Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Microsoft Zune

Short version: I bought a Zune.

I like it.

Longer version:

I've been wanting to get a music player for over a year now, but couldn't find one a really liked. During my days of dreaming about winning the World Series of Poker, I thought about getting a pair of Oakley Thumps, but I could never bring myself to pay $250 for sunglasses, and the limited capabilities and memory of the mp3 player didn't do much for me either. I also didn't want to get an iPod because, well, it's an apple. I was leaning towards a Creative zen, similar to the one I got for my son this Christmas when I saw the Zune.

I liked the 30G of memory, and the larger screen, and yielding to a long delayed impulse, I got it.

Installation was smooth on my laptop, taking about 20 minutes in total, including searching my computer for all its media files and ading them to my library, then automatically syncing the library to the Zune, which leads to my first quibble.

What if there are files on my computer that I don't want synced? What if I have those kind of files? You know, the ones I wouldn't want just anybody seeing? Not that I do, mind you, I'm just asking is all. How do I get them off my Zune once they're there? Deleting files from the Zune is not a very intuitive process; there's no DELETE function on the Zune itself. Instead, you have to delete the file from your library and resync. Of course, that doesn't help you with the files the come preinstalled on the Zune. Since they aren't part of my library, I have no idea how to remove them from the Zune.

Moving on, once the Zune is synced and charged, you're ready to listen and play your files. This couldn't be easier. The interface is very easy to navigate, and the large screen keeps everything clear. I could easily move through and pick out what I wanted to hear. For me, the only problem is that there is no STOP button. Once a song starts, you can pause it, but you can't stop it except by choosing another song, or a video, or by shutting off the Zune. This may be a common feature of MP3 players, or a simple function of my ignorance due to the total lack of documentation that comes with the Zune. In either case, a plainly accessible stop button would be nice.

The Zune software installed on my laptop takes care of all ripping chores and moves very quickly. I can rip a CD to my library in a couple of minutes or so, and then the next time I sync or charge my Zune, I'm good to go with my newly ripped music. Downloading is also a breeze. The Zune comes with a free 14 day trial subscription to Zune Pass, the Microsoft version of NetFlix. For $15 a month, about the cost of a CD, you can download all the music you want from their website, and it will play on your Zune or your computer for as long as you keep up your subscription. These downloads do not include burning rights, so you can't make a CD copy unless you actually purchase the song. You have the option of either using the subscription service, or purchasing entire albums or individual tracks. A full album in most cases will cost you about $11 bucks, with individual songs going for just under a buck.

And that brings us to the nitty gritty; DRM. The Zune has implemented a DRM mechanism that some folks don't like at all. First, the Zune is not compatible with earlier Microsoft DRM schemes, so songs purchased using those schemes will not play on the Zune. To a new adopter like me, this is no big deal, but to somebody who has already invested a few hundred bucks in music, this could be a deal breaker. In order to play their paid-for songs, they'll have to convert them to the mp3 format, or burn them to a CD and re-rip them.

On the other hand, Microsoft did make provisions for some file sharing. Zunes have built in Wi-Fi, and can share files back and forth with other Zunes within about 30'. DRM protected files can be shared with other users, who have three days, or three plays of the tune before they have to purchase it for themselves.

Now, I don't have a problem with any of this. I believe in paying a fair price for what I get, and I don't see any reason why people think they should be able to get music for free.Using the Zune Pass, I can listen to hundreds of songs a month, and if I like them, I can buy them and burn them to a CD cheaper than I could buy the CD without knowing what's on it.

This is a win-win; I get more music cheaply, and the artist and the record company still make money.

Now, there is a small fly in the DRM scheme. If I load content that is not copyrighted on my Zune, and share it with other Zunes in a protected, ie wma format, the three day three play limit is still in effect, and there's no key to turn it off. Of course, the quick fix to that is to load non protected material in a non protected format, like mp3.

Pretty simple.

As it should be clear to almost anybody, the DRM scheme in use on the Zune can be easily bypassed by virtually anybody with a computer and an internet connection, but it makes it very easy for those of us who want to be honest to do so, without extorting ungodly amounts of money from us.

Now, you may have noticed that I haven't talked much about the video side of the Zune. There's a good reason for that. AS far as I can tell, the Zune is very limited in the number of video formats and codecs it will support. None of the videos on my laptop, no, not even those made the jump. Included in the Zune help is a link to a webpage with instructions on how to download Windows Media Encoder, and use it to convert your video files to the appropriate format and codec. I ran through a couple of videos I got from You Tube and the process worked fine, and the resulting videos played very nicely on the Zune screen. I would be happier if the Zune supported more video formats, but that's going to be a simple fix for Microsoft to make.

I'm in the process of taking my Firefly DVDs and converting them for my Zune. Now technically, this is a copyright violation, since I have to defeat the copy protection on the discs to do this, but I'm pretty sure that copyright laws exist to protect the content, not the format, and I bought the content fair and square. Fair use has always allowed for people to make archival copies, and that's what I'm doing. By the way, the Zune software makes it very easy to disable video file sharing, and I did so.

All in all, I'm very happy with the Zune. The most glaring deficiency is the lack of support for more video formats, and that's one that I hope will be addressed by a firmware upgrade in the near future. It's a shame to have that nice big screen with little to show on it. The integration of the Zune with it's PC software and the Zune Marketplace, especially with Zune Pass, is excellent. Every album I've looked for was available, from early Bill Cosby to the Kingston Trio, to John Mellencamp's latest.

Buff up the video, and I'll be totally satisfied.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, January 29, 2007

Rodney Carrington

Yes, he's country.

Yes, his comedy is not appropriate for small children or small minds for that matter.

And yes, he'll make you laugh your butt off.

I saw Rodney about three years ago when he was in Knoxville before he became a Hollywood star. When he came through then, he had no sponsor, no opening act, and came out after the show to sign autographs and meet with his fans.

This time, he was sponsored by Copenhagen, who sent along two lovely girls to look lovely and throw clothing, unfortunately not their own, out into the audience. He also had an opening act, Mark Gross, who used to write for Rodney's show.

A lot has changed for Rodney since the last time I saw him, but one thing is still the same.

He's one of the funniest guys out there.

All comics have a shtick, a specialty that they build an act around. For Jeff Foxworthy, it was "You might be a redneck." For Bill Engvall, it was "Here's your sign." And for Jerry Seinfeld, it was convincing people that he was funny.

Rodney's bit is his songs. Now, for a singing comic to be funny, the first requirement is that he can actually sing. You want the audience laughing at your songs, not your atrocious voice. Fortunately for Rodney, he's got that covered. He might not ever win a Grammy for singing, but he won't drive you from the theater shrieking in pain either. His songs, including audience favorites like "Dear Penis, (sung while two 6' penises slowly inflate on stage)" "Titties and Beer," and the classics "Burning Sensation," and "I Think I'm Dancing with a Man" are a musical extension of his stand up act, which is clearly not family material. But material that would be offensive or shocking in clumsier comedic hands (think Andrew Dice Clay) turns to pure comedic gold for Rodney. It's like the difference between Porky's, and the lame sequels.

I think what makes Rodney so much fun to watch is the joy that is evident in his eyes as he's on stage. So many comedians, like the opener Mark Gross, fuel their comedy with anger or frustration, that it's nice to see a guy on stage who genuinely enjoys what he's doing. Rodney's energy is infectious, and he's having such a good time on stage that you can't help but go along and have a good time with him.

The bottom line is that when I left the Tennessee Theater after the show, my cheeks hurt from smiling and my sides hurt from laughing. And you can't ask for anything more than that from a comedian.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Empire by Orson Scott Card

Key paragraph:
A good working definition of fanaticism is that you are so convinced of your own views and policies that you are sure anyone who opposes them must either be stupid and deceived or have some ulterior motive. We are today a nation where almost everyone in the public eye displays fanaticism with every utterance.

Do you recognize anyone you know in that description?

Card's book is a quick, entertaining read that tries hard to walk a middle line, instead of casting one side as good and the other as evil. The rebellion involves those on the right fringe and the left, working separately to overthrow the legitimate government, which ironically, both sides see as illegitimate. The rhetoric Card applies to the demagogues of each side could very well be verbatim transcripts of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore, just to name two.

His premise, that we are in a place very similar to the one in 1860 is also apt. As he says in his afterward,
We live in a time when moderates are treated worse than extremists, being punished as if they were more fanatical than the actual fanatics.

Joe Lieberman, anyone?

And you really can't even call Lieberman a moderate, since he has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate. But he broke with the party over the war, and that cost him.

Do I think we'll have a Civil War as described in Empire?

Only if we're lucky. Instead, because the divisions are ideological instead of geographic, I'm predicting that the conflict will be much more low key, drawn out, and will ultimately be much more devastating as we lose our national identity. Instead of all out war, we'll have strikes, and work stoppages, and food shortages, and so on. Each side will continue to blame the other, and things will begin to crumble. And that will allow a younger, more energetic group of people to come in and take over.

We've already got candidates lining up waiting for just such an opportunity.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, December 01, 2006

Deja Vu

I've just got one question. In a world where you can't pick up a newspaper without reading about another grocery store or police station being blown up by some Arabian Islamic Jihadi, why is every terrorist in a Hollywood movie a white, Anglo-Saxon, American?

It's enough to give a guy a complex, you know?

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Borat:  A Non Review

Let me see, a movie that was filmed using lies and deceptive editing for the sole purpose of showing America at its worst.

Yeah, that's a movie I want to see.

Did Adam Sorkin have anything to do with this movie?

Posted by Rich
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Monday, November 13, 2006

Deja Vu

I saw the trailer for Deja Vu when I went to the movies the other night.

It looks like a pretty entertaining movie, but I think I've seen it before.

Posted by Rich
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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

4 of 5 stars

Some movies disappoint you by failing to deliver as expected. A recent example was The Prestige, which hid a compelling storyline and talented cast behind needlessly confusing editing that misled the viewer rather than misdirected him. Other movies surprise you by delivering more than you expected and Stranger than Fiction is one of them. Instead of a light fluffy comedy, we get a very funny, yet very thoughtful movie on the nature of life, comedy, tragedy, and what gives them all meaning. Will Ferrell heads up a fine cast as Harold Crick, a man who has no life until author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) writes him one. Unfortunately for Harold, Kay writes tragedies, so she gives him this life only to write his untimely death.

Where the movie would have worked as just a light comedy, (Think All of Me with Steve Martin and Lilly Tomlin) but writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster ambitiously chose to go for more, and they were successful.

Instead of milking the material for laughs at Crick's expense, they allowed the humor to evolve from the characters and the situations. This natural approach opens the door for honest emotional responses between the characters on screen, and between them and the audience. And that makes sense when you think about the title of the movie. What is stranger than fiction?


Unlike Sideways, which had unlikeable characters in a very dark and painful movie, (I still don't know why they classed it as a comedy) Stranger than Fiction explores similar territory in a much more enjoyable and engaging way.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Prestige

Where misdirection should be wielded with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel, this movie uses it like a sledgehammer to batter the viewer into numbed submission, which is too bad, because buried beneath the randomly shifting timelines was a pretty cool story.

The story follows Robert Angier ()Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) two young magicians aspiring to become the most celebrated magician of their era. Starting as friends and co-workers, tragedy sets them against each other in a blood feud as each attempts to outdo the other. The problem is that the movie shifts backwards and forwards in time, seemingly at random intervals. I'm guessing that the effect is supposed to be one of revelation as scenes take on a different light as they are explained by later ones, but the problem is that there are no revelations.

Magic relies on mystery, and there are no mysteries here. We know what is coming long before the movie gets there.

I can't say much more about the movie without giving away some spoilers, so I'll put the rest of the review below the fold. I do give away the major plot points, so if you plan on seeing the movie, don't go any further.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

10.5 The Apocalypse

0.5 The complete waste of time.

I've got a question. What the heck happened to Kim Delaney? She used to be very attractive; now she's kinda scary.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The DaVinci Code:  The Book

This is what the fuss was all about?

Maybe I should be examining the text of the story for secret codes or messages or some such, because the story itself left me thoroughly unimpressed. Maybe it's just me; I guess it takes more than warmed over mythology combined with half baked conspiracy theories served with a snide order of anti-religious diatribes to get my juices flowing. Not to mention lazy writing, and lackluster plotting.

I've heard so much about how the plot twists and turns, that maybe I was expecting too much, but I had most of the plot figured out long before the book reached its "surprise" ending. The only real surprises was the disappointment I felt after reading it.

SPOILER ALERT: Below the fold, more details, including spoilers.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, March 06, 2006

For Real This Time: The Last Oscar Post

I've been searching for NOW's denunciation of the Academy for honoring a song that glorifies the objectification and subjugation of women.

I must have missed it.

Posted by Rich
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One Last Oscar Note

During the "Salute the Stiffs" portion of the show (No, not award for best technical achievement; the memorial for the dead people) there was a glaring omission.

Where was Don Knotts?

When I mentioned this at the party, one guy said he was just a TV actor. He forgot The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Apple Dumpling Gang, Gus, , and my personal favorite Don Knotts movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

I guess since he was so inconsiderate as to die a week before the Oscars, he'll just have to wait until next year.

Posted by Rich
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Hollywood’s Big Night Falls Flat:  Apparently We Can Quit Them.

And that's the last Brokeback Mountain joke I'll make.

Was it just me or did the entire three hour plus extravaganza simply reek of self importance? I mean, all those montages of movies that were "important," that caused us to deeply question ourselves and our image of our nation, the bloviating of Academy President Whatsisname, about how movies were more than entertainment, and the preachiness of Terrence Howard in his intro for the award for best documentary short, "We must pay attention." Hollywood came off as an angry adolescent, screaming to the world "Pay attention to me! I'm important!"

While the directors, actors, and writers try desperately to convince themselves that they are relevant to the world at large, far beyond being mere entertainers, ticket sales suggest otherwise, my friends. Not only aren't they relevant, for the most part they aren't even entertaining anymore.

A witty, bright, and pretty lady invited me to watch the Oscars along with her witty, bright friends, and the one comment I heard more than any other all night long was "I didn't see that movie." Now for me, not seeing most of these movies is understandable; I'm worse than a middle american, I'm a southern redneck. Nobody expects me to go see a movie about gay sheep herders, but I was surprised by how few nominated movies those folks had seen. After all, they were Hollywood's ideal demographic; young, urban, well educated, and liberal. Yet even they had little to no interest in seeing many of the movies nominated, although I heard a lot of good things about The Constant Gardener, enough to convince me to watch it on PPV.

I think Jon Stewart accidentally summed up the problem with the Oscars when he joked after the award for best song, "I just want to point this out; Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars. Three 6 Mafia one." It's no longer about merit; it's about popularity.

The theme of the Oscars this year appears to be "Let's stick it to the Man," and has been embraced so thoroughly that it seems possible that Three 6 Mafia won not because of the song's merits, but because of the group's name, a play on the Biblical number of the beast.

But putting all that aside, ignoring all the underlying politics and messages, in a parallel to much of what comes out of Hollywood today, the show was boring. As my hostess pointed out, the set looked like a 50s era diner, all chrome and no glamour. The acceptance speeches were bland and boring, as usual, and the only suspense came when it appeared that Keanu Reeves was actually going to have to read on stage, but the excitement was short-lived as he just opened the envelope, parroted the one line he could remember, "And the Oscar goes to..." and handed the paper to Sandra Bullock.

Speaking of Keanu and Sandra, one theme of the night was to link Hollywood's past glories to it's current status, as if to say, "We're still making classics!" Isn't it sad that when Hollywood tries to play up it's new classics, the best they can do is Speed? I know when I think of the great Hollywood movies, I think of Ben Hur, Gone with the Wind, On the Waterfront, Citizen Kane, and Speed.

Yeah, sure I do.

Usually you can count on somebody to wear something wildly inappropriate, wildly revealing, or both, to spice things up, but not this year. Oh, for the days of Cher and 6 foot tall headdresses. Instead, this year we get Charlize Theron wearing a dress that looked like it got into an accident at a cake decorating shop. What was with that shapeless blob of fabric on her shoulder? Was she trying to hide a zit?

A key moment of the evening came when the bright, witty, young lady next to me had to stifle a yawn. The best and brightest Hollywood had to offer was putting her to sleep and it wasn't even 10PM yet. As she said, if anything exciting were going on, she'd be wide awake at that time, but there was nothing on the tube to hold her interest. It appears that there's nobody left in Hollywood who knows how to perform live anymore.

It says something when the only live moment that had any zing was Ben Stiller humiliating himself in a green suit. The bit wasn't that funny, but he sold it with everything he had.

If I had to sum the whole thing up in a few words (and don't you wish I had before you read through all this?), they would be:

Self Important.

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Oscars

Last year, I made it a point to see as many movies that were nominated for major awards as I could.

This year, I'll pass.

Let's just take a look at the Best Picture nominees:


I sense a theme here. It appears that since audiences are abandoning Hollywood, Hollywood has decided to return the favor. In order to convince themselves that slumping box office numbers have nothing to do with the quality of their product, they're highlighting "serious films" instead of low brow entertainment for the masses. As far as I can tell, not one of these movies appealed to the general public. They certainly didn't make an impact at the box office.

"Oh Rich, popularity has nothing to do with Art!"

Yeah, right.

Here's the thing about art; without an audience, it's nothing but an exercise in self gratification. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as long as you do it in private and wash your hands afterward. Just don't expect me to pay to watch it.

Posted by Rich
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Saturday, December 17, 2005

King Kong Is Killing Hollywood, and It’s a Good Thing.

I went to see King Kong last night (Short review: Good, but not as good as the buzz) and sitting there in the theater, I began to get a sense of why movie receipts are down so much, and where Hollywood is going wrong. I'll give you a hint. Here are the previews I saw, either trailers or coming attraction posters:
  • Mission Impossible 3
  • Miami Vice
  • Cheaper By the Dozen 2
  • Underworld 2
  • Pirates of the Carribean 2 and 3
  • ChiPs, the movie
  • The Producers
  • Poseidon
  • Saw 2
  • Harry Potter 4

Looking back over the last couple of years, I remember SWAT, 2 Charlies Angels movies, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Longest Yard, Doom, and so on.

Notice a trend? Like Xerox, Hollywood can't come up with anything original.

Hollywood has become the ultimate recycling bin, and many of us are not interested in dumpster diving, and the rest are willing to wait for it to come out on video. Hell, one of the best things about Million Dollar Baby was that we hadn't seen it before as a TV show or movie of the week.

The Producers, for example is a film adaptation of a Broadway musical based on an earlier film by Mel Brooks! That takes graverobbing to entirely new levels. Of course, Poseidon is almost as bad, remaking the original movie less than 2 months after a TV version aired. And earlier this year, The Longest Yard was virtually a scene by scene remake of the original, adding nothing new, other than the actors. Almost every time I go to the movies, I have the feeling that I've seen this before. Why would I want to pay to see it again?

But it's not all Hollywood's fault. There's a reason they keep recycling the same old garbage; it makes them money. Here's the top ten grossing movies of 2005:
  1. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
  2. War of the Worlds (2005)
  3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
  4. Wedding Crashers (2005)
  5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
  6. Batman Begins (2005)
  7. Madagascar (2005)
  8. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
  9. Hitch (2005)
  10. The Longest Yard (2005)

6 of 10 are either sequels or remakes. The other 4 were formulaic variations on movies we've all seen before. Even though fewer people are going to the movies, the ones that go, go to see the stuff they're familiar with.

Hollywood is in a terrible bind. Movies are too expensive to make these days to take chances on something really new and different, which means that movie goers who want something more than yesterday's TV shows with added boobs are going to continue to stay away from the theaters. In order to hold on to the remaining audience, studios will cater to the remainder, accelerating the trend towards mediocrity.

Which brings me to King Kong. It's a servicable movie, certainly better than the Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange disaster of the 70's, but the question I kept asking myself throughout the movie was "Why" Why spend $207 million dollars to make what is essentially the same movie as the original, despite the sledge hammer pretensions of writer/director/producer Peter Jackson? A deck boy reading "Heart of Darkness? Come on!

The movie is entertaining, and Naomi Watts is simply beautiful as Ann Darrow. Jack Black is good as Carl Denham, but Adrien Brody is weak as playwrite Jack Driscoll. We're told that he is a very demanding exceedingly picky person about his plays and scripts, but we see nothing of that in his actual performance. He just kind of sits there the entire movie.

The problem is there's nothing new here. If you've seen the original, or even the remake, you've seen this movie.

Now, for the second part of this essay. Why is this a good thing? Right now, our choices are limited. We can watch recycled crap from Hollywood or pretentious art house crap from, well, wherever art house crap comes from. Some film school probably. But our choices are growing. Small studios making independent movies are popping up everywhere. In a way, it parallels the rise of blogging. Technological advances are lowering the entry costs for film makers. Shooting with digital cameras means processing and editing costs are nearly eliminated. Distribution over the internet removes another massive expense. Working outside of the Hollywood unions and guilds means movies can be made for a realistic budget. George Romero and Kevin Smith have shown the way; there's no doubt in my mind that there are many budding DeMilles ready to follow in their footsteps. So while we can expect Spiderman 24; Peter Parker gets a Truss and Who's the Boss; The Movie from the major studios, we can also hope for more movies like Chasing Amy, Slingblade, or Knightriders from the independents.

Posted by Rich
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