Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Ballpark Blues

There's a new Twins ballpark opening downtown, and the Twins are celebrating with a radio commercial set to the tune of 'Home on the Range' (though the celebration seems a bit premature to me, given that the club still has to sell tickets in the park they've allowed to become known as the cesspit of the American League).

In honor of the Twins sagacity in opening the new park, I've decided to write some alternate lyrics to their celebration song:

New ballpark downtown
Where Mauer and Morneau will play,
Where it's pleasant and dry, except in July,
And in August, and April, and May.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hey, Consumerist!

You might want to actually do some research before spouting off about how Apple is adding 'DRM' to their new iPod Shuffle, especially when one of the critics you cite in your article recants his own position on the same day your essay is posted. If you're going off that half-cocked over something as petty as a controller chip on a pair of headphones, why should I believe anything you say about more important subjects?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some Earmark Perspective

I understand that it's popular right now to criticize earmark spending as 'pork', even if you are a Congressperson who brags about bringing federal dollars home during your re-election campaign. Hypocrisy is nothing new in government, so I don't see much point In getting upset about it.

I'll just point out that getting bent out of shape over the earmarks in the just-passed budget is like being offended that a family of four earning $1400 per month (just under $17,000 per year) actually goes out to eat in a restaurant like Baker's Square once a month.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen: What Lies Beneath

I went to see the movie version of 'Watchmen' this weekend. I'd been looking forward to it ever since I first saw the first preview, and some of the critical reviews that came out over the past few days further whetted my appetite for what I thought would be an amazing movie experience.

When I walked out of the theater, though, I didn't find myself particularly overwhelmed.

When I walked out of the theater after seeing the first Spider-Man movie, I was jazzed -- director Sam Raimi and lead actor Toby Maguire had nailed the essences of both Spider-Man's character and his unique appeal to comic fans. When I walked out of the first Lord of the Rings movie, I was even more excited -- so much so that I couldn't restrain myself from going to pick up Tolkien's full series of books and reading them through to the end, just to find out what happened next. I went back and saw 'Return of the King' in the theater at least five different times, that's how excited I was about that movie.

I expected to have a similar reaction to 'Watchmen', but I didn't. In retrospect, I think I understand why, and at the same time begin to see why Alan Moore is so disparaging of the work derived from his own graphic novel.

(Warning: the rest of this essay will contain a number of SPOILERS, both from the movie and from the graphic novel -- if you're reading this and haven't seen one or read the other and still plan to, be warned.)

The movie started off on an extremely promising note -- an opening montage set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin'" that catches up the audience with the major events of this alternate universe and gives them some background for the events that will follow. The montage was very well done and left as many questions as answers, with the unspoken idea that the movie would answer at least some of those unspoken questions.

As the movie went on, it became clear that the creators were hoping to capture the same sense of respect versus modification for the source material that the makers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy did with the works of JRR Tolkein; just as the LotR movies completely left out the character of Tom Bombadil (but slyly incorporated the scene where Bombadil saves the four hobbits from an animate tree as a scene for Treebeard to save Merry and Pippin), the makers of Watchmen left out the entire 'Tales of the Black Freighter' story-within-a-story, though they did have a couple of visual references to the characters who supplied the main tie between that story-within-a-story and the main story, a young black man reading a comic book while resting near the newsstand owner from which he had 'borrowed' the book. Of course, if you hadn't read the graphic novel, you had no idea of those characters' significance, and this wasn't the only moment in which this was true in the movie.

The best example I can give of a series of events that were meaningful for those who really knew the graphic novel versus those who'd never heard of it before seeing the movie was in the choice of music for the film. Each of the twelve 'issues' of the original DC Comics series had a title, and each title had a quotation at the end which helped explain the title within the context of the events of the issue. Some of these quotations were taking from songs, and it seemed like whenever possible, the filmmakers used those songs in the appropriate place in the movie. (Example: the issue where Nite Owl and Rorschach go to Antarctica to confront Ozymandias used a quote from Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower", and sure enough, the strains of Hendrix's tune played as Nite Owl tried to land Archie in the ice-strewn wasteland of Antarctica.

These call-outs (or perhaps they'd be better described as 'easter eggs') certainly helped make the movie more interesting for someone who'd already read the graphic novel. (Though I had a conversation with a fellow who obviously hadn't read the graphic novel, and was thus confused over the choice of Jimi Hendrix in what otherwise would be an obvious action sequence.) The easter eggs, though, didn't overcome what would prove to be the biggest problem with the movie -- one that's best described with a somewhat clich├ęd phrase: following the letter rather than the spirit of the source material.

The filmmakers took great pains to make certain that those who'd read the graphic novels would see many (if not all) of the moments they'd identify as key to the story -- Rorschach's investigation of the Comedian's apartment after the latter's death; Nite Owl's and Silk Spectre's fight with knot-top gang-bangers during Doctor Manhattan's press conference; Nite Owl being unable to 'get it up' in his own home when seduced by Silk Spectre, but having no problems later after a brief interlude of costumed heroism; Rorschach's time in prison; Doctor Manhattan's internal dialogue on Mars where his origin is revealed, and his subsequent discussion with Silk Spectre while flying above Mars on a grandiose clockwork crystal of Manhattan's own making; Ozymandias's apotheosis. Many of these moments, however, were robbed of a greater thematic impact because of other decisions made by the filmmakers to stick largely to all the details of the given plot. (Not that I can complain too much, given that even with the trimming of much of the thematic elements of the tale, the story still came in at nearly two hours and 45 minutes.)

Let me show you what I mean with most of these moments:

- The gang fight shows us not only that Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are, even after years of inactivity, still able to kick major ass, but also provides a hint of the eroticism that vigilantism means to both of these characters. This is a subject that becomes more obvious later, with the scene in Archie after rescuing the 'civilians' from the tenement fire.

Yet a key quote from the graphic novel, one given by Rorschach to his prison psychologist, is left out of the movie, and suggests that similar if not precisely the same motives drive all the Watchmen: "We do this not because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled."

- This leads naturally to Rorschach's time in prison. In the graphic novel, the psychologist is a much more fully realized character in his own right -- he initially spends a lot of time trying to get to know Rorschach because he thinks it'll be a boon to his career if he makes a breakthrough and takes the notably sociopathic vigilante and manages to reform him. Instead, Rorschach's tale persuades the psychologist of the inherent bleakness of the human condition, which ultimately costs him his comfortable marriage as he interprets the compulsion he inherits from Rorschach through his own experience as a healer.

In the movie, though, he's a cipher at best, and a spear-carrier at worst; we learn nothing about his own backstory or character, and as such when we see him in New York at the moment of Ozymandias's apotheosis, there's no real impact associated with the knowledge. You have to have read the graphic novel to understand why his death (and those of the newsman and boy at the newsstand, for that matter) have any significance at all.

- This leads us to Ozy's apotheosis, and his master plan. Within the context of the film plot, it makes sense that, instead of a bizarre plot to convince the world of an imminent invasion of aliens from another dimension, instead Ozy takes a project that Doctor Manhattan was helping him with and uses it to convince the world that Doc has turned against humanity. Removing this from the film removes yet another subplot from the graphic novel, and also makes the absence of the Tales of the Black Freighter story make sense.

I have two problems, though, with the way the filmmakers handled this change in master plan. First, the original master plan from the graphic novel required only a single attack, on New York City, to unite the world -- and if you think that's overly optimistic, may I remind you of the initial response of the global powers to the attacks of 9/11, which suggests that Moore was fifteen years ahead of his time in predicting the global response to terror. The new plan required the fake Manhattan attacks to occur all around the world, because an attack by Manhattan on New York City could be interpreted as the good Doctor simply exacting his revenge on the nation that 'used' his services for so long. In addition, in the graphic novel, when Ozymandias proves to the other Watchmen that his plan has succeeded, there are news reports from all over the world announcing plans for peace and cooperation -- in the movie, there's nothing but Richard Nixon talking about the need for peace and security against this new 'evil', which again, if one remembers the neo-conservative response to 9/11, suggests that this 'utopia' that Oxymandias worked so hard and sacrificed so many to achieve could be undone by simple greed and ignorance on the part of government leaders. It's a far less satisfying apotheosis in the movie, because history has shown us that the plan, as presented, might not work as anticipated.

Which itself would be fine, if the second problem didn't exist. In the graphic novel, once Ozymandias has convinced the Watchmen of his triumph, he retires to his orrery to ponder his next move. He's visited by Doctor Manhattan, who explains that he's leaving this universe for one 'less complicated'. In a final admission that he's not as confident as he just portrayed himself to be, Ozy asks Jon if he did all right, if his plan will work out in the end. Manhattan replies, "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends," which leaves Ozy puzzled and disquieted. In the movie, the line is given by Silk Spectre to Nite Owl, and is even prefaced by the phrase, "I know what Jon would say..." The scene happens miles away and some unspecified time after the event, and isn't even completely in the context of Ozy's triumph, which robs the line of much of its symbolic and thematic punch.

Now none of this should be interpreted as me thinking that the Watchmen movie was bad -- I did enjoy it, and would certainly consider seeing it again. And it's very possible that, though I can imagine the movie being so much better than it was, that to get there the thing would have had to have been four hours long, or perhaps even split into two films, with no guarantee that enough people would be excited enough after the first movie to stick around for the second.

It's just that I found myself hoping for an experience like that of 'Return of the King', where I'd end up paying retail to see the thing four of five times in the theater because it affected me that much, and it surprised me that as I walked out of the theater, I didn't feel much affected at all.

The movie captured the letter of the graphic novel, but not its spirit.

Two of These Things...

Watching ESPN in the Ruby Tuesday bar after seeing 'Watchmen', when a commercial comes on for ESPN. That seems a bit odd in itself, though I suppose people like me, watching in a bar, might be persuaded to go home and order cable service, so we'll let that one slide.

The commercial's tag line is 'Follow your sport, which makes sense. Preceding the tagline, however, is a rolling list of items, including Mike Golic and Bill Simmons.

I'm sitting in my chair, wondering what the **** Bill Simmons and Mike Golic have to do with sports.

Monday, March 02, 2009

My iPhone App list

A story came out some time ago that, when the app-using habits of iPhone users was studied, it turns out that most downloaded apps don't get used much: about 4 of 5 people who downloaded a free app never used it again after that first day, and nearly 2 in 3 who paid to download an app did the same.

My experience: Yeah, that sounds about right.

Here's the list of apps that have existed on my iPhone at one time or another, organized by usage pattern. Note, this does not include the apps that came with the iPhone, which can't be deleted (but can be moved to 'back pages' if you're not making regular use of them).

Not currently on the phone:

Diceshaker (free) - A cool-looking die roller app, I picked it up with the thought of using it to make my D&D die rolls electronically. It had two significant flaws: first, you could only roll one die with it. Second, the die you defined in the setup (you could define a die with any number of 'sides') would never actually roll its maximum value.

It did make for an interesting psychological experiment -- I was in my last days of playing D&D Minis when I grabbed the app, and asked a few opponents if they'd let me use the Diceshaker app instead of rolling a physical d20. Every one refused, and every one suggested that they'd be unable to tell if the program was 'honest'. I knew the program wasn't 'honest', but it was flawed in a way that would harm me (since I couldn't roll a 20, I'd never get a critical hit or automatic success). Still, nobody even considered that as an option.

Eventually replaced by Dicenomicon (see below).

GeoHash (free) - A free app inspired by this XKCD webcomic. The original app was updated after the algorithm chosen by the programmer couldn't handle the Dow falling below 10,000.

Downloaded because I thought it was cool. Removed to make space for apps I'd actually use. It might go back onto the phone, if I found someone like Randall Munroe to go on adventures with. (Though that's really just an excuse, honestly.)

MySpace Mobile (free) - Originally downloaded about the same time as Facebook (see below), because I knew people on both services. Now that everyone I knew on MySpace has migrated to Facebook, I don't bother keeping up with the MySpace part of the interwebs anymore.

Obama '08 (free) - Originally downloaded to piss off my right-wing gaming cohort Mark, this turned out to be an extremely well-done app, combining contact information, web-based data (position papers, mostly), and other features into a seamless whole (at least, as far as I explored it).

Removed after Obama won the election, because we live in a representative democracy, and the guys I voted for, who largely agree with my views on things, won.

Currently on phone - not used in months or not sure when last used:

Google Mobile App (free) - It's not that the Google Mobile App is a bad app; it's just that most of what I do with it is more easily accessed in other apps on the iPhone -- for instance, Mobile Safari has a Google search bar on the browser. Likewise, the Maps app has a search feature that doesn't require you to 'hitch' over from the Google Mobile App.

If I made more use of Google Apps, and specifically the Google Apps set up for the use of our local gaming group, I'd probably get more use out of the Google Mobile App. At the moment, though, it would be the next app to go if I had to make room.

SportsTap (free) - I used this app frequently during the 2008 baseball season to grab scores, check stat lines, and track the pennant chase between the Twins and White Sox. Since then, I haven't had much call to use it, since I'm not a huge Vikings or Timberwolves fan anymore. We'll see if the new baseball season causes me to increase my usage of the app again.

Remote (free) - This Apple app is still on the phone because of the potential of being able to use it to remotely control my MacBook or MacMini if needed. To this point, it hasn't really been needed.

eReader (free) - I like the idea of using my iPhone as an electronic book reader; this is one of three reading-type apps on the phone right now. I originally chose eReader because of its library of free public domain texts; I downloaded and read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'A Study in Scarlet', and haven't really used it since.

WarcraftStat (free) - An app to check the status of servers in World of Warcraft. Not really used much, because it's just as easy to check online when I'm actually at my computer and considering playing. It's still here, because I think of it as a matched set with the Warcraft Characters app, though as far as I can tell they were not coded by the same programmer.

Currently on phone - used within past month, but not regularly:

Warcraft Characters (free) - An iPhone interface to an online database that mirrors World of Warcraft character data. I haven't spent a lot of time in WoW of late, so this pair of apps (Characters and Stat) might go if I decide to give up my subscription again. (Why I feel the need to drop my subscription almost immediately after purchasing an update to the game client is a topic worthy of its own past, someday.)

Lightsaber Unleashed (free) - The first app I ever downloaded for the iPhone, back before LucasArts either purchased or claimed IP ownership of the app and re-vamped it as a tool to sell 'The Force Unleashed'. Still cool to swing the phone around and hear the lightsaber sounds, though.

Careerbuilder.com Jobs (free) - A great idea for an app, but the combination of a crappy job market coinciding with the recession, plus some significant limitations in the app (you can't simply browse job listings in your area - you're required to enter a keyword to search on if you want to search the job listings) have kept me looking for a replacement for some time. No luck yet.

Dicenomicon ($3.99) - A far superior dice rolling app to Diceshaker. Gives the ability to roll multiple dice, to group dice in multiple 'pools' (so you can roll all the dice you need to create a D&D character with one shake), and the ability to program specific types and numbers of dice to match just about any game system. The 'help' screens are incredibly helpful, especially the section for specific game systems which contains formulas for use with D&D, AD&D, Storyteller (Vampire and similar games), and the HERO system, plus others.

Absolutely worth the money in terms of functionality; only problem is, like Diceshaker above, most DM/GMs don't want you rolling electronic dice, assuming that you've skewed the program somehow to cheat. Ah, well, I guess it's only human nature.

Shakespeare (free) - This app is used infrequently only because, even with my theatrical background, I don't have the need to consult the complete works of William Shakespeare on a regular basis. Still very cool, though, especially the program icon.

Bonus points: With the addition of a Search feature, this app becomes a great companion for the Canadian television series 'Slings & Arrows'.

AP Mobile News (free) - This used to be an app I'd access multiple times per day, during the election season. As time has gone on, though, the people coding this app have seen fit to try to make it more 'bells and whistles-y', including (most depressingly) banner ads to help pay for the development cost. I loved this app when it was a simple, no-frills interface to the day's news; every update gets me closer and closer to trying to hunt up a new app to capture that old minimalist feeling.

Stanza (free) - Another e-reader application, this one came recommended along with a promotional set of e-book downloads, one of which was from a writer I knew and admired - Laurie Notaro. Since that first e-book, I haven't been motivated to go pay for another.

Currently on phone - being used regularly, but too new to tell if it'll last:

CBS TV.com (free) - Grabbed almost entirely based on the reports in the Mac press that the original Star Trek series could be accessed via the app. There are a few other CBS shows that I might follow (How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory) if I got into the habit, but since I'm long out of the habit of watching actual television, it's hard to tell how eager I'll be to consume it on (to borrow a phrase from Yahtzee Croshaw) 'teeny-weeny eyestrain-o-vision'.

iBlogger ($0.99) - I've made a couple of short posts to this blog from iBlogger, but I can already tell that my preferred long-winded style including the occasional hyperlink won't translate well from the iPhone's tiny keyboard. I now understand why Twitter clients for the iPhone are so popular.

The Weather Channel Weather App (free) - This one probably has the best chance to stick around -- the app is far more detailed than the included Weather app, and can provide much more in-depth information about upcoming weather conditions. It would be slightly more useful if I were still taking the bus to work, as it would help me to always have an umbrella handy for potential downpours. Even so, a very useful and information-dense app.

Currently on phone - used frequently:

Now Playing (free) - Originally called 'Box Office', but apparently that name is being used by someone with deeper pockets. The guys at AP could learn something about iPhone development from Cyrus, the developer of this app. New features are added, but they're generally either useful (ratings of movies taken from Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, links to trailers, links to movies and showtimes based on proximity to your current location or default location, ability to 'favorite' a movie for quick access to info on it) or can be turned off if desired (upcoming movie and DVD releases). I don't go to a lot of movies in the theater, but it's not an exaggeration to say that since I got Now Playing, I haven't seen a movie without checking it in this app first. I think that's pretty high praise for a free iPhone app.

Currently on phone - used multiple times per day

Facebook (free) - I don't need Facebook; I suspect most of us don't. But it's odd the way it helps me stay in at least nominal contact with folks I otherwise would go months or years without hearing from or about. It lets me keep up to date with major events in my friends' lives, and even lets me plan some events days before they happen. And it gives me the chance to try new things in the guise of trying to reconnect with old friends -- I went to a new-age health and wellness expo last weekend based on the Facebook invite of a woman I had a crush on in junior high. I'm not sure whether it's an advantage or a drawback that the iPhone app doesn't allow access to third-party Facebook apps (save in the sense that apps that put notifications on your Wall will show up in the app's notifications list); my gut feeling is that I'd rather the app be a no-frills gateway to my Facebook contacts and conversations (and it still needs a few tweaks to do that seamlessly), much like I want a news reader to give me news and not videos on 'hot philologists'.

I don't need Facebook, but my life would probably be duller without it.

--

So most of the apps I've ever downloaded end up in a virtual dustbin; that's not too surprising, I guess, given Sturgeon's Law. (Ninety percent of everything is crap.) Still, if one out of ten iPhone apps I try become apps I use regularly and get real value from, I have to consider that to be a really good ratio.