Friday, January 29, 2010

Nice MaxiPad!

For the past few years -- even before the first iPhones hit the street -- Apple's cult of followers has ravenously devoured every bit of news and rumor regarding new products like flies on shit. PC users are relatively restrained over new hardware because their allegiance follows a methodology rather than one single brand, so there's never a lack of new products forthcoming. However, the opposite end of the PC-Mac spectrum is that, with respect to the PC camp, there are a lot of lousy products to the few really incredible ones, so there's very little circling of the wagons when something hits the street because it's not hotly-discussed on every blog spanning the techno-globe.

I respect both sides of these diverging paths, as I spent many years being an Apple devotee before I finally left the cult and found the non-Jesus, aka the Pentium. Consequently, I'll never knock Apple's products -- however, I'll also be brutally honest in suggesting that they're well-designed, far too overpriced, far too limited and rely too heavily on hype and the science of the cult to be seriously considered.

Having said all that, the new iPad -- which has everyone buzzing from any two world coasts one can find on a map -- is indeed a huge disappointment for those among us who believe in free thought. For real Apple loyalists, it's the second coming...not of Jesus, but the iPhone. So what if it doesn't have a camera, the ability to multi-task or flash? Most Apple loyalists will find a way to happily excuse these omissions, quite capably.

So what if they deleted a USB connector and went with a 4:3 (non-16:9) screen?

The answer to all these omissions: so what, people will buy it.

This is, for me, the core of why I would and will never buy another Apple "computing device." I have an iPod (a Touch, specifically) and for what it does, it's great. It plays music, it plays movies, and has a half-dozen useful applications. Most of them are games, and one application is a sound-soother I use every night. In the morning, I use the Touch's built-in alarm (with that nuclear warning "alarm" sound) in tandem with an iPod-compatible Sony clock Kaia got me to bring me from a deep slumber to up 'n ready for Defcon 2 in a matter of seconds.

The problem is that Apple's products -- while creatively designed -- are designed to have a specific lifespan before they're replaced by something a bit better and a bit more capable. Put another way, they fall under the umbrella of built-in obsolescence.

Anyone who disputes that should first consider how many of Apple's products they've purchased and then, two years later, subsequently replaced, either because the battery needed to be replaced, or because the new model had so much more impressive features, or because the standard -- which is also set by Apple -- had changed so drastically that replacing was the only option.

And let's also keep in mind that all technology dies; when companies coordinate that death around new products and schedule rather than forecast it, it's part of the design, not the product strategy. Hence my disinterest in owning anything of significance made by Apple.

Back to the iPad -- and we'll ignore the criticism of the name (personally, knowing they hit a home run with an iPod makes the iPad moniker sensible). Although I must admit that people have now come to refer to the 64GB model of the iPad as the MaxiPad. Love that to a point beyond which words can't describe.

In short, the device -- like many of Apple's products -- is designed for Apple, and people either worship it, have no interest in it, or hate it. Apple's strategy is, quite simply, designed to provoke an emotion, and the reason why the iPad is in serious trouble is, frankly, most people don't seem to give much of a shit. It seems like a nifty little device; that description, however, was what most people used to describe the Newton.

I believe most people who wind up buying this device will be first required to memorize -- prior to purchasing -- the litany of excuses and explanations inherent in most Apple apologists' lexicons (a good collection of same can be found here). Sure, the device doesn't have USB, but it's not supposed to be an actual PC, it's only supposed to do this. Sure it doesn't have a camera, everyone has a cell-phone with a camera, why would I want to be bothered having a camera in this device too? Sure, it doesn't have Flash; who cares, eventually flash will be a thing of the past. Sure, it doesn't have HDMI or HD capability, it's not a portable movie player.

The answer is Apple, in its closed-loop marketing strategy, is -- frankly -- insulting those on-the-fence people -- those who are neither Apple fanboys nor people who hate Apple -- by intimating that Apple will decide what features we need and make us go elsewhere for those that they omit. By omitting a camera and banning Skype from their device, Apple has essentially tried to control the mobile market rather than opening it up. By eliminating flash, Apple has let us know it doesn't care about whether flash is viable or not, and that we as users should avoid sites with flash. And by non-conforming to the worldwide mini-micro USB connector, Apple is insuring users will have to pay them an extra $35 for a power cable that would normally cost, oh, about $8 at any Radio Shack.

Put simply, when you have to make excuses before you buy something, that in and of itself tells you that you're a fool to even consider buying said product in the first place.

But -- admittedly -- I am considering buying it. Not because it's innovative, not because it's the cool new thing, or worth the money; it's none of those.

I just can't wait for the day, hopefully soon, when I can announce to a small group of clients and/or business professionals, "Excuse me while remove my MaxiPad and plug it in."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Intention is rarely the appropriate substitute for action, but being that I've been just barely surviving the last week or so, I'd been meaning to kick back and relax and watch Kathryn Bigelow's new film about an American elite bomb squad in Baghdad entitled "The Hurt Locker." Despite my initial impressions prior to viewing, and the subsequent buzz the film has received, I didn't have much in the way of expectation going in other than anticipating I'd enjoy it. I'm not sure if it fulfilled that expectation, although I must admit it will be quite some time before -- if ever -- I forget this two-plus-hour first-person visit into war-torn Baghdad.

I won't be delving into the key plot points as there are few thereof and doing so would ruin the visceral experience the film provides. Suffice to say that this film's intent is to allow the viewer a glimpse into a month or two in the life of a unit that is sent out to find and disarm Iraqi IED's (improvised explosive devices) that have claimed so many American soldiers since the US landed in Iraq. Part of the film's intensity, certainly, stems from the fact that bomb diffusal in its very definition is tense, dangerous work. Clip the wrong wire and you'll wind up in hundreds of pieces, as will your colleagues and, likely, any civilians within 100 yards. Add in the element of extreme heat, the weight of anti-explosive gear, the language barrier, fatigue, and being surrounded -- and watched -- by people who may be friends or foes, and the element of tension is ratcheted up tenfold. And while I laud Bigelow's directorial style, the real credit goes to her decision to simply record the action rather than comment on it; the action in this film needs no directorial tweaking or embellishment a la Tarantino or Scorcese. She is able to say everything about the events of this film without really saying anything at all. Put another way, the film succeeds because the inherent intensity is in what's happening, not how it's filmed, and many directors seem to not be able to get out of their own way. Bigelow, in this particular film, didn't have that problem, and the film succeeds as a result.

Beyond the sheer tension and frankness of what the viewer experiences, part of the reason this film succeeds so easily is its soundtrack. I viewed this film in BluRay format, and, for the most part, the picture stays clear. There are parts of the film that are hazy, grainy, dark and/or out of focus -- all in keeping with what's happening with James, Sanborn and Eldridge, the three main characters -- but the sonic landscape of this film is immense and startling. The explosions are front and center and will shake you loose from a comfortable sitting position should your system allow it. Watching this film without a solid sound system will definitely detract from the experience, but it's certainly not a key ingredient to absorbing the entire experience.

While this film, overall, depicts the life of a mobile bomb squad in Baghdad, a large aspect of the film is not simply about portraying the day-to-day activities thereof but to demonstrate how the lives of these men are affected as a result. The three actors -- Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty -- who portray, respectively, James, Sanborn and Eldridge, are excellent in their frank performances. I found myself wondering what I would do in certain situations depicted in the film -- both in combat and out -- and I give credit to these three guys in their ability to seamlessly allow the viewer what feels like an authentic glimpse into something that's actually happening.

In a nutshell, the story, the performances and the dark, intense visceral starkness of the film's pace is not only commended but memorable, haunting and top-notch.

Incidentally, I would urge anyone interested in seeing this film to avoid anything disclosing the cast or any details about it prior to viewing. I can't say I "enjoyed" this film, because it was and remains as frank, dark and disturbing a film about modern war as there may be, including Full Metal Jacket, but a large part of this film's success lies in the not knowing what's beyond the next hill, the next corner or the next half-mile of highway.

Put yet another way, anyone who has an opinion on America's role in Iraq should find a way to see this film, as graphic and disturbing as it is.

And for Kathryn Bigelow -- whose last big project was "Point Break" -- I can only say I'm impressed and am glad I got an opportunity to see this film.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Venom and The Cure

Inevitably, some adolescent boy -- say, 13 or 14 years old -- who's been watching baseball since he was young and playing it since he could hold a bat, watched over the past 24 hours as Mark McGwire came out of the closet and admitted he had used performance-enhancing drugs (aka steroids) while he was a professional baseball player.

And in yesterday's admission that surprised no one -- despite all the press coverage thereof -- I'd imagine the aforementioned kid seeing McGwire's confession as hollow, empty and more than 90% bullshit.

For those of us who are human -- and that accounts for everyone that doesn't get paid to model, play a professional sport or attend red-carpet-preceded gala events -- seeing this sort of thing gets mighty old mighty quick.

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were tag-teaming the soon-to-fall single-season home run record over the summer of 1998, I think most baseball fans were mesmerized. Both of these guys seemed like good, normal people -- in direct contrast to the later success of Barry Bonds -- and they achieved great things for the game of baseball. I remember seeing McGwire's record-breaking home run clear left field and being almost in awe, akin -- almost -- to seeing the Rangers' Stanley Cup-winning endeavor in Game 7 in 1994.

Unlike that Ranger Cup victory, the McGwire-Sosa achievements of 1998 were a sham.

Years later, in 2005, when Big Mac was called to testify before Congress regarding performance-enhancing drugs, he didn't deny using same while he was a player; he just refused to answer any questions, declining to "discuss the past."

It was clear what his denial signified: he had taken steroids.

Yet he never admitted doing same, until yesterday. What's sad is that we don't know if he admitted same now because he wanted consideration for the Hall of Fame or acceptance regarding his newly-awarded Batting Instructor title with the Cardinals.

Yesterday's admission, for me, didn't really clarify anything or answer any questions I'd had -- I'd long ago realized Big Mac had been cheating when he broke Roger Maris's single-season record -- and what really was disappointing was the fact he claimed steroids didn't help him hit home runs. Of course, that's not true: taking steroids allowed his body to recover from injuries that might have curtailed or ended his career, and allowed his body to bounce back day to day. But why should we quibble or nitpick now that a cheater's come out of the closet?

I was a big fan of Mark's as he made a run towards the record, and despite the fact that he's a cheater and a liar, I really enjoyed seeing he and Sammy Sosa (another would-be juicer) make the run for the record.

I just wish they would have been satisfied with their best, instead of cheating in order to appear to be the best.

And I hope their cheating doesn't inspire legions of kids to copy their actions on the field; for some strange reason, what players do on the field seems to have much more significance than what they say or how they apologize off the field.

Guess we'll know in 15 or so years from now. That is, if we still want to know...

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Year of The Non-Enema...Hopefully

Being an eternal optimist does have its privileges, but it also – definitely – has some drawbacks as well. My intention was to spend a bit more time here, the HoB, in 2009, as well as the forthcoming year, but since that didn’t work out at the tail end of the year, I’m hoping to make up for it in this coming year. Whether or not I come through on it is relatively irrelevant; the intention is there, and it’s the thought that counts.

Okay, I’m calling bullshit on myself. But that’s neither here nor there.
Invariably, regardless of what I get done, there are always seemingly some loose ends that need tying up, so perhaps a recap of the past ten or so days is deserved and warranted – or at least one of those.

Post-Christmas, Kaia came in as both of us had some down time from work and we figured we could use some in-person time together. I wound up heading to the office – despite being off – for a couple days in the pre-New Year’s week; the truth is I could have just as easily gone in every day, as I haven’t had an actual week-long respite from work in so long I forgot what it feels like being off of work.
Be that as it may, I had a nice week being off and being with Kaia. We basically did very little above and beyond seeing and spending time with friends, watching the variety of movies I’ve amassed over the past several months (500 Days of Summer, I Love You, Man and Inglourious Basterds) and enjoying the snow despite the otherwise abusively cold weather.

We had a few mini-gatherings at my place with friends, just chilled out, and enjoyed the holiday.

And now it’s back to work.

In retrospect, despite the week off preceding Thanksgiving, I think it’s clear that the reason why I’ve avoided taking any time off is because the day I inevitably return to the office undos all the good I’ve done with any time off, so it all seems to cancel itself out and be something other than worthwhile. I’m not complaining, of course; but certainly, the first Monday back from a nice, juicy vacation is about as exciting as a crushed-ice enema and a barium milkshake.

Whether that characterization applies to you, the reader, is a non-issue; even more importantly, I don’t need to be apprised as to whether it does or does not apply to you. Thanks in advance for observing this policy ;-)

Happy new year, happy 2010, and I hope that this is a happy, safe, healthy and wonderful new year for you, your friends and your family near and far!

And may it be one without any enemas or chalky milkshakes of any kind, for any of us ;-)