180 Degrees South

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I love this movie.  I guess it’s a couple years old now, but I only just recently discovered it.  It’s overflowing with breathtaking shots of beautiful mountains and oceans.  It’s got a great soundtrack.  And it tells interesting stories, some small and some large, in the lives of a few rock climbers, surfers, explorers, and just regular people in interesting places.

Watch it on Netflix streaming on your TiVo, Apple TV, iPad, Roku, etc; or buy it on Amazon.

(Note: the trailers on the website really don’t do it justice, especially the "Original Trailer".  And they sort of make it seem overly political, which it’s totally not.)

Posted by Anthony on at 07:46am

How to Watch Internet Video On Your TV (YouTube, Netflix, etc)

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I’ve been hearing more and more good things about the Roku box lately.  This is an inexpensive little device - between $79 and $129 - that connects to your TV and lets you watch tons of online video from places like Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand.  It also supports "channels" that allow people to add support for additional sources, including YouTube, and can display photos from Facebook and Flickr.  It even supports lots of smaller indie-type stuff like the TWiT.tv podcasts, and can play your custom Pandora music stations too.

There’s a similar box from Western Digital called the WD TV Live Plus that appears to include many if not all of the same features, plus better handling of your own photos and movies via USB sticks/drives.  It’s a little more pricey at $149.  But the Roku seems to be quite a well-loved product, whereas I haven’t heard much about this WD device yet.

Much of the online content that you can access through these kinds of devices is free, but that generally does not include feature films and popular TV shows.  For that you’d use Amazon’s VOD, which has movie rentals for a couple bucks each; or Netflix, which has a ~17,000-title library of instant-streaming movies and TV shows with unlimited access for as little as $8.99 per month.  Of course Netflix is also an amazing DVD-rental-by-mail service, and the $8.99 subscription is actually their entry-level one DVD at a time package; all their packages include the instant-streaming for no extra charge.

The ultimate solution for TV, though, is TiVo.  A TiVo costs $299 and is worth every penny.  I don’t know how I watched TV before TiVo... actually I do know: I just didn’t bother.  The TiVo’s interface for selecting shows to watch/record is by far the best I’ve ever used: there’s no messing with channels or dates or times, you just tell it the name of the show.  And its fast-forward (and rewind) implementation is perfect, to the point that trying to use any other devices’s FF/RW (I’m looking at you Boxee, Front Row, etc) is just aggravating.  More to the point for this article: through TiVo you can access Netflix, Amazon VOD, and lots of video podcasts like TWiT as well.  I’m not sure about Facebook and Flickr, but I have a Mac mini connected to the TV for various other geeky reasons, so I just use that for anything requiring a browser.

There’s also Apple TV and Google TV, but the former has been kind of a dud, is more expensive ($229) and supports neither Netflix nor Amazon VOD (though you can buy/rent content on it via the iTunes Store); the latter isn’t yet available, and seems like it might be a built-into-the-TV feature rather than a separate box you can add to an existing TV.  So for the time being, for non-geeky types who don’t want to spend a lot of money, the Roku box looks like a pretty nice solution.

Posted by Anthony on at 07:28am

I.O.U.S.A.: The Movie

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This movie is downright terrifying.  It’s also a must-see.  It’s a free instant stream for Netflix subscribers; there’s also a condensed 30-minute version on the movie’s website.

The movie explains the federal deficit, but does so in an interesting way (or maybe I’m just a nerd).  Here are just a few of the many great graphs used in the movie:

Federal spending in 2008:

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Federal revenue in 2008:

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Federal deficit in 2008:

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The last 30 years of federal budget deficits (and a few "surpluses"):

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The last 30 years of federal budget deficits, corrected for the fact that we’ve really been taking surpluses from the Social Security fund to pay for ever-increasing federal spending:

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What the next 40 years of deficits will look like, given the policies currently in place, as Social Security goes from surplus to deficit in the next few years:

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Projected spending in 2030 based on current policies; notice that "military" and "everything else" are statistically insignificant (too small to show up on the graph) compared to the health-care and social security items:

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Total unfunded liabilities of $53 trillion as of 2008 (it’s now more than $100 trillion):

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Direct quote from the movie relating to this next item: "Some people think that we can solve our financial problems by stopping fraud, waste, and abuse; or by canceling the Bush tax cuts; or by ending the war in Iraq.  The truth is, we could do all 3 of these things and we would not come close to solving our nation’s fiscal challenges."

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All of which is just another reason (not that we needed another) that this is completely insane:

Quoting The WSJ:

Last year, Mr. Obama made fiscal restraint a constant theme of his presidential campaign. ... However, since taking office Mr. Obama pushed through a $787 billion stimulus, a $33 billion expansion of the child health program known as S-chip, a $410 billion omnibus appropriations spending bill, and an $80 billion car company bailout.  He also pushed a $821 billion cap-and-trade bill through the House and is now urging Congress to pass a nearly $1 trillion health-care bill. [...]

When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion.  At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion.  The total national debt also soared to $7.5 trillion at the end of last month, up from $6.3 trillion shortly after Inauguration Day.


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Posted by Anthony on at 04:18pm

Mirrors, Starring Jack Bauer

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The movie Mirrors nominally stars Kiefer Sutherland, but make no mistake: that guy who’s threatening old men and taking nuns hostage at gunpoint is Jack Bauer.

As horror movies go, Mirrors was pretty good.  It has a relatively flimsy core premise, as is required for all horror movies.  But it doesn’t require that you suspend your disbelief for 100% of the movie, as many horror films do.

Then again I’m pretty heavily biased towards any movie starring Kiefer/Jack, so your mileage may vary.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:47am

We're Running Out Of Time! (Still!)

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The other night we watched the movie Dark City, which I hadn’t seen in about 10 years, not since it first came out.  I was surprised to see that, even 10 years ago, Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland was already delivering his trademark line, "we’re running out of time!"  He was even holding a gun and threatening some dude at the time.  It was great.  Even better than when his friend delivered the same line in Flatliners.

Posted by Anthony on at 02:46am

Netflix Ships 2 Billionth Movie

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Quoting the Netflix blog:

On April 1 Clay Shannon of Birmingham, Ala. received the two billionth movie, a Blu-ray version of the romantic comedy "Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist," and with it, a complimentary lifetime subscription to Netflix.

I called and emailed Clay to tell him the good news and for the longest time he thought it was an April Fool’s prank. Finally convinced, he was elated. [...]

It took eight years for Netflix to reach one billion shipments -- less time than it took McDonald’s to sell one billion hamburgers -- and just over two years to ship the second billion.

We love Netflix.  It’s essentially unlimited movies for $18 per month -- the cost of a single trip for two to a crusty movie theater.

It’s not hard to see why Netflix is so successful: they somehow manage to simultaneously be the cheapest and best way to get movies.

They seem to have a great corporate culture, too:

Quoting The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

When it comes to vacation, Netflix has a simple policy: Take as much as you’d like.  Just make sure your work is done.

Employees at the online movie retailer often leave for three, four, even five weeks at a time and never clock in or out.

Vacation limits and face-time requirements, says Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings, are "a relic of the industrial age." [...]

American workers get a median of 10 vacation days after one year on the job and 15 days after five years of work, according to Hewitt.  One in three Americans doesn’t use all his vacation, and barely one in 10 takes a break for two weeks straight, according to the nonprofit research firm Families and Work Institute.  But at Netflix, it’s estimated that most employees take off about 25 to 30 days per year, using the time to stay at home with the kids, travel to Cambodia or visit relatives in India.  It’s "estimated" because Netflix does not record vacation time, said Ms. McCord.

That whole article is worth a read.

Posted by Anthony on at 04:37am

We're Running Out Of Time!

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24 fans, if you haven’t watched the movie Flatliners since before you started watching 24, you should watch it again.  Not only because of one particularly hilarious and well-delivered line, but also to see where Jack Bauer got his toughness.

Posted by Anthony on at 12:50am

Inside Man

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We watched the movie Inside Man last week, and I thought it was great.  I may be partial to heist movies anyway (The Score; The Italian Job) but this one was pretty original, and I for one didn’t get the con until they spelled it out at the end.  Also, the scene in the middle between the thief and the little kid with the PSP is hilarious.

Posted by Anthony on at 10:30pm

King Corn

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Netflix now has about 10,000 movies in their "Watch Instantly" system, which allows you to stream the movies over the internet, and which is completely free for Netflix subscribers.  Most of the movies aren’t current hits due to licensing issues with the studios, which Netflix is working on I’m sure, but there’s still a lot of good stuff in there.

A few days ago I watched King Corn, which is a documentary about 2 guys who move to Iowa in order to grow an acre of corn and follow it through its harvest and into the market.  The movie was both interesting and informative.  By the end of it, you get the idea that they’re taking a dim view of the corn industry in America, but overall it does not come across as pretentious or judgmental at all.

Some (rough) quotes from the movie:

Quoting King Corn:

A fast food meal is largely corn: corn-fed beef, french fries of which 50% of the calories come from the corn oil they’re fried in, and soda which is primarily corn syrup.

Corn farms use anhydrous ammonia fertilizer which allows a 4x increase in yield compared to corn crops 2 generations ago.

Corn has been genetically engineered with one goal: increasing yield.  This is done by engineering the plants to be able to tolerate growing very close together.

Fields are sprayed with an herbicide called Liberty to kill weeds; the "Liberty Link" corn has been engineered to be resistant to this herbicide.

One acre of corn produces about 200 bushels or 10,000 pounds of corn.  Of this:

- About 50% is fed to animals to become meat
- 32% is either exported or turned into ethanol
- About 5% becomes sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup

Growing and selling corn would not be profitable without the government subsidies that encourage corn farming.

Prior to the 1970s, the US government paid farmers to not produce crops, to cut back on production.  Earl Butz changed that policy when he was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon.

We spend less of our income on food than any generation in history.

Posted by Anthony on at 12:02am

M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening

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Here is yet another glowing movie review by me.  Noticing this trend, I’d like to begin by pointing out that we have Netflix, and we watch probably about 6 movies each month; so it’s not that I just love every movie that comes out, it’s that I only post about the great ones.

Now, about The Happening: as predicted, I loved this movie.  Evidently I’m in the minority, though, as it’s gotten a mostly rotten rating on the tomatometer.

I think in order to appreciate The Happening, you have to be able to realize, admit, and/or accept that you’ve been desensitized over the years by scores of movies with gratuitous drama, slapstick comedy, explosions, and special effects.  Those things have their place, but when you’ve been pummeled by film after film of non-stop in-your-face madness, it can be hard to appreciate movies that are more subtle.

In fact, that applies to the other great M. Night movies too: Unbreakable and The Village.  They’re 2 of my favorite movies of all time; I like them better than The Sixth Sense despite the critical acclaim that that movie received.  I didn’t like Signs or Lady in the Water as much, though, so it’s not that I think M. Night is King Midas.

So what’s so great about The Happening?  Mark Wahlberg, for one thing.  But in general, the movie is quiet and subtle, which I think allows it to be intricate and interesting.  It’s also hilarious: there are a few scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, and the fact that they’re in the midst of a film that’s totally not a comedy only makes them more comical.

Some reviews of the movie say that it portrays small-town Pennsylvanians in an offensive way, but I’m from small-town PA and I love PA and I didn’t get that vibe.  Others say that its message is pretentiously environmentalist; again, that’s a vibe I didn’t get, and though I recognize that aspect of the plot, it’s nothing at all like, say, The Day After Tomorrow.

It would perhaps be fair to describe The Happening as anticlimactic, but I don’t think that detracts from the movie as much as it would in other, more typical action-packed kinds of movies.  And I’m seeing comments that this was a stay-till-after-the-credits movie, which we did not; I suppose it’d be prudent to make that standard policy given the huge post-credit event that apparently happens in Iron Man.  But we virtually never see movies in theaters anymore, which brings me to...

Movie theaters suck.  Each of our tickets cost ten dollars.  The cheapest item at the concession stand was a bottle of water for $3.75.  Of course I brought my own bottle of water, but I had to sneak it in like a tiny criminal.  The smallest popcorn you could get was $4.50.  For that price you can buy an entire box of popcorn -- six whole bags -- and it’ll taste better too.  Then we had to listen to a couple of meatheads yakking through all the previews and the first ten minutes of the movie, until we finally moved across the theater to get away from them.

It’s certainly nice to see a film on the big screen with surround sound, and going out to the movies is a nice experience in a way, but the exorbitant prices and obnoxious people just make me mad.  I guess that’s why Netflix gets $18/month from us, while movie theaters get about one visit every 6 months.

Posted by Anthony on at 03:01am

Cinderella Man

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Cinderella Man is yet another superb Russell Crowe movie.  I can’t believe that I’d never even heard of this movie until the other day when we saw a preview for it on another DVD.

Posted by Anthony on at 11:11am

The Happening

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What’s better than an M. Night Shyamalan movie?  An M. Night Shyamalan movie with Marky Mark in it.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:51am

Cloverfield

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I liked Cloverfield a lot.  It had the potential to be too hip for its own good, based on the trailer; and it had the potential to just be really terrible because of the whole filmed-via-handycam aspect; but it turned out to be neither.  The character who did most of the filming was great, and the way the two complementary storylines were woven together via the overdubbed tape was downright masterful.  And the complete lack of any recognizable Hollywood pinheads stars was refreshing.

Posted by Anthony on at 02:50am

No Country for Old Men

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No Country for Old Men: great movie, with great dialog, and lots of great little rabbit-trail stories told throughout the movie.  Interestingly there was almost no background music, unlike most thrillers where you know what’s about to happen because of the changes in the music.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:02pm

3:10 to Yuma

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Just saw the movie 3:10 to Yuma.  5 stars, easily.  Russell Crowe is amazing.  Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and 3:10 to Yuma are among the best movies I’ve ever seen, with Crowe giving amazing performances in all of them.

Posted by Anthony on at 04:42pm

Macworld 2008: iPhone Updates and More

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For Apple fans, Christmas comes in January, at the Macworld Conference.  Yesterday Steve Jobs took the stage at this annual event to give his keynote on the state of Apple and the new products and services that the company is releasing.  Apple nerd that I am, I maintained radio silence from the time the keynote started (noon eastern) for 3 agonizing hours until the video was posted online, to avoid hearing or reading any of the news before I could watch it firsthand.  (You can watch the video here, here, or here.)

The main impression I got from this particular keynote is that Apple right now is a company firing on all cylinders.  There was no single earth-shaking announcement like the iPhone from last year; instead there were four slightly smaller and relatively disparate announcements that show Apple is quite busy in several different areas.

Macbook Air

The big new product is the Macbook Air: a laptop so impossibly thin -- sixteen-hundreths of an inch at its thinnest -- that it fits in an envelope.  It’s got a full-sized (and LED-backlit) screen and a full-sized (also LED-backlit) keyboard, but no CD/DVD drive and almost no ports.  Probably most impressive is that the Macbook Air has 5 hours of battery life, compared to 2 hours or less for many other tiny notebooks.

Time Capsule

The second new product is the Time Capsule: a wireless router with a built-in 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive, primarily meant to provide simple automated backups of all the Macs in your house via Leopard’s Time Machine backup feature.

Incidentally, the heart of the Time Machine backup system is its dated backups, which allow you to "go back in time" through all your data and access/recover files from one day ago, two days ago, a week ago, a month ago, etc.  This is based on and made possible by the fact that on Unix filesystems, a single file can be accessed through multiple different filenames known as hard links.  So you effectively have a full data backup from each previous day, week, month, etc, but the amount of space used is only that required by one full backup plus the incremental changes between the backup dates.  That’s the magic of hard links: a single file on disk can appear to exist multiple times, once in each backup folder.  All of that to say this: when I was working as a system administrator and programmer in a bio lab at Penn State in 2004, I created a backup system based on exactly this same concept (which neither I nor Apple invented) using just BASH, cp, and rsync.  It was used to back up not only OS X, Windows, and Linux systems but also even Mac OS9 systems.  This was 3 years before Apple introduced the same technology in Mac OS X Leopard.  So, I win.

Apple TV + iTunes

The third keynote item was the rebirth of Apple TV.  Originally released about a year ago and since described by Steve Jobs as just a hobby for Apple, the Apple TV hasn’t been a smash hit: they haven’t released any sales figures for it, and yesterday Jobs admitted that -- along with Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, and others -- Apple had missed the mark in getting internet-based content into the living room.  But Apple TV "Take Two" fixes most of the shortcomings of the original: it doesn’t need a computer, it has a much-improved interface, it supports HD content, you can buy iTunes content on it directly, and you can now rent movies on it.  To top it all off, these new features are all available as a free software update to existing Apple TV owners, and the price of the Apple TV has been cut from $299 to $229.

The fact that iTunes now offers movie rentals is at least as big a deal as the Apple TV update.  Apple is currently receiving a small beating from the record labels, all of which are now offering their music as DRM-free MP3 files through Amazon’s music store, but withholding the DRM-free versions from Apple for their iTunes store.  And while Apple has been offering movies for sale through iTunes for a while now, the selection is slim because Apple has only secured deals with a few movie studios.  But with the new rental feature, Apple has signed up every major movie studio -- no small feat.  Apple is far and away the leader in digital distribution of music and movies, even with the aforementioned handicaps, so having every studio on board with rentals would seem to cement Apple’s position.

As an Apple fan and general geek, I’m fascinated by all of these things.  But most likely I won’t actually buy any of them.  I don’t really have a need for a super-thin notebook because I don’t travel much, and when I do, I’d rather have a more full-featured notebook than one that’s exceptionally thin.  Time Capsule is cool, but I run Linux on most of my systems, and I’m a data freak so I already keep multiple backups of all my files.  The new Apple TV and iTunes stuff is awesome, but I’ve recently discovered TiVo and don’t know how I ever lived without it for TV shows, and I’m extremely happy with Netflix for movies.

I guess that whole issue would come down to price: we currently pay ~$90/mo for cable+TiVo+Netflix, so would we be able to get the same content for the same price or less with Apple TV and iTunes?  We mainly watch 4 shows: 24, Prison Break, The Office, and Heroes.  Each episode is $1.99 on iTunes, so 16 shows per month would be $32 per month.  Then throw in say 6 movies per month -- with Netflix, it’s unlimited, and our usage varies pretty wildly -- which at $4 each comes to $24.  So the total with Apple TV + iTunes would be $56: a fair amount cheaper than our current bill.  However, with the TiVo, I’ve now discovered a few more shows that I would really hate to give up: How It’s Made, Most Shocking, Shockwave, Mega Disasters, and World’s Most Amazing Videos.  Adding all of those in would certainly push us past what we’re currently paying.  And I just checked the iTunes store for The O’Reilly Factor and it doesn’t appear to be available there; that’s certainly a deal-breaker.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m excited about all the new stuff Apple is doing, but at the end of the day, none of the aforementioned stuff affects me.  The fourth thing Jobs presented, though, certainly does: iPhone updates.

iPhone

Apple released iPhone firmware v1.1.3, which contains a few new features.  The most exciting thing to me is the update to the Google Maps application.  This includes a new "Locate Me" feature that uses cell tower triangulation/multilateration to determine your current location and show it on the map; not bad for a phone that lacks GPS.  The Maps update also includes a new "drop pin" feature, which lets you stick a pin anywhere on the map (and drag it around) and then make it a bookmark, get directions to/from it, etc.  Both of these new features make it far easier to map routes, since you don’t have to type anything in for one or both of the route’s endpoints.  The Maps app also now includes the hybrid view, showing satellite imagery with roads and locations overlaid on it.  Frustratingly and ridiculously, though, it STILL lacks a freakin’ scale bar!  I can’t believe there’s actually some meathead at Google or Apple who thinks the scale bar should be left out, and that this glaring omission somehow gets past all the other engineers and execs.

The iPhone update also includes the ability to rearrange the icons on the home screen, and to add bookmarks to the home screen from the browser.  These bookmarks also remember the zoom and pan state of the browser, which is really useful; for example, I visit weather.com for the detailed weather forecast since the iPhone’s built-in Yahoo weather sucks, but since weather.com has about 9 miles of ads and other crap at the top of the page, having the iPhone automatically pan to the forecast within the page is really helpful.

Another small item in the update allows the iPhone to send SMS messages to multiple recipients simultaneously; Jobs made no mention of the much- seldom-requested iPhone MMS support.

And of course, the iPhone can now play video content rented through iTunes.

All of these new features were delivered for free to existing iPhone owners like myself, which may be the best part.  I’m just so happy that this device I purchased is continually getting more useful, as opposed to getting more and more obsolete with each passing day.

Finally, Jobs touted the iPhone’s impressive sales figures: 4 million sold in its first 200 days on the market, or about 20,000 per day.  In its first 90 days the iPhone captured 20% of the entire smartphone market, making it #2, behind only RIM BlackBerry.  The fact that the iPhone surpassed all Windows Mobile smartphones in just 90 days on the market is particularly funny in light of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s comment -- after the iPhone was announced but before it was launched -- that the iPhone would get "no significant market share."

Posted by Anthony on at 04:55am

The Kingdom

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Just saw the movie The Kingdom and thought it was great.  There are lots of movies that I like a lot, but when rating them (in my Netflix account), I think "definitely 4 stars, probably a little more, but 5 stars?  nah..."  However with The Kingdom I didn’t hesitate to give it 5 stars.

There was a lot for me to like about this movie.  First of all, it’s a government/political action movie sort of in the same genre as the Bourne movies, but it’s actually based on reality: terrorist attacks that actually happened, in particular, and the strained relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia in general.  From the movie’s opening scenes you might initially think it’s going to be a documentary, but not for long.

The second thing I really liked about The Kingdom is that while it’s definitely an exciting action movie, it’s not non-stop ridiculous action like Mission Impossible, and not even non-stop awesome action like the Bourne movies.  There’s lots of action, but there’s also lots of character, lots of quiet, lots of random artistic scenes, and a bunch of funny or thoughtful comments by the characters throughout the movie.

Finally, I liked that The Kingdom had Jamie Foxx in it.  I think he’s awesome, and I love how he manages to come across as both a bada** mofo (pardon the expression) and a sensitive thoughtful guy at the same time.

The only substantial criticism I have is that The Kingdom sort of made the Saudis seem incompetent in terms of forensics; it’s like they were just clueless about how to solve crimes so the Americans came in and figured everything out for them.  Of course I have no idea whether the Saudis are good at that kind of stuff in reality, and it’s entirely possible that America is in fact better at it, but it seems unlikely to me that the Saudis are as helpless as the movie made it seem.  But, it is only a movie, and there had to be some areas in which suspension of disbelief was required.

And it wasn’t entirely antagonistic towards the Saudis, either: the Saudi counterpart to Jamie Foxx’s character is very likeable and is portrayed as a good guy and a hero.

Posted by Anthony on at 09:57am

Hello iPhone

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On Sunday, Kim and I went down to the Apple store in King of Prussia and I got an iPhone.  Despite people lining up outside the stores for hours and even days before the 6 PM Friday launch (including Philly’s mayor John Street), most Apple stores were still well-stocked with iPhones by Sunday, and I had no problem getting mine.  We walked into the store and it was a mob scene: there must have been 100 people in the tiny ~1500 square foot store.  If I had wanted to check out the iPhones that were on display, I would have had to wait for quite a while, because people were three-deep around those displays.

Fortunately, I had been getting psyched about the iPhone for at least the past six months, so I didn’t need to play with one to know that I wanted to buy it.  I just walked up to an Apple store employee and asked, "Do you still have 8 GB iPhones in stock?"  He said he thought they did, and sent someone into the back to check; he came out with my iPhone, and I was out of the store in under 5 minutes.

No one knew for sure how many iPhones Apple was going to have available at launch, hence the thousands of people lining up 6-12 hours in advance across the country to make sure they got one.  It turned out that there were plenty of iPhones, at least at most Apple stores.  It was a different story at AT&T stores -- the only other place that iPhones are available -- with most of them selling out the first night.  All told, the estimates are that Apple and AT&T sold over half a million units during the launch weekend.

I’m not sure why I didn’t go out on Friday night to try and get an iPhone.  I guess I wasn’t 100% sure that I was going to get one right away, plus the word was that it was a hassle at AT&T stores, and the closest Apple store is an hour away from us.  But then as I read various bloggers saying that it did indeed live up to most of the hype, I caved.

One of the ways that Apple is redefining the cell phone business is that the account activation process is handled by each user individually, at home, over the internet, using iTunes.  You don’t need to spend an hour in the store with some clueless salesman getting stuff set up.  There were reports that some people who were already AT&T customers initially had trouble with the activation process, but for most people it was quick and easy: it took less than 10 minutes in my case.

Apple also managed to get AT&T to offer a plan that’s actually reasonable: $60 per month for 450 minutes, with free nights & weekends (and including rollover minutes), and unlimited internet access.  Many (most?) other smartphone data plans are $80-$100 per month, often with only limited internet access, and severe overage charges.

The iPhone itself is amazing.  It’s so thin, so solid, so industrial, the screen is huge and gorgeous, and the interface is so simple and useable it’s like a dream.  The decade-long nightmare of horrible cell phones is finally over.

For me, the combination of the real internet, email, and Google Maps in a portable device is just priceless.  The fact that it’s also got a cell phone, a camera, and an iPod, plus that it’s gorgeous, only make it more compelling.

The screen is about twice the resolution of most standard computer screens, which means that text as small as 5-6 pt is crisp and totally readable.  When browsing the web, though, you only need to double-tap on the portion of a page that you want to read (for example the main content column) and the iPhone automatically pans and zooms that area to be full-screen, with nice large text.  Scrolling up or down, and panning left or right, is as simple as dragging your finger across the screen.

There are a few things that need fixing: there’s no way to select/copy/paste text; you can’t save images (or any files) from websites; you can’t upload files to websites (the Browse/ChooseFile element is grayed out); the Google Maps app lacks the little scale image in the lower-left corner; the on-screen keyboard doesn’t always rotate into wide-screen mode, sometimes forcing you to use the narrower version of it.  But all of those are software issues, and since the iPhone is a computer running Mac OS X, Apple can (and will) simply issue automatic updates via iTunes to fix them.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the iPhone is probably the coolest product I’ve ever purchased.  I can’t put it down, and when I finally do, Kim picks it up and can’t stop playing with it.

Here are some iPhone photos including side-by-side comparisons with a couple of my old phones.

Posted by Anthony on at 06:18am

Microsoft Zune

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Microsoft released the Zune today.  This thing looks totally sweet, but unfortunately it only comes in a 30 GB capacity.  I only have about 70% of my music collection copied onto my computer in MP3 format, but even that is 32 GB, already larger than the Zune’s capacity.  That would leave me a) no room for my existing collection, b) no room for future expansion, and c) no room for any photos or videos at all.

Once they release a new version with an 80+ GB hard drive, and with the ability to access the internet wirelessly (it already has wireless hardware, but only to connect to other Zunes -- lame), then I’ll really be excited about the Zune.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:07pm

Movies

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Some movies we recently (relatively recently) watched:

A Prarie Home Companion: great movie.  Hilarious.  Especially good if you’ve listened to the radio show.  Actually it’s a lot like the radio show in some ways, except that you don’t have to listen to the annoying songs they play, because they cut to backstage scenes during the songs.

With Honors: good, sad, funny.

Blast from the Past: hilarious.  As annoying as Alicia Silverstone is, she was actually really good in this.

The Devil Wears Prada: hilarious.

House of Sand and Fog: kind of interesting, but slow.  And dark, which for me isn’t a bad thing, but Kim hated it.  It seemed to be fixated on the girl’s smoking habit for no apparent reason, which was irritating.

Posted by Anthony on at 12:31pm

The S is for Sucks

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While watching the new movie V for Vendetta on Friday night, all I could think of was Trogdor and how the "s" is for "sucks."

OK, so the movie didn’t totally suck.  It was entertaining and interesting, but also annoying.  The thing is, with all the hype about "it’s by the Wachowski brothers, creators of the Matrix!!1!", I was expecting something great.  I guess I should have more heavily factored the suckiness of Matrix II and III into my expectations.

[Warning: spoilers follow.]

V for Vendetta rather overtly panders to the liberal crowd.  It paints a picture of the future where Great Britain has become a totalitarian state in the wake of an awful terrorist attack.  Of course, in the end it turns out that it was actually the British government who carried out the attacks, in order to have an excuse for stomping out civil liberties and amassing more power in the government.

In other words, it’s everything the crazy leftists believe that America is today.  The ruler of Britain was depicted exactly like Hitler, complete with raised arm, buggin’ out eyeballs, and red flags waving all around him.  If V for Vendetta were a thread on an online forum instead of a movie, it would have been over pretty quickly thanks to Godwin’s Law.

Then there was the pointless lesbian subplot.  Apparently some liberals believe we’re on track for a future where homos are collected up and put away by the government, again Nazi-style.  Never mind the fact that in the real America today, some states have gone so far as to change the centuries-old definitions of words in order to give special rights to homos.

In general, I liked the characters in the movie, I liked what little action / fight scenes there were, and the plot itself wasn’t bad.  They managed to not include the pointless sex scene that virtually every movie has nowadays, so that was cool.  If it weren’t for the whiny liberal tripe underlying the whole thing, I’d give it two pretty solid thumbs up.

Posted by Anthony on at 12:41am

Old Movies

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Over the past few months, Kim and I have watched some (relatively) old movies on DVD.  For most of them, I hadn’t seen them in the past 5 years, and for some it had been a few years longer still.

We have watched:

The Back to the Future Trilogy

The Indiana Jones Trilogy

The Fugitive

Back to the Future and Indiana Jones are (or should be) classics; The Fugitive is a probably little too young for that.  But all of these movies are fantastic.

Next up is The Jack Ryan Special Edition Collection: The Hunt for Red October/Patriot Games/Clear and Present Danger/The Sum of All Fears.  I think the only one of those I’ve seen before is Clear and Present Danger, so I’m really psyched about these ones.

One other movie that I haven’t seen in probably 10 years is Tango & Cash.  I remember bits and pieces of it, but overall I just remember how much I loved it.  Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell totally rock in this movie, and I hope to get it soon.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:14am

Elizabethtown

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Kim and I went to see the new movie Elizabethtown on Friday night.  I liked it a lot; initial reactions can’t always be trusted, but so far I’m thinking it’s one of my favorite movies ever.  It’s Truman Show quality as far as I’m concerned.

The movie has so many different facets and random rabbit-trails everywhere.  The main character (Drew Baylor, played by Orlando Bloom) is so quirky and so funny without really trying to be (like the scene where he’s waving his fingers over his cell phone saying "someone call me back").  He’s sort of really quiet, but you hear his thoughts overdubbed through a lot of the movie, and his expressions say a lot.

Elizabethtown is a sad movie in some ways, but it’s funny as I said, and it’s got the cute love-story element (Kirsten Dunst plays the lead female) too.  Fortunately the love-story element isn’t obnoxious or overly cheesy, either.  Overall the movie is just really interesting; it tells an interesting (if not novel) story with interesting characters.

The Truman Show is one of my favorite movies (maybe even #1), and Elizabethtown has some of the same kind of quirky humor as that movie.  It also is sort of funny in the ways that Napoleon Dynamite is funny.  There’s just a lot of really random non-slapstick interestingly funny stuff in it.

So I highly recommend this movie.  And Kim does too.

Posted by Anthony on at 04:50pm

Hostage

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Kim and I watched the movie Hostage yesterday (Bruce Willis, 2005).  I really liked it, and I think that any other fan of 24 would like it too.  I’ll post a comment with more specifics; don’t read the comments on this post if you don’t want to see spoilers!

Posted by Anthony on at 04:19pm

Weekly (daily?) Rant

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I saw the movie Without A Paddle this weekend.  It was terrible.  It wouldn’t have been so terrible though if the MPAA wouldn’t have lied about its rating.  This movie was rated PG-13, yet it was jam-packed with crude sexual humor -- not 5 minutes went by without a sexual reference -- and it featured every profanity over and over and over except for the f-word.  If that’s your idea of "humor," fine, but there’s no way this is a PG-13 movie.

And what is it with restaurants not having hot water in the bathroom sinks?  Two that always stick out are P.F. Chang’s in Pittsburgh and the Olive Garden in Reading; the water is always ice cold no matter how long you let just the "hot" side run.  This weekend it was the Ground Round in Allentown, and there are a handful of others where I know I’ve experienced this, but didn’t make as much of a mental note of since I don’t frequent them so much.

One last thing: I just saw an advertisement for dontpassgas.org, which is an anti-smoking site.  OK, anti-smoking site = good, but it’s not a laughing matter.  A URL like dont-be-a-selfish-jerk.org would be more appropriate.

Posted by Anthony on at 11:38pm
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