Altered Ego

On Set Top Boxes, Walled Gardens, and Tech Ecosystems

It just came out, but already the tech press is going to bat for Amazon’s answer to the Google Chromecast and Apple TV, the FireTV. Just like the company’s Fire tablet, this new black box represents a move more akin to gravity, as its development and release was as inevitable as an apple’s fall to earth.

With the release of the new Roku 3, the Chromecast, and the Apple TV, (and the Xbox One and Sony Playstation 4, if you’re counting gaming consoles as all-in-one devices), all of the major players in consumer technology now have a means of introducing their content ecosystems to your TV. This is a big win not just for those companies, but for all of the people cutting cords to save on their cable bills; now there are options for anyone who’s more interested in buying their TV shows one by one rather than bundled with 6,000 other channels.

However, what really makes this interesting is the fact that Amazon’s doohickey also comes with a gaming component. This is the first major incursion from an outside player into a world previously dominated by Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. In essence, we may be looking at the Fort Sumter of the next console war.

Not only that, but almost all of the major tech players are developing exclusive content for their devices: Apple TV has the iTunes Festival, Xbox will have the Halo TV series, Sony has Powers, and Amazon has a whole programming slate.

What we’re seeing here is the next logical evolution of tech’s walled garden approach to content and computing ecosystems. Just like Apple knew that playing handing over the keys to the RIAA would cost them billions in content revenue (approximately 30% of every iTunes purchase ever is a big chunk of change), these new moves reflect the end strategies of tech companies wary of collaborating with the establishment (i.e. network television, the MPAA, and cable channels).

While normally I would encourage something like this, these strategies all point to the fact that the typical tech consumer will never be able to enjoy all of the content without buying all of the set top boxes. And that’s a big request to make from a public that is constantly feeling the pinch of a slowly recovering economy. The only platform-agnostic players left in this equation are Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, but with so many major acquisitions taking place these days, I wonder how long it will be before even these ubiquitous services become a feather in another tech titan’s cap.  

The Promise and the Peril of the Steam Machine Post-CES

The first impressions are in. The baker’s dozen of Steam Machines unveiled at CES are showing a lot of promise, but with a few notable caveats. First off, Ars Technica notes that the left thumb pad of the unorthodox Steam controller suffers from lackluster legacy support for older Linux-compatible games. Such support will prove to be critical as the hardware platform transitions out of a beta environment and into the hands of end users.

As innocuous as that one criticism is, it represents the crux of what will make or break the success of the Steam Machines. As of this writing, Steam has more than 250 Linux-compatible (and therefore Steam OS-compatible) games that will be available with the launch of the first wave of hardware.

First-party titles will most likely be limited (at first) to what Valve is able to release within one year of the 2nd or 3rd quarter 2014. Subsequent success will hinge on what new software titles third-party developers and studios bring to the platform. And while everyone loves classics like Half Life 2 and Portal, Valve will inevitably feel some pressure to release the Steambox equivalent of Call of Duty in very short order.

That said the legacy support of older, pre-Steam OS titles will be the lifeblood that sustains the platform until those major titles are released. Unless that support becomes seamlessly apparent in the new console, Valve may have a tough time finding enough early adopters to justify its foray into gaming hardware.

The What of Doctor Who

The 21st century protagonist is a strange animal. He or she always seem to be able to change according to the needs of the contemporary audience, much like Proteus or Woody Allen’s Zelig. You can’t say the same about an ancient character like Gilgamesh (or maybe you can, depending on how you interpret Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces). Then again, many of the oldest characters passed along by oral tradition, including Coyote, the Native-American trickster, and Anansi, the storytelling spider god of Africa, were shapeshifters by nature, able to change at will for the sake of a compelling plot or a convenient jape.

I think that this is in part why Doctor Who resonates so deeply with both British and American audiences today; the Doctor is everything that we need him to be. In a way, he is one of, if not the most versatile, mythological characters standing in contemporary Anglo culture.

For those of us that are not unabashed Whovians, the Doctor is a madman in a time-and-space traveling box, a 1963 London Police Box to be exact, painted an extraordinary shade of deepest blue. As per the recent BBC special, An Adventure in Space in Time, he is the brainchild of Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, and Donald Wilson, directed and produced by Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert, and realized by the crotchety, cantankerous, yet sincere performance of William Hartnell. It would be one thing if this serial ended with Hartnell’s tenure in 1966, but through deus ex Newman, the Doctor has managed to weather 50 years of alien encounters, social upheavals, and the performances of 13 different actors (not including the voices who portrayed him on BBC Radio).

Through a trick of alien physiology, the Doctor is able to “regenerate” and take on the appearance and personality of another human being. His latest iteration comes in the form of actor Peter Capaldi, a Scot well known for his vitriolic turn as director of communications Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It. The previous actor, a young Matt Smith, ended his performance with a phantasmagoric explosion of amber light after his Doctor stood sentinel over the besieged town of Christmas for hundreds of years.

And make no mistake, it is right to say for every actor that portrays the doctor, the role is his. Each performer makes the character his own. The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, was unique in his flashes of anger and his just-as-quick urge to shine a goofy grin. Colin Baker had his clownish Harpo act. John Hurt’s War Doctor the arch of a severe, but weary brow. In a behind-the-scenes look at Matt Smith’s final episode, showrunner Stephen Moffett says that while the Doctor cannot die, every regeneration frightens him because at its core the Doctor “will be alive, but rewritten”. Of course, we really are the ones that are doing the rewriting.

Just as Voltaire said “if God did not exist, we would have to invent him”, so do we need to reinvent the Doctor. An eccentric Canadian executive, a team of British writers, a young female Jewish producer, and a British-Indian director conceived of this strange alien figure just as the mod culture of swinging 1960s London took hold. And at the core of Hartnell’s trojan horse of rigid, aristocratic manners (out of place amidst a youthful tide of counterculture), was a kernel of progressive hope that allowed more whimsical actors like Patrick Troughton and John Pertwee to adopt the role. The First Doctor made his debut on BBC Two the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963; the episodes that followed that unlucky premiere seem to account for it, promising its child audience an escape to worlds only dreamed of in the years of rebuilding following V-E Day in 1945.

My own discovery of the (Ninth) Doctor came during an inauspicious study abroad trip to London in the summer of 2005. I binge-watched the first new series of Doctor Who following the July bombings of the London Underground along with Edgar Wright’s Spaced. I think the madcap adventures of Eccleston’s Doctor did a far better job of calming me than my own professors ever could.

It is said in the new series that the Doctor goes to wherever and whenever in the universe he is needed. For the past 8 years, this could not be more true of the world that the Doctor returned to; our current social landscape is rife with war, government intrusion into private lives, homophobia, xenophobia, and Rob Ford to boot. I could not have imagined a world that more needed the Doctor than the one that has been thrust upon us by corrupt politicians, warmongers, and bigots.

And that’s the beauty of the Doctor; he cares more for us than we do ourselves. He is a beneficent, messianic figure that interferes with dire plots and interjects with dry British wit and a heavy helping of scientific jargon. He wears many faces and it is possible that with each regeneration, he could shift into the shape of the audience that admires him. “Maybe Moffett will cast the first female Doctor,” we say, “or maybe the first African-British actor to play him.” He is something for everyone no matter what form he takes. He eschews bigotry, values knowledge, cleverness, and sincerity, and saves his terrifying anger for the adversaries (and Masters) that would dare to harm the innocent. Is it too much to imagine that a hundred years from now literature, anthropology, and media professors may find as much meaning in series of Doctor Who as they do in the plays of Shakespeare? I hope so.

Kevin Pierce at The Verge just wrote a pretty interesting piece on Bionym’s new biometric bracelet, the Nymi. For those who want a quick summary, basically the Nymi is a wrist-mounted pack of sensors that detects your unique cardiac rhythm and hand motions and uses them to authenticate your identity with a host of other smart appliances. Want to unlock your car door? Flick your wrist and your Civic will know to pop the locks. Walk into a “smart” house and the Nymi will broadcast your identity to the appliances, telling them how bright the lights should be and what episode of “Archer” the DVR should queue up.

This little bit of tech fascinates me more than a lot of other gizmos because it aligns perfectly with a vision of the future that can actually be achieved; it’s a future that more than anything else is perfectly seamless.

A seamless future is a sci-fi vision that’s far more feasible than the ones littered with kitschy designs for flying cars, hover boards, and robotic butlers. It’s essentially a future that is so well-designed by technologists and programmers that it’s completely opaque, yet natural to the people living in it. It’s the equivalent of a skeptic seeing a magic trick performed from every angle while still being unable to see the act’s mechanism.

One day very soon, the Nymi may be something that every single person has, but, instead of being a bracelet, it may just be an electronic grain we embed behind a major artery for convenience. In this same future, smart appliances may come standard in every home and may customize themselves according to the owner of each sensor. Imagine a Brooklyn apartment that blasts the air conditioning for one tenant every time she returns from work, but cranks up the heat when her mother comes to visit from Miami. The future won’t necessarily be a Dickian or Gibsonian wasteland, but it will definitely be one we take for granted (by design).  

My Totally Unqualified Analysis of Apple’s Business Plan

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that I am a die-hard Apple fan. After giving up on a perpetually teething Dell desktop my sophomore year of college, I hit the reset button with a glorious PowerBook G4 in the autumn of 2004, which itself was replaced with a first generation, Intel-powered MacBook Pro by a very generous Apple Genius in 2006.

That first PowerBook started a chain reaction that began with me and ended with the conversion of all of my family into MacHeads; my mother, father, sister, brother-in-law, and nephews are all longtime Apple fans and users and own a variety of Macbooks, iMacs, iPods, iPhones, and iPads. We probably have enough air-brushed, unibody aluminum between us to craft an "iron throne" of Macs.

So it’s still a bit of a shock to me to see numerous analysts, naysayers, and stock manipulators take potshots at the house that Jobs built. It’s not that the criticism is unwarranted or really even all that new. I think what’s most shocking is that I find myself agreeing with so much of it.

The post-Jobs Apple is not the rudderless ship that extreme Apple-haters like to imagine, but it’s definitely not the only yacht at the marina anymore. Microsoft and RIM never really posed the hardware or software challenges that Google’s Moto X and Samsung’s Galaxy series do now to Apple’s core businesses. The fact that I can get an Android phone in any combination of colors I can think of while maintaining relative feature parity with the iPhone 5 is enough to give me pause when my AT&T contract comes up next year. The compact aluminum design of the Nexus 7 feels far more like an Apple first effort than the initial iteration of the iPad Mini. In short, we’re seeing viable, often times preferable competitors in the markets that Apple itself created.  

It feels like what’s been missing these past few years or so was the buzzword that defined the Apple business plan: “disruption”. Barring a miraculous iWatch, iOS 7, Mavericks, or Mac TV debut, I don’t think we’re likely to see the sort of sea change that the consumer-friendly iPod or convergence-inducing iPhone initiated. An iPad can only get so thin, an iPhone so compact before every single device on the market starts to catch up to it. Upcoming gadgets like Google Glass, Kinect 2, and the Chromecast leave far more room for analyst and consumer imaginations alike.

This is the part where I presume to give Apple advice and speak to the company (or Tim Cook) like an old friend that’s fallen on hard times. Apple, I love you. You’ve always been there for me. You helped me make some great college playlists, ace my first major Film Studies project, and tune out my first morning commute. That said you need to get back to building new markets or trying new approaches. Two words you really need to look into right now: ubiquitous computing.

With all the money you have squirreled away, I’m shocked, shocked that you haven’t bought the team behind the Nest thermostatalready. Not only that, but why does Philips have to be the one that comes up with the Hue? You’re the same guys that devised the G4 Cube, right? Okay, bad example.

The bottom line is that if Jony Ive isn’t already working on putting Apple’s fantastic design acumen into everything from phone and television interfaces to thermostats and light bulbs, then you’re looking at things the wrong way. One day, Google Glass circuitry is going to be small enough to fit perfectly into a set of prescription Warby Parkers, just as the iPad may very well be something that you unfold like a sheet of paper. Computers will be in every surface we touch and every object we own or handle.

So it behooves Apple to put its research and design efforts into not just a few markets, but into every facet of modern life. Treat every new idea like a limited run if cost R&D and overhead costs are an issue. I’m certain that many Apple users want to know what the company’s driverless car might look like, or how its interactive counter tops, broadband infrastructure, or point-of-sale systems might work. This is a future that’s not hard to see if you try. All you really need to do is think different.

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Image comes from Business Wire.

ATTACK OF THE REVIEW MONSTER!

So in the past two weeks, I’ve managed to see three movies: Evil Dead, Iron Man 3, and Upstream Color (in that order). I know there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to the grouping here, but they’re all interesting in that they all let me leave the multiplex with either a gripe or plenty to think about.

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Evil Dead

Tonight, for the midnight showing! The horror re-vision that nobody asked for! EVIL DEAD!

All ribbing aside, I have nothing but fond memories of the Evil Dead series. Army of Darkness was one of those guilty pleasure movies that my dad and I saw together without mom in tow and it was my first exposure to the series. A few years into the great DVD revolution of home video, I finally managed to catch Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. Nostalgia accounted for, the Evil Dead series always struck me as the documented metamorphosis of a filmmaker, Sam Raimi as an epic blockbuster butterfly emerging from a cocoon of earnestness, low budgets, and goofy special effects.

It’s interesting watching Fede Alvarez try to re-imagine the series with slick practical effects, excruciatingly effective cinematography, and a new cast of 20-somethings lacking feathered hairstyles; imagine a studio film adaptation of a preschool play and you’ll have the right idea.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot here to love. In an era of Saw and Hostel knockoffs, Evil Dead couples the ‘horror in the woods’ motif with drug addiction and rehab subtext. Jane Levy’s Mia is locked in an abandoned cabin with her estranged brother, his girlfriend, and her two friends to help her kick dope cold turkey. Unbeknownst to them, the same cabin was the sight of a horrific demonic possession. Cue the arrival of the Book of the Dead, the foolish saying of the phantasmagoric words aloud, and the possession of Mia by Infernal Forces That Shall Not Be Named.

When Mia inevitably goes deadite all over her friends, they at first treat it as an addict acting out, which is a great answer to “Why the heck aren’t these people driving out of here?” question. After all that, hell breaks loose  with self-mutilations, amputations, and inventive uses of power tools, climaxing with a scene straight from an Iron Maiden album cover. Along the blood-spattered way are nods to tropes from the original trilogy that satisfy the reference needs of the hardcore horror nerds.

The horror press is already rumbling with talk of sequels and I wouldn’t be averse to seeing more of Alvarez’s take on this universe. While you have to question the timing of this release (post-Cabin in the Woods, anyone?), it’s definitely a breath of fresh air compared to more Paranormal Activity and zombie fare. There’s not a lot of humor in this follow-up, but there wasn’t a lot of intentional humor in the first film either.

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Iron Man 3

Man, what a missed opportunity.This culmination of the Shell-Head trilogy sees Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black directing in Jon Favreau’s stead and bringing all the wrong epic sensibilities to the series. Robert Downey, Jr. is once again the immaculate embodiment of billionaire playboy/superhero Tony Stark and a joy to watch. Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce as villains The Mandarin and Aldrich Killian respectively split a plate of delicious scenery and Rebecca Hall, Adam Pally, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Don Cheadle are somewhere in there too. This film suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; it tries to accomplish way too much in scope without earning a lick of it. The effects are exquisite, the action set-pieces incredibly choreographed, and I think they hired a small island nation just to do the animation for all the armor sequences. 

I honestly wish I could go into more detail about this film, namely about its patronizing treatment of Pepper Potts as the damsel-in-distress once again (interrupted thankfully by two too-quick turns as a super-powered bad-ass), its lazy justification for the Big Action Scenes, and the whole 20 minutes of CSI spent in Rose Hill, Tennessee (played by the underrated Rose Hill, North Carolina), but I honestly just didn’t care too much about this movie. Even as a recovering comic fan, this was a handful of stale brain popcorn, consumed way too quickly to leave anything but a nasty taste in the synapses.

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Upstream Color

Now we’re cooking. With cinematography that reads as an homage to Terrence Malick and themes oddly reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shane Carruth’s science fiction romance (I wish I could type that more often) is a powerful meditation on the notion of a collective consciousness gone wrong and right. Amy Seimetz’s Kris and and Carruth’s Jeff are two lovers drawn together by an alien symbiote beyond their ken. Both victims of the mind-controlling parasite, they find each other in the wreckage of their lives one year after being robbed and defiled by Andrew Sensenig’s Sampler.

Even though shallow depth of field and a kind of navel-gazing attention on passive characters are now hallmarks of indulgent mumblecore films, it’s hard not to be drawn to Carruth’s first work since the mind-bending Primer.

Most of the action here is shown, rather than told, which makes me a happy writer. The entire third act, in fact, unfolds without dialogue and not once did I ever feel my attention leave the mise en scene.

As with Tree of Life, a review hardly does Upstream Color justice. Writing about it is like telling a friend about a meandering, beautiful dream, or maybe what you’re seeing through a kaleidoscope. You might love it or hate it, find it touching or pretentious, but either way it will be an experience.

Check it out. If you hurry, you might not miss it.