Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard Review

I don't know how they pulled this off, but HD Movies got exclusive rights last week to air The Great Buck Howard on television a full 3 days before it came out in theaters nationwide, so I thought I might as well give a short review of it (as I like to do when I see movies so close to the release date). As a side note: I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona last weekend and liked it a lot! It's worth seeing if you're ever looking for something to rent.

The basic premise of the movie is pretty simple: Colin Hanks's character (Troy) is in law school because his father (real-life dad Tom Hanks) pressured him into it, but he hates it and ends up answering a call for a road manager for the Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich) - a somewhat self-satisfied magician ("mentalist") who has been performing for some 40 years but only gets half empty venues in small towns now.

I never really felt compelled to continue watching the movie other than I was trying to figure out where the story was going. The overall message of the movie was pretty clear in the end, but for a while the movie ostensibly seems to go nowhere. Still, for going nowhere it ends up being pretty entertaining. It's called a "show biz comedy", but it's a very dry comedy and could almost qualify as a dramedy. Unlike Tropic Thunder, the last show biz comedy in recent memory, it wasn't littered with stupid inside jokes. John Malkovich definitely shines overall and is almost like a Michael Scott (from The Office I mean) - you develop a real love/hate relationship with him. Colin Hanks is, well, Colin Hanks. I was surprised that I found myself liking the inclusion of Emily Blunt - the romantic angle in the story wasn't prolonged and never distracted the film from its main plotline, and I really dug that.

I wouldn't seek out this movie right now in theaters, but I think it's a very solid B movie and a great rental. There's nothing really bad about it - the only thing is genuinely struggles with is getting you to care about the movie. The cameos are pretty fun, the script is quirky, and it's a worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes.

Computer Science Back in Style

According to a recent study (i.e. take it with a grain of salt), enrollment in Computer Science in the U.S. increased last year for the first time in 6 years (so around the burst of the .com bubble) - 8.1%. That may not sound all that significant, but the industry has been importing talent from abroad because they're just not finding enough of it domestically, so this is great. Technology is a pretty resilient industry overall, so even though things are down now there are still companies hiring right now and there will be more than ever at the end of this downturn. The class of 2012 should definitely be pretty well off as far as entering the job market. Some people are attributing it to the "coolness factor" of social networking and others to the iPhone, but I think that there was a big uptick in CS jobs leading up to last year and I had friends in other science majors who were jealous of all the choices we had, so I can see the job market having a huge influence on this rise. Unfortunately, female enrollment only stayed about steady, but hopefully the industry continues efforts to encourage women to give C.S. a shot.

IE8 and Chrome 2.0

A goliath browser and a newcomer to the market both saw fresh releases last week. Internet Explorer 8 was available on Thursday and boasts improved security, much improved tab management, and a better address bar (akin to the Firefox omnibar or the Chrome awesome-bar). From what I can tell, a lot of the new features have been around in Firefox for a long time by way of well-established extensions (although some are native to Firefox). For example, IE8 considers new tabs opened from one tab being colored the same to be a new feature, but some Fireefox power users have had this for a long time. There are two fresh features that I find interesting though. One is the concept of Accelerators, which is basically a mashup that allows you to plug text on a page into certain services to enrich the content (e.g. map an address or get pictures of a celebrity by right clicking on some text). The other is the idea of having Web Slices on a page, which can alert you when they change without having to have a tab open for it (like weather or stocks). Security-wise, it sounds like the anti-phishing feature is good and its attempt to restrict sites from gathering private information about you. It also tries to highlight the domains of the URLs you visit so that you don't get tricked too easily to visit a fake bank website or something, and gives you an impressive view of your cookies. It's a strong release compared to IE7 and it's finally approaching the point where it's in the same neighborhood of Firefox, but Firefox users have no reason to switch to it. However, if you're actively using IE7 then you should really upgrade - it's much better.

I don't know if anyone is still using Chrome, but Google made a 2.0 beta of their browser and it's actually much less impressive than the IE 8 upgrade, if you can imagine that. The feature list is thin with the main reason to try it out being a faster Javascript rendering engine and full page zoom. It doesn't look like people have anything to look forward to in the final 2.0 release.

Shuffle Lockdown and the iPhone Event

I talked about my disdain for the 3rd generation iPod Shuffle last week, and I had a hunch about this story but didn't want to talk about it until it was confirmed, which it now is. The headphones for the new Shuffle have a proprietary chip, which means that you can't use any other headphones on it if you want to be able to control it at all since the bloody thing has no buttons. The communication with the Shuffle isn't encrypted, so the chip could theoretically be cloned, but I think that legally you have to pay licensing fees to Apple to be able to sell your own headphones. I'm guessing that Apple figured people wouldn't like this if they're still selling the 2nd generation Shuffle for $50 (although they're trying to screw you in that you're paying $30 less for 1/4th of the capacity).

In better Apple news, they had an event last week to preview the forthcoming iPhone 3.0 software update, which includes copy/paste (it only took them 2 years, imagine that). They claim the software will support tethering, though individual carriers may not. The feature list also includes MMS (finally), voice memos, better searching (you can search all your data on your iPhone), P2P connectivity (for playing games with other iPhones), push notification for 3rd party applications, support for paid subscription services within 3rd party applications, and being able to send multiple pictures at once. Other than that, they went over a bunch of games and other apps, including health-related applications (like taking blood pressure using a peripheral) and multimedia streaming (like watching ESPN content live). They also made it clear they're not interested in supporting background processes, which is kind of disappointing but their reasoning is that it often eats too much battery life. It was a pretty long presentation overall, but I think this is actually a pretty solid release and 3rd party developers ought to be pretty thrilled. Oh, and here's a video of cut/copy/paste and some of the other new additions in action. They claim doing cut/copy/paste was hard, but the fact that they were willing to let a hard problem stretch for nearly 2 years shows their disregard for what their customers ultimately want. Anyway, it's a feature that still seems like it could use some polish. Overall, I think people will be pleased with this release.

Botnets and Trojans

If your computer gets infected as a zombie in a botnet, it basically becomes the slavish follow of some hacker living in his mother's basement. It logs on to an IRC channel, in secret, and accepts encrypted messages from its master to send spam or steal your data or help in coordinated attacks without leaving a trail to the progenitor of the evildoings. So how do you know if you're in one? If you're Internet connection seems inexplicable slow, go to the task manager and see what's hogging up your bandwidth. If you don't recognize it, you're probably in a botnet. There's also software out there to passively look for your being in a botnet, and some spyware scanners (like Spybot and Ad-aware) may be able to sniff it out depending on how you were swindled into the network. The important thing is that you stay vigilant.

If you ever wondered how a trojan virus works, Megapanzer has a great, concise write-up on the various stages of the highly popular breed of infection. In a nutshell, there's a dropper that implants the malicious code where ever the vulnerability on your system is and binds it to an entertainer file to hide the true purpose of the file, and then it tries to spread itself, and then the damage routine that the dropper planted is executed on restart. It may then delete itself once the damage is done to avoid detection. Fun stuff, huh? As sickening as some of these viruses and worms and phishing attacks are, a small part of me can't help but admire the amount of skill it requires to come up with some of these things. If only they used their power for good rather than evil.

I'm going to sneak one more thing in here: in turns out that the TV industry is losing a ton of money to satellite piracy. I never knew that it was such a big deal, but apparently it has become very damaging in Canada, among other places (on the order of 10% of satellite households in North America being illicit).

Terrible PC Hardware Support

A columnist at humor site did a very true, though somewhat funny, piece comparing his tech support experience with a Dell XPS (one of Dell's top computer lines) versus with a PowerBook. I actually laughed for a while after reading his short transcription from talking to the Dell support guy, who was in India (I'll let you read it rather than spoiling it). It seemed like the people he worked with on either side were incompetent, although the turnaround time was shorter for his Mac because he happened to have an Apple store near him. I'm kind of surprised at the state of customer service nowadays, especially with computers. Here's a device that is not at all intuitive right out of box and should come with a giant instruction manual and a class to use for security reasons alone. Yet, no one seems to get customer service right relying on nonsensical scripts rather than trying to enhance the customer experience.

Final Notes

Ok, I've blabbered on quite long enough. Let's get to the quickfire round, shall we?

The founder of IMDb was at South by Southwest (SXSW) and mentioned that their vision is to offer streaming for every title on the site, which is a pretty lofty goal that a lot of people took very kindly to. People at Amazon definitely think big, so I'm pretty sure he's being genuine about it.

A former Googler wrote a little blurb about his 3 years at Google working on visual design and how he hated the nit-picky discussions he ended up finding himself in. Maybe this partially explains the UI problems people have historically faulted Google for.

Gmail Labs created an undo send option, which I think is pretty cool. In fact, I think they should purposely delay sending e-mails by maybe 30 seconds for people who decide they're too jumpy on e-mails (or just hit the wrong button too often).

Nine Inch Nails, in their typical awesome fashion, released a tour pack of music for free on their site with tracks from themselves, Jane's Addiction, and Street Sweeper. Their experiment last year with Ghosts ended up earning them a lot of money, so surely they're hoping for heightened tour sales this time around.

Google recently started displaying ads based on your browsing history, so you should probably read this if you want to opt-out.

Lastly, one blogger took it upon himself to apply the psychology concept of the 4 stages of competence to programming. I'd like to think that I'm at stage 3.

Hope everyone has a fruitful week!

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