Thoughts on 36

I turned 36 years old today. I’m fully aware that my next statement will be met with snickers and jeers by my older friends and family, but I’m going to say it anyway… I always thought of 36 – that specific number – as “old”.

I’m not even sure why, really, other than it just happened to be an arbitrary point in time during which I (at 10 years old/young) observed my dad and made a mental note of his current age, categorizing it solidly in the category of “old”. The number stuck with me, at first as some sort of distant milestone, at least throughout my teenage years.

As it has gotten closer, I’ve come to realize that was a bit silly, and have readjusted the “bar” of what “old” might really mean many times. According to the age boundaries defined in the Wikipedia entry for “Midlife crisis”, I’m not even at “midlife” yet, so that’s encouraging. Nevertheless, here I am, and for some reason that number is still strong in my mind, so I thought I might as well blog about it.

For what it’s worth, the first 36 have been pretty great, on average. That’s not to say there haven’t been tough times, but I’m so content in the place I find myself now that I can only say that I’m very thankful to be here.

Since I seem to be in a bit of a mood for philosophical reflection, I’ll try not to get carried away in verbosity, as I’m prone to do without a character limit reining me in. The short version of what’s going through my head right now is that I’m thinking about how priceless parts of life like friendship really are.

Considering that I don’t expect many people who aren’t my “friends” to be reading this, let me take the opportunity to say “thank you” for a great 36 years!

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Superman on the Small Screen

Here’s a Smallville series wrap-up review by your local friendly neighborhood comic shop manager (if you live in Ventura, anyway).

I actually did watch the first couple seasons of this show, until the Dawson’s-Creekishness got too overwhelming to take. If it’s on Netflix, I may eventually go back and watch the rest someday (in the unlikely event that I stumble onto a whole bunch of free time), since I do still think the parts I did see were - in some ways – the best live action Superman adaptation that’s been done so far.

I remember first hearing about this show because Zach was trying to land the role of Lex before it launched. Ultimately, he didn’t make it and went on to better things, which is probably for the best since I thought that the actor who did play Lex was very well suited to the role.

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Mean People Suck

For context on this post, here is a recent picture of my two sons:

NYC 2011

Notice anything “wrong” with them simply by looking at this picture? If your answer is “yes”, then this post is for you!

[I apologize in advance for the angry tone of this post, but frankly right now I feel that it's justified]

In the last few weeks, there have been a number of instances where Riley has been judged negatively (by adults) for the length of his hair. It ranges from subtle (but still obvious enough) looks of disapproval to jokes or outright statements telling him there is something “wrong” with it.

This is unfortunately nothing particularly new (and we’ve gone through it in the past with Christian as well), but the straw that broke the camel’s back (prompting this post) was when he recently tried to cut his own hair in the bathroom because he was tired of dealing with the abuse.

Ironically, many of the adults firing off this criticism are short-haired women – not that there’s anything wrong with that, just an interesting observation in light of whatever they’re imagining is justifying their statements. Regardless of who is saying it, it also just so happens that across the board none of them have the guts to say anything to our (his parents’) faces about it.

Of course, I guess that’s not too surprising, since cowardice is a pretty common trait for bigots, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

You might notice in the picture that Christian’s hair is substantially longer than Riley’s, despite the fact that Riley’s hairstyle preference is (probably) primarily influenced by Christian. This is because the school that Riley goes to has some rules regarding hair length as a part of their uniform code. While we don’t necessarily agree with the reasons behind these rules (how could we, when no real reasons have actually ever been given?), we felt it was best to respect those particular rules and not make a big deal about trying to change them, since we knew about them going in and were OK with that. We felt that it was a good opportunity for them to learn to respect and honor rules even when they don’t agree with them, and I would say that they’ve done so admirably. It’s too bad that isn’t good enough for some people.

Since (as I mentioned before) none of these people are actually willing to talk to me openly and directly about their objections on this issue, I can only speculate as to what underlying assumptions or motivations may be driving them. I can only imagine that there is some sort of implied character judgment involving something inherently “rebellious” or otherwise flawed, and that preferring long hair is unambiguously an external expression of whatever that bad character trait might be.

All I can say in response to that is it’s a load of crap. I’ve had a decent amount of experience dealing with a pretty broad range of kids during my lifetime, and I have total confidence in saying that (as objective as I can possibly be on this matter) all three of our kids measure up extremely well to anyone you may want to compare them against, in any aspect of virtue. While they’re not perfect by any means, they have grown to be good people, with a high quality of character that I would consider rare, and for the most part they live lives that reflect that. I couldn’t be more proud of them.

Again, I apologize for offending anyone during my rant… except if you’re the kind of person who is going to make value judgments about someone else based on their appearance. I don’t apologize for challenging you to move past that narrow-minded outlook.

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Amazon: Calling Apple Out

I’ve been thinking for a while now about Amazon’s strategy as it relates to embracing Android, and specifically how the moves they’ve made seem to be directly targeted at highlighting things that the Android platform makes possible and the iOS platform prevents. I’m not saying it’s their whole motivation (to prove those points) – or whether it’s even a direct intention at all – but in any event I see it as a positive result, and I felt like spelling out why.

This isn’t specifically about bashing Apple; it’s more intended as a reflection on how I think the moves that Amazon is making are going to start getting the “average user” asking the kind of questions that lead to uncovering the important differences between these platforms that I’ve been talking about for a while. The differences have always been there, but Amazon is a big enough brand that they might just get enough traction to get people thinking about these issues, even if indirectly.

[ This post is mostly for my non-tech friends, as those I have frequent tech discussions with have probably heard this a million times before from me :-) ]

The Subtle Point Behind Cloud Music

I don’t think anyone doubts that Apple has been planning for a while to release a cloud music service for their iTunes product which will be similar to what Amazon has now released with Cloud Player (and specifically the Android integration with that service). It’s only a matter of “when”, not “if” Apple will catch up on that front, at least in terms of providing the same features on their platform.

What I think is more interesting about this is the questions that will hopefully be raised in the meantime (and even after) regarding why Amazon was able to do this on Android, but iOS users can’t have it until Apple decides to do it themselves. I hear a lot of people talking about how cool the Cloud Player experience is on Android, and it’s popular enough that I imagine at least some iPhone users must be saying “I wonder why I can’t use that on my phone?“. Hopefully this will lead them to discover that Apple has policies in place that prevent competition (or “duplicating functionality” as they put it, even if they don’t have that functionality quite yet – just like what happened with podcasting in the early days of iOS).

Perhaps they will then realize the difference that the Android platform offers in this respect: if someone has a good product (Amazon Cloud Player) they are free to build and release it, responding to user demand, and they don’t have to ask Google’s permission like they would from Apple on iOS.

App Stores and Open Market Competition

[The previous point was a minor issue relative to this one]

In releasing a good, alternative app store on Android, Amazon has provided the perfect illustration of the most important (IMHO) difference between these two major platforms: the Android platform supports freedom of choice (for users and developers), whereas the iOS platform has a single gatekeeper that has a proven track record of denying access to applications they deem “bad” (with arbitrary and ever-fluctuating standards, often in spite of users’ wishes).

If Google ever were to go “evil”, or to start following in Apple’s footsteps in making decisions to ban applications from their default Android Market, it actually isn’t as big of a deal on the Android platform, since users can always obtain (and devs can always distribute) apps through other channels, be it the Amazon app store, some other market, or even direct from the company or individual developer.

If Google (hypothetically) told Amazon that from now on their Kindle app had to offer in-app purchases and Google gets a 30% cut, AND they could not account for that loss of profit margin by making their in-app price any higher than the external price for the same item (sound familiar?), Amazon wouldn’t be stuck with the choice of having to accept those terms or not be on the platform at all. The worst that could happen would be that Google could kick them out of their Market, but Amazon could continue to distribute the Kindle app to users via their own store or directly without any store at all.

While I’m still not sure that this latter point (even though it’s more important) is going to be apparent to the average user, the fact that it’s Amazon at least gives me hope that some iOS users might hear about it and think “hey, I love Amazon, I wonder if I they will do an Amazon App Store for the iPhone?“, and then eventually find out why that will not and cannot happen, and that it just might possibly influence their purchasing decisions going forward.

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Survivor Party

Since I asked my online friends for help with part of Emma’s 13th birthday party, I figured I should probably fill everyone in on the rest of the details in case you’re curious (and also to spark some ideas for anyone doing random Google searches to prepare for a similar event). More photos and videos are available in the Flickr set that each of the images below links to.

Overview

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Emma has been a big fan of the show Survivor for a long time (as have Martha and I), and this year she said she wanted to go with that as the theme of the party. In the following rundown of how everything was put together, fellow fans of the show will probably recognize some familiar elements, but they were fun enough to enjoy whether or not you’ve seen the show before. I think all the kids had a good time, and I had fun playing “Jeff” (the show host). Since all week it was predicted to rain that afternoon, I had planned most of the games to be indoor friendly (with some variations, and we did end up being able to take advantage of outdoor play), Emma’s fervent prayers to hold off the rain were answered!

As is the Survivor tradition, the game starts with everyone being divided into two teams. I got two different colors of scarves from the 99 cent store and hid them in brown paper bags. Everyone took turns choosing a bag and then opened them together to reveal what team they were on. Throughout all of the rounds there was no “tribal council” component where anyone gets voted off (figured that wouldn’t be a great experience for this type of party); rather, the winners of each challenge would score a reward as well as possession of a fake “immunity idol”, which would give them some benefit or advantage in the next challenge.


Team Challenge 1 – Flag Building

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Each team was given a blank posterboard and some art supplies (markers, crayons, etc.) and a time limit for choosing a team name and creating a corresponding poster / “flag”. I took pictures of the two finished products and posted them on Facebook for our friends to vote on (one hour time limit). In retrospect, I just wish I would have thought of the online social-network voting component earlier than the day before, so I could have done a warning post farther in advance to get more people involved. I did do one (the night before) and asked people to check back at that particular time of the day, and plenty of friends came through. With a combination of online and in-person unbiased votes, the “Ice Breakers” won this one by a slim margin (only one vote difference!). While we waited for the online votes to occur, we proceeded with the next few games.

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Team Challenge 2 – Blind Search & Puzzle

All but one person per team were blindfolded, and the remaining team member was the “caller” who had to direct their blind team members to find bags on the ground and bring them back. Once a team obtains all six bags, they can remove the blindfolds and open the bags to reveal puzzle pieces – first team to finish the puzzle wins. It was a pretty close match.

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Team Challenge 3 – Coconut Bowling

The coconut aspect was due to the whole “island” thing, although it quickly turned into soccer ball bowling after the first bowler easily cracked their team’s coconut – guess that’s what happens when you’re playing on asphalt with concrete curbs… It was still fine, though. Each team member got two rolls, and the team with the highest total score won. The previous winners had the advantage of choosing which coconut (of two) to use (which obviously didn’t end up being very important), but also could have one “redo”, where a single team member, only once during the game, can disregard one roll and have a do-over. I also added a twist that the single person with the highest individual score would receive a special bonus, the nature of which would be revealed after the game was over. That person received an object (toy gun) that would allow them (one time use) to remove one player (on either team) from any future team challenge.

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Team Challenge 4 – Turn-based Capture the Flag

A pure numbers / working backwards reasoning game: a version of flag capturing played with coins. 21 coins were laid out on the floor, and each team takes turns taking either 1, 2, or 3 coins per turn – the team to take the last coin on their turn wins. (previous winning team advantage was to choose which team goes first). They did this on only one season of the Survivor show that I can remember, and just like on TV, the team to win was the first one to figure out the trick / winning strategy and employ it.

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Twist!

We announced the banner winners and awarded the team prizes for that challenge. This was quickly followed by the classic Survivor mid-game team reshuffle; we went through everyone and did coin flips, heads on one team, tails on the other, until one team had half the players, remainder goes to the other team.


Team Challenge 5 – Tallest Tower

This was my best indoor-friendly simulation of a “digging” based game that often shows up on the show; I scattered the various pieces of a Jenga set around the living room and then buried them under several layers of sheets and blankets. Starting from tables in two other rooms, each team could send one person at a time into the living room to dig up and bring back only one piece per turn, relay style. As the pieces were returned the rest of the team worked to build the tallest structure they could within the 5 minute time limit. I was going to give the previous winning team a 30 second head start, but I think I may have forgotten to do that this time though – oops!

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Team Challenge 6 – Balanced Water Passing

I used a few very long 2×4 boards that had been sitting in my garage for a while to construct two “balance beams”. Teams had to stand on the beam while passing a bowl of water down the line and fill up a cup at the end of the line with whatever remaining water was left in the bowl by that point. This one ended up being pretty tough to do, so I made a couple adjustments to the rules as the game progressed (you only had to be standing on the beam and off the ground while you personally were touching the bowl, rather than the whole time the bowl was being passed, and also the person on the end could step off the beam before pouring into the cup). Another very close race.

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Merge!

Back inside, and time for a merge – no more team challenges, it’s every person for themselves from here on out, along with better prizes.


Individual Challenge 1 – Gross Food

Each round a different objectionable edible would be brought to the table and each person would have to eat a portion within a time limit to proceed to the next round. No bugs like on the show, but it’s pretty easy to find a decent selection of foods that most kids have a big problem getting down :-) On the last tie-breaker round, instead of a time limit the remaining players had to eat the item as quickly as possible – first one done wins the prize, which was a Starbucks gift card. [Note to self: go back and find a list of what all the items were - don't remember right now]

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Individual Challenge 2 – Endurance

Everyone stood around a table covered with quarters scattered about the surface. Players had to hold one hand out (palm-down) and use the other to add a quarter to a single stack positioned on that hand (between 1st and 2nd knuckle) every 30 seconds. If a stack falls over, the player is out, and the winner keeps all the quarters. Most actually did a pretty good job at balancing, but there’s only so long anyone can hold their hand out in front of them without faltering enough to tip the stack.


Individual Challenge 3 – Food Auction

A Survivor classic – this and the other food one were the only specific challenges from the show Emma mentioned that she wanted to be sure to do. Of course, in this setting, the “stakes” weren’t nearly as high (normally they do this on the show with a group of people who’ve had next to nothing to eat for weeks), but it still worked out OK. They were given a set amount of money to bid with, and items were brought out one at a time for them to bid on. Some were visible and desirable, others were covered up and required blind bidding – might turn out to be good, might not!

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Individual Challenge 4 – Memory / Elimination

I showed a sequence of cards (one visible at a time) and then everyone would have a chance (after the sequence complete) to write down the order as they remembered it. Get it right and you get the opportunity to remove one of three coins from any one player (similar to the Survivor “rope chopping” challenges). Lose all three coins and you’re out; last person remaining wins. The interesting spin on this is that you can get every one correct and still be eliminated, because it’s other people taking you out. Winner got an Amazon gift card.

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Wrap up

Towards the end of the last game the parents were showing up and it was time to go, so that one was a bit rushed, but all in all I think it turned out pretty well. I think we captured a lot of the fun parts of the challenges they do on the show, and left out some of the strategic components involving voting people out (or voting to win at the end), etc., since I didn’t think that would be a great thing to do for a kids party.

Special thanks to Randy Jr. for taking the photos and video as we went!

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Dell Streak Review

I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time, but in a way perhaps it’s best that I did, since I’ve now had 4 months to get a more complete feel for all the details and thus (hopefully) give a more well informed review. So, here we go… this is the Dell Streak:
Dell Streak

Summary / Caveats

In an effort to avoid burying the lead, I’ll start right off by saying that this phone (or “tablet” – whatever you want to call it) is perfect for me. I keep pretty up to date on the latest phone news, and I can honestly say that there is no other phone out there right now I would want in its place.

Regarding the caveats, the main point is the “for me” part of that first sentence in the previous paragraph; I totally recognize that different people value different things when it comes to products like this, so hopefully you can take what I say as coming from that perspective.

It’s probably also worth just briefly mentioning that the device originally came with Android version 1.6, and I happily used that for quite a while before eventually upgrading to Froyo (version 2.2). Doing so was an easy process, and it’s much faster and better in other ways I won’t expound on in the interest of brevity. I highly recommend upgrading, although the new devices now come with it from the start.

Size – Tablet vs. Phone

I’ll start by addressing what seems to be the most talked about feature of this phone: its size. With a 5 inch screen, it is substantially bigger than any other phone on the market (for comparison, the iPhone and many other Android phones are 3.5 in.) Because of this, it is billed by Dell and considered by many to be in the “tablet” category, even though (unlike many other tablets) it has all the same calling features as cell phones. Granted, it’s a bit big to hold up to your head and talk into (although it’s certainly possible) – I normally just use bluetooth or the speaker-phone capability, so that’s no problem.

Streak iPhone

The potential downside related to this that a lot of people are afraid of is whether it will fit in your pocket, since that’s where most people carry their phones. For me, it fits perfectly fine in every pair of shorts or pants I own, although I often jokingly say that if I were ever to get into the “skinny jeans” fad it could become an issue.

For reasons I’ll briefly expand on later in this review, the size was actually the primary selling point for me. It is large enough to totally satisfy what I would be looking for from a “tablet” device (comfortable web browsing, reading, etc.) BUT still small enough that I can take it with me everywhere, as you do with your standard phone. Having a bigger screen tablet would actually be a compromise for me, since then I’d have to lug it around as a separate “thing” rather than just fitting it into my pocket. If I’m going to carry around something extra, I’d much rather have a more functional device like a netbook or light-weight laptop than a tablet that doesn’t really offer me anything I don’t already have from my phone.

The only real downside for me in this regard is that it’s more difficult to use it without attracting a lot of attention. It’s such a unique and interesting device that it attracts small crowds of interest pretty much any time I pull it out and use it in a public setting. But who knows, for some that might be a good thing – just something to be aware of at least.

Feature Highlights

I could go on for a long time about all the cool apps and Android features, so I thought I’d try to keep it brief here, and just mention a few quick, standout things that I thought were really cool. These aren’t necessarily exclusive to this phone, and I’m trying (not completely succeeding) to avoid as much as possible doing a negative contrast to alternative platforms like the iPhone in this post. Those who know me know my feelings on that; I’ll just briefly mention that some of the coolest features about Android are made possible by the degree of open access you get to the underlying hardware platform, as well as the open nature of the OS / software platform itself. With great power comes great responsibility, and yes, Android developers and even users can also shoot themselves (or their phones, at least) in the foot, but *for me* I value the open for innovation side of that trade-off. (I also don’t use training wheels on my bicycle – they’re certainly “easier to use” and are great for those who need them, but too restricting for those who don’t).

Google Voice Integration

If you’re not already sold on GV, go check it out (fully explaining why it is so cool is beyond the scope of this post; I’ll do it in another if anyone is interested). Once you’ve learned that it (or something like it) is the future, and that phone communication without it seems very antiquated, you will appreciate that on Android devices you can have true and full GV integration. By this I mean that you can configure it so that if you make a call (from your normal contacts list) or send a text message, etc., it will automatically flow through GV. This is a huge convenience; there are GV apps on other platforms (and you should check them out if you’re on those) but none offer quite the same degree of integration.

Reading

This is a huge one for me; it’s actually the primary reason why the size of the device was such an important factor. (It does video well too – I just don’t watch that much video). I like to read all sorts of stuff, but there are two things that the screen size was particularly important for: (1) programming books, because they often have illustrations and formatted code samples that can get lost on a text-only view or require too much scrolling to see on a small screen, and (2) comic books. I actually have a fairly large library of comics; some companies put out DVDs a while ago containing decades worth of their monthly published works, and more and more newly published titles are being offered digitally now. I had tried out comic reading apps on other devices (iPhone) but there was too much zooming and scrolling required; on this device, most normal comic pages comfortably fit the width of the screen and only tiny writing or a lot of artistic detail requires any zooming.

Speech Recognition

This is another huge one; for *every* place you can enter text (any app, etc.), you can speak it instead, and the recognition is superb. Especially when you have kids (or other people) who use texting as their preferred method of communication, it makes it much easier to send a quick reply by just speaking it instead of typing.

Navigation

One (of many) areas that the speech recognition comes in very handy on is Google Navigation. You may have seen some demo videos of this before (there are probably some at that link) but this is basically a top of the line, audio turn by turn, street view GPS system, with no need to even know the address of where you want to go. As an example of just how easy it is to use, I can hop in the car, open the app, and speak “Foster’s Freeze, Ventura California” and within 1-2 seconds the navigation opens up and begins speaking directions on how to get there from wherever I am. (Not that we go there that often, that example just came to mind as one of the first times I tried the feature just to see how well it worked).

Sky Map

Not a whole lot to say on this one, I just think it’s really cool (demos at the link). Hold up the phone to the night sky and it will tell you what you’re looking at, draw lines for constellations, tell you where planets are, etc.

Alternative Market and App Delivery Options

It is critical in my opinion that a software platform (something for which developers can write and publish applications, and which end users can choose from and enjoy) have a variety of possible distribution channels and options that enable fair market competition. Google’s Android Market is the default standard “app store” for Android, but the critically important aspect is that if Google (or the phone carriers, or anyone else) decides that a particular app should not be offered in their store, they have every right to make that decision, but that does not mean that the app is banned from the platform altogether.

Other companies can start their own “markets” to distribute apps (Amazon plans to do this for Android) without needing Google’s (or anyone else’s) blessing, and developers themselves can even distribute apps directly to users with no middle man, if they so choose. Other more restrictive platforms actually make it impossible to publish “free software” (as defined by licenses like the GPL), whereas Android allows users to install applications from any source they trust.

Android / Openness

The previous point is one of many specific examples of this larger issue. I briefly touched on this earlier, and I also promised not to get into it too heavily, so I won’t. I’ll just say that I do think there are important principles behind the choices we make regarding which software we use and support. I run Linux on all my home computers for many of the same reasons, and the great thing about Android is that now Linux (and the principles behind it) are undeniably experiencing heavy mainstream use, dispelling the “hard to use” myths that haven’t really been true for a long time.

It’s my hope that the widespread adoption of the platform will eventually lead to the beginnings of understanding the principles and values behind it, and the adoption and subsequent demand for those principles and values in consumer use, but I’m not fooling myself in that regard: I realize that most people don’t care about those things – I just think they should and hope they eventually do.

Support / Repair


Just have to wrap this up with an account of the outstanding customer service I received from Dell. The “gorilla glass” screen on these devices is pretty tough and scratch resistant, but unfortunately it’s not unbreakable, as I found out a few weeks ago, while attempting to move a very heavy desk (that I should have gotten help with). I inadvertently rested the edge of the desk on my leg to reposition my grip, forgetting that my phone was in my pocket. I later removed it to find the screen cracked, which significantly dampened my spirits for the evening.

I called up Dell the next morning to explore my options for repair / screen replacement, and after a very short (<5 min.) wait, and a brief friendly conversation with the helpful representative, I learned that since the devices are so new they don't have repair facilities in place yet, so the only option is getting a whole new device. This was followed by a brief hold time (presumably while he got approval), after which he came back and offered me a full replacement (brand new device), in light of the lack of repair options, even though the damage was clearly not covered by the warranty.

I do have to admit that I had done some research online first and knew about the lack of repair options, and had heard mostly reports of "sorry, you'll just have to buy a new one" mixed with a comparatively few reports of replacement offers. So, going into the conversation I definitely was angling for that outcome, although I never directly mentioned or requested it myself - didn't need to. It's amazing what a little conversational skill (and lack of negatively judging someone with an accent) can do for you :-)

Wrap Up

Hope that was helpful and/or enjoyable for some of you. I’ll repeat that I don’t necessarily think this is the phone for everyone, but if you’re like me, and you’re looking for all the benefits of a tablet in a device that you can always have with you, I think the Dell Streak is an excellent option to consider.

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Long Overdue Comic-Con 2010 Post

Still well within the two-months-afterwards range, here are my thoughts on attending the most recent San Diego Comic-Con.

I caught a ride down there with the Camerons, and enjoyed spending some time with them as well as Jason Brooks. We were able to stay at some available rooms in a friend’s condo, which was great in that it allowed us to split up an already insanely low rate to stay there, making the whole trip pretty cheap overall.

I managed to score a four-day pass back in October (they sold out in November, which is pretty crazy for an event in July). I wanted to check out the full experience, since this was my first time going, despite being a life-long comic fan. I especially wanted to go this year since there seem to be ever-increasing rumors of it moving in the future. The two potential spots I’ve heard thrown around the most are Anaheim / LA (which would be great since it would be closer for me) or Las Vegas (which wouldn’t be so great since I’m not a big Vegas fan), so I really wanted to get down there at some point before that happened. I’ve since heard from people who are more in the know that the most likely scenario at this point seems to be that it will remain in SD.

As for the con itself, I did really enjoy it. In some ways it was almost too much – everything about it was huge. The expo floor is exponentially larger than any event I’ve been to before, and if you really wanted to check out every single thing (company, artist, etc.) it would be a challenge to catch it all even given four days. I got the chance to attend several panels, only some of which were comics related. As far as the comics content went, I found it all really interesting yet almost frustrating at the same time. It seems like there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on right now, but buying comics has gotten to be a pretty expensive habit / hobby, so I’ve scaled back to only getting a very few titles (in addition to the stuff I buy for the kids, which I also read). I’m hoping the digital revolution will change that going forward, but so far it seems like that is off to a slow start (and still relatively expensive).

Comic-Con has also become famous (and taken some flak) for its increasing focus on stuff that isn’t necessarily directly associated with comics. I went to one Lego panel that was particularly interesting, but most of the other non-comics content revolves around other entertainment industry stuff that has a loose tie to comics at some point. I’m guessing it may have really taken off with the recent explosion in super hero movie popularity (and quality), quickly (and thankfully) followed by other movie adaptations of non-super hero comics, although for many of those (History of Violence, for example) the larger audience is probably unaware of the association. I think that partially paved the way for generally or thematically associated properties that weren’t specifically tied to or based on comics but appealed to the same sort of audience (TV series like LOST, BSG, Heroes, etc. for example). Of course, there’s always been a healthy cross-over with sci-fi, so there’s a lot of that too, and video games… the list is too long to detail here.

The most recent non-comics “thing” that became a big deal was Twilight. I think that must have been a much bigger focus last year (with the movie preview) than this year, since I saw almost nothing related to it at all while I was there. I’ve said it before, but while a lot of people (especially classic “geeks”, which is a camp that comic fans generally fit into) like to rip on Twilight, I don’t have a big problem with it. While I may not really be a fan (don’t know for sure since I’ve never read the books or watched the movies), I don’t like to get into the business of telling other people what to enjoy. It’s anyone’s right to tell a story that makes creative twists to a classic type of tale (vampires in this case), and it’s any fan’s right to enjoy or not enjoy that take.

I think the Comic-Con specific complaints about this (and other non-comics media interests in general) is that it takes focus away from the comics, which should be the heart of the show, but I can now say that according to my personal observation that is not happening. If anything, it’s exposing those fans, drawn in because of their interest in one particular brand, to a larger spectrum of geek culture (including comics) and that can really only be a good thing for those of us who are interested in seeing those other aspects survive / thrive, since it’s increasing the size of the audience.

Another aspect that cons like these are known for is the costuming. While there were certainly a decent number of people dressed up and several were quite elaborate, I’d actually say that it isn’t as popular as I was anticipating it to be. Contrasting it to Anime Expo in LA (which Christian and I attended one day of earlier in July), I think the people at AX were generally much more into this sort of thing (higher % of people dressed up, more quality, etc.)

Anyway, all that being said, I felt Comic-Con was a pretty enjoyable experience. If I were to go again in the future, (which would be much more likely if it were closer), I’d be a bit torn about going for all four days. On the one hand, it is a long time to be away from the family, so I think I’d want to make it a family trip if we did that. On the other hand, picking out one or two days to go would be difficult as well, especially if you’re looking to see some particular content or panel. The tickets sell out so long before they ever announce any of the scheduling that you pretty much have to take your chances as far as that goes. One thing I did observe in this regard that I wasn’t aware of before going is that Sunday is a much more “kid focused” day, so I think I would like to target that day specifically in the future and bring the kids.

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Last Airbender Review / Rant

Brief Summary

I enjoyed it. It wasn’t nearly as good as the cartoon (more detail later), but taken on its own, for what it was, I thought it was OK. Not great, but certainly not deserving (IMHO) of the bashing it has received, especially relative to that other recent “Avatar” movie, which I thought was pretty bad (way worse than this).

It hit the main points of Season (Book) 1 of the cartoon. They obviously trimmed out a lot of detail, but that’s too be expected when condensing 20-something episodes down to a movie-length tale.

Keeping in mind the fact that I liked it – here are two of my nitpicks, followed by a general rant that isn’t specifically about this movie.

“Race-bending”

I’m not sure how prevalent this complaint is outside geek circles, but there is quite the controversy surrounding this movie in regards to the racial makeup of the cast. [Here's a brief overview of the main problem]

I think the problem as it relates to the main characters is definitely a bigger (perceived) deal to people more familiar with eastern or Asian cultures who were very aware of the ties that were present in the original cartoon (not as much in the movie), whereas it may not even occur to most other people, probably largely due to the manga-esque eye styling in the toon.

That being said, the voices for the main characters were spot-on, so that helped quite a lot. To be honest, I took much more of an exception (in regards to “racebending”) with the fire nation casting, but let’s not get off on that tangent.

Humor / Darkness

This was by far the biggest departure from the source material. The cartoon contained healthy doses of humor, usually coming from Sokka and sometimes uncle Iroh (my fave in the toon). In stark contrast, I can’t remember a single joke or humorous scene in this movie.

Even Aang is much more light-hearted (at times) in the toon. Sure, there were serious moments when he reflected on the reality of the things that had happened with the appropriate level of somberness, but in the movie they may has well just have changed his name to “Angst“. And this goes across the board for the whole story; I think when it came to chopping stuff out they just decided to eliminate all sense of happiness, which I don’t think was entirely necessary and definitely makes it a significantly different experience.

General Rant

The biggest problem that has been bothering me about this started well before this film was released (or even made). It’s the general concept of re-doing stories that have previously been told (well, in many cases) in animated form, as if animation is somehow not quite good enough, and that something can only be really big or significant as a live action feature. I call BS.

Taking this as an example, while it was OK, I’d strongly recommend to anyone that they get the DVDs of the cartoon series and watch those instead, and maybe only follow up with the live action version if they’re interested. I have the feeling that for a lot of people who see this version first, it might turn them off from the cartoon, which would be a shame, since it’s so much better.

Just in case you don’t believe me on that yet, here’s exhibit B: Transformers. I don’t know about you, but personally I think the recent live action versions have been steaming piles. Yes, I know the original cartoons were essentially just long toy commercials… and yes, I realize that they want to show off their cool, ever-evolving special effects powers by putting stuff on the screen that’s more “believable”. The problem is that they often end up going overboard at the expense of story-telling. In TF, the millions of interlocking and spinning gears on each character may have been “impressive”, but for me, it just wasn’t as good as plain old boxy robots; sorry.

Now I also know that the reason they do it is because the dollars prove that most people do not share my position on this (with rare exceptions like Pixar), but I guess that’s really the primary target of my rant: people who for some reason can’t grasp the idea that great stories might be available in animated form, so they won’t even pay attention to any of them until someone “live-action”‘s them up. The problem is that conversion is almost always for the worse. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but at the moment I can’t think of a single case in which the live action was better (IMHO) than the original cartoon.

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The Apple / AOL Analogy

OK, so a couple days ago I posted this Twitter message:

The iOS/AppStore model is essentially making the same appeal as AOL (vs. open internet) in the early 90′s – safer, polished, easier to use.

Unfortunately, the constraints of Twitter just make it too difficult to really explain or discuss that kind of thing, so I thought I’d flush out what I meant by it here instead.

What prompted this initially was I was thinking back to the early 90′s when I had a NetCom (“real” internet) dial-up account. Almost everyone else I knew personally who was “online” was using either AOL or some similar competitor (CompuServe, etc.). More specifically, I was thinking about how I used to try to explain to people why the “real” internet was so much better than the AOL walled garden, and mostly I was remembering (having flashbacks to) how utterly unsuccessful those attempts were.

People still weren’t sure whether WWW stood for wild, wild west or world wide web; all they “knew” was that there were dangerous hackers waiting to infest their computers with all manner of virii and use them to launch nukes at Russia after draining their bank accounts. Not to mention the porn. And, perhaps the most frightening of all, the people talking to each other unmoderated, uncensored, and anonymous. But most importantly of all they “knew” that AOL was “keeping them safe” from all of this. (of course all these things they “knew” weren’t accurate, but the important part was that they believed them).

But even those who weren’t put off that way (intimidated away from the open net and towards AOL) still had little interest in the open internet. Another common reason was the usability. AOL was insanely easy to get up and running relative to a true internet account. AOL’s content was polished and clean; the internet was extremely messy and for the most part ugly (relatively speaking). AOL was the gatekeeper, because you don’t want “just anyone” putting stuff out there with no “quality control” – that would be a disaster.

Truly the only real, substantial and present (at the time) appeal of the “true” internet over AOL in those days was one thing: freedom. The problem is that for most people, that isn’t a benefit they can see, feel, or imagine in the moment. Its biggest payoff really comes in the long run, but that’s not a trade-off most people are willing to make for ease of use and beauty today.

However, the primary encouraging thought that occurred to me was this: it didn’t actually matter that I wasn’t able to sway many people over to what I saw / foresaw as the ultimate better solution, because all of the advantages that a free platform offered DID eventually cause it to surpass the walled garden approach, and looking back now, I think it’s easy to see that it was the inevitable conclusion.

Yes, it took a long time. Yes, most web sites still sucked. Most (going by raw numbers / percentages) still do. Yes, there were/are dangers out there to be dealt with. And (perhaps most importantly), all along the way the “average user” never really cared much at all about the conflict, or was even aware that it existed. In spite of all those things, enough people, motivated by both creative opportunity and commercial gain, embraced the open platform and eventually made the walled garden model it was competing with obsolete.

Basically, the point of all of this was that it is both futile and unnecessary for me to try to convince people to see things from my point of view in regards to issues like the Apple App Store. It doesn’t really negatively impact me much personally, and most people just don’t care, and they don’t need to. I think there is too much to be gained by the success of the open alternative for it not too eventually overtake the ultra-closed / restrictive model. So I’m not really going to worry about it too much anymore, and I don’t think anyone else really needs to either. Awareness is still important, but for the people who aren’t, it’s no big deal. They’ll eventually get off of AOL once the plug has been pulled and/or the rest of the world has moved on / passed them by. :-)

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LOST Wrap-up

It’s been a while since I posted on here, but I figured with LOST wrapping up and so many people talking about their thoughts about the show it would be good for me to put up at least a not-so-brief summary of my take on the show as a whole.

*Quick note: with one huge exception (the ending – which I will cover last so that you can skip it), this post will contain no specific plot point references, for the purposes of preserving a spoiler-free experience for anyone who wants to read this but hasn’t yet watched the show. I personally feel this is essential to the full enjoyment of the show, as is watching every episode in order from beginning to end, in the same way you wouldn’t turn to the last page / chapter of a book and read it before or instead of the whole story. However, I will gladly discuss particular details in the comments for this post, so consider that a spoiler warning / invitation.

Introduction

Anyone who knows me probably knows that I have been a huge fan of the show for quite a while. While ranking TV programs is obviously a hugely subjective task (especially across genres, etc.), I’m pretty comfortable in saying that IMHO this is up there in my top 5 – possibly only topped by the Twilight Zone. I think it was ground-breaking in its story-telling approach, ranging from the creative exploitation of the concept of mystery (more on that later) to the minute details that make the show great in ways you might not even notice unless you’re paying attention. For example, the musical score was such a subtly important part, carefully crafted to guide the viewer on an emotional level through the twists and turns of the unfolding drama.

What about the unanswered questions?

There is a lot of ground to cover here, and I won’t address most of the specific points in the post, but will happily do so in the comments, for the reasons mentioned above. I think in some cases (many actually, and I have as many theories as anyone else) there are clear enough answers present; it’s just that they weren’t all spoon-fed and spelled out, in order to leave room for personal interpretation and also just to avoid dumbing things down. However, at the same time it’s undeniable that some things just flat out weren’t explained. And I’m so glad for that.

It’s the element of mystery that I would give the most credit for what made this show so great. If you haven’t already watched / read / listened to J.J. Abrams’ TED talk on the Mystery Box go do it now. The process of wondering is so much more important and enjoyable than even finally finding the “answer” ever could be. I believe that in some cases even the most creative answer can never possibly be as satisfying as the question and all that exploring the question may lead to.

A well done mystery invites the observer (reader, viewer, etc.) into the actual creative process of the work. Much in the same way that a reader of a good book collaborates with the original authors as their mind constructs the visual and aural representation of the world they are being guided through by mere text on a page, a well crafted mystery draws the observer into an investment in the story that goes beyond what any writers would be capable of delivering on their own. The theories of what could be captivate the imagination and compel one to explore all the possibilities that the narrative itself exposes in a way that is unique to (and thus uniquely enjoyable by) each observer.

As the story progressed, some mysteries were inevitably answered, but thankfully (although some would say frustratingly) they often led to yet more questions. I submit that it’s the questions, not the answers that those of us who loved the show enjoyed so much. Think about it: looking back, would you say “the others” (as a concept) were a more interesting / compelling part of the story before or after you found out more about them?

The End

*This part will contain spoilers, so I’d urge you to not read it if you haven’t already watched the whole show.

The ending of the show is understandably at the forefront of everyone’s minds. I suspect that most people watching didn’t really have any solid idea of how it would end (which is exactly as it should be), but I also suspect that even after seeing it, some people may feel a bit unsure about how the ending connects to the rest of the show in a meaningful way, and therefore are unsure about how they feel about it.

Here’s my take on it: the whole “afterlife” angle did not come out of the blue, but rather was an integral part of the foundation of the story all along. There are probably hundreds of ways to explore this aspect, most of which I’m sure I haven’t thought of. I would offer for consideration that fact that since episode one of season one, theories about purgatory / the afterlife / atonement, etc. abounded. Of course, now we know that the exact details of the story have unfolded and connected to this concept in a way that (I suspect) no one fully saw coming, but at the same time I think it’s undeniable that the groundwork was always there in some form.

Specifically, (as an example) I always felt that the “flashbacks” weren’t only a creative story-telling technique, although they certainly were that. I think they were also showing the island (through forces that thankfully remain largely a mystery) actually bringing aspects of each character’s character (history, etc.) to the surface and “dealing” with it by presenting them with situations on the island that related to their past experiences. Through this process / journey, often involving extremely unlikely events or even supernatural “coincidences”, many of the characters were directed down a path that eventually led to closure or “redemption” in their lives. In several cases, once that had occurred (their time was done), they died. This is only one illustration of how the island was closely bound to the afterlife all along, preparing the people on it and helping them wrap up their lives in the time they had left, before passing on.

I think some of the people who may have felt left hanging a bit perhaps may have been those who were more invested in the sci-fi side of the various theories behind some aspects of the show. While I certainly count myself among those sci-fi fans, I also recognize that first and foremost, this was always a story about the characters on the show, not necessarily (primarily) the intriguing backdrop that their stories play out on. The whole show constantly referenced the intricate connections that bind people together in life. These connections are so fundamental that life itself cannot be extracted or separated from those bonds, because they are actually part of what composes life (and whatever lies beyond). I think in light of that, the ending of the show couldn’t have been more fitting.

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