Monday, December 08, 2008

Wall-E on Blu-ray

Wall-E Makes Blu Look Good

Surprisingly enough, I got my Black Friday goodies from Amazon on Thursday but I won't be getting Prince of Persia until Wednesday. Go figure. I'm not complaining though because I was more excited about getting Wall-E on Blu-ray, to be honest. It's actually the first movie I've bought, other than Kill Bill, for as long as I can remember that I couldn't wait until a price drop to pick up (I'm cheap so I typically only buy movies I like once they go on sale). I don't regret the $25 purchase one bit.

In case you didn't have the good fortune of catching this movie when it was in theaters, it's the story of the last robot left on Earth after the humans fled the planet on a resort spaceship while the planet was being cleaned up by robots like Wall-E that compact trash and incinerate it since we we produced way too much trash for the planet to handle. I don't want to talk too much to the story, particularly because of spoilers (I hate spoiling things, even months after a movie is out), but it's really quite impressive. After watching it again I'm convinced that it's my favorite animated movie of all time. Part of what I love about it is that it doesn't have to compromise by having something for the kids and something for adults to enjoy like a lot of animated movies tend to do, it's just a wonderful experience for everyone. It really is unique, in my opinion, in this way. Even the physical humor really isn't childishly silly, it's clever. I kind of feel like it's a modern-day geek movie on par with Tron or Real Genius. Could it be the first one since The Matrix? I think it's the best robot movie ever. Suffice to say, the always stellar folks at Pixar really outdid themselves with this movie. It's fun, beautiful, heart-warming, fascinating, nerdy, and probably much more that I'm forgetting to say here. It's just really one of those rare A+ movies, which is confirmed when 5 months later I'm chomping at the bit to see it again and feel every bit as good about it as I did when I originally saw it.

Now let's get into the Blu-ray set here. The visuals are every bit as stunning on Blu-ray as they were in the movie theater. The problem with DVDs was that the quality was always inconsistent between movies. My Stranger Than Fiction disc looks almost like 1080i, but not my Batman Begins. Not so with Blu-ray, as far as I can tell. The bigger the screen you have at your disposal the more impressed you're likely to be. I was trying to finish up my laundry as I started the movie but I could not pull my eyes away from the movie because of how jaw-dropping the visuals were. And as if that wasn't enough, the audio is equally impressive. My TV only has simulated surround sound, but it felt pretty real to me. It's funny how a movie with so little dialogue can have such powerful audio through its score and robot noises and such. I can't even imagine how incredible this set will be for those with a true Dolby setup at home.

I should really step back for a second and remark at how impressed I am by the all around presentation from Disney. They really know how to brand themselves and their intellectual property. The first thing I encountered was BD Live stuff, and so I gladly went to the Disney site to setup my account and had no troubles at all. I'm 99% sure you could go right past all of this, but I just chose not to because I was excited about BD Live. There was only 4 features available, 2 of which I couldn't use. One was movie chat, where you and other friends with the movie can watch the move at the same time while text chatting. Yes, it will synchronize your movies, so I guess this would be good for cousins in different cities or when dad is on a business trip or something. They made the smart move of only allowing this between trusted friends, not just random strangers. Another one is movie mail, in which you can splice together scenes from the movie to make messages to send to trusted friends, and also add in video of yourself (no idea how, maybe through an EyeToy for PS3 owners?). I did use the movie challenge feature though, where you can join in live trivia challenges with strangers online in 10 minute rounds of 8-15 questions. I could choose from easy or medium, and I chose easy. They were fairly simple questions and what I loved was how it would just be at the bottom of the screen while you watch the movie. So you can pause the movie, open this up, and play while resuming playback. It's actually pretty fun and you get points depending on how fast you answer. The last feature is reward points, which is confusing to me but I think you earn them through the trivia and other stuff on the Disney site and you can redeem them for avatars and other bonus features and stuff, but I think that this is still in the process of being fleshed out more.

I liked the BD Live features because I felt like they were easy to get to and integrated well, but the other stuff was even better. First of all, there are 3 ways to watch the movie, or two in addition to just watching the normal movie. One is called Cin-experience, where you get insightful director's commentary in addition to picture-in-picture pop-ups of artwork and (silent) videos of animation from the pre-visualization and design stages of the film. I usually never listen to these commentary tracks, but in a movie with as little dialogue as Wall-E, I gave it a shot and loved it. The artwork really does add a surprising amount to the experience, and I learned a lot of cool random things about the movie, like that it took them over 3 years to put it together (it sounds like they started thinking about it in the late 90s). You could also turn off the artwork from the pop-up menu, which is a standard thing with Blu-ray discs. If you watch the movie normally, you can pop-up stuff from the main menu without having to pause the movie, like choosing a scene via screen shot rather than having to do the guesswork of skipping ahead or backwards on your remote. The other way to watch the movie is kind of like Science Mystery Theater where a group of four people who helped with the film and are generally kind of geeky point out random trivia and scientific inconsistencies and such, with a silhouetted couch occasionally popping up. It really was them on the couch, or else they put an undue amount of effort into animating their arms and hands as they talked. It was a really fun spin on a commentary track and I enjoyed the little of it that I tried out (I will watch the whole movie with it eventually). The only gripe I had with these was that you couldn't just turn them off in the middle of the movie. You could fairly easily stop the movie and go back to the main movie to choose the chapter and then resume playing in normal mode, but it should've been an easy on/off switch. Despite that odd pitfall, it really does help show why Blu-ray really is better than DVD.

There's more extras than that, and what's more exciting is that they're pretty much all in high-definition, even the promotional "sneak peeks"! While I appreciate the throwback to the video cassette Disney movies where they start out with "Coming soon to video" and all that (they had the same style and everything), I still don't think I like them starting out when you put in the disc the second time. I forgive it because there were a couple of really cool ones that looked gorgeous in HD, including one for the Disney documentary Earth. That's probably going to be in every big box electronics store as a demo once it's out on Blu-ray a year from now. It was simply the most incredible thing I've seen on my TV, including Wall-E. Anyway, there are real extras here, so let me stop teasing you with these psuedo-extras. The Axiom Arcade has 4 8-bit games that look like they would've been on your NES, and I thought that they were nifty, though maybe too advanced for kids not on the tail end of elementary school. There was also an interactive storybook for kids and "Trinkets and Treasures", which seems like it was animators playing with Wall-E and Eve to do random things, like Wall-E breaking a vacuum (which was one of the early teasers for the film). For the adults there's a documentary that's over an hour long, 3-D fly throughs of the virtual sets, Buy and Large shorts, a short Geek-o-rama featurette, profiles of all the robots in the film, and deleted scenes (spliced together frames to form a rough cut) with video commentary from the director before and after the scenes. There's also the Presto short from when the movie was in theaters and a short called Burn-E, which is a deleted scene that more or less evolved into a short (there's also an option to view it with story boards). I'm probably leaving something out, but you get the idea: there's a lot here. Not counting the 3 possible viewings of the film, there's well over 2 hours of high-definition content here. Disney has no intention of douple dipping with this film because this set is packed with stuff. If you enjoyed the film, I highly recommend picking it up.

I also have Iron Man, but it'll have to wait in line. I just got Prince of Persia tonight so I'll be giving first impressions of that next week and Amazon just shipped me my copy of The Dark Knight so I'll definitely have watched that by next post. Thus far though, color me impressed with Blu-ray, which I was very skeptical about going in to the format.

Windows 7 Beats Vista on Power

The Windows 7 news of last week was that it has better power consumption than Vista. Some of the additions are opt-in, like a low power mode for hardware that supports it where Windows won't bug it if it's in idle, but others are more impressive like optimizations for spinning the hard disk, powering down applications when in idle, and buffering DVDs better. Since the power consumption of your computer is truly based on how much stuff you're running on it and what stuff you're running, they're going to collect "anonymous" usage statistics to figure out which applications are hogging power and bug the manufacturers to optimize. Whether they follow up on this promise is yet to be seen, but I'm just happy that they've been taking the time to optimize for battery life.

They plan on opening up a public beta on January 13 so count on seeing a lot more stories after that happens.

Songbird Finally 1.0

After what feels like a decade, Songbird 1.0 is finally out. It's the first absolutely free cross-platform media jukebox with an open-platform empowering it to integrate very well with social media. Besides just being a media library though, you can use it to browse the Internet to play audio online and store it to your library. It's like if you smashed together iTunes with Firefox in that it's extremely customizable through plug-ins and skins. Oh, and the user interface is actually cool. Firefox is actually directly integrated with it, other than the hobbled browser you get with Winamp, and so there are a lot of extensions for it, as well. It's feature list also includes drag-and-drop album art support, a mashTape bar to give you artist information and pictures and such, keyboard shortcuts, re-usable smart playlists, Shoutcast radio support, impressive concert information integration, and a lot more through the plug-ins available.

I played with it more now than when I first downloaded it, and it's pretty impressive. The UI is just so snappy and intuitive overall that it's hard not to love. The concert integration is really awesome in how you can add a column for artists on tour in your area, and it even has a playlist for music you have for artists that are on tour. I really like how the mash tape enhances the experience with artist news and pictures and stuff, and the browser has real use in helping you find add-ons and let you scrape audio to stream from webpages (or sites like Skreemr and The Hype Machine). In my opinion, it kind of breaks the mold for music library software in its tight integration with the community and the Web and how it really aims to make the user experience better and better. How long was it since iTunes did anything good without introducing bloat? There's a fine line between feature bloat and added value, and I think Songbird is ready to walk it. I can't jump ship to it for 3 simple reasons. One is that it doesn't do what Media Monkey does in auto-tagging from Amazon. That's really important to me since it tags album art properly for my Clix in just a few clicks (that sentence totally juts fell in my lap). The second reason is that it doesn't have advanced list manipulation features like randomization, removing duplicates, and removing songs that are inaccessible. The third reason is that I can't browse my media by location, and I have my audio in certain folders to make it easier to manage. I can see myself continuing to use it though alongside Media Monkey though. Others' gripes are that it can't watch folders for changes, it doesn't support the iPod (duh), it can't rip CDs, and the lack of better integration with music stores (although the browser has it somewhat where you stream audio from a webpage). It has a long and lustrous road map though, so I'm not overly concerned.

Scary Security News

The security news I read seems to get worse and worse every week, and last week was no exception. A scientist at an IT security firm has revealed that only 40$ of anti-virus software can identify a problematic binary within 3 days of its release in the wild, which is bad because at that point it has spread to a point at which it infects very few new machines. The reasoning makes sense: anti-virus software can only protect you from issues it knows about, and so new viruses slip right by and are even more problematic when they're polymorphic by nature (i.e. they change themselves dynamically) to avoid detection. By the time an anti-virus company has an update for you, it's already to late. The solution? I've talked about what else you can do ad nauseum, but the fix for programs is to move to the clouds so that you have accurate virus definitions in real-time.

The field of biometrics to me was a mystery because using your body to identify yourself seems so easily spoofable. The best known biometric is your eye because that's actually fairly hard to forge (for now), but using your fingerprint is not secure at all. A more recent advancement is facial recognition, but now a Vietnamese firm has proven that even that is easy to fool using just a well-crafted picture of someone's face. That's not really a shocking discovery, but I think it just proves something I wrote about a while ago: there's always a tradeoff between tradeoff and security. True security is based on information that an attacker cannot reasonably forge, and if that incorporates a truly random combination of letters, numbers, and symbols that exist only in your brain and changes regularly then they're really screwed. Of course, remembering it is then difficult. Too bad. If it's really important information, then it should be worth that tradeoff. If you're just trying to protect your music library though, there's nothing wrong with something like facial recognition, just don't expect it too keep anyone too cunning out of your business.

Trojans are nasty little buggers in that they hide away secretly waiting to do damage. A new one that masquerades as a Firefox extension leverages itself to log your personal information as you enter it in at a selection of sites it knows to look for. The lesson here is to only download Firefox extensions, and anything really, from trusted sites. Understand what you're getting before opening up Pandora's box, and scan it with an anti-virus checker just to be safe. Another terrible Trojan that has recently come to light where an infected computer's presence on a WiFi network allows it to act as a router for website requests to go to a malicious DNS server. In English, this means that if you and the infected were on the same wireless network, you could be visiting a hacker's site rather than your banking site being none the wiser of the issue because the URL looks valid. Firefox probably wouldn't give you valid identity information so that would be a red flag, but how else would you know? What's really scary here is that it affects unpatched machines and patched machines alike, so the only way to be safe is to either not be on such a dangerous wireless network or constantly check your DNS settings (use ipconfig in DOS in Windows) when on an outside network. The better bet is to just not go to sites in public that involve financial information or any other sensitive data.

Lastly, some non-scary security news. A company called Pramana is developing a captcha solution to determine if you're a human without the annoying, barely-readable images that have become commonplace now. The fix is to base your humanity on your browsing behavior. It's a good idea, but I think it's going to be easy to forge. It's going to be relying on client-side data, and how hard is that to forge? Additionally, doesn't it seem a bit intrusive to spy on what a user does simply to determine if they're human? And what use case can afford the luxury of waiting on user behavior to determine whether or not they're a bot. Then there's the people in third world countries being paid pennies to get around these sorts of things. I'm just not buying it. The image captchas are imperfect, but they're the best we have right now.

Amazon Secures the Clouds and Enters the iPhone

I covered Amazon CloudFront last week, a service to distribute online content efficiently and affordable, and O'Reilly has taken the guesswork out of how secure it is. Inherently, there are no big holes with the service, but it really all depends on how you're using it. You have to encrypt your network traffic and encrypt your traffic and all that on your end, but Amazon has its bases covered.

Amazon has finally put out an application to iTunes that gives a better browsing interface for the retail website. The real kicker is an experimental feature where you can take pictures in real life, and then Mechanical Turk (where people are paid to solve problems that computers can't solve) will give you the product page in Amazon for it within 24 hours. That obviously doesn't make sense for a copy of a video game, but what if you love a TV that you see at a sports bar and want to check it out later? Or maybe you're too shy to ask about something your friend has at a dinner party?

I do not spead for, its employees, or its partners. I cannot emphasize that enough before what I'm about to say.

There's one more Amazon-related item I have to briefly cover. Some students in Amsterdam created a Firefox extension that allows you to browse with links for pirated versions of certain content on The Pirate Bay, a well-known aggregator for pirated content on bit torrent. Of course, Amazon stepped in and had it shut down. It astonishes me how many people defending this dumb thing as a parody. Really? The people who work at Amazon work really hard on the site and margins are quite slim, so why steal from them and Amazon's suppliers? I don't get the "humor and absurdity" of this plug-in at all. I was almost outraged to read their teacher say that his students are now scared away from pursuing their art and research. Good! It's one thing in a security class to teach kids how to hack in simulated scenarios to give them an appreciate for how to design secure systems and another thing to tell them to steal money from someone's online banking site. Anyone who sees the distinction in that example should see where these kids went terribly wrong.

Terrorists Used Google Earth

When I saw this article on PC World claiming that the terrorists behind the terrible attacks in Mumbia used Google Earth to aid them, I knew I had to fire back. The Indian president has warned that Google Earth reveals location of defense installations and the like, but I don't recall Google Earth ever denying requests to hide such places before. I can't imagine that these terrorists didn't buy atlases and scout out these locations in advance, so I don't know how much help Google Earth really would've been, and they didn't hit any military bases anyway. What makes these claims more ridiculous is that India itself is rolling out a competitor for Google's Earth satellite imagery that contends to be even higher resolution. So if it's not a service from an American company then it must be alright, right?

The stance that I always support is that we cannot shirk technological advances simply because they may indirectly cause harm. Granted, you have to weigh the bad with the good, like if its use for good is very rare compared to its utility for malicious purposes, but we can't live in the past in the interest of self-preservation. There's so many exciting things going on in technology all at once right now that to write off services like Google Earth with half-baked accusations would be a terrible waset.

Yahoo Reaches a Deal With Virgin

Yahoo, fortunately, has not come to a grinding halt in the midst of all the press regarding Yang stepping down and romancing Microsoft to make another offer. They have signed an agreement with Virgin to be the exclusive pre-installed search for all of Virgin's mobile subscribers. This is exactly the kind of stuff they need if they ever want to be a true competitor to Google. The way to hurt them is to start out by stealing share from them in markets that Google isn't well-established in, like mobile search in Europe.

By the way, I was probably wrong about Google possibly planning to withdraw from its deal with Yahoo all along, a theory that I realized seemed far-fetched from the start. A prosecutor from the Justice Department warned Google that they were going to file charges before they made the announcement that they were calling off the deal, and they would've ended up filing charges just a few hours after that announcement ended up happening. So much for that mystery.

Yeah, There's More News

I think I'm done with this post, effectively. And yet, I still have more news! Ack! Ok, let's see if I can spit it out in less than 5 minutes so I can go to bed.

Apple's claim against lawsuits that its iPhone 3G ads are misleading is that "no reasonable person" would take the speeds in the ads at face value. Some argue that this is true because of the fine print in the ad, but the subtext is only that network speeds vary and not that things were sped up as they obviously were. Unless they can prove there's a network somewhere on which you can browse the web at those speeds, I don't see how they can use that defense and most people don't know what's reasonable for mobile phone speeds.

Firefox has surpassed 20% market share for the first time since 2004.

The LA Times has a good editorial urging the FCC to let parents filter content on the free wireless network Kevin Martin is proposing rolling out nationwide, but it's a really sticky issue. On one hand, parents can't be everywhere free wireless Internet is and anyone who wants unfettered Internet can afford to buy it, but, on the other hand, censorship software is often flawed in being too restrictive.

Facebook has unveiled embeddable videos that you can put up that only your friends can see, but I really don't understand it. Why post videos for only your friends to see anywhere but Facebook?

There's a new social networking gadget that I thing is only available in Europe called Poken where you can exchange social networking site links with another person by touching each other's Pokens together. It sounds weird, but I think it's a clever substitute for business cards. The only flaw here is that it requires widespread usage to be effective.

This is a really good article on recovering data from a bad hard drive. It's a more common problem than you think, so reading it would be a good investment of time.

Did you know that you can send e-mail to phones to text them?

I really regret not being able to talk about this article, but it's a look at why Google's strategy of creating services that don't appear to create revenue on the surface really isn't so crazy. I don't know if I'm convinced that they have the master plan that this article seems to believe they do, but it's still an interesting read.

Whew. That was a long one! That should last you guys at least 6 days. Enjoy the rest of your week!

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