Category: Reviews

Should You Watch “The Man in the High Castle?”


Philip K. Dick has long been one of my favorite science fiction authors, excelling in inventiveness and concision. His stories are plot-driven and to the point, which makes them almost perfect for movie adaptations. Some of those (think The Blade Runner) came out splendid, while others (think A Scanner Darkly) were more mixed blessings.

Of course, this being science fiction, making movies out of novels was always hampered by cost. Science fiction is not cheap to special effect on any day, and plot-driven (as opposed to action-driven or character-driven) movies are a particularly expensive type. They have none of the bombastic effects of, say, a planetary explosion while not much of the cheap timeouts of a romantic subplot.

Many of Dick’s novels have hence languished for decades in the realm of the undoable. Things are not helped by the fact one of the central themes of Dick’s work is the loss of reality – a problem he was facing in real life, as he was losing his grip on it. That seems to be much less of an issue for most people than it was for him, and as a result much of the logic of Dick’s plots becomes irrelevant. That is particularly true of the author’s later work.

Of his early work, though, The Man in the High Castle always seemed within reach. It’s an alternate history, events that happened after the Allied Powers won WW II. (For my history-challenged friends: the USA and USSR actually won WW II. Also, the Allied Powers were Germany and Japan. Mostly, in both cases.)

Imagine America falls. Japan takes over the West Coast, while Germany takes the Eastern half of the country (approximately to the Rocky Mountains). Dick’s favorite place on earth, San Francisco, becomes the capital of the Japanese Pacific States of America, while New York City is the new capital of the Greater Nazi Reich. (I hate to quibble, but a German would call that Greater German Reich, not Nazi Reich.)


A Week with Amazon Echo – the Review

Amazon EchoReally? Amazon Hardware?

Amazon’s hardware efforts have always been a mixed bag. Some of them, like the Kindle eReader, were a smashing success to the point of helping change the way we read. Others have been largely panned, like the Fire Phone.

When Amazon delivers, it gives us the hardware we expect: state of the art, but much less expensive than other state of the art. Just like everyone else, but better. You can not only read your books on the Kindle: you can buy them on it, too.

When Amazon doesn’t deliver, it gives you a me-too product with restrictions. That was the case with the Fire Phone, a flagship-priced device that came with mandatory AT&T subscription, but didn’t run standard Android and downloaded software only from Amazon’s anemic app store.


When I got an email from Amazon announcing the Echo, I was as ambivalent as Amazon’s hardware efforts. Should I buy a speaker for $99? Yes, it was supposed to be intelligent, but no, there was no way to modify the software. No apps for it, no development kit. I might buy something, and Amazon may then decide to pull the plug on it.

But what can you do? You put a shiny new gadget in front of me, and I can’t say no. Also, I’ve really never had any real problem with Amazon’s returns, so if I didn’t like it, I was confident I would be able to send it back for a full refund.


Flying Spirit

Spirit LogoSo, I took the plunge and booked a flight with Spirit Airlines. For those not in the know, Spirit is a low-cost airline with tons of extra charges, like the ones that had been popping up in Europe, and not unlike its competitor Frontier.

The basic idea is that you pay a “base price” that is much lower than other airlines’ fare. Then you have to pay for extras that are free-ish on other airlines. For instance, on Spirit you pay for carry-on luggage. Also, you pay for drinks on the plane (even soda!). You even pay if you lost your boarding pass or didn’t bother printing it at home.

Also, the flights themselves are very bare-bones. I am not the tallest guy in the world, but even for me the seats were uncomfortably close to each other. Sitting with the back glued to the chair, I barely had two inches of room in front of my knees. Also, the seats don’t recline – which is a must because every degree of inclination gets part of a chair into your knee.

There is no on-board entertainment system. The seats look worn and old. When we got onto the plane, there were pepitas strewn on several seats. All in all, not the best experience.

BUT! I paid about half as much as I would have on any other airline. That was absolutely worth it, and I would have considered upgrading to make my flight more comfortable. I could have done so on my first flight, but I wanted to see how Spirit does with bare bones. And it does well: it delivers as promised, and the flight experience is more than OK.


Elysium (2013)

Elysium PosterI was curious about this movie, an allegory of the current state of mankind and of health care. Not curious enough to break my long-standing ban on movie theaters, but enough to actually pay-per-view on Amazon.

My conclusion: the problems with which the movie concerns itself are real, but the movie doesn’t work. It is too slow, too long, and the plot has severe theatrical deficiencies.

Let’s start with a plot summary. It is some time in the 22nd century. Earth is an ugly, overpopulated, diseased planet. So much so that the rich moved to an orbiting station called Elysium where they can pursue a life of quiet boredom, or cocktail parties and giant mansions.

We are of course on Earth, where a young boy is in the care of a selfless nun. He meets a girl, and the two make a pact to one day go to Elysium. (I should mention that the casting of the children as precursors was spectacular, and the moment the camera switches to current time with the adults replacing the children is uncanny).

By the time we wake up with the adults, it’s 2154. The former child is now a reformed law-breaker living in the barrios of Los Angeles. He still wears an ankle monitoring device, which is simply intended as a hint to his current condition and doesn’t actually figure in the plot. Our hero has a job in a robot manufacturing factory and is constantly harassed and abused by the authorities.


Living With the Puck: StraightTalk Unimax U240C Reviewed

Results in Hilo:
Ping: 128ms
Download: 2.27 Mb/s
Upload: 0.51 Mb/s
San Diego:
Ping: 79ms
Download: 1.35 Mb/s
Upload: 0.79 Mb/s

My annual pilgrimage to Hilo used to be fueled by a Verizon 4G MiFi. But it made really no sense to have a $50 a month plan that I’d use only in emergencies and when I was on the islands. So I gave that up and have been looking for a replacement.

When I landed, I had a plan. My primary connection would be the hotel Internet, augmented by the T-Mobile connection on the Nexus 5. Android KitKat has mobile hotspot built-in, and things would have worked swell bUnimax U240Coth at the hotel and on the go.

Turns out the Internet at the hotel (the Wild Ginger Inn) is incredibly flaky. Every ten minutes or so, the connection resets and it takes a while to renegotiate. The phone turns out to be no better, as Hilo is served by the T-Mobile EDGE network and not the zippy LTE. To make things worse, when I tried to use the phone in mobile hotspot mode at the (LTE-enabled) Honolulu airport, the provisioning page refused to load.

When I drove to Walmart to buy the usual necessities you can’t take with you on the plane (like the oh-so-dangerous terrorist mouthwash, or the frighteningly terrorist toothpaste), I stopped at their Electronics department, and they had this device for sale. It promised Verizon network with Walmart prices. Nice! (They also had a 4G Verizon prepaid, but that one requires a subscription).

The economics of the device are simple. You buy the gadget for $80. Then, when you need Internet, you buy data by the GB. 1GB sets you back $15, 2 is $25, etc. You have to use up the data within a specified time limit (up to 2G in 30 days, above that in 60 days), but you can buy as much as you like – and as little. If you don’t use the thing, you just don’t buy gigabytes and you are good. Your only long-term investment is in the device.

Sadly, provisioning was a real pain. I unpacked and charged, and was surprised to find tons of manuals in the box. After all, all I needed to do was connect to the thing, tell it the PIN on the card I bought, and off I should have been able to go.


Chinavasion Rear View Mirror Device

Verdict: buy if you like installing things without good instructions. Otherwise wait until someone posts a video on YouTube, or some reseller afraid of lawsuits creates a real manual.

I just got myself a new car (a Subaru Forester) and I’ve been interested for a while in getting a dash cam. That’s the cameras you install inside the car to keep records of what’s happened on the street you’ve driven on. I am a fairly polite and safe driver, and if anything happens, it benefits me if I have a video showing what went on.

Chinavasion Rear View Mirror CamAmazon has hundreds of different models of the kind. They come with all sorts of functions, but none of them seems to combine them all. For that, I had to go to Chinavasion, a site that aggregates gadgets made in China and has them drop-shipped to consumers. You can get a volume discount, but there is typically no minimum sale.

Best of all, they allow PayPal, which makes me feel better. I am not too happy about giving a company an ocean away my credit card information (regardless of the ocean), and this way I can monitor more safely what happens.

Aside from an astonishing number of cheap Android gadgets and cell phones, security cameras and solar chargers, and all the panoply of things you can get, there are mirror cams to be found on Chinavasion. Those are like dash cams, but they are built into a rear view mirror that replaces the original one.


Nexus 5 – First Look

Short version: buy it, buy it, buy it. Then get a T-Mobile SIM card (micro) and show off.

Do you like your 2 year contract? Do you like the $100+ bill for such precious commodities as the unlimited long-distance calls you don’t use, while you are stuck with a hard limit of 2GB (AT&T) or 5GB (Verizon)? Do you like the mysterious charges that show up in your phone bill?

I got fed up with all of that a while back. I guess quite a few people have, because contract-free phones are all the rage. And for those that love contract-free phones, there is no better one than the gold standard of Android: the Google Nexus 5.

At $350 off-contract, straight from the source, it’s a real steal. You get a state of the art mobile phone that you can connect (in the USA) mostly to AT&T and T-Mobile, but that also comes in a Sprint version (no Verizon, for great reasons). It’s the same price as a mid-range phone, but it’s top of the line. Its specs put it close to the $600+ phones from HTC, Samsung, and LG, and to the much more expensive iPhone 5S ($850).

I couldn’t resist: as soon as I could order one, I was on the Google Play site and hit the submit button. Unfortunately, the ship date was announced to be November 22nd, and I was ready for a 3 week wait. Sigh. I would have to read the reviews trickle in and figure out whether this phone was really what I wanted.

it’s here already. Google shipped within a couple of days, and before I knew it, I held a tiny package in my hand (Amazon, read this, please!). It had the same shape as one of those business card boxes.


Cloud Atlas (2013)

cloud atlasIt’s not often that I get to see a movie based on a novel I haven’t read. I am a voracious reader, but I do not like going to the movies. Cloud Atlas gave me that chance: I had read about the novel only in passing, but the movie was front and center on the Amazon home screen. A perfect opportunity!

I hear the novel was not doing so well, until it hit China and then it became a huge hit. Reading about the structure, I make sense of the cultural difference that could lead to different acceptance.

The novel is a cheap read, apparently, because the author wrote not one, but six independent stories and joined them in a very creative fashion. The plot starts out in the South Pacific in 1850. It’s a fanciful plot of betrayal and greed. About half-way through this story – poof, it turns out the whole thing was just something someone else read in 1931. That someone else has an own story that goes to the half-way mark, and then it turns out that this story was something read by someone in 1975.

This goes on until the last (sixth) story, which is set in the future and has a fighting chance to find an end. After the end of this story, the end of the story before is told, followed by the story before it. At the end, we hear the second half of the first story, the one set in the South Pacific in 1850.


Amazon Pilots: Zombieland

Imagine an office. Two co-workers chatting over some tiny calorie-counting lunch. He is complaining about trifles and trivialities like the world is falling apart. She is listening empathetically, as if she could possibly care.

The two, for mysterious reasons, have a window office. For even more mysterious reasons, they are eating their lunch facing away from that giant status symbol of a window. And while they spoon their sugar-free yogurts and leaf away at that non-fat ranch dressing salad, mayhem ensues just outside the window.

It’s hard not to burst out laughing when the guy complains about a nothing while someone is being hacked at with a chain saw in the background. It’s absurd, it’s unexpected, it’s glorious. Unfortunately, it’s the funniest part of the episode, and the rest doesn’t quite match up.

Maybe you have seen something similar. When I went to watch the original Ice Age movie, that little squirrel had me rolling on the floor, laughing. Everybody else felt like that in the theater. We were not expecting that. The movie after that was not nearly as funny. It was a good movie, but compared to the squirrel bit, it disappointed.

Zombies are everywhere, and our four heroes march around Los Angeles in search of a safe spot. They are guided by the Onstar lady, who seems to know where they can find colonies of the uninfected, as well as struggling stragglers around town. Our heroes try to find more members to their party (not sure why), but fail at every turn.


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.