNCLE, Get Smart (another parody), and British imports Secret Agent, The Avengers (Steed and Mrs. Peel), and even The Prisoner.

1965 was a big year for Marvel. Stan shook up a lot of titles. Some changes were minor - Reed and Sue got married, Daredevil switched his yellow and black costume for the red one. Other changes were larger - the Avengers replaced most of its members, the Hulk became intelligent (for a while). At the time, Marvel had two comics that featured two stories. Tales to Astonish was split between Giant-Man and the Hulk while Strange Tales was split between the Human Torch and the Thing as the lead feature and Doctor Strange as the backup. The first feature in these comics was replaced with a new one. The Sub-Mariner took over Tales to Astonish and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD took over Strange Tales.

Fury had been around for years as a World War Two sergeant leading the Howling Commandos. Stan billed this as a "war comic for people who don't like war comics." Fury was known for losing both his temper and his shirt.

Early on Stan decided that the Howling Commandos occupied the same word as his superheroes. Reed Richards made an appearance in an early issue of Sgt. Fury (and Captain America appeared in another issue). Fury appeared in an issue of the Fantastic Four as a major.

Rather than create a new character, Stan and Jack Kirby reused Fury. He lost an eye but gained a promotion to Colonel. In the first issue, Fury was recruited as the director of the new organization. It also introduced LMDs (Life Model Decoys), flying cars, and the helicarrier.

Secret governmental organizations exist to fight shadowy groups that are trying to take over the world. In Fury's case the original organization was called Hydra. After this was disrupted, Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) became the new threat. Others followed and Hydra reappeared a few times.

Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, Fury and SHIELD were kept separate from it. Tony Stark appeared a few times but without armor. Captain America was the only costumed hero to appear.

Jack Kirby was the original artist but he was soon replaced by comics legend Jim Steranko who made his reputation from his run on the comic. Steranko eventually took over as writer, also, becoming the first fan-favorite writer/artist. He combined a clean, photo-realistic style with psychedelic touches and unusual layouts. He left after the 5th issue although he still did some covers. The new team could not maintain the quality of the Steranko issues.

After three years Strange Tales was split into solo comics. It only lasted 15 issues before it was cancelled (it actually went to #18 but the last three were reprints from Strange Tales).

That was not the end of SHIELD. Fury and company became regular guest starts. After Captain America began dating a SHIELD agent he spent some time as sort of a SHIELD consultant. When Godzilla was given a comic book, a branch of SHIELD was assigned to destroy him.

Over the years Fury has become a mainstay of the Marvel Universe. He is the eternal warrior, always there to do the right thing no matter what the cost.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Read Comics in Public Day

It turns out that today (August 28) is Read Comics in Public Day where people are encouraged to read a comic book where others can see you doing it. The date was chosen because it is Jack Kirby's birthday.

Wired is asking for pictures.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Paranorman and Hocus Pokus

The current release Paranorman is about a boy who can see the dead. As if this wasn't enough of a burden, he finds out that only he can stop a witch from returning and taking vengeance on the town that executed her three hundred years earlier.

While there are some major differences (one is stop-motion and the other is live-action) there are a lot of similarities between this movie and 1993's Hocus Pocus. Here are some of the similarities and differences. I'll warn before I get to the major spoilers.

Both movies feature a boy who feels like an outcast.

Paranorman - Norman talks to people who are invisible to everyone else.
Hocus Pocus - Max just moved to Salem from California

Both heroes have a sister he does not get along with but who joins him in the adventure.

Paranorman - an older sister
Hocus Pocus - a younger sister

Both towns have a witch (or witches) who were executed three hundred years ago and who have returned. The towns celebrate the witches and even teach about them in school.

In both movies the hero is bullied in school. Later the bully/bullies encounter the witch(s).

Paranorman has a school play about the witch trial.
Hocus Pocus includes the witches in history class.

In both movies the witch(s) return along with zombie(s).

Paramorman - one witch, multiple zombies.
Hocus Pucus - three witches, one zombie.

In both movies, the action takes place on the anniversary of the witch's execution but this is actually a bit of a red herring. In both movies, the witch(s) return happens because of external events.

Paranorman - incomplete instructions on how to keep the witch from rising
Hocus Pocus - a virgin lights the magic black candle.

In both movies it is up to a small group of kids to stop the witch.

In both movies, the zombies lose one or more limbs which is mainly an inconvenience.

In both movies the witch hates to be called ugly.

Paranorman - the manifestation of the witch destroys several ugly witch statues and other representations.
Hocus Pocus - Winifred goes out of her way to try to kill anyone who calls her ugly.

------------ spoilers -------------

In both movies the zombies are not as bad as you first expect.

Paranorman - the dead are brought back to punish them for convicting an innocent of witchcraft.
Hocus Pocus - Billy the Zombie always hated Winifred and turns against her as soon as he can talk.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The 50s Craze

Every now and then there is a craze for a previous decade. There was a mild 1970s craze in the 1990s which lead to the TV show That 70s Show. There was a 1940s craze in the 1980s that mainly manifested itself as shoulder pads on women's clothing and accentuated cheekbones inspired by the Joan Crawford look from Mommie Dearest. When done poorly this looked like warpaint.

None of these can hold a candle to the 1950s craze in the 1970s. A lot of this centered on Rock and Roll.

Rock came into its own in the 50s but it changed at lightening speed. A song might be a major hit one year and hopelessly dated the next. Listen to the Beatles' recordings for an example of this.

By the early 1970s some DJs (Disk Jockeys - back then the guys who announced the records actually got to choose what they would play) had rediscovered early Rock and named it "Golden Oldies".

What started as a music revival became a cultural phenomenon with the release of two movies - American Graffiti and The Lords of Flatbush. American Graffiti was made by a pre-Star Wars George Lucas about his late-teens in the "strip". The soundtrack was a "best of 1962" which was close enough to the 1950s. The movie cost less than $1 million to make and took in over $100 million.

The Lords of Flatbush was nowhere as big of a hit but it did feature two soon-to-be-important start, Henry Winkler and Sylvester Stallone.

Jumping on in the craze, ABC created a tv show set in the 1950's, Happy Days. It stared Ron Howard from Graffiti but Winkler as Fonzie quickly stole the show. It rocketed to number 1. At first the show stared with the 50s classic Rock Around the Clock which quickly sold more records than it had the first time around. Later the show used a 50s-style theme song which was also a hit.

Happy Days was followed with another 1950s show, Lavern and Shirley. Shirley was played by another actor from Graffiti. This show was even more popular.

While American Graffiti was a big hit, the 50s-inspired Grease was a blockbuster. It grossed nearly $400 million world-wide which would make it a huge hit today, even without allowing for inflation.

Eventually the 50s craze wound down. The bands like Sha-na-na who had reformed went back into retirement. Happy Days got so desperate for new plots that they had Fonzie water ski while wearing his trademark leather jacket. When a shark threatened him, he jumped it. It was all down-hill from there.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Surface Tablet for $200?

Engadget claims that the low-end Microsoft Surface Tablet will cost $199. That would make it comparable with the Google Nexus, Amazon Fire, and Nook tablet. The Surface will have superior hardware than these. It will have a larger screen, more memory, and come with a cover that doubles as a keyboard.

The other tablets are sold at cost or just above. The purpose is to lock the user into the vendor's ecosystem where the real profits are.

Microsoft is probably playing this game, also but in their case they are almost certainly subsidizing their tablet. If true, it is a risky move but it might be their last chance to stay relevant.

Windows 8 looks like it will be a disaster similar to the original Vista roll-out. Businesses are still rolling out Windows 7 and many are planning on holding off on Windows 8 or waiting until Windows 9. The main attraction of Windows 8 is that it has a unified interface with Microsoft's phones and tablets. But this only matters to people who actually have a Microsoft phone or tablet.

When Microsoft announced the Surface and said it would be competitive, people assumed that they meant competitive with the iPad. That means $500. This is too much for an impulse purchase. $200 is low enough for people to try it without a strong commitment. Also, given the larger screen and keyboard, it could pull away a lot of the Nexus and Fire business.

Android is not firmly established on the tablet. The most successful Android tablets, the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, hide android completely. This gives Microsoft an opening that might not exist a year from now.

This would not be the first time Microsoft subsidized a device in order to gain market share. They originally lost money on their game platform. In that case, they were successful but subsidies do not guarantee success. Their attempt at creating an alternative to AOL back in the days of dial-up flopped.

At $200, I might be tempted to give the Surface a look. It depends on what software I can run. Right now I have a lot of books in Nook, Kindle, and EPub format. If the Surface can run all of those applications then I might consider it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Power Levels

During the Silver Age of Comics, DC heroes strode the earth like demigods. Their powers were limitless and existed beyond mortal physics. Superman epitomized this. He was invulnerable to everything except kryptonite and magic. Nothing was beyond his strength (except the metal "inertron" which was not invented until the 30th century). He could melt anything (except lead) with a glance or freeze it with a puff of his super breath. He could see anything anywhere (unless lead was in the way). Using super hearing and super ventriloquism, he could hold conversations with people anywhere on the planet. He could fly faster than light and, if he spun at the same time, could go into the past or future. What's more, he was a genius inventor who built advanced robots that could pass for human.

The other DC heroes were not far behind. Wonder Woman and the Martian Manhunter had many of Superman's abilities. Green Lantern's ring could do anything as long as yellow was not involved. The Flash had to work a little harder but could do things like vibrate through solid objects.

Even non-powered heroes like Batman never met anyone they could not beat with their bare hands. The only trick was following some obvious clues to find the villain.

Contrast this with the Marvel heroes, especially the first few years. They were much weaker. The most powerful heroes, Thor and the Hulk, could not even fly. Thor needed his hammer and the Hulk jumped. There were things that even the Hulk could not break.

The Thing could only lift a few tons. The Human Torch's flame lasted around a half hour, less if he pushed it, then he had to rest. Cyclopes, the most powerful member of the X-Men, could move a few tons with his power beam but the effort left him weak or even unconscious. The same was true for Marvel Girl who collapsed after lifting a few hundred pounds. At 12 feet tall, Giant Man wasn't all that strong and was clumsy. He could grow larger but only for short times. His partner, the Wasp, was more of an irritant than a threat.

The most powerful heroes had built-in weaknesses. Thor lost his powers if he didn't hold his hammer. The Hulk changed back to a puny human. Iron Man constantly had to recharge his batteries. The Sub-Mariner grew weaker when he was out of water.

Even Daredevil had constant problems. He was a blind, costumed athlete with radar sense but power lines and other things confused his hypersenses. A guy dressed as a matador, or someone on stilts, or someone in a frog suit was enough to give him a challenge.

Then there is Spider-Man. He had superhuman strength but he usually fought people who were even stronger. Just a group of regular people was enough to give him a work-out. The trio, The Enforcers, fought him to a standstill more than once. They consisted of a cowboy with a lasso, a guy who knew martial arts, and a big strong guy.

While most of the Marvel heroes grew stronger during the late 1960s and 70s, Spider-Man grew weaker. Regular guys with a gimmick were enough to give Spider-Man a challenge.

The funny thing is that the Marvel heroes were a lot more interesting. There was never any question that Superman or Batman would win a fight. The plots were often structured so that they had to out think their foe. While admirable, it did not induce page-turning excitement like hand-to-hand combat with someone who is stronger.

Over the years the Marvel characters have gotten stronger and the DC characters a lot weaker. When they finally fought, the Marvel heroes came out on top.

At the same time the Marvel villains have gotten stronger so that the fights are still a challenge. Still, they do not seem as grounded as they used to.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Important Superhero Movies

There have been a lot of superhero and comic book-inspired movies over the last few decades. Some have been good, many have been forgettable. This is my list of ones that were important. When I say important, I mean that they had an noticeable effect on other movies.

Superman (1978)

Billed as Superman the Motion Picture with the tag line, "You will believe that a man can fly", this was the first big-budget super hero movie. Stories about production problems had been going on for years before the movie made it to the screen. For a long time it was considered a "troubled production". When it actually came out it was a huge hit.

Part of the success was the contrast between the earnest, too-good-to-be-true Clark Kent/Superman and the post-feminist, post-Watergate Lois Lane.

The movie started on the doomed planet of Krypton, showing us Jor-el sending his son to the Earth and educating him at the same time. It followed as the child was adopted and brought up with solid mid-western values, eventually discovering his heritage and assuming the identity of Superman. We saw Clark meet Lois then rescue her as Superman. He then went on to save multiple people (and rescue a cat from a tree).

Unfortunately the movie peaked half-way through. Once Luther and his goofy assistants were introduced it was all downhill into camp.

Superman 2 never duplicated the lyrical parts of the first movie and never got quite as campy. Superman fought a trio of villains with the same powers that he had. He was also pulling powers out of a hat. After that, the movies went downhill fast.

Superman was notable for its visual effects, particularly the digital wire removal. It proved that comic book heroes could appeal to adults if taken seriously.

Batman (1989)

The comic book character was notable for going through two reboots in the 1960s. The first one trimmed the cast eliminating Batwoman, Batgirl, Batdog and Bat Mite. Also eliminated were fights involving giant props, the Batplane and whirlybats (flying chairs). The over-sized Batmobile was traded in for a convertible sports car. Plots involving aliens or wacky villains were dropped in favor of a more realistic approach. Then came the campy TV show and a lot of the camp crept back into the comic. By the late 1960s, the character was being redefined again. Robin was sent to collage and everyone started referring to him as the Batman.

This change was reflected in the approach to the character. Camp was banished. The Batman took himself seriously.

The look of the movie had a major effect on late superhero movies. The Superman movies were set in the present-day. Care was taken to reproduce the offices and street-front of the New York Times as the Daily Planet. While this added to the realism, it also meant that the Superman movies did not age well. By the mid-1980s, the first couple of movies already looked dated.

For Batman, Tim Burton designed a Gotham City that never existed. Few cars were shown and none were contemporary. As a result, this movie still looks fresh more than two decades later. The only jarring point is when we see Bruce Wayne looking at various TV screens. The TVs use picture tubes rather than flat screens.

The movie showed that a superhero movie did not need any camp or tongue-in-cheek to succeed. But, since it was a Tim Burton movie, it did have some bizarre touches. The sequel had more. The third and fourth movies were over the top and killed the franchise.

X-Men (2000)

Several marvel properties had been made into movies but there were C-list characters (Blade) or flops (Howard the Duck, Punisher). This was the first A-list Marvel title to make it to the big screen and it was a hit. This was followed by an onslaught of other Marvel heroes which continues to this day. Most of them are true to the original character which was a problem in the earlier adaptations.

The X-Men also added sub-texts to superhero movies. The mutants could be seen as stand-ins for issues such as terrorism and gay-acceptance.

Spider-Man (2002)

Superman showed that there was still a place for superheros in the cynical, post-Watergate era. Spider-Man showed that the same was true in the post-9/11 era. It was a huge hit.

Both X-Men and Spider-Man showed that superhero franchises did not have to sink into camp as they progressed. Both series stumbled on their third movie by stuffing too much into the plot but neither committed a sin equal to "bat nipples".

Batman Begins (2005)

This movie introduced the concept of rebooting a character. I still prefer the Tim Burton version but without this movie no serious Batman movies would be possible.

Iron Man (2008)

This was the first marvel Studios movie and it introduced the Marvel movie formula. This includes a long middle act where we get to know the character. The casting and scripting on Iron Man were brilliant because this middle act is the best part. The movie actually becomes less interesting when Tony Stark starts fighting.

Where the X-Men kicked off movies featuring Marvel characters, this one began a series of movies produced by Marvel in which the characters share a common universe and interact. Without the previous four movies, the Avengers would have flopped. It would have taken too long to introduce the characters.

Iron Man was also notable because the head of the Academy of Motion Pictures admitted that it (and The Dark Knight which came out later the same Summer) should have gotten best picture nominations. This was a break-through in acceptance of superhero movies.

The Dark Knight (2008)

 Another huge hit, this is the first superhero movie to win a major Oscar (best actor for Heath Ledger. No camp here.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The TRS-80

35 years ago Radio Shack announced the TRS-80 Microcomputer. I ordered one two weeks later and finally got delivery just before Christmas.

1977 was an important year in computer history. Microcomputers are the parent of today's desktop computer. They had been around for a few years but mainly as kits. For $1,000-2,000 you got a case, one or more printed circuit boards, and a lot of parts. It was up to you to solder the right parts into the circuit board. Once you were finished you could expect to spend hours looking for places where some extra solder shorted out a circuit or you accidentally fried a transistor with your soldering iron (I'm repeating this from published how-to guides from the period). 1977 saw a new generation of microcomputers that were cheaper and were pre-assembled. This included the Commodore PET computer and the Apple II.

None of these had a fraction of the power of a smart phone. They were slow and had limited resources. Storage was limited to a cassette tape drive. Still, they were the first computers aimed at people who wanted a computer instead of an electronics project.

Radio Shack was trying to reinvent itself. A craze for CB radios had just ended and they were trying to improve their image. The TRS-80 was one of a line of new prestige products that were not expected to sell very well. Projections were that each store might sell one or two per year. Instead they sold their entire planned annual production the first day.

By the time that the TRS-80 was released I had a job and enough money (barely) to buy one. I went with the TRS-80 because it had a local dealer and because I could get an RF converter and hook it to a regular TV instead of paying $200 to them for a modified black and white set. I never regretted the choice. The Commodore had a non-standard keyboard and heat problems. The Apple was a nice computer for the time but the TRS-80 cost me $400 and an Apple was over $1,000.

The TRS-80 was cheaply produced. The expensive kits had multiple slots for memory and device drivers. The TRS-80 had a single motherboard. It looked like a thick keyboard. It came with 4k of ran and 4k of ROM which held its BASIC interpreter. The display was 16 lines of 64 characters. It also had a graphics mode made up of little white rectangles. Tandy saved money by only using 7 memory chips instead of 8 so it could only display upper case. It used the Z80 chip which could run at 4 megahertz but Tandy saved money by using an internal signal instead of adding a clock chip. This reduced its speed to around 1.77 megahertz. By any measure it was thousands of times slower than anything made today.

Within months Radio Shack announced upgrades. You could upgrade the 4k of ROM in your base unit to 16k, you could upgrade the 4k Integer BASIC to a 12k floating-point version from Microsoft and you could buy an expansion module. This plugged into the back of the original unit and allowed you to add another 32k of memory, a printer, and up to four disk drives. Suddenly the TRS-80 was a real computer able to compete with ones that cost thousands of dollars.

Radio Shack later renamed the original computer the Model I and introduced a Model II. This was a one-piece computer, monitor, and dual disk drives. Other models followed including one that eventually ran a version of Unix. By the early 1980s, microcomputers were competing with game consoles and were expected to have color and accept game cartridges. Radio Shack came out with three models of Color Computer for this market. The third one of these used the 6809 chip and could run an operating system known as OS-9 that was years ahead of anything that IBM or Apple offered.

By the mid-1980s Radio Shack had converted most of their lineup to IBM PC compatibles. By the late 1980s they decide that they could not keep up with the development costs and dropped their line of computers. Instead they began carrying ones from Compaq (now HP).

Commodore followed up their PET computer with the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64. Both were huge sellers.

Apple lucked out when the first "killer application", Visicalc was written for it. This was the first spread-sheet program and made the Apple II a must-have for business.