Friday, June 26, 2009

Movie review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I just saw "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen". My thoughts: Mixed, but overall much better than the first.

A quick review of the first movie:

"Transformers" from two years ago was less than I would have liked. This was partly due to Michael Bay's trademark "shakeycam" and quick-cut style, that makes it hard to tell exactly what's going on and leaves the viewer slightly nauseated.

More of the dissatisfaction was due to the decision by the production staff that the general public needed the first movie to introduce the general idea of the Transformers, living alien robots who have normal thoughts, hopes, dreams, and even emotions much like humans. As such, much of the movie was focused on humans, not robots.

A degree of dissatisfaction was in the juvenile sexual and biological humor.

In comparison, the sequel, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen", had even more juvenile humor than the first, however, the Transformers themselves were not as actively involved in this humor as in the first movie. (Caution: much more crude language than the first movie. Not for young kids.)

Again, much of the movie content was focused on the humans, primarily on Sam and Mikaela's relationship and Sam's parents' relationship with him. However, despite the parents being involved through much of the movie (letting us learn much more of their personalities and of the family relationships), these interactions did not pull from the Transformers for whole scenes at a time like before.

The big improvement in "Revenge of the Fallen" is that the focus throughout is primarily on the Transformers. They are primarily "in character"; while some characters are more slapstick in personality than others, characters are consistent. And much more character is developed, particularly among the Decepticons, which was a real lack in the first movie. Most of the banter is in English, as is appropriate since they have now been here for two years. And there is good banter between them.

Action does come far more often and more strongly than in the first. In the first, there was little injury. Jazz was significantly damaged (referred to as dead) and one human was skewered by Skorponok, but that was about it. In this one, we see humans getting blown up (though not bloodily - we see firey explosions) and stepped on (again, with blunt trauma, not bloody), and we see lots of Transformers getting slagged. We see them with holes melted through themselves and fighting on. We see then repairing themselves with internal self-repair mechanisms, reattaching limbs, using parts from others for repair, and returning to battle. In fact, it seems (which answers a host of questions) that they can be repaired from most injuries unless the head itself is destroyed. Which indicates that perhaps Jazz can be repaired, provided proper resources. (Side note: As many already knew, Jazz is not in this movie. He will not likely return in his old form, as the GM Pontiac line is being shut down and Jazz's Solstice mode will no longer be promotion for GM as it was before.) This movie is far more violent than the first.

We see large numbers of Transformers on both sides, many getting slagged without so much as an introduction by name. We meet others who were surprises, and some who have aspects of their original animated series story involved (not giving any spoilers here). We see Cybertron, though many fans might not like how it looks - remember, the planet's dying with the absence of the AllSpark.

As far as the Fallen himself, let's just say this. It's not an analogy or figure of speech, not just a title on the movie, and NOT Megatron. His backstory is not the same as in the original storyline, but it's a lot closer than many had hoped.

For the production itself, yes, Michael Bay still had a lot of "shakeycam", but it's a LOT better than before. There were battle scenes where the camera was far enough back that we could see several fights going on at once. And yes, we could see several entire transformations. For those who might complain that the transformations weren't always executed the same way, they need to just remember that these are very complicated transformations that can be done a number of different ways for the same final modes; many of the toys can even be transformed different ways, say arms before or after the torso. But overall, it's easier to see what's going on. Not perfect, or even close to perfect, but better.

And there's plenty of room for a sequel. Or several.

As another side note, the Abingdon Cinemall for this week has Motormaster on display, a Kenworth K100E semi restored and refitted after the original series Stunticon leader, self-proclaimed "King of the Road". With some modifications after the designs from the movies.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson just died

Michael Jackson just died. He had a heart attack an hour or so ago, arrived at the hospital in a coma, and just died at the hospital.

I grew up with "The Jackson 5" TV show on Saturday mornings (an animated psychedelic musical ride) and music like "Beat It" (though I liked Weird Al's "Eat It" better...). Several generations are familiar with the Jackson 5 renditions of songs like "Rockin' Robin" and "ABC".

He'll be missed by many. But young boys the world over are relieved.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Moon / Space missions

OK, it's a toss-up, regular blog or political...

NASA has regular space missions. Some say they are useless. There's also the point that they're expensive in a time that we're having economic problems.

My thoughts?

First, on the economy, that's a valid point. My first thought was that we could delay missions for now until we can better afford them. Then I realized that large economies are built around these industries; if we shut them down, that would just cause more economic problems, albeit in specialized sectors. If it were planned properly, maybe, but we now have people and companies relying on these missions for their incomes and salaries.

Second, on the missions themselves:
Step it up! We should have manned stations on the moon by now. And civilian colonies on the moon. We've been visiting for FORTY YEARS! Why are we just playing with it? Most of the missions we're doing are with obsolete equipment. The only good these missions do is to enable scientific labs on the space station. Why have we not developed better propulsion systems? Better defensive systems? Antigravity systems?

It seems like our space administration is, like most in government, more interested in saving their own jobs than actually developing new tech and making new discoveries. How else can you explain our more advanced space tech being 20-year-old shuttles? If the problem is that they don't have sufficient funding, maybe they need to use the money more wisely. They're not getting anything done as it is. Maybe they, like many government agencies, are paying too much in too many salaries, and not on the research and equipment.

Vacation Bible School

We're having Vacation Bible School this week at church (Victory Baptist Church, Bristol VA), Monday to Friday 6-8PM each night. I'm driving a van to pick up some kids, and I'm in the adult class, the first time we've had an adult class.

We have 14 adults, and about 150 kids. The adults had a variety of soups to pick from for supper, as well as sub sandwich sections (big subs sliced in sections); the kids had lunchmeat wraps, bologna, turkey or ham, lettuce and shredded cheese on a soft taco tortilla. There were a variety of sides as well, like grapes, cantaloupe, marshmallows, and something else. I liked the potato soup a lot, but there were a lot of other good soups as well, like a veggie beef soup and a chicken noodle soup. And they were all homemade.

We left a little early today to take the kids home because a storm blew up. It got raining really hard on the way home, though not to the point of being unsafe. But some trees had blown over and there were branch pieces everywhere. When we (the kids and I) were almost to their house, we came across a tree over the road and we had to backtrack some and go another way. It wasn't too far out of the way though, just a fun side trip. After I dropped them home (the rain had pretty much stopped by then), I started back to the church to work on video. And I came across a main road blocked by a tree, with police turning people around. The alternate route was a long way out of the way. I could have found another one if I had realize just how far out of the way it was... It took about an hour and a quarter to get back to the church; it should have been about a half hour round-trip.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Recycling: Advertisement should be stronger

An advertisement is currently being aired (I believe by the EPA) that says that "you probably already recycle cardboard, glass and plastic". But rechargeable batteries can also be recycled.

These batteries can be separate AA (or other size) batteries that you charge in a separate charger, but they also include the battery in your cellphone, laptop computer, media , portable game player, cordless electric shaver, cordless drill, etc.

This ad is inaccurate. Cardboard, glass and plastic CAN be recycled. Rechargeable batteries NEED TO BE recycled. They contain toxic materials. These components should neither be burned nor added to landfills. In addition, they contain rare materials, like lithium and cadmium, that need to be reclaimed and reused.

Even if you don't recycle in general, rechargeable batteries need to be recycled. Most stores that sell them have drop-off locations.

Pay controls for everyone

I normally keep political comments to my political blog, but this is important.

The government wants to control all pay rates in all public companies and has just gone public on generalities.

See this blog post for more info.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hulu: Mixed Results

Hulu is a great idea. They would seem to be trying to have all recent TV available online, either directly or redirected to other sites. With one exception, that being series that are available on DVD; for these, usually the most recent five shows are available.

How well is this executed? Mixed.

The concept is great. Watch TV whenever you want, from your computer or even your phone, and in HD. Their revenue comes the same way as broadcast TV - commercials. Sometimes there's one long (60 second) one at the beginning, but usually they are at the usual break points. Though there's usually only one 15-30 second commercial each break, not six.

They usually have the latest several episodes of new television series, though usually with a week delay. They have some movies, though in numbers that they're just a bonus, not a deciding factor.

But shows from networks other than the main companies (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW and their affiliates) are often not on Hulu. BBC America, for instance, doesn't have their content on Hulu; they offer it on iTunes instead, on a paid subscription basis releasing new shows as soon as they've aired. That means no Doctor Who, Torchwood, or Primeval.

Hulu offers a Hulu Desktop application that offers Media Center-style features and even works with Media Center remotes (on Windows) or Macintosh remotes. The menus are easier to navigate than through the webpage, and media suggestions are made and easy to use. For instance, after completing one episode of a television show, the next episode will be suggested.

The Hulu website allows searching for a specific series, and while series are not sub-categorized by season, searches can include this, such as "Babylon 5 season 2". Content is also listed by genre, referred to as Channels, such as "Science Fiction" or "Animation and Cartoons". While these groupings aren't perfect (Family Guy and Death Note are in the same group as Casper the Friendly Ghost and The Pink Panther), but it's better than nothing.

Searches can be difficult to narrow, including descriptions without a clear way to change this. Also, the TV shows and movies are intermixed. As an example of both issues, a search for "Alien Nation" turns up eight listings. Five of these are movies ("feature films"), two are TV show excerpts that refer to the "Alien Nation" series, and one is listed as a "full episode" titled "Retro Minute" that, as the name indicates, is only one minute long. While selectable filters by title are listed, each movie is listed separately (one episode each). No episodes of the "Alien Nation" TV show are currently available.

Content is often incomplete. For instance, Babylon 5 only has the first two seasons and none of the movies (the site says they have requested permission for more seasons). On the other hand, as I mentioned above, Alien Nation has five movies and no TV shows. Stargate SG1 only has the first three seasons and Stargate Atlantis only has the fifth season, though in their defense, these series are available on DVD. Smallville has five episodes from the fifth season (hosted at ABC Family), five episodes from the sixth season (hosted at The CB), and two episodes from the last season (hosted at CWTV).

The quality is also a little lower than I'd like, though better than YouTube. "Standard Resolution" is only 360 lines, not TV's standard definition of 480 lines. Going to "High Resolution" gets you up to SDTV 480 lines, but not the 1080i of HDTV. And programs are stereo even when the original was encoded with surround.

The biggest problem is broadcast quality due to streaming the programs. I have a 6Mb connection over fiber optic, a quality connection with high speed and low latency, but the stream still stutters. I have a Core 2 Duo computer with 4GB RAM, but the video is still not smooth. I can understand this some, considering they have to be experiencing great demand. But they need to give me the option of downloading the content so I am not tied to the Internet speed. And the video smoothness appears to be a problem in the media player interface, since at that point the video is already on my computer. This program in large part serves to insert the commercials which are not in the original video file.

There is a way around the problems, albeit one that requires a little patience. A program called Hulu Downloader allows downloading the Hulu programs. The standard version is free, and it does not have any spyware or ads (other than opening the home page on closing, if you're using the free version). But it does have some quirks; it sometimes crashes, it sometimes loses its connection to files and won't restart them, and the free version will only capture the standard-quality recordings, but that's a compromise for a free version. It's also a little slow, a little better than real-time. So, I simply start transferring the next few shows while watching one I already have. It also can only handle three files at a time; I just close and restart the program every three files.

Paid programs that also do the job are available, but the whole idea is that TV is supposed to be free. I have read reports of other programs that can transfer a recording in only a few minutes. These seem to run $30-60, but I haven't looked into recommendations too closely; I wanted free.

If I have one of the shows already on my computer, it plays fine. The video is smooth, unlike through the web page. The video is a standard FLV Flash format, and Media Player Classic plays it just fine. I like getting MPC from Codec Guide since they include all the codecs you might need (which tell the program how to handle odd file formats like Flash) as well as the latest version of Media Player Classic. I don't keep the files; I just watch them and delete them in standard DVR fashion.

Downloading the content does not pose any copyright issues as these programs are licensed for broadcast; courts have already held "time-shifting", recording programs now for playback later, to be legal, as long as the user has legal access to the live program. As a note, the downloaded file does not have any commercials. Ironically, when I download the file to avoid the quality problems of streaming video, Hulu also loses their revenue stream (no pun intended). I wouldn't mind the commercials, but Hulu decided to handle things that way.

Summary:

Hulu usually has the latest several episodes of new television series. Basic cable would only have one show a week, so being able to catch up past weeks is just bonus. Just make sure Hulu carries the shows you are interested in before making any changes to your subscriptions.

Video quality when watching a stream is lower than I would prefer. If you're not as picky as I am, this might not be a problem. If this is a problem, you might want to get a downloader program, and you might want to consider paying the $30-60 they run.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Quick thought: GoToMyPC vs LogMeIn

GoToMyPC has been advertising on the radio for some time. LogMeIn has started doing so more recently, and not as heavily. My thoughts?

LogMeIn has a basic free service. GoToMyPC only has paid services. Most people use the services simply to remotely access a computer, such as accessing your work computer from home, as if you're sitting at the other computer. LogMeIn Free does this just fine, and just as securely (non-hackable, etc) as the paid versions. The paid versions (GoToMyPC or LogMeIn Pro) add things like remote printing (print while you're connected to your office computer, and the printout goes to your printer at home), sound (hear the sound when you get a new email or watch a training video), and file transfer. Sure, these are nice, but they may not be needed in your situation. (LogMeIn Pro also adds "Mini Meeting", a feature similar to one GoToMyPC charges extra for, named GoToMeeting, though limited to one user at a time.)

A big factor, however, is that LogMeIn handles computer accounts similarly, whether paid or free, and a single user account can handle multiple computers. For example, you can have a Pro account to access your office computer. Your employer may see the need and pay for it (it's only $12.95/month or $69.95/year). But you can then install the free version on your home desk computer (check your home email), your media center computer (schedule a TV recording, download a video you just heard about before you forget about it), and your parents' computer (to provide support). All of them can be handles through a single account - you just log into the website and pick which computer you want to use. If you need to access a lot of computers (server support from home without complex VPN configuration), you can create groups to sort them (home, work, servers, family).

More useful in a business environment than at home, you have a lot of options, say, creating user accounts (for telecommuting office workers) while retaining administrative privileges. And there is a support version so users can request support and you can help them, without even having the software installed in advance. Administrative and reporting tools are also available.

But the real key is simplicity. My sister has a home business in Georgia. My mother handles her accounting, and has the accounting software installed on her computer at her home in Tennessee. If my sister needs to look at something, she can use LogMeIn Free to check it, and they can save big bucks because they don't need an expensive multi-user accounting package.

My mother called me with a question on laying out a flyer. I used LogMeIn Free to access her computer and see what she was trying to do; I could then walk her through what she wanted.

But it is safe. It requires several sets of usernames and secure passwords. To access a computer, I first have to log into the LogMeIn website with an account that is authorized to access the computer in question. (I can use my own username and password since my sister's account has me as an administrator.) I then have to log into the computer with a local username and password - I can't log in remotely unless I could log in physically. If the computer accounts don't have passwords, a substitute passcode will be required. Though it does not have the restriction of Remote Desktop - the computer login does not automatically log me into the computer; I can log in or out as necessary with any credentials I may have, all under the same remote session. And all information is sent encrypted.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Kudos to Target Pharmacy

Thursday I went to Target to get a pharmacy prescription refilled.

As usual there, the lady told me that the prescription would be ready in 10-15 minutes. When I came back, she apologized that my prescription had expired. It seems that prescriptions are only valid for one year, so if the prescription covers refills for a year it's easy for the prescription to have expired before the last refill is obtained.

She then said that she had already contacted the doctor's office for an extension and was waiting for a reply. She said to check back tomorrow (Friday) or Monday; and since I only had one pill left, she gave me three more to cover the weekend.

On Friday, I called since I had to be in the area anyway. While I had to navigate the phone menu to get someone, when I did get someone, she remembered me right away. She said that they had heard back from the doctor and that my refill was ready.

When I got to the store a few minutes later, she had my refill waiting, with 87 pills instead of 90 to make up for the three she gave me the day before. She said that the doctor had called with the prescription 10 minutes after I left and they had filled it right away.

In comparison, the most popular pharmacy chain in the country, Walmart, would have required I wait in line for 15 minutes just to check the status of the refill. On my first check, the response is usually that they just got the request, even if I had placed it two hours previously in the hope it would actually be ready. They usually then say that they will "put a rush on it" and to check back in 30-45 minutes (down from the 60-minute normal wait). When I get back, I again have to wait in line, and will probably be told that they are "filling it now - give them another 15 minutes." In another 15 minutes, I have to get back in line. So, I have my prescription in-hand 1 1/2 hours later (45 minutes wait, plus 15 minutes wait, plus two waits in line at 15 minutes each). Not including the time between placing the order though the refill phone number and when I first went to the store. Target's wait is only 10-15 minutes total, no excuses, no waiting lines. And that is only if I had not even mentioned the refill before; if I had requested in advance, it would have been ready with no waits at all.

But when, in this case, the prescription had expired, if WM had handled it themselves at all, they would not have handled it the same day; I would have had to wait until Monday, just to go through the above process all over again. And they sure wouldn't have given me a few pills against the prescription to cover the weekend - I would have just been out. Target did it all themselves and quickly, without me even asking.

So, Target saved me at least 1 1/2 hours. And frustration. And they have the same price of $4/30 days and $10/90 days for generics that Walmart does.

If you want them to, you can actually have them automatically refill your prescriptions and let you know when they're ready for pickup, handy if you have several. And it would have avoided my expiration problem...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

First Blog Post

This is my first post in my blog on Blogger. I have been using a custom-created blog, but that didn't provide for public comments Since my website is hosted by Office Live, I first tried Live Spaces, but that doesn't seem to allow much flexibility. I figured I try Blogger, since it seems to be well-recommended.