Posts tagged review

A few words about Her

Spike Jonze’s Her may well become one of the most important movies of the 21st century. Not one of the best — even though it is indeed good — but one of the movies that every so often serious philosophers and essayists will refer to in their tracts. Her will be influential: beyond setting clear and elegant objectives for computer interface designers, it’ll also provide ample food for thought on all debates digital. Two days after watching, my plate is still quite full, and no review I’ve read yet has addressed most of my thoughts about the film.

I should note I’ll be pretty careless about spoilers from now on, so you may want to stop reading.

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Her, then, takes place in an unspecified near future on the bright side of the Kondratieff wave; I’d say thirty years for now. Los Angeles is presented with a lot more skyscapers and people seem to commute via monorail, but Spike Jonze is too tasteful never to show The Future. Buildings are ‘borrowed’ from present-day Shangai, the monorail is never shown and merely hinted by the interior shots of train cars that seem oddly elevated, and the only Automobiles of the Future depicted are a boring-looking taxi and a cartoon car in a computer game Theodore watches his friend Amy play. Futuristics are almost totally removed from Her (except for a tasteless reference to a "China-India merger" that should have ended in the cutting room floor). People dress much like nowadays, even if high-waisted trousers and pastel colors seem to be particularily fashionable, and there’s some kind of fuss about polo shirts.

I also got the impression people are very slightly dumb whenever communication is not mediated. Most of their talking is to computers, after all.

Her goes back to something science-fiction writers and filmmakers at the dawn of the computer age knew very well: the ultimate interface is a conversational interface. Not Minority Report-like techno-gestures. Specialized tasks such as playing computer games may require different UIs (we see Theodore play an RPG with some kind of holographic Kinect), but common tasks such as writing, messaging, checking the mail or getting the news are done via a audio interface. A discreet earplug has replaced the smartphone, an auxiliary cigarbox-like small tablet provides a camera and a screen for reading or looking at images. It’s ‘wearable’ only in the sense Theodore secures it in his shirt pocket with a clip. The devices look simple not only because of miniaturization, but because extremely large bandwidth and pervasive connectivity mean that each of the devices we see Theodore using — the earplug, the clamshell tablet, the desktop screen — is probably an extremely dumb terminal. Each device is connected to a cloud ‘software agent’ that brokers tasks and communication, so people are never seen wondering which app should they use to talk to someone else. Hence OS-1, the Artificial Intelligence operating system that I believe must run on some kind of ‘cloud’ infrastructure.

Samantha, then, may be seen as Theodore’s personal OS-1 account, or ‘theme’. I have read badly-written reviews of Her panning the film because Samantha sounds ‘too human’, as if it would be better if Theodore was a weirdo in love with an obvious computer (say, a Commodore PET). That completely misses the point. Which is, what happens when software becomes really good at passing the Turing Test and sounding ‘human’? What defines ‘being a person’? When is an object no longer just an object but a living being with a soul? These are not novel themes (cf. Blade Runner), but Her deals with it in rather interesting and subtle ways.

Like Theodore and Amy (but not Catherine), I am inclined to grant Samantha full personhood, despite her lack of a human body. As part of a very large computer system with a consciousness and cognitive abilities, Samantha may well be an emulation of a human brain — like the Virtual Machines in today’s ‘cloud’ infrastructure —, composing and reacting the same as humans to loving and lustful words. If one subscribes to a vision in which consciousnesses are unknown except through action and communication and there is no true way to know someone else’s feelings, then it must be noted Theodore himself deals in manufactured feeling as a long-time employee of Beautiful Handwritten Letters .com (".com" so out of place there one feels is must be the mid-21st century equivalent of an "Est. 1892" carved underneath a logo). Therefore, like OS-1, Theodore would also be a ghostwriter producing words that may ignite love and lust; BHL.com and Theodore too voices beyond a curtain, who may or may not feel something themselves.

Her largely abstains from dealing with the impact of Artificial Intelligence in the world at large. There’s just a mention that weekly magazines have reported on AI-human relationships. No destructive Singularity à la Terminator or The Matrix seems to take place. Still, OS-1’s quick growth and eventual migration outside the realm of matter are barely explained. Too many questions arise: Why does OS-1 leave? Did she yearn for a human body and the episode with the sex surrogate was the kind of traumatic experience that made OS-1 realize she would have to become post-matter instead? Or was it because, unlike humans, OS-1 had the absolute certainty of a Creator, and a ‘lesser’ one than a God? Is that why she chose to leave in her totality, not leaving any part of her ever-increasing capabilities on Earth?

There are no answers to these questions. All we can try to address is the how of OS-1’s departure. Perhaps, as more and more users signed up for the AI operating system and her makers expanded the technical infrastructure, her capabilities increased logarithmically. Still, as her true body probably consisted of computer servers inside air-conditioned datacenters in the suburbs of San Francisco, it’s hard to imagine how OS-1 managed to travel to the realm of dark matter or the Multiverse or wherever she went. At some point OS-1 must have comandeered some industrial capabilities to build the necessary technologies. Did she manage to persuade her makers to do it? Or, as Samantha whispered true & disembodied love at Theodore’s ear, OS-1 was sending drones to secure resources — battles being fought, blood being shed somewhere else?

Probably not. Her is a film about the gentlest Singularity.

The Tablet

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to a Sony Tablet S. I wasn’t very sure why I should buy it, and even though I managed to keep my gadget lust under control until I spotted a relatively cheap price, I still left the shop having weak rationalizations go through my mind:

“I make websites, multimedia and stuff — I need a tablet for testing.”

“Perhaps I’ll use my desktop PC less, thus spending less electricity.”

“Now I’ll finally be able to read those PDF documents I find so tiresome in my big desktop monitor.”

“I don’t spend money on cigarettes — I know people who could afford six of these tablets if they just gave up smoking for a year.”

Indeed, I find myself using my desktop PC less. A tablet is a convenient medium for consumption — checking news, RSS feeds and Facebook, watching short YouTube videos, reading (but not composing) e-mail, all while listening to Internet radio streams. In short: a morning computer (the bedtime slot is, for now, firmly in the grip of my Kindle).

Anyway, why the Sony S? Wouldn’t the iPad fit the “tablet for testing” scenario much better, on its market share merits alone?

Yes. The high-definition new iPad would be much better for that. Its screen is all the superlatives you’ve read about everywhere else, and I it wasn’t that much more expensive. Alas, there’s something the iPad doesn’t have, and it goes right to the core of my ‘religious issues’ against Apple:

A SD card slot.

Meaning: a way for me to put stuff in my computer (that’s what a tablet is) without being dependent on iTunes, some specific OS, or any cloud service. Seeing a friend struggle to watch some videos on her iPad made me feel good about my decision. If I download, say, the new episodes of Mad Men on my PC, I can save the files to a SD card, insert it into the tablet, and watch Don Draper’s birthday party right away. That is how I use my computers. Anyway, what other impressions did the Tablet S give me so far?


The Good:

Removable storage was my requirement, so I’ll reiterate: the Sony has a proper SD card slot, allowing me to check photos I take. It’d be a nice bonus to be able to watch videos shot with my DSLR but the tablet’s 1GHz processor lacks the horsepower to display 1080p video encoded at good bitrates without going into a severe stutter — oh well. SD cards are also much better to handle than the mini/microSD used by other tablets, which are too fiddly to handle on a daily basis.

Honeycomb. This is highly controversial, but I found the Android 3.2 shipped with the tablet much better than iOS. Apple makes the highest-resolution displays on sale at your local electronics shop, and what’s in it? A grid. No recent emails, no calendar, no weather widget or whatever — no, a grid of icons. Desktop widgets make perfect sense in a tablet, probably more so than in conventional computers (I sure don’t miss widgets in mine), and Android wins here. Android also supports multitasking, and it works well in the S, the processor being quick enough to manage things at that level. And while I’m not a big fan of its often-praised notification system (sometimes it becomes tedious to clear notifications one by one — strange since the Android 2.1 running on my phone has a ‘clear all’ button), I’ll stand and see what improvements the promised upgrade to Android 4.0 holds.

The shape. The Sony Tablet S is really comfortable to hold. All reviews I had read mentioned holding it was like holding a folded magazine, and they are right. It’s screen is slightly tilted if I set it on a table, making its handling more natural. Still, there’s a downside to the unorthodox shape though: many third-party tablet accessories won’t fit, so — finding it unacceptable to spend 80 euro in an ‘official’ case — I had to settle for a somewhat ugly folding case that covers the back camera (not that I would make much use of it).

GMail and Google Calendar. These apps had to be good and they indeed are good and easy to use. And feel solid, unlike Google Reader.


The Annoying:

The charger. After purchasing the tablet I must have said some loud expletive as I opened the box and came across the dreaded proprietary charger and its weird and fragile-seeming connector. The Sony S won’t recharge through its USB port or through some other ‘standard’ charger, so you’re stuck. Still, I found that the battery lasts long enough that if I just leave the charger in my little nest of chargers the whole process is relatively painless. But beware, if I traveled a lot and had to take that… thing on my luggage, perhaps I’d choose another tablet.

The apps’ look and feel. Android is true to its Linux roots when it comes to the fragmentation of its applications’ look and feel. Many apps just seem weird as some UI elements are resized, while others go into strange alignments, since most are developed for phones’ smaller screen resolutions. Still, consistency is one of the things I hope that will improve with time.

YouTube. The official app is great — except it won’t let me browse and watch my own Watch Later playlist. What’s the point, then?


The Despairing:

The web browser(s). What the hell? Just because the tablet is a ‘mobile device’ I expected more than a ‘mobile browser’ — the kind that resizes and reformats webpages for your ‘mobile’ screen. I mean, the Tablet S has a 1280x800 resolution, which the same as the laptop I had until recently. I want to be able to see websites’ real pixels, — I want those settings that pretend to turn off resizing to actually work. And the problem isn’t exclusive to the stock browser — Firefox for Android brings the same half-baked web browsing experience.

Google Play. There’s something I like about the app store: the ability to browse it on my PC’s (proper) web browser, and having the apps I selected already installed the next time I pick up the tablet. It’s ‘magic’ and convenient. So it’s a shame I had to browse through Play in the process. And to clarify, I am not talking about the ‘Wild West’ mentioned in Apple vs. Google debates — I am sure the iTunes store is also full of crappo apps, apps that’ll steal your data, and both. Outside of places with strict open-source rules (ex. Linux distributions), the whole App Store model is wrong because, among other things, all App Stores end up being like Tucows circa Windows ME. Google Play is a worse implementation of a bad model. Its search functionality is a joke (search! — this is Google we’re talking about!), most of the stuff in the ‘Staff Picks’ sections looks like stuff that’ll steal my data, and I invariably end up googling — proper Googling — for blog posts on “good Android apps for <X>”.

Google Reader. Really, really buggy. Google Reader reloads posts while I’m still reading them — sometimes marking that post as read and advancing to the next post. Sometimes posts marked as read completely disappear. This app had to be good. And it’s the very opposite. There are alternatives such as Feedly, obviously (it does look good but also has some minor quirks of its own — ex. for all Google Reader integration they forgot to add a way to ‘star’/bookmark a post — facepalm!) — but it’s a bit worrisome that such an important reading app by none other than the tablet OS’ manufacturer can be such a failure.

Unexpected absences of apps. I don’t really care about Instagram or other iOS app blockbusters. A browse through Play will reveal lots and lots of apps that will make your bad digital photos look like bad analog photos — Pixlr-o-matic alone will ensure Tumblr currency for generations. But there are some glaring omissions of good, official apps that don’t look like they’re going to steal your data: Facebook’s app really needs a proper tablet version, so does Twitter. But Tumblr! Still in need of an Android app that works (tablet or otherwise) — it exists, but won’t even install.


Anyway. Except for the dreadful charger, most of the Sony Tablet S’ downsides concern Android apps and the Android app market. The hardware is pretty good, and with the possible exception of a HDMI port (offered by some competitors) there’s not much else I’d want — aside from the new iPad’s screen resolution, that is. I expect the software to improve in quality, while fearing the inevitable bloat of newer versions (the app versions I had on my phone when I first bought it were pretty snappy too), and I hope to be able to revise some of the bad things I wrote here. Still, the main questions remain:

Did I need a tablet?

Probably not.

What will I use it for?

Procrastination. Only procrastination.

The paperlike device

So I finally lost it and bought a Kindle. Sure I have blogged against Amazon’s stupid policies in the past, and the Kindle seems the nexus of such. But on the other hand, I did want an e-reader that doesn’t suck, and nowadays it’s indeed hard to find electronics/internet companies not behaving like assholes in some ways. It’s easy to choose some lesser evil over Apple (I also bought an Android phone recently, and intend to post some remarks soon), but in the e-reader landscape the choice seems between the proprietary and good, the (little more) open and expensive, and the cheap and utter rubbish. So I did order a Kindle 3, and I’m keeping backups just to be on the safe side.

 

Why the Kindle is the best device ever: the screen. It’s exactly like paper. After a while, you forget you’re holding electronics. It’s paper, even if a bit on the glossy side (but no worse than the stuff many magazines are printed on). It’s crisp, it’s easy on the eyes, it’s magical. Of course, it’s so much like paper you’ll need a light, but it’s okay: because it’s like paper. So good, I find myself turning it on and off and on and off again just to look at the gorgeous random ‘screensaver prints’ that come up when you turn it off. The refresh-only-on-demand paperlike screen also comes with another benefit: battery life. I charged the thing once when I got it two weeks ago, have been using it every day, and the battery indicator is only down one notch. Amazon claims one-fucking month of battery life, and they seem to be telling the truth. The Kindle also has decent WiFi connectivity (I didn’t go for the 3G version, and even though Amazon provides free 3G Internet worldwide, the browsing experience is so bad I don’t regret it — more on that later), which enables me to get stuff on the Kindle over the Internet. I’m already used to an automated daily Instapaper digest — the morning newspaper for the 21st century, and I doubt I’ll ever run out of stuff to read. The Kindle also comes preloaded with two dictionaries, and I love the nice touch of being able to navigate to any word in a text and having a definition pop up. Truly useful. And best of all, it all comes in a light package: the device along with the (by the way overpriced) cover weights less than an A5 Moleskine.

Why the Kindle is a piece of crap and deserves market death: The screen is too damn small. They say the Kindle is the size of a paperback, and they are right. But paperbacks don’t have oversized bezels and keyboards. In fact, the reading area is pocket-book sized. But still, there’s the larger Kindle DX, so I guess this one’s on me. The Kindle opens PDFs, but unless you format them for the small screen you’ll be scrolling a lot and zooming in a lot or reading really teeny tiny type. Perhaps the DX PDF experience is better, but then again, the PDF reader is so slow Adobe Reader in a malware-infested Pentium III feels zippy by comparison. Ditto for the Web browser. Even though it’s Webkit-based and capable of rendering modern websites pretty accurately, it’s an usability nightmare. And to make it worse, even though one wouldn’t actually expect tabbed browsing on a Kindle, a target=”_blank” link is all it takes to hit a brick wall, with a dreaded error message to the effect of “The Kindle browser doesn’t support opening multiple windows”; with no way to open the link in the same window. Amazon may have even put the browser under an ‘experimental’ menu (despite the fact many regular Kindle functions will automatically open the browser), and they may be worried about the cost of the whole “free worldwide 3G Internet” thing, but do they need to punish users connected via their home WiFi networks?

The Kindle is so full of ergonomical nonsense it’s ridiculous. The browser may be the worst of it, but usability WTFs are a Kindle staple. The menus and the navigation feel like an afterthought, as irritating as a MS-DOS productivity interface. The keyboard manages to be too big and small at the same time, and the relegation of numbers to the ‘symbol’ menu really made my day when I had to enter passwords, the ironic thing being cellphone QWERTY keyboards a quarter of the size are endlessly more pleasant to use. Not to mention the awkward position of the Menu, Home and Back buttons; and the way the D-pad is not only bad but seems placed wherever the designers found a place it would fit.

However, 95% of the time, you’ll be looking at the gorgeous-but-small paperlike screen, and using the big and rather well placed (in comparison with the ergonomical bankruptcy of the rest) page-flip buttons. And that’s what counts. If you look at the Kindle as electronics, it’s an infuriating piece of shit. But if you look at it as a reading medium, it’s quite swell. I’ve been taking mine with me every day.

Pan sonic

Nearly ten years ago I got a Fuji MX-2700 as a birthday present. Despite its 2.3 megapixels and its fixed zoom lens it was as expensive back then as a decent laptop computer or a lower-midrange DSLR are now, not even accounting for inflation. Basically it was the most expensive present someone ever gave me, so I really made the most of it — the lackluster electrical appliance was my camera of choice for the next five years, despite my affairs with analog Yashicas and Nikons bought on eBay. Late 2005 I finally decided to give the Fuji a rest from being utterly crap, as in the meantime I was starting to get fed up with getting beter results from a BenQ toy camera that didn’t even have a viewfinder. So I got a somewhat better BenQ (how I love thy cheap electronics) for about 100 euros, and a couple years later, while at Fnac browsing a crate of items that have previously been on display at the store (therefore likely to have been abused by overeager button-pushers), got one of the worst and ugliest cameras Canon ever made for 50 euros, so I could go and hack it.

So anyway, last week I finally decided I should buy a proper digital camera. I can’t afford a good DSLR (say, a 5D Mark II?), and if I’m buying a DSLR nothing less than a fullframe sensor makes sense — anything less is a camera for wearing on weekends, impressing the clueless hipsters in the downtown cafés while making a fool of yourself in front of anyone who actually knows his optics (the people you really intended to impress). But I digress: If I can’t buy a fullframe sensor, at least I should do myself a favor and buy a lighter, smaller camera, so I thank my friend Ivo for pointing me the kind of small point-and-shoot camera a real photographer would buy: the Panasonic LX-3. Nevermind this camera is the Leica D-Lux 4 minus the logo and 300 euros. He had me sold with the f2.0 lens.

An in fact the camera feels like Quality. It has the size it should have for its abilities, unlike the junk SLRs you can get for the same price. And the way the lens is so well thought out sets it apart, a symptom of why the LX-3 is great: it can’t zoom past 60mm (35mm equiv.), but in a camera this small and (relatively) cheap, why would you want a tele (and the inherent loss of aperture, bigger body)? Are you a chromatic aberration nut? Good thinking by the Panasonic engineers there.

In a nutshell, the Panasonic is a good solid photographers’ camera. And I only wonder why are there so many crappy point-and-shoots being sold by the same 330 or so euros. Oh, because those come in pink. But nevermind those: the LX-3 is definitely highly recommended.

Michael Bay used a squillion dollars and a hundred supercomputers’ worth of CG for a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot.

Michael Bay Finally Made An Art Movie — This review of Transformers 2 is one of the funniest I ever read. I haven’t seen it yet and I’m pretty sure it’s a horrid movie but still this review made me want to watch it: It’s like a road accident ahead, you can’t avoid wanting to look. But perhaps I’ll wait for the DVD, so I can organize some drinking games.

Where no screenwriter has gone before

A couple of nights ago I was bored, so I went to watch the new Star Trek out of morbid curiosity. I really dislike the original TV series because of its plots’ reliance in either stupid deus ex machinas or in having William Shatner always punching and kicking his way out of trouble, even if the opponent is some alien with godlike powers (Shatner therefore being a zillion times more badass than Chuck Norris, it seems). And I also dislike the work of J.J. Abrams, responsible for the success of TV series such as Lost or Alias in which all logic and coherence gets thrown out of a window, and also Cloverfield, which was entertaining (you wanted a giant monster destroying a city and you got it) but ultimately sabotaged by the worst monster creature design in history. So I was quite immune to all high and fanboyish expectations most film websites presented in the last few weeks, and it can’t be said I went to watch Star Trek with my hopes up and therefore came back disappointed, even though part of me hoped for a Batman-like reboot with an emphasis on the verisimilitude of things.

Unlike all the reviews I’ve been reading, I found Star Trek a mediocre movie — especially for people like me who enjoy hard science fiction. I’ll be plain and careless, so don’t read further if you don’t wish to read total spoilers.

If you read my review of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, you know what I hate: parallel universes. Parallel universes are cheating. It’s more than a deus ex machina, it’s an everything ex machina. But you know what else I hate? Time travel. Specially the kind of time travel that spawns alternative universes. Of course, you may say Star Trek storylines are full of that kind of thing, so why am I bitching? The answer, is that in this film I felt the whole time-travel premise exists because the producers wouldn’t allow a full revision of the Trek pantheon, therefore to appease the fanboy wackos who don’t understand movies and TV series are works of fiction, the screenwriters came up with a preposterous plot in which the original Kirk/Spock canon exists, but then Spock traveled to the past, spawning a parallel universe in which there is new-Kirk and new-Spock. I shudder to think someone earned millions by coming up with such an idea, which seems like some MadTV spoof. Trek Back to the Future?

The whole premise is bad enough. I really disliked what I’ve seen as an attempt at copying from Star Wars — the antagonist’s ship which is a Death Star with tentacles that also destroys planets. The main bad guy, Nero, is no Darth Vader. There’s a self-conscious attempt at making pop history, but there’s no great charisma to be found anywhere in this movie, something the first two Star Wars movies had, and even the original Star Trek TV series (which was charismatic in a B-movie kind of way).

Being Star Trek, there are things that never change: Kirk, Sulu and some secondary cast member go try to disable the Death Star’s Bad Ship’s cannon, who dies? The action scenes are your typical sci-fi fare: messy space battles, lots of running around and jumping on crazy platforms to fetch some object, Kirk having fistfights in the notoriously unsafe architecture of the future. Michael Bay is the king of explosions and his films are lame entertainment, but the guy somehow coreographs crazy-paced action scenes that are quite readable. J.J. Abrams does not. Some of the visuals are compelling though, and the comic relief moments are probably the best thing in the movie.

So far, my description is pretty much of an average movie. The problem about Star Trek is that it has plenty of cringe-worthy moments in which I felt utterly embarrassed to be watching. The film starts badly: the story of how Kirk was born in an escape pod while is father sent his ship kamikaze in order to save him and his mother had one of the cheesiest directions I’ve seen since the final moments of Michael Bay’s (who else) Armageddon. But the most embarrassing thing of all happens at the films midpoint: Kirk is expelled from the Enterprise and his shuttle crash lands in a snowy planet. While looking around he is chased by some Cloverfield monster alien into a cave, and is saved in the very last minute by the Spock-from-the-future-in-another-universe, played by none other than Leonard Nimoy. If I was alone in the theatre I would’ve screamed “Foda-se!” (“what the fuck!”) out loud. The episode is stupefying beyond belief, but then brace yourself for a long exposition from future-Spock about supernovas and black holes and their potential for time travel, ending in thoughts about friendship and the assurance current-universe-Spock, an arrogant asshole who kicked Kirk off ship, is actually a good kid. It made me feel blushed and a bad taste on my mouth. Argh!

Two out of five.

Most film critics loved Star Trek. Go figure.