Posts Tagged ‘review’

What Exploratorium

4 October 2011


Dear J-

Back in San Diego we sometimes go to the Reuben Fleet Science Center, which is okay as far as children’s science museums go: it’s got a fair number of neat hands-on demos and exhibits and there’s an ever-reliable room of fun where figgy can run around and go shoppinig with a little cart to her heart’s content. It’s definitely not an all-the-time sort of place but I thought that after going to the very good but very crowded Tech Museum of Discovery in San Jose last time we might as well try the very famous California Academy of Science in Ssan Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Bottom line: if your kid is expecting to participate, don’t bother.

I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed, as the old Exploratorium that I remember going to nearly twenty years ago had the kind of interactive exhibits I remember loving, between swirling clouds of mist and rippling fabrics, hand-crank generators demonstrating the relative efficiency of lightbulbs and (didn’t they? or am I just thinking of the Pacific Science Center?) the bike ride on a high rail demonstrating center of gravity. If that position has been usurped by San Jose then we spent way too much time and money today driving up to San Francisco and precious sanity besides: do you want to do this? No? Well, why are we here, anyways?

I admit I have a ready answer for that last question, though: because I wanted to go. I wanted to try it out, I wanted to see what it was about. I’d read glowing descriptions of how wonderful and enriching it was, and there is indeed some interesting stuff there but it’s really geared towards the above-four set: let’s say eight year old geeks or ten year old kids. We may be back later, when they’re better able to appreciate it, but not soon and not for lack of things to do in San Jose. That lesson’s pretty apparent: despite my love for the City there’s little that can’t be done down here more quickly and cheaply.



Broke Ways

27 September 2011

Dear J-

Watch enough TV and eventually you begin trying to fit your life into its strictures. I’m far from the one who’s got the “kill your TV” bumper sticker going and not quite a rabid defender of the vidiot box, as we did spend a significant amount of money on both the TV and the recurring cost of the TiVO but this summer rather than watch reruns or surf around trying to figure out what worked for us we spent the evenings separately reading the feeds we’d set up in our RSS readers. And we talked. Granted, most of the talks were about things like “did you see that” or “I shared that with you yesterday, how come you haven’t read it yet?”

Now that the fall TV season is back, though, and we have the TiV”O for terrestrial TV, we try to have it all: reading and watching, a house divided falls against itself. No, not quite that dramatic. What ends up happening is we have too many choices for entertainment now and while I’m busy fiddling with my various tumblr accounts, theVet’s waiting for me to finish so we can watch TV or vice versa. The danger with TV is that the shows that I thought I’d love pale in comparison both to what I’ve been reading over the summer and what my expectations were. For instance, 2 Broke Girls has an interesting hook and a decent premise but is let down a bit in the execution: the lines are so wooden that I’m having a hard time believing the actors as the characters they play.

Besides that the show is filled with stock characters and stereotypes which hurts the watchability: okay, we get it. She’s bitter and jaded but that just concelas a heart of gold; she’s naive and spoiled but sweet. Together they are an unstoppable force. There are a ton of these odd-couple stories everywhere you look but the problem with TV is that I end up believing it for half an hour or so at a time and then end up confused that my life isn’t mirrored on the screen. Once that half hour is up, though, I go back to realizing how much better real life is and head back to it, smug and satisfied.


Grass is Greener

14 April 2011

Dear J-

One of the truly dumb things I did was buy a smartphone. The temptation of having a full-bore connection to the Internet wherever I go (in the limited network) makes it incredibly tempting to pull out the phone and disconnect from the rest of the world at large. Plus the battery needs to be charged often and thus I’m ever vigilant/paranoid about keeping it topped off before heading out on trips or car rides. The phone in question is a low-end Android machine with a good service plan, assuming you have coverage, and has been held up as a prime example of why Android is winning the smartphone market over iOS (Apple) and WebOS (HP, neé Palm). Why would anyone pay more, right?

Well first off I agree that most service plans are a ripoff in this country, driven there by lax regulatory pressure (most of the people who complain about high prices are the same ones who turn a blind eye to anti-competitive market monopolization) and complacency along with the unknown handset subsidy costs built-in to that two-year contract. But having lived with all three systems (my favorite is WebOS, which would be great if it wasn’t for the limited choice of applications) and several devices there’s nothing enthusiastic to say about Android except that it’s competent and tweakable, but sometimes you’d rather just get things done than tweak and tweak. For instance, iOS now has native Bluetooth HID support built in (and I believe the latest iteration of WebOS does as well) but I can’t find something similar on Android without an extra-cost download. People decry the closed nature of iOS but when the focus is on doing the heavy lifting and getting out of the way of the usability of the item I’m all for it.

The particular device I’m using, a Samsung Instinct, has  a built-in hardware keyboard, the use of which disables all auto-correct and auto-suggest except for the most common contractions. I have never felt more illiterate in my life. The memory needs constant attention — when the available RAM drops much below 40MB all tasks run slowly, and so the one application that’s always running is an app to kill other apps (including itself) rather than the elegant card interface of WebOS that didn’t stutter as badly as this phone. Still, though, knowing the limitations it’s useable and useful besides, letting me consolidate my life and multiple gadgets into one place, which was the dream of five years back. I just think that should my carrier — Virgin Mobile USA — ever release an iOS or better yet WebOS device (it could even be a Prē or Prē Plus, I’m not picky) I’d drop this phone in a heartbeat.


Arcade Birds

20 September 2010

Dear J-

Now that I think about it I used to play a game like Angry Birds, though with considerably more mess around the house. That particular game, if you haven’t been suckered into the US$1 cost, has you slinging various birds (you start out with the red strictly ballistic birds, moving on to the blue splitting ones, the yellow accelerating triangles, the black bombs, and the white egg-bomb dropping hens) at structures the nefarious pigs have built to keep themselves safe. The mechanic is remarkably simple: on a touchscreen, pull (drag) the bird in the slingshot to send them flying towards the structure, and tap to activate the special power. Yet it’s the most compelling waste of time I’ve had since Plants vs. Zombies.

Part of it is no doubt nostalgia for my childhood, when I’d build various playing card-based structures (generally single-level starting with a T, though I wasn’t averse to mixing portrait with landscape for card orientation) and then using a launcher, proceed to knock it down with a 2×3 LEGO block. With my borderline obsessiveness, I’d be able to spend several hours, up through high school, after school building and destroying. Part of me liked seeing the elegant structures fall into the initial signs of decay and ruin under the shelling — and besides, really, what else was I going to do with the flashcards I’d had for simple arithmetic?

That presents an opportunity, I suppose, for a serious upgrade: it would seem simple enough to build a level editor for the game, whether it’s a module within the application or a desktop editor. The developers have done a marvelous job with physics and mechanics so the game plays intuitively, and sure, there’s going to be levels like the Lode Runner levels I made that aren’t tweaked just right to sustain the experience — but it makes the game more replayable. I have to say this about the old endless arcade games: there may have been no story, but the mechanics had to be right in order to induce you to pump quarters. Having an Angry Birds in my pocket is like a roll of quarters and an afternoon off.



5 September 2010

Dear J-

I upgraded Jerry Spinelli to just-read status a while ago, probably sometime after Maniac Magee and definitely after Space Station Seventh Grade.  So in other words I’ll pretty much read anything I can get my hands on, whether short story, novel, or grocery list.  I’m still not sure why it took so long to read Stargirl, though; it’s one of those I keep seeing and hearing about, but never quite getting a chance to sit down with the novel until today.

After getting back from a shopping trip this morning, everyone took a nap and I took the opportunity to work on a little homework (absurdly easy buoyancy problems) and read through the book.  There are characters you identify with, and others you wish you were, and still others you recognize as hiding deep in yourself — like any Spinelli novel, I suppose.  There are uncomfortable truths we have to face about ourselves, and I don’t think there’s one of us who’d feel completely comfortable supporting everything the eponymous Stargirl does.

Although the final work is perhaps not Spinelli’s strongest, the characters are memorable and the ending is a bit wistful as well:  that same what-if that plagues each of us when thinking back to the things we could have done.  Don’t let indecision ruin your plans, don’t be afraid to be laughed at, and most of all, don’t give up hope in your dreams.  Powerful stuff.


Mobile Type 2.0

16 March 2010

Dear J-

Call it the need to needlessly complicate: instead of just getting something that would work without a lot of fuss, I’m going to try a GPS solution employing a secondary receiver and an existing device, namely the Nokia N800 I’ve been writing this blog on for the last few months. The N800 is as from from the iPhone/iPod Touch as you can imagine two different touch-driven handhelds; whereas the iPhone exists in its own bubble, with focussed applications that work and work well, its potential hasn’t been truly unlocked: Bluetooth, but no HID stack that would let you type on an external keyboard; no camera on the Touch, no GPS without stepping up to the IPhone. With that said, it addresses 90% of what I need and I use it accordingly.

The N800 has a relatively byzantine method of turning on Bluetooth, but it works reasonably well (there is the occasional extra letter or long repeat, but compared to the laggy mess that I dealt with on the Treo, light-years better with a keyboard). Options are buried in menus; there is a full-blown console if you want or need and yet bugs persist. Turn off the Bluetooth keyboard and the on-screen keyboard refuses to return; sometimes the devices won’t pair or, despite pairing, no keys are read. For me, it’s annoying to go through three windows to connect; there should be a dedicated button, or at least a toolbar option list.

All in all, though, I think this is pretty reasonable; card slots mean that it’s entirely possible to use a real camera if I go on the road, and the machine is able to multitask, even if my poor brain is only able to take care of one thing at a time. Maemo WordPy is a better solution than anything that was on Palm OS5, and the lack of a hardware keyboard is outweighed by the ability to take full-size SD cards, instead of the goofy miniSDs of the N810. It’s still smaller than a netbook, if necessarily more limited, but I can cruise through a week of writing without having to recharge, and that counts for the most in my book.


Percy Jackson

28 February 2010

Dear J-

We are reading the Percy Jackson series (and by we, I mean that theVet is impatiently waiting for me to catch up so that she doesn’t blurt out important plot spoiler points in normal conversation), which is going mostly well; the pacing is exciting, and the books experiencing the same sort of bloat that Harry Potter did (each book getting successively longer and fatter, filled with fun story nonetheless, but at the expense of page count). In fact, the clearest analog or inspiration could be said to be Harry and his success; you have the same elements of the fantastical mixed in with the mundane modern world. As we so often dream, these books offer an escape from the ordinary and hope that we can all be special regardless of how little the outside world may think of us.

There’s two issues with Percy’s story (in the scant two out of five books that I’ve read, so far). First, there’s no sense of world-building; second, the dialogue keeps grating on my ear. Sure, the fantastical is pretty amazing here, but it’s all grounded in Greek mythology; the point may be to get kids interested in those ancient tales and seek out the source information, but I can see them being happy with the peeks under the tablecloth that they’re given here — the endless torment of Tartarus, the voyage of Odysseus. Unlike Harry, which featured a unique and accessible universe, the enjoyment of Percy is directly tempered by how big of a Greek geek you were/are. There are multiple instances where I find myself wishing I had some reference (Edith Hamilton, where are you?) available that I could bounce back and forth to check story details.

The pacing is good but every so often a character’s line from the book falls flat in a way that tells me it’s a middle-aged guy who wrote it, not a line some adolescent might blurt out. It wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t yank me out of the story abruptly; dialogue is a tricky thing, and adolescent dialogue is doubly difficult. I find myself reading the words aloud to see if it resembles the spoken vernacular (often it does not, so I tweak them to fit). It’s easy to be a critic, though, instead of reading for enjoyment and this is an easy, fun read. Recommended, with the caveat that you’ll want to bone up on your Greek myths between books.


Watched It

11 January 2010

Dear J-

I keep getting distracted; right now we’re half-following Watchmen as I try to ignore my sneaking suspicion that it’s somehow been turned into Forrest Gump with masks (seriously, what’s with the un-subtle musical choices, calculated to appeal to, well, me and my fellow Gen Xers? And who’s going to buy Carla Gugino as a sixty-seven year old? Well, I suppose that if Sally Field can be Tom Hanks’s mother in a movie just a few years after she was his love interest …). I suppose that there’s a lot that can be excused in the name of spectacle, but it plays out like a series of disconnected vignettes instead of a cohesive story.

It’s what the style is now, I suppose; instead of the rich tones of the original, to compress it down to the three hours (!) of film, we get it painted in bold strokes and pastiches. I said it before the film came out — so long as it pushes people to read the original, I suppose that it wouldn’t be in vain, but too often we substitute the movie as a reward for reading the source. Sometimes I wonder if the reading lists in high school was set by the availability of movies (likely the other way, as getting good stories cheap is easy when you can pull them from copyright-expired classics).

Back to the movie, then; what made dramatic sense and great pithy bon mots in the comic fall leadenly on screen. You might think that it’s inherent in the nature of the source material — how could you count on something as crass as this, especially compared with something like, say, Dickens, right — but it’s better than advertised: Alan Moore has written a believable world that breathes with as much menace and decay as, say, Blade Runner but this is the treatement it gets? Maybe I’m getting too jaded by movies in general, or my tolerance for crap is decreasing.


20th Cent

21 October 2009

Dear J-

The other thing I’ve been obsessed with lately is comic books; I’ve been reading (and can recommend) Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, now licensed and translated by Viz.  The complex plot and vast conspiracy unfolds slowly — here I can’t help but compare it to LOST, except without the annoying pacing deliberately designed to reward the most obsessive of fans (you know, the ones who stand up in panels and ask about the smallest continuity gaffes) — keeping me coming back for more; you want to dissect the smallest details in order to figure out clues to the shadowy villain “Friend.”

I still remember the hype that surrounded Stephen King’s IT when it came out in 1987; folks couldn’t stop talking about how thick it was, or how disappointed they were (you could almost draw a line there in his career, having transitioned from the taut thrillers of his early works to the overblown operatics of the middle period, save The Gunslinger — and that was written years before it was published)  IT is ultimately disappointing (a giant alien spider?  Really?) but there are echoes in 20CB; both stories flip back and forth in time between childhood and adults, showing how characters have grown and how they’ve been influenced.

Most media are focussed on evoking some kind of emotional response from the consumer; whether movie or TV or book.  The unique benefit of telling the story in graphic form lends to the mystery; early on we catch glimpses of the future — the apocalyptic future — strangely familiar and peaceful but knowing that the heroes have failed to stop the plot.  Could you sketch that in words?  Would it have been better to let the story unfold in a linear manner?  Some of my favorite stories — whether Watchmen or Final Fantasy VI — have plots that hinge on hope, with heroes who fail to expose evil in time, yet eventually prevail.  I suppose that the contrast between lows and highs increases the blacker you can draw the blacks.  Recommended.


Curious Incident

6 August 2009

Dear J-

I just wrapped up reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon); the narrator and protagonist is an autistic teenaged boy living in Swindon, England.  There’s been tragedies piled on top  of his life, and the plot revolves around everyone struggling to cope — with life, with school, and the central mystery of who killed the neighbor’s standard poodle, Wellington.  It’s a dry description, but with a scrupulously reliable narrator (he cannot tell a lie) the story is uniquely told, unfolding to reveal the killer and the consequences.  Plot chapters are interleaved with glimpses into the thought processes inside the narrator’s mind, fascinating as a conceit (how accurate?) and world we rarely experience (the author must have done research).  The writing becomes lyrical at times and I never pass up those chances.

But Mother was cremated.  This means that she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke.  I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral.  But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.

I hate reviews because most of them pad out their content with plot spoilers so that you might as well not even bother seeing the subject for yourself, so I’ll stop there.  If we accept that his story is an accurate portrayal of autistic behavior (and saying that is like saying a certain shade of red represents color in general; both fail to capture the broad spectrum), then it’s a curious mix of logical rationality (science and math trump religion) and superstition (yellow and brown).  I quite enjoyed it, in fact, and saw echoes — not of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man — of me.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

There is a movement afoot to link childhood vaccines with autism, as widespread vaccination and a rise in diagnosed autistic behavior have both shown up in recent years.  Some of it may be misdiagnoses — perhaps the threshold is lowering; there are any number of obsessive actions, from repeating words to insistence on a place for everything and everythng in its place that figgy shows.  It’s not said to take away from actual issues, just that tying it to vaccines doesn’t make much sense — there are any number of things, from the number of two-job parents to the rise of TV and Hannah Montana that have happened at the same time, and those links haven’t been explored fully, either.  It’s the same kind of lazy logic that infects Internet forums; wanting to believe makes us jump to conclusions well beyond what’s supported.

What struck a chord in me in the novel was the narrator’s social phobias, brought on by sensory overload:  he notices everything, which must then be processed and rationalized, and his mind just doesn’t keep up.  We so-called normals have some kind of automatic filter to help us gloss over certain details instead, but I insist that everyone has some detail they obsess over.  Again, accepting the premise of accuracy, the novel provides a vehicle for understanding, ultimately, our lives.