Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ms Marvel (2014)

Lowdown: A 16 year old Muslim girl from New Jersey turns super hero.
I don’t normally go for superhero comics. I know I’m over generalising, but they provide a strong case for “read one, read all”. However, from time to time one does need to re-evaluate one’s core assumptions on such critical matters. When I read that the new Ms Marvel is proving a major hit, sales wise, I decided to give it a go. If any superhero can break through the wall of stereotypes, it is more likely to be a female one.
I was right, but it did not occur to me how right I was until I delved deeply in. The 2014 incarnation of Ms Marvel is not your average Peter Parker like nice person that turns into a superhero through some freak event. This Ms Marvel is a New Jersey 16 year old girl born to a family of Muslim Pakistani heritage. And that makes all the difference.
It was always sort of easy to identify with the story of the outsider turning into a superhero, but it is much nicer - and easier - when that outsider is a true outsider to “our” culture of the West. When the outsider has a name that the people around her can’t pronounce, when the outsider has problems fitting in because she doesn’t do alcohol, and when the outsider has to regularly deal with conflicts between her home culture and the culture of the majority of those around her – that is when yours truly can have a much easier time identifying with the superhero. Even before she turns into a superhero and her problems are magnified.
So yeah, we get the usual superhero vs. villain affairs, and past issue 5 (at the time of writing there are 9 Ms Marvels released) things turn into a more regular affair involving other Marvel superheroes. However, at its core the new Ms Marvel is still that immigrants’ daughter teenager with a twist. Which explains the sales figures and explain why I highly recommend this superhero.
Overall: Who would have thought this immigrant could find so much in common with a Marvel superhero? 4 out of 5 crabs for the new Ms Marvel!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Jersey Boys

Lowdown: The personal story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Clint Eastwood’s notorious show at the Republican convention, as well as his general support of the party, do not mean that he is relegated from his hard won status as one of my all time favourite directors (not to mention one of my all time favourite online aliases). With Jersey Boys, Eastwood is back to directing familiar themes: he follows real life musicians as he did in Bird, with these musicians coming in from tough neighbourhoods like the one the heroes of Mystic River hailed from.
This time around the tough neighbourhood is a particularly tough suburb of New Jersey and the musicians are Frankie Valli and the guys around him with whom he forms The Four Seasons band. It’s familiar themes for Eastwood and familiar themes for us viewers: there is nothing in this rise and fall and rise and fall and rise story we haven’t seen before. There is the criminal part of the equation, into which our heroes fall too easily; there are the women they fall in love and betray trust with; you get the gist. Adding to the aura of familiarity is a Christopher Walken acting out his standard mafia boss with a heart role.
There are three things that set Jersey Boys apart from things of the past. First is the music: this is a musical through and through, designed to look and feel like the stage production it came from. If you love Valli’s music you’ll have a hell of a time with this fine production here - all the hits are there for the picking. There is even the typical get together of the entire cast at the very end of the movie, just like in Broadway, and the cast will frequently break invisible walls to talk directly to the audience.
Second is the Eastwood factor, sprinkling the otherwise ordinary with touches of brilliance. Like the scene in which our group of musicians first visits a music company while the camera pans across the outside of the building from bottom to top, as if tracing the heroes’ journey through the building from the outside. Us viewers end up witnessing different would be musicians as they audition for their bid of fortune and glory through the windows of each floor the camera passes by. Then there is the short Eastwood cameo when Valli sits to watch some period black & white TV (Eastwood is on TV, playing in some old Western).
Third is Jersey Boys overstaying its welcome. At two hours and a quarter, this movie is simply too long for its own good; we actually got to the stage where we checked how long it has to go, unable to believe we have to endure another half an hour of more of the same.
Overall: A fine musical that’s not too special otherwise. Definitely worth watching if you like that kind of music (I don’t mind it, but I cannot claim to be a fan), but otherwise not one of Eastwood’s best; probably another of his works of love to the world of music. 3 out of 5 melodic crabs.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Lowdown: There’s more to life than this, but in order to get there we need to meditate.
At the time I noted Sam Harris’ 2012 Global Atheist Convention presentation was one of the more interesting ones. Interesting, but also weird: during the middle of his half an hour long presentation, Harris asked the audience to close their eyes and join him in meditation. When you think about it, that’s a very weird request to make of an audience brimming with self declared sceptics. Yours truly can attest to many eyes being kept wide open.
Harris’ latest book, Waking Up (a book that comes with the secondary title of “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”), is a book aimed exactly at that crowd. A book that takes it for granted that religion equals bullshit, although it can definitely still be read by the religious, and aims at satisfying those very same sceptics around me at that 2012 convention hall.
Waking Up’s core claim is that there is more to life than this, and that this extra life - aka spirituality - can be at the reach of us all if we meditate properly. Up until now, religion - with all the false crap that comes along - took ownership of this spirituality, as it had gained many a follower touched by these unique life experiences. Harris, however, argues that the benefits achievable through spirituality should not be kept in the domain of religion; everyone should be able to enjoy them. He continues to offer a path for getting there through picking and choosing from what the religions of the Far East – Buddhism in particular – have to say.
Harris’ claim is nice and interesting, even if it does feel like he’s trying to be pompous and grand about it by using phrases such as “the illusion of the self” and “free in the moment” without explaining what he means till much later. Following that laying of the claim is a discussion on the workings of the human brain and philosophical deliberations on the concept of consciousness. The aim is to provide some sort of scientific foundations for the existence and benefits of spirituality. For my money, this was by far the most interesting part of the book. Once Harris deems to have cleared the way, he moves on to discuss meditation techniques as well as telling the charlatan meditation guru apart from the real deal.
I do not doubt Harris when he says there is more to consciousness than we are normally aware of. My problem with Waking Up, however, has been it never managing to leave me feeling convinced. If anything, its arguments reek of desperation. There is a lot that Harris asks the reader to accept based on his own personal experience, which – last I heard – doesn’t pass for scientific evidence. As already hinted, there is too much “shock & awe” in Harris’ presentation of the facts: to prove the effectiveness and clarity of a particular Buddhist instructor, Harris compares the guy's teachings with an optical illusion; WTF?
We covered cheap attempts at shocking the reader, leaving the reader impressed through lack of clarity, and other methods of argument typically ridiculed by Harris when he criticises religion. Next, I would bring the whole focus on meditation as the best/only way (drugs aside) to enter the new realms of consciousness the author is talking about into question. As in, what about other types of spiritual experiences people have, experiences that have nothing to do with religion? Specifically, what about music? Has Harris been to a music concert lately to see what the crowd is like even without the use of drugs? Testifying for myself, I know that I have experienced and continue to experience a lot of what Harris seems to be talking about simply through listening to my favourite music through a proper hi-fi system. There is a reason why I like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as much as I do: it is consistently able to take my conscious away into otherwise unimaginable realms of pleasure where it is not encumbered by my day to day concerns. It is, if you will, my personal spiritual experience, yet I do not need a whole lot of hoopla and years with Tibetan monks in order to experience it – David Gilmour’s guitar will suffice, thank you very much.
The same can be argued about Western religions. Harris asks us not to leave spirituality to the domain of those religions; fine by me. He continues to argue that people of these religions are attached to their religion through their spiritual experience; true, at least for some of them. However, if that is the case, then how does he explain the fact these people get their spiritual experience without anything remotely close to Buddhist like meditation, but rather through experiences much close to the music concerts I am talking about? Talk about glaring omissions.
Look, I’m not saying Harris is wrong. There is at least something to his arguments.
I am saying, however, that Harris builds himself a house of cards made with flimsy evidence that cannot sustain the level of arguments he is making. And yes, I am accusing him of at least some two faced behaviour in raising arguments of type and quality he is used to criticising.
You may still want to read Waking Up to check out Harris’ claims for yourself. The carrot of living a happier life is potentially too good to miss out on. Yet it is clear that the case meant to support this carrot isn’t there [yet]. I would understand Harris if he raised his hypothesis and left it at that, a hypothesis, but I have a hard time being asked to accept the business case he brings along to the table. I therefore feel that 2 out of 5 crabs is all that Waking Up deserves, most of which are earned by the second chapter that does offer interesting insight on what we know to be the workings of our human consciousness.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Pebble Smartwatch

Lowdown: An affordable smartwatch with a lively ecosystem.
When I bought my last watch this March I did so with mixed feelings. Sure, it replaced a watch I bought back in 2008, so a refresh was called for (sort of); yet I knew Apple & Co will be releasing smartwatches into the wild later during the year, leaving little choice for this gadget aficionado but to be swept along. My fears turned out to be spot on: I did end up buying a smartwatch just six months later, only that it wasn’t an Apple or an Android. It was a Pebble, a smartwatch that has been there for a while. Yet it was this exact maturity that comes with successfully being there for a while that made me buy another watch.
Pebble smartwatches come in two shapes. There is the basic plastic model that sells for around $100 and looks like a dork’s delight, and there is the much better looking Pebble Steel that sells for about twice as much. I have good looking watches already and I also have a mortgage, thank you very much, so I went with the cheaper option. Hey, sue me.
What you get for your buck is a light, largish and potentially colourful rectangular piece of plastic equipped with a cheap plastic strap. At the centre lies an e-ink black & white screen of unremarkable resolution that utilises similar technology to a Kindle e-reader screen as opposed to your average tablet/smartphone's LCD screen. This implies that while appearances may be bland, battery life should be significantly better. Inside lie some accelerometers and a compass, too, lending this watch some sophistication. However, that aura fades away when us smartphone users are required to operate the watch not via a touchscreen but by using buttons to the side of the watch. Buttons! And not even slick feeling ones at that. How dreadfully 20th century.
The main point of the Pebble is to act as an extension to your smartphone. As such, your Pebble would [probably] be the first watch you ever owned that never requires you to set the time but is always accurate (it gets its bearings from your phone). Installation works by installing Pebble’s free app on your phone, and then pairing it to your new wrist accessory via Bluetooth. For reasons that still elude me, Pebble insisted on creating two Bluetooth connections between my iPhone and my Pebble watch; don’t ask me why, but it does complain when I try to severe any of them. [Browsing the Pebble website reveals the second Bluetooth connection is required for iPhones running iOS 7 and above in order for notifications to work.]
Through the smartphone app one can choose from thousands of apps and so called watchfaces for the Pebble, all of which are free members of what seems to be a well managed ecosystem. If, for some reason, you would like your Pebble screen to look like a Rolex’, you’d be in for a treat (at least until Rolex sues): there are plenty of watchfaces providing just that. But there’s more: there are compass watchfaces, timers/stopwatches... You think about it and it’s there. Affairs are not glitch free, and you’d encounter the occasional bugs, not to mention the gross inaccuracies of the built in compass (as trustworthy as a politician’s word), but overall the impression is positive. There really is an app for everything this unimaginative user wants of a smartwatch, at least for now. To give you an example, the app offering multiple timers and stopwatches proved incredibly useful when cooking different types of food on the barbecue: I get specific alerts to flip over each different dish at its exact due time.
If its sophistication you’re after, it’s definitely there. Apps such as Jawbone’s or Misfit’s will track your steps for the day and even the quality of your sleep, and if you install their matching smartphone apps they will collate the data nicely for you. If it’s running that tickles your fancy, the Pebble will work with some running apps to help you in that department, too. Note that since there is no GPS receiver on the Pebble you do have to run with your smartphone; it’s just that it’s easier to read your watch and receive alerts from your watch as you run than it is with the phone.
It really seems to be a case of the sky’s the limit. In my case, however, I voluntarily choose to limit what the Pebble and its apps are doing. I do so for two reasons: first, I do not want the Pebble to bite too much into my mobile data plan. Second, and more important, is the question of privacy: I know I’m at a minority in this department, but I do not want companies like Pebble or Jawbone to know of my exact location/activity/food consumption/sleep history, thank you very much. Being your typical American companies, they all sport privacy policies along the lines of “we can do whatever we feel like with your data” (I am yet to find an exception to this rule with the Pebble). However, even with the strictest of user imposed limitations your phone will still communicate with Pebble from time to time; and even if you block location services from the Pebble app, Pebble will get a good idea of where you’re located through your IP address. I guess what I am trying to say is that with this current incarnation of smartphone based business models, users’ privacy is at the top of the list of products to make money of. You might be getting great fitness apps, but your privacy is the currency with which you pay for such functionality. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this does not have to be the case; I’d much rather pay a dollar or two a year for the services I like if it buys me decent privacy protections. Bear that in mind before you step into the smartwatch arena.
I will also add that I have been hearing reliable reports of the Jawbone app failing to reliably sync step counts between the Pebble smartwatch and its Android app. Given my self imposed privacy restrictions I cannot add much light there, but these things do happen.
Apps and smartwatches aside, by far the most useful feature  of the Pebble smartwatch is its handling of phone notification. Basically, it’s pretty easy to set things up so that every notification on your phone sends a buzz through your wrist. The advantages seem silly on paper, but believe me – once you experience it, there is no going back. It’s great to be able to read messages without having to take the phone out of your pocket, or to be able to screen calls in half a second. The biggest advantage? Forget about missing calls and messages because you failed to hear your phone in a crowded street or at a noisy shopping centre; your won’t miss your smartwatch vibrating. This is awesome!
Again, I will add a caveat: from time to time it occurs to me my Pebble stops providing notification alerts. Once it was because one of the Bluetooth connections got severed, but the rest of the times? I don’t know. Toggling app notifications off and on at my iPhone Settings app seems to have sorted things out, but who knows – maybe I’m just seeing patterns where there aren’t.
OK, let’s talk battery. How long does the Pebble watch last? Pebble will tell you “up to a week”; in my experience it took about 4 days for me to get the “low battery” warning and less than 5 for the smartwatch to become unusable. It’s not like the watches of yonder that allowed years between battery replacements, but it’s generous enough to let you fly across the world without a recharge. Just as long as you don’t forget to pack Pebble’s unique USB charger cable, otherwise you’re doomed!
The Pebble’s battery is nor serviceable, meaning you cannot replace it. In effect, that means this watch that you bought is a disposable item. If you’re used to the state of mind where watches are pieces of jewellery to be used over decades, forget it. On the positive side, the Pebble is rated with very decent water resistance: you can take it with you to the shower, you can swim along with it on your wrist, and if you believe the hype you can even go for a dive.
When it comes to accepting the Pebble into your life or not, the real question is to do with your basic attitude towards the idea that your watch is as disposable as your smartphone. That is, it's a coveted item at purchase time but it turns into a piece of archaeological shit two years later, or even less, when the next model with the latest bells and whistles comes out.
As things currently stand, Pebble is the only viable smartwatch offering out there. The various Android models don’t really know what to do with themselves while Apple simply isn’t there yet. In my opinion, a breakthrough can only come through Apple. While I used to be sceptic about the whole need for a smartwatch, the Pebble thoroughly convinced me of the case for one. Now it is up to Apple with its design skills and market power to turn smartwatches from an early adopters’ toy into a mainstream affair.
I have no doubt Apple can do it. It’s soon to be released smartwatch features a proper smartphone grade screen and its already released SDK hints at a vastly superior user interface than the Pebble’s. However, there are also significant disadvantages to Apple’s would be offerings: starting at $400 in the USA, they would be costly (remember, we are talking disposable items here!); with the beautiful screen comes battery life of one day or less (no flying for you!); and, at the more down to earth level, it is not here yet and it doesn’t have an ecosystem yet.
The Pebble, on the other hand, is here and now. It works, it has an ecosystem, it has decent battery life, and it’s cheap enough for most of us to buy on impulse. Hell, it costs less than a Jawbone UP 24 wristband, but it does everything that wristband does while also telling the time!
Your mileage will vary depending on your own personal preferences. In my case, what started as a “it’s cheap enough for me to give it a try” sceptic approach turned into a “how come I didn’t get it earlier” affair within a day of receiving notifications to my wrist while being accurately informed of my step count for the day. Me, I’m giving the Pebble smartwatch 4 out of 5 disposable crabs.
Now let us see what the next year is going to bring along.

10/12/2014 update: Over the past week my Pebble's display started displaying distortions of sorts. Yesterday things got to the point where the watch was no longer useable. Clearly, this is a case of a malfunctioning e-ink display. I guess it's time for me to see just how good Pebble's customer support is. Stay tuned.

8/1/2015 update:
I got to hand it to Pebble, they certainly provided me with good customer support.
I contacted them via email, as per the warranty instructions provided with the watch. Within a day I got a reply (impressive on its own, especially given the time differences between Australia and the USA) asking me to provide a photo of my malfunctioning watch together with a note specifying the case number allocated to me. I did that, and by the next day I received another email informing me a new watch will be heading my way shortly. No faulty product return required.
About four days later I received notification that my new watch has been posted, together with a tracking number from Singapore Post. My only criticism is that this tracking number proved completely useless; Singapore Post could not tell me anything other than "item has been posted to Australia", while Australia Post claimed the item is un-trackable.
Some three weeks later I got my new watch, and I have to say: I am better for it. First, Pebble was kind enough to send me a black replacement watch instead of the original red that I had bought. Second, I now have two charging cables. And third, it already seems as if battery life on the new watch is significantly better (20%-25%) than that of my original watch.
Overall, Pebble had provided a positive and smooth service experience.

21/5/2015 update:
Having encountered multiple failures of Pebble watches (read here), I can no longer recommend Pebble watches due to their unreasonable failure rate. I will add, however, that the warranty service I have been receiving from Pebble has been excellent throughout.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Lowdown: With the aid of humans, the apes lose their innocence.
A couple or so years since the apes took over the Golden Gate bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the clan of mixed apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) has settled down at a nearby forest. They have their simple facilities, including basic shelter and education, and they’re more or less content. More importantly, they seem to be a cohesive society where no ape hurts a fellow ape. The only exception is the human ape, but humans seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth due to the disease spread out of Caesar’s old lab.
Naturally, the humans haven’t really disappeared. One day, a small group led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) stumbles upon our clan. They belong to a group of surviving humans that re-established itself in what remains of San Francisco and is very well equipped, thank you very much, weaponry included. The catch is, they’re running out of fossil fuels; they need a new source of energy, and a dam located at the ape’s area will serve them well. That, of course, leads to friction between human and non-human ape; and some members of the not homo sapiens side have less peaceful tendencies than Caesar.
To cut a long story short, tensions are rising. Both camps include subjects that are looking for peaceful coexistence (Caesar, Malcolm) as well as those that believe that peace can only come when the different is eliminated (the human side of which is portrayed by their leader Dreyfus, portrayed by Gary Oldman). In the resulting chaos violence is turned towards the inside and all apes discover they can have more in common with those with whom they share fewer genes than those with whom they share almost everything.
The resulting themes are obvious. In the real world we are not under threat from our fellow apes; it’s actually the opposite, with us making sure they are on their way to extinction. The lessons that apply to us are to do with the problematic nature of tribalism, human tribalism. In parallel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes points at the need to keep the war mongers and the selfish on a tight leash while also maintaining an open, pluralistic, society.
Regardless of these themes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a pretty effective thriller/science fiction/action flick. It’s so good at what it’s doing that the fact it features talking apes, of the non human kind, most of which digitally rendered, gets taken for granted.
Overall: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is your classic science fiction featuring an interesting tale with morals. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

4/12/14 update: I kept on trying to figure out why it is that I didn't like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes more than I actually did. It seems to have all the right ingredients, so what gives? Eventually, it occurred to me this movie suffers from a severe shortage of characters one could identify with. I mean, Caesar may be a leader and all, but he's still a pretty menacing chimpanzee.