Monday, October 05, 2009


Welcome to Zombieland

I've (thankfully) gotten some positive feedback for my movie reviews, so I'd like to continue doing that whenever I see movies on or before opening weekend, or when I get DVDs/Blu-rays on release week.

Zombieland is a zomedy/zom-com/whatever you want to call a zombie movie that's self-aware and makes fun of the genre actively. To be honest, the whole horror genre is predicated on movies that have fun scaring you and making you laugh at totally ridiculous situations, so a zombie comedy isn't really very far-fetched. It's also not very unique given the popularity of Shaun of the Dead. Fortunately, it's not like Scary Movie where it's actively making fun of a prototypical zombie movie but rather it derives humor from existing in a world where, without logical explanation, a zombie outbreak has spun out of control and virtually everyone except for our group of survivors are zombies. Aside from that, the plot just follows the main character (Columbus, Ohio, is his name - the characters don't use real names to avoid getting attached) as he tries to head home to find his family, which he's largely been estranged from. Needless to say, hilarity and misadventures ensue along the way.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this movie. Shaun of the Dead was definitely good, but I didn't love it and didn't laugh as much as I thought I would. Conversely, Zombieland was full of situational humor and violence so ridiculous and gratuitous that it was hilarious. It had a very good visual style with superb special effects. I don't know if I've seen such detailed violence before. Part of the visual style is borrowed from Stranger Than Fiction (which I love more each time I see it and looks great just on DVD) where you have information presented to you in an augmented reality design. The main character has rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse that appear in the movie as if they're as 3-dimensional as the actors in the appropriate scenes and are just the cherry on top of already funny scenes.

I think the cast really works, overall. There's something seductive and sweet in a scary way about Emma Stone and it plays out perfectly here. Woody Harrelson really steals the show though and clearly has a lot of fun doing so. There's also a cameo so good that I'd urge you to not go to the iMDB page for the movie until after you've seen it. The cast is literally just 4 characters plus a cameo, and I found it really cool that they were able to do much with so few characters. There's no question that the plot has its issues and there are as many things that don't make sense as your average zombie movie, but you find yourself caring less about those as you have more and more fun with the movie. It has its scary parts, but they're few and far between and well-balanced with comedy, which I thought worked really well overall.

If you can stomach a few scares, this movie is well worth the price of admission. Try to see it with a group though (or with a date) - it's just one of those movies that work better when you're with other people. I give it a B+ just because I can't in good faith give a B movie and A score, but I definitely highly recommend it. It's probably the most worthwhile movie in theaters right now (unless your theater has Inglourious Basterds, which is one of the best of the year and everyone needs to see it).

Joel on Overengineering

Joel Spolsky put up an essay last week that was somewhat controversial called "The Duct Tape Programmer" as he was inspired by Coders at Work (which is on my wish list now). The essay is all over the place, but it makes a couple of points I really liked. It's important to design something well and stick to your design without being tempted with sexy new technologies. Over-engineering lurks around every corner so it's really important to stay practical. I hate that he advocates cutting unit tests in the interest of making a deadline because I hold firm to good QA being the bedrock of a successful project and I don't accept his statement that someone is just born into being a "duct tape programmer", but understanding that you're working on a project to ship a product rather than writing the most beautiful code in the world is really important. Just because you can make an optimization doesn't mean you should - it can over-complicate things and cause headaches later on. Getting the job done as minimally as possible the first time through is really a good habit to make - iteration is a good policy.

First Looks at Office Web Apps and Wave

The idea of Microsoft Office Web Apps should come as a surprise to no one - Google paved the way for online environments to do word processing and spreadsheets and the like. The technical preview is out there and PC World seemed impressed with it. It aims to seamlessly integrate the desktop experience with the cloud-based experience of web apps and sounds like it hits the mark even in this preview stage.

Meanwhile, Office sent out the first wave of invites for Google Wave. Lifehacker put up an article peeling back some of the mystery of what Wave is. Apparently, it allows you to send out "waves", which are rich documents that are easy to edit (WYSIWIG easy) and allow you to embed multimedia easily, but these waves allow for advanced collaborative functionality ideal for groups of people working together on something. Where it gets cool is the idea of widgets and robots. Widgets are little applications built on the platform that are interactive with a group of people, like a video game. Or you could send out a teleconferencing wave where the invitees put in their phone numbers and are subsequently added to the call. Robots are like bots you can add to your waves to modify them or do something with them, like blog them or plug in links automatically. I don't think Wave is useful in an enterprise situation just due to security concerns, but I can definitely see it being useful in people's personal lives. Like what if you're planning a getaway with your friends and want to organize what you're going to do online but you're all in different cities? Or what if you're just trying to catch up with friends some school and want to share information about one another in a place where everyone can be in on the conversation? I've found resistance from several of my friends in using Facebook, which makes planning events somewhat challenging since e-mail threads can get unruly and Evite is the same site as when it first launched, but I could definitely see Wave doing well here.

While I'm talking about Google: they added two new features to search. One addition is that it combs search results now and adds links within the results to key sections on a given result. The other feature is just a variation on this that specifically calls out what you were searching for if it detects it as a major section on the page. You could speculate that they're starting to feel the competition from Bing, but it's more likely just Google being Google.

Hot Stuff from Redmond

The temperature is dropping in Seattle just as it's starting to sizzle in Redmond! Ok, not really, but I thought it was funny that Mashable called some new footage on a tablet with a spine "hot". The new footage is pretty slick though. Courier is a rumored Microsoft touchscreen tablet that folds like a book. The video is almost certainly just a concept video rather than a demonstration of something that Microsoft actually has, but what I like about it is that it very much feels like if you were working with a digital spiral notebook that has access to everything on the Internet. Plus, it's a good use case for browsing magazines and newspapers. No one really knows if this is any more likely than the heavily rumored Apple tablet, but it's turning some heads so there may be more of a market for tablets than analysts think (or it could just be a lot of hype drummed up by tech journalists).

What is tangible is Microsoft Security Essentials, free anti-malware software from Microsoft. Ars Technica reviewed it and seemed quite impressed with it. They convinced me to try it out myself and I'm also pretty happy with it. It's very lightweight and easy-to-use while still providing a fair amount of customization for advanced users. I think it's cool that it has DSS, which is basically anomaly detection since it's not looking for the pattern of a specific virus or worm but rather just behavior that seems malicious.

Android and webOS Get New Releases

Android and webOS are tied for the second-highest customer satisfaction rate among smartphones (with iPhone taking the top spot), and both just got updates. The Android updates were pretty back-end including CDMA support, the introduction of WiMAX, better performance for the camera software, and universal search.

Meanwhile, webOS 1.2 is also an incremental improvement but has been long awaited from Pre users for features like copying images and text from the web and e-mail, LinkedIn support in synergy, a decent number of performance improvements that really shine, LED notification (opt-in), automatic backup to the cloud for browser data and pictures, and, perhaps most significantly, an app catalog that supports paid apps (but still has none). What really excited me about webOS 1.2 is that it's a number of things that Pre owners have been asking for and Palm has actually listened. I find that surprising and impressive. Having paid apps will definitely up the ante in the app catalog for the really good stuff. Also, Google Maps now has transit and walking directions, which is something I've wanted ever since I moved to Seattle so that's pretty awesome.

Somewhat controversially, a 1.2.1 update made available over the weekend fixes syncing with iTunes, which definitely puts a bee in the bonnet of the USB Implementors Forum since Palm broke a rule in restoring the syncing capability, but it looks like Palm is willing to take the risk to get the Pre syncing with iTunes. To be honest, I wish they'd just license doubleTwist instead of fighting with Apple - it's getting a little old now.

The Leftovers

It's past my bedtime and I'm on call so I need to turn in soon. Here's a quick rundown of what else happened last week.

PC Mag put up an impressively concise article about what you need to know about the new Intel Core i7 architecture and it definitely sounds pretty dead sexy. They're inexpensive, have an L3 cache, and add turbo boost? Sign me up.

I wanted to talk more to this, but Slate has a little editorial up about why the Netflix Prize was brilliant: they basically got a team of brilliant scientists to improve their recommendation algorithm for the bargain price of $1 million, which is much cheaper than hiring each of them individually for even a year.

Tech Radar has a good rundown of USB 3.0. Aside from being 10 times faster than USB 2.0 and supporting simultaneous read/write, it's more power efficient.

I was pretty blown away by a post on the Yahoo Developers' Blog about bandwidth. It explains the concept in a very easily understandable way and provides some great tips for improve page load times on your website.

MakeUseOf posted some tips for tweaking Internet performance on your Vista machine and, after trying a few myself, I have to admit that they actually work.

If you're bored and are looking to just surf the web, start here.

Fox put up a Dollhouse application that I think is super cool because it creates an augmented reality using your webcam where you can interact with Echo virtually (not in a dirty way!).

The "Did You Know" meme that spread like wildfire a while ago now has a fourth update on YouTube.

Enjoy your week, everyone!

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