Category Archives: Review

Review: what if? – “Phone Keypad”

Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013

Roll: 1,4. Result: Review, Article.

Every Tuesday Randall Munroe of xkcd.com writes an article in his “What If?” series, answering hypothetical questions readers submit about anything from dinosaurs to light-speed baseballs, most of which involve space, probability, or really large measurements. He has the creativity to make even mundane questions worthy of a highly investigative exploration, the wherewithal to actually answer hard questions accurately (sometimes moreso than necessary), and patience to really dig up all the relevant facts. All in all, it’s a highly rewarding series of articles well worth the time to read them all; you might (definitely) learn how much hair a blue whale would need to grow in order to be supported if hanging by it. Today I’ll review the one that he published… today:

Phone Keypad (http://what-if.xkcd.com/75/)

by Randall Munroe

This particular “what if” answers the question in question by the second sentence, as some of the “what ifs” do, before extrapolating on the idea at the heart of the question, namely: “What are some things that you might have to type which would be annoying to type?”

His methods for finding answers to this question are not explicitly divulged in the article, and are not intended to be its focus, but he does explain his basic strategy and offer a link to some code. It’s impressive, and I’m not about to try to grapple with its specifics. I try not to concern myself with how exactly he comes up with all of his answers; I’m just here for the results. And in this “what if,” the results are the focus.

What might otherwise be a boring list of some near-nonsensical phrase/sentences Munroe makes into a series of single panel comics. They might not be funny on their own, but knowing they only exist because they can be typed with one hand, for example, makes them so worthwhile. He even relates a few of them to each other, providing a couple narratives.

If you’re used to xkcd, you know that the alt-text you get from mousing over the comic is half the joke, and in that way these do not disappoint. Every image (in all of the “what ifs”) has alt-text, which kind of helps it feel more personal. It’s like Munroe is reading the comic with you, and then nudges you with his elbow and says a quick aside.

It’s nice to see that, in this article, he answered the question and then just ran with it, maybe as an excuse to draw some weird comics. But it still expands your knowledge and maybe reveals some new possibilities. It is very fitting of a “what if” series to surprise its readers with each installment, with never any two being the same, all while stretching our imaginations with wild conjecture and cool science.

Yeah, maybe I reviewed the whole series, but I love it, and this was an excellent moment from it.

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Review: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013

Roll: 1,1. Result: Review, Book.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Lynn Solotaroff)

I have nothing but the utmost respect for this book. At 83 small pages, it’s a tiny thing, especially by Tolstoy’s standards, but it presents the most visceral experience of death’s true and utter revelation that I think I will ever know. I don’t remember when I got it, or how, but I do know it kept me up very late into the night when I had not planned on staying up at all; I read the whole thing and then lay there on my bed for another hour absorbing it all. It was the closest I came to fully grasping the true nature of death since I realized, when I was much younger, that death was the end of all experience and that that meant that I could not imagine a moment beyond my own life’s end. In words, I fail to explain or capture the nature of the revelation, but it is vast and powerful; however, where I fail, Tolstoy succeeds, and that is why “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is my favorite book of all time.

Review: “Will They Ever Leave? What It Takes To Nudge Millennials Out Of Nest”

Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013

Roll: 1,4. Result: Review, Article.

Okay, I’m going to bed real soon, but I just happened to have read this article so I will quickly review it. The article is here: http://wbur.fm/1bNnVef

Will They Ever Leave? What It Takes To Nudge Millennials Out Of Nest

by Rachel Bloom

This is a good article with (besides the point) an interesting thread of comments at the end. I looked at it because it hits very close to home; I want to know what it takes to get me out of this (%#&$@*#) nest.

It flows well, and the wording and paragraph structure are well executed. I was a little confused when it started seeming like the article would be about foster children specifically, though that was not hinted at in the title or opening paragraphs. It did quickly get back to a study of average, non-foster kids.

It’s odd that the article is written about Millennials by a Millennial, but it brings a sense of urgency to the text. She’s saying (to me), “Don’t worry! If your friends move out, you will too! If you’re having trouble it’s because your parents don’t have enough faith in you to live on your own!” This is less a review and more of a plea to the gods.

The article boils down to this: kids move out after a long slow grind of preparation. Professor Mann-Feder asked 30 Canadian kids about their experiences moving out (or not) and it turns out that peer support has a lot to do with getting your own place. The writer of the article can affirm everything the study suggests.

So: weird foster children bit, but good, illuminating, well-written article. The end.

Review: HMDX Jam Wireless Speaker

Friday, Dec. 6, 2013

Roll: 1,5. Result: Review, Object.

I’ve got one of these little bluetooth speakers sitting on my desk here, so I might as well.

HMDX JAM Wireless Speaker

by HMDX Audio

I’ll start off with the only aspect I actually don’t like about this thing: The sound feels very localized. One of the reasons I love listening to music on good headphones is that it sounds like it’s coming from inside your head. The balance between the L and R speakers creates a world of sound, immerses you in it, and relieves you of the worries you inevitably have about where in the real world this music is coming from. It boils the experience down to pure musical experience. The JAM does the exact opposite. Due to its small size, it really cranks out the most pop-musically relevant frequencies, which happen to be high enough that they can’t help but cue you in to their point of origin. When I listen to the JAM, and I think about other better things I could be listening to music with, I am inexorably oppressed by its constant self-insistence.

Now, understandably, you could read all that and say, “But could you really be listening to the music on something better? Isn’t the whole point of the JAM that it can go places other audio equipment can’t?” You’d be exactly right. I guess my problem is that I don’t usually involve myself in situations where the JAM would be necessary. If I’m with people and we all want to listen to music, usually there is a stereo of some kind nearby, be it in a car (with an AUX-in as well as the appropriate cables) or living room or those are the only places I go. Now, supposing you’re out hiking or something, this JAM would be excellent, though high winds or too much open space would greatly diminish its capacity for aural amazement. Put it up against a tree, or just don’t bring one and enjoy the sounds of nature.

Purely in terms of value, portability, and sound quality, the JAM is a great device. You can charge it with a micro-USB for at least a few hours of completely wireless audio, and all at a very workable volume. Listening to the thing here, as I write this, I have had to turn it down a couple times because the music is just too loud. It has an AUX-in port if you don’t have bluetooth-capable audio players, an on/off switch, volume controls, and a pause/play button. These controls are basic, but you’ll really be interacting with your source device for everything aside from fine-tuning the volume and turning the speaker on and off anyway, so it has all the buttons it needs.

The audio never sounds muddled. Everything is clear and properly balanced. The device itself is aesthetically unobtrusive. There is one blue light that blinks just to let you know it’s on, but it is small and honestly necessary if you are having trouble with bluetooth connections. You can throw it (supposing someone catches it) and put it in all kinds of weird nooks, crannies, and strange containers, for some neat filtering effects. If you wondered what it sounds like to have music come from inside your fridge, here’s your chance.

I received the thing as a gift, and that’s the only way I would have come across one. Like I said, though, I never felt the need for music in places that don’t already have (headphones or) much better speaker set-ups than the JAM’s. It is nice if you’re out and about and you don’t want your ears smushed by your expensive studio headphones, though. There is definitely an audience for this object, but it is up to you to decide if you are in it.

Review: The Bourne Legacy

Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013

Roll: 1,2. Result: Review, Movie.

Two days in a row? Wild. It’s late, but I think I can still fit a movie in tonight. Hurr we go!

The Bourne Legacy

Director: Tony Gilroy, Writers: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy

I guess you could say I was a pretty big fan of the first three Bourne movies, but when this one came out with such a flimsy premise to support it (“there was never just one” aka Damon dropped out so here’s Jeremy Renner in a convenient plot device) I didn’t really want to see them ruin the series so I never took the time to watch it. Now, that said, I liked the movie. I didn’t love it, but it was a good edge-of-your-seater.

The movie started off pretty randomly: scenes of these CIA people talking, scenes of Jeremy Renner climbing mountains, scenes of doctors in a lab. Everyone was rushing around acting important, yelling things, never stopping, always doing something. There was a smooth flow of activity in each shot. This is more or less the pace of the movie, although things do eventually come together after about a half an hour. Soon Jeremy Renner meets the doctors, and the Intelligence people are on his ass, although they are really just tracking him with satellites and stuff, playing catch-up for most of the movie. It gets tense.

Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross (not Alex Cross) makes everything look effortless. He’s supposed to, since he’s a super soldier, but sometimes it would be nice to at least imagine that he has to plan some of the miraculous maneuvers he attempts. The fact that he has a sidekick (Rachel Weisz) helps soften him up, make him vulnerable to the mortals trying to stop him. That and his drug problem. It’s a super soldier thing.

What bothered me a little was some of the dialogue, particularly in one scene when I was paying attention to it. It was between Ed Norton’s Intelligence character and some four-star general or something. Norton says, “I think that we need to clarify something here , Don.” The general says “Clarify what?” and Norton replies “You keep using the word ‘unacceptable,’ and I want to know exactly what you think you mean by that,” and the general says “Unacceptable means exactly that! I don’t like what you’re telling me, I don’t like how you’re telling me.” They fire these words back and forth very forcefully and purposefully, getting angry at each other obviously because they are important and they are discussing important things, but this four-line exchange feels entirely unnecessary, just some weird lead-in to get the audience interested in the conversation that they’re being introduced to. In the end, I feel like that’s how most of the dialogue works. Which is fine, since it’s just a thriller, but it wouldn’t have hurt if there were actually some depth to the important things people were shouting. Here’s some lines I just wrote for the sequel (whatever happens in it):

Ed Norton: You don’t understand. This isn’t just a man we’re talking about, the whole program is riding on this operation!

Government Guy: You think I don’t know what’s at stake here? This thing goes south, my whole career goes with it.

Ed Norton: Your career? If you even grasped a shred of the importance of stopping him, you would be happy to go flip burgers for a living if it gave us one shot at even knowing what country he’s in right now. Your career? You make me sick.

CIA Guy (busting open door): “[Ed Norton’s character’s name]! We’ve got a problem.”

Ed Norton: Well, what is it, god damn it?

CIA Guy: We found him.

Ed Norton: Get me NASA on the line; call the general. I need eyes and ears at –

CIA Guy: No. You don’t understand. He’s here.

and scene.

So that’s what the movie is. It’s Cross being loud and fast, or quiet and oh-so-slick. There are close calls with guns, cars, motorcycles, wolves, drugs, speech, sneaking, and suicide fraud. They touch almost every chase scene trope. There is even rooftop running and some swell parkour moves. I didn’t really understand a lot about the different agencies and the government officials, and I’m not sure how much I was intended to get, or what is based on information from the first movies, but all in all I got the gist of the movie. Good guys running, bad guys chasing, except they work for the government and their intentions are pure, sort of, so like whatever happens is ok, except the government can’t just kill people so go Aaron Cross! I’m going to bed. It’s a good thriller to watch, if you don’t have to pay for it, and even if you do have to pay, but then you should make sure to watch it on a big screen with the speakers blasting, and the subwoofer cranked. Maybe some day they will figure out how to deliver an even more immersive experience, in which case maybe this could have been a great movie.

Review: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Monday, Dec. 2, 2013

Roll: 1,2. Result: Review, Movie.

Ah, interesting. The ol’ movie review. I suppose I’ll have to watch one now 😀

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Director: Amy Heckerling, Writer: Cameron Crowe

Usually I have a problem with older movies, because the jokes are outdated, or the acting is just so unrealistic that I can’t get absorbed. Maybe Fast Times at Ridgemont High isn’t old enough to have these problems for me, but I absolutely loved it. I’d never seen it before, in its entirety, at least, but tonight I definitely saw the whole thing, and I definitely loved it from the opening sequence to the end!

The soundtrack definitely has a lot to do with my love for the movie. Every song is so energetic, but also by now a complete classic, so the movie instantly has this feel of being a good time, and not needing to prove itself. The first half-hour of the movie, filled with feel-good music and the consequence-free shenanigans of a bunch of fun-loving highschoolers, can’t be construed as anything but fun. And yet the characters are convincing, if at the very least as pure archetypes.

The tension between the awkward character of Mark Ratner and his crush Stacy, throughout their date, is extremely palpable, and very true. While the older characters get away with their confidence and overdeveloped characters because of their age, the freshmen are vulnerable and honest, bumping their way through the hurdles of adolescence. It’s when the older characters dip down into the freshman world that they prove their humanity, if they ever needed to. The multiplicity of characters and narratives are wound seamlessly into one total expression of the prototypical high school experience, although it’s more of a grand life experience. It’s a fast time, and it works incredibly well in the hour-and-a-half film.

I also enjoyed the apparent lack of adults. I don’t recall seeing anyone’s parents, but there were occasionally figures of authority. Specifically, Mr. Hand, the stern history teacher who goes head-to-head with stoner Sean Penn, and a couple of Brad’s bosses, who appear only when he’s doing something wrong. There’s also Mr. Vargas, though he is portrayed as a somewhat absent-minded guy, so I don’t think he counts. They go through a whole school year just having fun being kids, rebelling, trying to get theirs. And for the most part everyone succeeds. It’s a hopeful, pleasant, and appeasing experience throughout.

And boy does it make malls look like fun. I loved it. I’m surprised I waited this long to see it.

Review: The DUALSHOCK 4

Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013

Roll: 1,5. Result: Review, Object

I was trying to find the proper capitalization for DUALSHOCK, and it turns out you capitalize the whole word. So there’s that. Also the word “dual” now looks very strange to me. Here we go!

The DUALSHOCK 4

by Sony

Now, it might be a little early to review this controller, since the system it was designed for hasn’t been released yet, but I’ll use what I know from charging it, holding it, and looking at it. It is also worth knowing that this is the first piece of PlayStation hardware I’ve ever owned, and I come from an Xbox & Nintendo background. That, and I highly favor using a controller to a mouse and keyboard.

My first impression, upon unboxing the DS4, was one of utter delight. I’d never received the controller for a console before that console came out, so a lot of new things were going on. First and foremost, the DS4 came off as its own entity, a prize worth attaining in its own right. I later learned that I could indeed use it with my computer, either by connecting it with a micro-USB to USB cable, or by syncing it via Bluetooth. So naturally, I could see the DS4 as a reasonable purchase for someone who never intended to buy a PS4. That said, the controller and a small instruction booklet were the only things in the box. They assume the purchase of a PS4 in order to supply the required cable for charging. Luckily, I have a bunch of said cables from the many Droid phone chargers I’ve acquired over the years. I did plug it in, and actually play a game with it, but I was unable to get the Bluetooth connection to hold, a problem I decided was caused by my having Windows 7 rather than Windows 8. So! Plugging it in got me even more excited.

The DS4 has a lightbar on the back, facing away from you when you hold it, just above the micro-USB port. When I pushed the “PlayStation” button on the front, between the thumbsticks, the lightbar turned white. Ordinarily I don’t get too excited about lights, but something about the soft glow of the bar, and the way it gently pulsated, really made me happy. What’s better, when I plugged it into the computer, it turned orange. Apparently, the light’s ability to change color is going to help differentiate players when multiple DS4’s are being used with the console, and while this is functional, I’m tempted to buy more controllers and make some friends just to see four colors in action at once.

The next brand-new controller element on this beast is the impossible-not-to-notice touchpad right in the middle. It’s about 2-inches wide by 1-inch tall, with a bit that wraps around onto the top of the controller, and it’s covered in little shiny black dots (whereas the rest of the pad, and the rest of the controller, for that matter, is matte black). The whole pad wiggles a bit when pushed side to side, possibly because it also serves as a button. I’m wondering whether the touchpad on its own will be able to serve the same purpose as a single button mouse, which I would love for the PS4’s internet browser and using the virtual keyboard, if they haven’t yet come up with a better way to do that. Hmm, there also appears to be a small speaker below the touchpad.

Now I’d like to talk about the shape of the controller. The first thing I noticed, and which I was worried about, was the lack of a good palm-feel when holding the controller as though I were playing an FPS. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I feel like I have to do more work when just holding the DS4 to keep all the buttons comfortably accessible. If I want to use the d-pad and shape buttons (?) exclusively, the controller feels excellent in my hand. Otherwise, it doesn’t hit the middle of my palm so much, and for whatever reason that feels less OK to me. I tried holding the 360 controller, which I am used to, and I saw that the wings had a little more girth, better filling the curve of my hand. And now that I’ve explicated this strange issue, I can say that 1) it’s really not that big of a deal, 2) I can definitely see myself getting used to the “palm-feel” of this thing very quickly, once I start actually using it, and 3) it’s the only problem I have with the DS4.

So here come the rest of the little things I like about this controller. The matte black design, plus the compactness (there is very little unused space, meaning that there are buttons in every spot you don’t need just to hold the controller), make this a mature-looking and stylish little device. I would feel less uncomfortable with a few of these littering the coffee table than either Xbox or Nintendo controllers. The back of the controller is a textured plastic, which feels good and grippy in the hand, and helps break up the monotony of the matte black body. The surface of the thumbsticks is also highly textured, but rubber, with a single high ridge along the edge of the pads. It is a thumbstick design I’ve never seen before, but it feels good and hopefully it can endure my many hours of FPS abuse.

I think that’s about it. Obviously I like the thing. It has lots of buttons, but it feels very simple in its design. It looks good, it feels good, and it has a good weight. Hopefully it has a decent battery life, and a decent overall lifespan. It seems tough as any controller, and I bet the rumble capabilities are just as good. Also, I read that you can route all of the PS4’s audio output through the headphone jack on the DS4, which is phenomenal. I’m very much looking forward to experiencing its full effect in a couple days.