October 17th, 2004

South Park

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

I got back on Friday (well, very early Saturday) from another week of training, this time at Microsoft's training centre in Chertsey.

The training itself was OK, although less intensive than the Training Camp marathon of a week or two ago. It covered a range of the features to be found in Visual Studio 2005, the development environment which current expectations suggest will be released next summer. The material covered is already pretty well known on the Web, particularly as the full beta can be downloaded by MSDN subscribers, but it was useful to go into it in a bit more depth, with hands-on labs to step us through new functionality.

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Today's new icon is courtesy of South Park Create a Character.
Black Hat

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Last weekend, just before heading off south, I went to see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

I was hoping for it be fantastic, and in some ways it was, but overall I came out a little disappointed.

The film is grounded in pulp sci-fi of the 1930s or 1940s, and takes advantage of CGI to bring those visions to the screen on a grand scale. You will never have seen a film quite like this before, and despite some reservations about this one, I hope it's not the last of its kind.

Sky Captain (Jude Law) is an action hero of the early flier type, and accompanied by his ex, a journalist (Gwynneth Paltrow), he sets off to save the world. Many set pieces later, a resolution occurs. One of the problems is that that's all you get. I think this movie could have taken two successful paths given its choice of setting - one would be to play it straight and have a message for a modern audience, while the other would be to make it an action movie and camp it up for laughs, à la Flash Gordon. Sadly, SCATWOT plays it straight as an action movie. There's no message, and not enough laughs.

I think the other big mistake was in the choice of palette for the movie - not something one could have criticised in quite the same way before the last few years, but fair game now, especially in such a stylised picture. The colours are desaturated, sometimes to the verge of greyscale, in order to achieve a period look. At times this gives it an aroma of film noir, which is unfortunate, and not actually true to its sources. Pulp fiction illustration of the period - not to mention most film of the period - is brightly coloured, not washed out.

Some of the technology was a bit silly, particularly Sky Captain's plane. It looked like a Curtiss of the 30s or 40s, but could fly underwater and cornered through the blocks of New York rather better than I imagine you could manage in a car. Visually this was all well handled, but there was a little LED flashing in my brain over the NOT POSSIBLE sign. Sky Captain's plane was too realistic for me to believe in it defying physics. For a better and more plausible extrapolation of 1940s design into suspend-your-disbelief sci-fi aerobatics, in my opinion, take a look at the Naboo fighters in The Phantom Menace.

What is good about this film is the grandeur of the vision, and the confidence with which it revives in visual form a dated written genre which people are secretly rather fond of. I hope it spurs other film makers to do better by showing what's possible. This is not an Indiana Jones for the 21st century, but with a bit of luck it may inspire one.

The film ends on a funny, and wonder of wonders, it doesn't milk it - although it is the culmination of a running joke. There are two words, there might be a reaction shot (I can't recall), then cut to credits. If only the rest of the film were quite as good as the end. Mind you, I've just read a review on IMDB which says the exact opposite - great movie, let down by a weak and abrupt ending. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

I probably will buy this movie when it arrives on DVD, but it will be for the visuals and not for the movie itself. Maybe I'll wait until it's been reduced.

Planet of the (i)Pod People

Sigh. I know the majority of the readership of this blog are big fans of Apple, but here goes. I'm not over-impressed with the iPod.

Let's be positive first. At 15GB capacity (in the case of the model I've been given) it is clearly unrivalled by devices like MP3 players with a puny few hundred MB of RAM, and this feature alone would be enough to justify its place in the market. That's understandable. The AAC compression does a fairly good job of fitting loads of data into a small space and, not being a hi-fidelity freak, I won't venture an opinion on whether it is any good in terms of its audio reproduction. It's good enough for me. I can't complain too much about the touch sensitive controls or their design and layout, although I'd kind of like to have a more positive interaction with them - I'd prefer silent movement to a few audio clicks, although the audio clicks may be better than nothing.

However, its physical design is daft and the accompanying iTunes software is flaky. No doubt it looks cool sitting on a shelf in silver and white, but you can't touch it without smothering the metal in highly visible fingerprints and white is hardly the best choice for a portable device. There's no protection for the screen, and at least in the edition I received, there isn't even any sort of protective sleeve. I've no doubt such things will be available for purchase once I have a look around, but I think it's pretty shoddy not to ship one in the box. It doesn't have to be a good one - by all means encourage people to splash out on getting something better - but there ought to be something.

Once installed, the iTunes software has a reasonable range of functionality for managing your music, but installing it wasn't straightforward. In fact, I had to kill off the installer when it became plain that part of it had given up. I don't know how long it is since I had to do that to an installer. Once installed, it functions OK so long as you just import music from CDs. Don't edit anything anywhere though, because if you do the whole program will crash when you try to import the next disc. Updating to the most recent version of the software, as it prompted me to do yesterday, has not fixed this problem.

I was disappointed to find that while iTunes seems to be able to transfer "smart" playlists to the device (playlists based on picking selection criteria) it doesn't seem to do anything with "dumb" playlists, to which tracks have been manually added. I won't go overboard on that, as I haven't tried very hard and it's possible I've missed something, but it seems a bit of an odd omission if it really does work like that, and some poor user interface decisions if it doesn't.

In summary, Apple currently have a clear lead based primarily on storage capacity, but there is plenty of opportunity for someone else to produce an iPod-beater.

For anyone who doesn't get the reference in the title, the Pod People are a bunch of music-loving but brain-washed Muppets featured in The Dark Crystal <evil grin>. There are also other sci-fi "pod people", but them I have not seen. I'm given to understand I may not be missing much.