Month: April 2013

Amazon Pilots: Onion News Network

Not at all what I was expecting. I thought the ONN would be a news show much like Jon Stewart’s immensely popular The Daily Show on Comedy Channel. Instead, it’s a scripted show about the ugliness of the daily news cycle. It stars an adorable set of characters in various stages of neurotic and reminds one more of a Legend of Ron Burgundy without charisma.

The main character is a poor shmuck imported from Indiana (a stand-in for rural America) to the Big Apple, where he wants to make it big in news. The whole world makes of him, but in the end he gets his break and gets the job he’s been craving. The protagonist is a familiar actor, Christopher Masterson, who used to be Francis, the oldest of the kids in Malcolm in the Middle.

Amazon Pilots: Browsers

[Note: Amazon has published a series of pilots for a variety of shows, asking viewers for their opinion on which ones should continue. It’s an innovative way to farm out a choice the company is not really capable of making, since this is their first attempt at content production.]

BrowsersImagine Ugly Betty. With four unpaid Betties. And musical numbers. That’s Browsers in a nutshell.

Four enterprising young folks start their internship at the online magazine, Gush. They are told they are to browse the web and find interesting content, to the tune of 40 amazing links a day. After one week, one of them is going to get fired. Justin, annoying fifth-of-six-executive-assistants to the vicious Johanna, seems amused at the turmoil he inflicts. Johanna, when she shows up, is a veritable meanbag. Turmoil ensues, and in the end nobody is as evil as they seemed.

The team that created this show has impressive credentials and it is a little surprising they didn’t see the potential pitfalls of their approach. Surely they should have known that four equivalent protagonists are hard to flesh out when they have to compete with a machine in the background and musical numbers in the foreground. Indeed, the four come across as stereotypes through and through, and it’s really hard to think of them as anything but The Pretty Girl, The Compulsive Tweeter, The Gay Activist, and The Asian Pothead. The problem, of course, is not with the setup, but with the constraint of having to compete on the strength of the pilot alone.

While we find Betty multiplied by four, the remaining cast of Ugly Betty has to be combined in single characters in this show. Bebe Neuwirth (of Cheers and Frasier fame) is Johanna, the magazine’s editor/owner. As such, she mainly replaces the position of Wilhelmina in Ugly Betty. As hard as that seems to be, Bebe Neuwirth’s Johanna is much too kind and nice. Wilhelmina, portrayed by the absolutely smashing Vanessa Williams, was a thermonuclear explosion in every episode of that show. Johanna is more a hen mother turned sour, and it’s hard to see how she would create the comedic tension required.

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Colleges and Open Source

An online buddy of mine is in college. Enrolled in a class in computing, he asked me for help in installing MathLab on his Windows 8 computer. This turned out to be a major nightmare that kept us online for the better part of a week: starting from the need to install Java, to the requirement to download a Gigabyte of software from the Mathlab servers in Sweden, to figuring out where the installer ended up and what it was doing there.

In the end, we got it all running, but only after missing out on the first assignments. My friend was demoralized; he had gone into his class with high expectations and hopes, only to find himself crushed by the simplest task. If I can’t even install the required software, he said, how can I even begin to understand computing?

Of course, I was able to soothe his fears by pointing out that I’ve been in computing for 30 years now, and that I couldn’t figure it out. He shouldn’t feel bad! The man that has been in computing for 30 years, though, wondered why a university professor would require a beginning computing class to buy a software package for $99 (plus instruction book for some other $80), when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative available for free. Octave was created as a GNU project precisely to mimic and replace MathLab, at least in its basic functionality. It is available for free, and the $99 each students in the class had to pay would have probably been better spent on creating a decent installable on Windows.

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Chasing Mavericks (2012)

<youtube>jh09vEGNrXc</youtube>Everybody had been telling me I should watch Chasing Mavericks, but I somehow didn’t feel inclined. Surf movies – and movies about surfing, which is not the same thing – tend to be depressingly fictionalized. They portray the world as a surfer would love it to be, and not as it is. The waves are always perfect, the bros are always on a spiritual quest of communion with the ocean, and somehow there are always more ladies in the water than anyone has witnessed in a lifetime.

Big wave surfing, which is what Mavericks is famous for, is then the ultimate of the type. Big wave conditions are exceedingly rare, especially in California; until recently the sport was extremely exclusionary; and there were virtually no big wave surfers that were also women. Testosterone drove the sport, and it showed.

Last night, someone decided we should watch Chasing Mavericks, and I reluctantly agreed. I was pleasantly surprised.

California has a bad angle for the giant storms from Alaska: our coast goes (at least in the more populated Southern half, which includes the Bay Area) North-West to South-East, which is almost parallel to the path of the storms. That makes for storms that soak out coast from Eureka to San Diego, but it also makes for fairly short windows of wave action. Since the winds go with the coast, you only get storm surf when the wind is blowing.

For the longest time, people thought there could not be a big wave in California, because there was no coast that was perpendicular to the waves (like Jaws in Maui). There were rumors of a big wave spot near Santa Cruz, but nothing confirmed. Then, seemingly overnight, a place called Mavericks became famous and crowded. Its enormous (occasionally 40-foot) waves were tempting, especially because Santa Cruz has a fairly big surfing community and there was no other giant wave anywhere else.

The story told in the movie is that of Jay Moriarty, an actual grom who became instantly famous when a shot of him dropping into a Mavericks wave made the front cover of Surfer magazine in the olden days. I do not know how close the story is to actual events, but a cameo recording of Moriarty at the end makes it clear the movie was a hommage.

In the movie, Jay is first rescued by a surfer dude from certain drowning. The dude in a tell-tale VW minibus drives the kid and his best (girl)friend home. It turns out he lives just across the street.

Jay has a hard time. He is obsessed with waves and the ocean, possibly because nothing else is working in his life. His father left the family for undisclosed reasons, the mother is bordering depression and gets sequentially fired for misconduct (mostly tardiness) at all her jobs. School isn’t working well, either. 

He discovers surfing as a way out of everything. He makes enemies in the water, in particular a sinister youth that feeds his anger with a baseball bat. He makes friends in the water, too, including his best friend, who’ll stick with him through thick and thin.

One day, though, he hears the same surfer neighbor leave in the early morning, and he jumps on the back of the minivan. When he reaches their destination, he gets off and watches a group of four surfers paddle out. His neighbor, Frosty, catches one of the giants and Jay yells in admiration. Frosty notices and expresses his dismay on the way back: Mavericks is a secret, and it better stay that way. Jay agrees not to tell anyone, but he wants to surf that wave, himself.

Long story short, Frosty finally agrees to train Jay. But instead of training for the wave, they will train against its dangers. A grueling regime of paddling, ocean watching, breath holding follows that fills out the center section of the movie. Then, when it’s finally time for Jay to make it out, news breaks of the break, and suddenly the place is crowded. Will Jay make it? Will someone die? Who survives the crazy wave? No spoilers here.

What worked for me about the story was that it didn’t gloss over the routine douchyness of surfers. The very first shot at the Santa Cruz harbor includes Sonny, the antagonist, shoving a surfer from his board while dropping in on him. Surfing is (correctly) portrayed as something you mostly enjoy with few people around, mostly because when there are many people, there is always the idiot that spoils it for everyone.

The love for the ocean that propels surfers is part of it, too. I do not obsess like Jay, who would routinely pass out in class because he was training holding his breath. But to this day, two years into surfing, I still can’t watch a wave without staring at it. I will see the wave and I will instantly want to be in the water, no matter what else is going on in my life.

The scenery and ocean shots are splendid. The California coast is a gift to humanity, and the movie captures its rugged beauty well. Also, the general poverty of the characters is portrayed in a realistic fashion and not glossed over. The ramshackle houses of Jay’s and Frosty’s family have cupboards whose hinges are coming unglued; you would not be surprised to see a rat pop up.

The acting is a bit uneven. Jay, in particular, doesn’t really develop much of an expressiveness. His range is limited to “overwhelmed,” no matter what goes on. When his best friend (SPOILER!) betrays him, he looks overwhelmed, not angry and sad. When his mother turns out (more SPOILER!) to have cleaned up her act and saved up for his birthday, he looks overwhelmed. When his childhood sweetheart (you got it, SPOILER) confesses her eternal love, he looks overwhelmed.

Frosty, played by the masterful Gerard Butler, is a whole different ball game. He does very well as the rugged older man, the wise Yoda, who will mentor Jay thoughout his attempts.

Sonny, the antagonist, does his anger well, but could have played his motives better. In particular he fails to convey anything at the very end (not gonna spoil it).

I’ll say, of all movies about surfing, this is one of my favorites.

Chasing Mavericks (2012)

{youtube}jh09vEGNrXc{/youtube}Everybody had been telling me I should watch Chasing Mavericks, but I somehow didn’t feel inclined. Surf movies – and movies about surfing, which is not the same thing – tend to be depressingly fictionalized. They portray the world as a surfer would love it to be, and not as it is. The waves are always perfect, the bros are always on a spiritual quest of communion with the ocean, and somehow there are always more ladies in the water than anyone has witnessed in a lifetime.

Big wave surfing, which is what Mavericks is famous for, is then the ultimate of the type. Big wave conditions are exceedingly rare, especially in California; until recently the sport was extremely exclusionary; and there were virtually no big wave surfers that were also women. Testosterone drove the sport, and it showed.

Last night, someone decided we should watch Chasing Mavericks, and I reluctantly agreed. I was pleasantly surprised.

(more…)