Angry Robot

Life

Perhaps I’m spoiled by the character development that good TV can produce by virtue of its ample running time, but I’m noticing a pattern of movies too eager to burn through their first act. They want to get to the jumps, scares and high-drama hijinx the second act will provide, so they plow through the exposition and character development. For the viewer, at first this seems good: hey, we’re getting right to the meat and potatoes! But the problems come home to roost well into the second act, where mid-explosion the viewer thinks, yeah who gives a shit, and checks her phone.

I wanted to like Life, really I did. I love horror; I love sci-fi. So by the same combinatory logic that drives public interest in peanut butter cups and sporks, I’m willing to give any horror sci-fi a watch, even if said enterprise is perhaps fatally indebted to a more famous predecessor in the genre. A diverse crew of space explorers retrieve alien life from an otherwise empty vessel; said alien life proceeds to massacre the crew one by one like they were teens at Camp Crystal Lake. Yep, that’s the plot of Life and Alien. There are differences: Life has a near-future, near Earth orbit setting, aboard the International Space Station, where the crew (that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Renolds) is retrieving samples from a Mars probe. While Alien is really, really good.

As you’ve probably figured out from the first act of this review, Life hurtles through its opening scenes, eager for its alien creature to get busy. It does get busy, but the underdeveloped characters are little more than food. If that’s all you want from Life, great, but I’m looking for something more.

“Dragonstone”

Game of Thrones   Season 7   Episode 1

The way to a Thrones’ episode’s heart is through its title. The episode titles point directly to the themes being explored in that hour: most often, they mark a thread that weaves through the show’s various disparate plot lines, trying its best to make the ep seem less like a collection of unrelated scenes, and more like a standalone piece of storytelling that actually means something on its own. But, for the first episode in a season, this can be a challenge. The canonical unit of this sort of television is really the season, not the episode, and as such the first few episodes tend to function as the first act, setting up the board and moving pieces around in ways that, while they don’t seem that exciting right now, will be setting up for big moves later on. Fitting that the episode actually features two scenes with maps of the game board, the continent of Westeros, with the characters only getting started.

“Dragonstone” is the episode title and it represents the most significant dramatic action that occurs in this hour, right at the end: Danaerys Targaryen and her army finally land in Westeros. To her it represents her home, and the culmination of six seasons dicking around in the east. In King’s Landing, to Mad Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime the Exasperated, it signifies a huge new threat from the east, joining the others that surround them: Dorne and the Reach to the South and West, respectively, and the newly resurgent Starks in the North. Euron and his magnificent fleet arrive; he’s a potential, much-needed ally, but he wants to marry Cersei! The feeling is not mutual, so Euron leaves to bring her a “prize” of some sort (start your theories).

Down in Oldtown, we are treated to a surprise shit-and-gruel montage featuring Samwell Tarly and the restricted area in the library, which he finally breaks into and reads about…. Dragonstone. Which is indeed a repository of obsidian, one of the two things that can kill the White Walkers.

Up in Winterfell, Jon knows about obsidian but not Dragonstone, and orders a search for the rare material, before Sansa publicly and vociferously disagrees with the new King in the North about how best to use the castles of the Karstarks and Umbers, the Northern houses who sided with the Boltons against the Starks. Sansa thinks the castles (and titles) should be given to lords who didn’t betray them, while Jon points out the traitorous lords have already died on the battlefield, and he does not wish to punish the sons for the sins of their fathers. Jon gets his way, but the simmering Jon vs. Sansa feud bubbles on, starting to embody a particular thematic obsession of the show: different models of leadership. Jon is the noble hero who rules justly but is statistically a great deal likelier to lose his head; Sansa is the cold-hearted player of the game who “learned a great deal” from Cersei, the most cold-hearted of them all.

We also get two storylines that have not much to do with Dragonstone but do say something about those who pay the highest price for the games the nobles play. The Hound is now traveling with the Brotherhood without Banners, and they run across the property – and the long-dead corpses – of a farming family he last met when he was traveling with Arya. Then, he took their silver and left them for dead; now, he struggles with the results of that decision. He’s a rich character, well on his way toward the back half of the patented Thrones Villain-to-Hero Redemption Arc™, and the Brotherhood is helping him along. When Thoros gets him to gaze at the flames in the fireplace, The Hound sees the Army of the Dead passing through Eastwatch. Beric asks, “Do you believe me now, Clegane? Do you believe we’re here for a reason?”

The other storyline is Arya, and she provides a rare cold open. Wearing the face and voice of the always charming Walder Frey, she encourages his entire family to drink a toast… of poisoned wine. Boom. Later in the episode, she’s traveling to King’s Landing to continue her revenge quest when she runs into a small group of Lannister soldiers who have been sent to keep the peace in the Riverlands. Initially she wants to kill them, but they’re such friendly and kind-hearted lads she gives them a pass. From the cold open we’d deduce she’s of the Sansa/Cersei school of cold-hearted score-settling throne-gaming – literally killing the sons for the sins of the father – but from the other scene? It’s not so clear. She may have a heart left.

If I can sum up, which I can, it was an above average episode of graceful board-setting.

Loose ends:

  • Look at that, I fucking forgot about the Bran scene. He arrives at the wall – that’s it. You know what, Bran? Get off your ass a little and maybe I’ll remember your scenes next time.
  • The costuming is excellent as usual. Euron looked like a Biker Lord.
  • That was maybe the most artful “previously on” recap I’ve ever seen. Did they do an original score for it?
  • The dagger that was used in the attempted murder of Bran Stark back in the first season shows up as an illustration in one of the restricted books Sam and Gilly look through. Interesting! I didn’t remember it, but here’s some stuff about it: it’s Valyrian steel, it was owned by Littlefinger, I can’t tell if it’s the same one he uses to betray Ned Stark in the first season, but it’s supposed to be in the book. I wonder what its future holds!
  • Sure enough, as I predicted in my preview, Jorah Mormont is in Oldtown and he’s already met Sam. Although Jorah is NOT looking good.
  • Eastwatch. Sounds like that’s where it’s going down. It’s the fort on the wall where the wildlings will be posted, plus one can surmise the Brotherhood will head there.

Neural Error

The output of neural networks makes me think about the delights of human learning. We are copycats. We only learn anything by iterating over hundreds or thousands of examples. But just when that process starts to seem dull or rote, we make a mistake. Mistakes are where invention hides. When the copying fails we see the gleaming of a new form.

Anyway, here’s a hilarious post from Lewis and Quark about terrible fake Broadway musicals.

Okja

Bong Joon Ho’s latest is perhaps most similar to his 2006 picture The Host: it’s a genre-bending, CGI-heavy creature feature. But the similarities end there. In an attempt to rejuvenate her shady multinational agribusiness’ moribund image, CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) launches a heavily stage-managed contest in which 10 enormous “superpigs” are distributed to local farmers across the globe. Ten years later, South Korean entrant Okja is the clear winner – but Mijo (An Seo Hyun), the granddaughter of the local farmer in charge of the pig, isn’t willing to let her go just yet.

The script veers from pastoral contentedness to slapstick to full-tilt effects-heavy action, but at heart this is a grand social satire in the tradition of Network, Dr. Strangelove or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Bong tries to get a few jabs in at the animal activists led by Jay (Paul Dano), and asshole celebrities get a punching bag in the figure of Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), but the largest target by far is the Mirando Corporation and its attempts to gussy up its cold-blooded greed via the sundry tools of modern PR. The comedy is broad and occasionally falls flat: some scenes feel like failed improv. And the social satire isn’t the most ingenious ever put on screen. But the action is first-rate, and – crucially – the creature is exceptionally well executed; so much so that the scenes between Mijo and Okja are completely believable, and form the healthy emotional heart of a wide-ranging, ambitious, and risk-taking film.

Game of Thrones S7 Preview Part 4: House Rando

Here we are, concluding our action-packed and laboriously wordy recap of where we stand before Game of Thrones Season 6! For previous posts, see here. To wrap things up, I’m going to throw an assortment of hanging plot chads in this post.

Samwell

As the last season ended, Sam, Gilly and Sam Jr. arrive in Oldtown for Sam’s Maester Training. Given that the show is even including this potentially dull-as-fuck storyline from the book, I’m going to guess there’s more going on here. As dragons scorch Westeros, we’re not going to cut back to Sam learning how to feed ravens.

The most likely explanation is that Sam is going to learn vital knowledge about the Others that will need to be transported, or transmitted, north. This is the big library, after all, where the Maesters hoard ancient knowledge. In the books, there is the character of Marwyn the Mage who may or may not be the vessel for such knowledge in the show. Sam’s also carrying his dad’s sword, which is one of the few Valyrian swords in Westeros. Like Jon’s sword Longclaw, Valyrian steel can kill Others.

The vital knowledge could have to do with the Others’ motivation or something, but more likely it’s details of how to kill them. One possibility: Sam learns how to forge Valyrian steel. It’s a lost art, but if it were to be found, would it not be in the citadel? According to legend, it requires spells and dragonfire. So Dany and her dragons would become all the more crucial to stopping the Others.

Although it hasn’t happened so far in the books, it is healthily foreshadowed that the Iron Islanders are going to attack Oldtown. They were already raiding along the coasts of the Reach, and Oldtown is a coastal city and likely a tempting target. In the show, Euron will probably learn his chances for an alliance with Daenerys are slim now as she’s sided with Theon and Yara, so attacking Targ allies like the Tyrells is certainly on the menu. It would give a backdrop of urgency to Sam’s story, especially if he is captured.

Speaking of the Tyrells

There’s not much Tyrell or Martell in the trailer, which isn’t a good sign for them. We can assume the Tyrells will be attacking the Lannisters, who did just wipe out their line after all (or do Loras and Margaery have other siblings in the show? They do in the books). However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Randyll Tarly again, Sam’s dad, the asshole. He’s an asshole, but he’s also supposed to be a legendary warrior, and he’s pledged to the Tyrells, so it seems that if there are any Tyrell war scenes, he may be there.

Jorah

When last we saw Mr. Mormont, he had been tearfully dispatched by Dany to find a cure for his greyscale. I’m going to go ahead and bet that Jorah also winds up in Oldtown, and that he winds up teaming up with Sam and the gang.

How many white walkers are there?

“How to kill them” is already known (obsidian, Valyrian steel) and isn’t that big a deal considering that so far, we’ve only seen like a dozen of them. Obsidian from Dragonstone and whatever Sammy might learn in Maesterville would only really be necessary if there are many, many more. I mean, we’ve already seen how they make new ones – they just press on a baby’s face…? Not hard!

Mr. Forever Rowboat

Gendry is the bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Davos sent him away in a rowboat in Season 3(?) to avoid sacrifice at the hands of Stannis, and legend says he’s been rowing ever since. I wound up thinking about him because I figured he’d make a pretty good addition to Jon’s team of legendary badasses we see fighting in the snow in the trailer. Indeed, I think that’s the most likely role if he shows up again: he had already been a willing member of the Brotherhood without Banners, so it’s possible he’d rejoin them, and they appear to be well represented on Jon Snow’s latest snow expedition. But! Gendry actually has a claim to the Iron Throne, as all Robert’s other kids, and the Lannister pretend-kids, are now dead. I mean, that’s not going to happen. But as the last surviving person with Baratheon blood, I believe he would be entitled to rule the Stormlands. I think he’s owed that much, don’t you?

Wrap up

That’s about everything I can think of – if you think of more, get in touch via twitter or the contact form (twitter deets in the footer). I need to credit the subreddit r/asoiaf for being the most fertile online breeding ground for both sane and crazy theories about everyone’s favourite dragons n’ incest themed entertainment. The work of BryndenBFish is essential, and this essay in particular about the future of Dany’s storyline was important to my thoughts on her. I also love Alt Shift X and his analysis of the second trailer informed a number of my points.

GoT S7 Preview 1: Team Lannister
GoT S7 Preview 2: Team Targ
GoT S7 Preview 3: Team Stark
GoT S7 Preview 4: Team Rando

Game of Thrones S7 Preview Part 3: Team Stark

Hi, it’s Ser Exposition again, refreshing your memory and doing some theorizin’ ahead of the new season of everyone’s favourite swords-n-realpolitik TV show. So far we’ve covered the Lannisters and Dany and the Gang. Today it’s House Stark, and it’s a long one because there are so many Starks still alive! That can’t last, can it?

Partway through Season 6, Jon states his goals succinctly: he wants to unite the North so he can face the White Walkers with a united front. Sure enough, by the end of the season, Jon and Sansa are in Winterfell, having defeated Ramsay Bolton. Jonny Snowpants, working his way through the checklist!

In the trailer, Jon’s at to-do list item #2, as we see Jon and an assortment of legendary badasses (Beric Dondarrion, the Hound) fighting wights and Walkers. The presumption is that this is north of the wall: is it? Winter is here, after all, and if the walkers don’t breach the wall at some point, they’re not the existential threat they’re made out to be. This could be further south.

Season 6 ends with Littlefinger trying to convince Sansa that she’s the rightful leader of House Stark, not Jon. (I’m so tempted to just call her Salsa from now on: sometimes autocorrect is right.) How far will this potential conflict go? The trailer itself seems to downplay it, as it ends on a line from Sansa, repeating something her father said: “the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”. But only a fool judges a show by its trailer. They wouldn’t have set up this storyline if it wasn’t significant.

Let’s not forget about Mystic Stark, the Branster. Season 6 ends with Cold Hand Benjen dropping him and Meera off near the wall, and in the trailer – shocker – he’s going through the gate. We also see him at a Godswood, but who knows if it’s the one by the wall, or the one at Winterfell. Bran is carrying a knowledge bomb, after all: that Jon is the bastard son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and thus the rightful heir to the Targaryen line, not Dany. Will Bran get to deliver this payload, and when? It seems almost too simple that he would team up with his remaining siblings and have a big group hug. But clearly, from the trailer, he’ll be needed to fight the Walkers by warging into crows and shit.

Just a little idea bubble: what if he tells Salsa about Jon’s parentage, and she keeps it to herself?

And then there’s Face-stealing Ninja Stark, Arya. At the end of last season she’s back in Westeros, having just thrown House Frey into disarray by assassinating its head and baking his two most likely successors into a pie. Is she part of the group hug too? Even if so, she’s got to get up to some other stuff – it sure will be dull if she hangs around saying, “yeah, good idea” to whatever Jon and Salsa say. I would expect some assassination missions instead, and the likely target is Cersei.

Before I move off the Starks, I’m a little curious about what will happen in the Riverlands, the war-torn area caught geographically between basically all the other areas (see map below). It was ruled by the Tullys until the Red Wedding put the Freys in charge, supported by the Lannisters. We just saw Jaime take Riverrun for that alliance in Season 6. The likely move is that Littlefinger and his army of Vale Knights kindly volunteer for the job of wresting the Riverlands from what’s left of House Frey. If Edmure Tully can be found, liberated and trusted, they could install him as a Stark-aligned leader. But will that ensnare the northern forces in the battles of the south? Riverrun is likely to get caught in some back-and-forth between Lannisters and Targaryens.

Final thought. Do we really think four Starks are going to make it to the finish line? I don’t. But I’m basically stumped at which ones are most likely to drop off. No, I don’t think Jon’s legendary status gives him plot armour; in fact, I think it makes him a liability. If you have thoughts, hit me up on twitter! Link in the footer.


GoT S7 Preview 1: Team Lannister
GoT S7 Preview 2: Team Targ
GoT S7 Preview 3: Team Stark
GoT S7 Preview 4: Team Rando

Game of Thrones S7 Preview Part 2: Team Targ

Welcome back to a bit of table-setting for the upcoming season of Game of Thrones. So far I’ve covered the Lannisters. Today we dragon.

There’s a lot in the trailer for the Targaryens. Dany lands in Dragonstone, engages with the Lannister forces, and fights a naval battle (maybe against Euron?) that looks like a Targaryen loss. Reading between the lines, it looks a lot like a secondary force led by Tyrion captures the Lannister home base of Casterly Rock, way over on the west side of Westeros, using Tyrion’s insider info. For all we know this could be Dragonstone or Storm’s End or some other eastern castle, but Tyrion did dangle the prospect of attacking Casterly Rock rather enticingly in Season 6.

And oh yeah, Drogon is fuckin’ HUUUUUGE now.

Dany’s inner struggle is two-sided. On one side she is the responsible, caring ruler, “Mhysa”. On the other, she is the vengeful, bloodthirsty conqueror (team slogan: Fire and Blood™). The responsible ruler, once getting the lay of the land in Westeros, would immediately go to the aid of the Northerners, who are fighting the true threat to the realm. Dragonfire would be invaluable against wights, and dragonglass – the obsidian that is mined on Dragonstone – is needed to kill the White Walkers. Not only that, there is a shot in the trailer of Jon and my boy Davos on a southern beach somewhere, which could indicate the Starks trying to forge an alliance with Dany for exactly that purpose.

I don’t think it’s gonna happen – at least, not this season.

Game of Thrones is full of villains becoming, if not heroes, then at least a lot more sympathetic to the average viewer. Think Jaime, or Theon. It’s a little light on heroes becoming villains. But think of how the Targaryen forces will be viewed when they show up in Westeros. You have the daughter of the infamous Mad King. She has actual dragons, which are the GoT equivalents of nuclear weapons. She has an army of slave soldiers, a number of mercenaries – of low repute in Westeros – plus the Dothraki, known for rape, pillage and enslavement, and a force of equally rapey Iron Islanders. Her main advisor is the infamous Tyrion Lannister, publicly considered a demon and blamed for killing his nephew, the king. Many Westerosi are going to see her as an invading villain – and are we so sure she isn’t? The lore of the show and books features a few occasions of “dances of dragons”, meaning rival Targaryen claimants destroying themselves fighting for the Iron Throne. Typically these feature a Blackfyre, whose sigil is a black dragon. Guess who else dresses in black and is kind of a dragon really? Right guys? In many ways the main point of the show is how we humans fight amongst ourselves while the real threat, environmental catastrophe, creeps inexorably closer. What could sum that up more perfectly than Dany and Jon fighting, despite being kin?

That said, Dany’s dark side, and Tyrion’s, gets a lot more play in the books than has happened in the show so far. I think Danny will waste a season torching up pretty much everyone in Westeros, but eventually she’ll come around.

GoT S7 Preview 1: Team Lannister
GoT S7 Preview 2: Team Targ
GoT S7 Preview 3: Team Stark
GoT S7 Preview 4: Team Rando

Game of Thrones S7 Preview Part 1: The Lannisters

I’m going to do episode recaps of GoT this season. Why? To see if I can, and plus I’m totally obsessing about it anyway.

Before we get there, I just want to go over where we stand before the season starts, what we can deduce from a close reading of the trailers released to date, what the books might hint about things, and where we might imagine things will be going.

So: don’t read this if you aren’t up to date in the show, or if you’re trying to avoid the trailers, you precious trembling jewel you.

I’m going to break this into separate posts by house. Let’s start with the Lannisters.

For your reference, here’s the latest trailer, which contains the most stuff:

Onwards!

Team Lannister

Cersei has eliminated all her enemies in King’s Landing, lost her remaining child, and taken the crown herself, with Jaime standing grimly by her. Now she must defend herself from her various external enemies: the Starks to the north, the Martells and Tyrells to the south, who are now allied with Dany Targaryen, who is closing in to the east. Plus we have Euron Greyjoy’s Iron Islands to the west. That said, smart money is on a Lannister-Greyjoy alliance, as in the trailer we see Greyjoy ships in King’s Landing, and they don’t look like they’re fighting. We do see multiple shots of Lannister forces fighting Targaryen-allied Unsullied and Dothraki. And we see a field of fire with Jaime galloping through it alone, not happily, which makes me suspect at least one battle goes poorly for the lions.

In the books, the witch’s prophecy about Cersei states that a) she will see all her children die and b) she will be killed by her brother. Given a) has borne out, if b) happens, which brother? In the books she assumes it’s Tyrion, but consider the irony if Jaime does it. It would make him a king-killing kinslayer twice over. What fresh atrocity must she be planning for him to go through with it? And how long does she have left?

My guess is Cersei lasts until the final season. This season we can look forward to Cersei taking on the Tyrells, Martells, and Dany. Think how nasty things are going to get between her and Tyrion, and how torn Jaime will be.

GoT S7 Preview 1: Team Lannister
GoT S7 Preview 2: Team Targ
GoT S7 Preview 3: Team Stark
GoT S7 Preview 4: Team Rando

Baby Driver

An action-musical-romance this time instead of an action-comedy, Edgar Wright’s first solo writing credit is a fun, hyperactive pastiche that falls down in the romancy bits but excels almost everywhere else. Music-obsessed driving savant Baby (Angel Elgort) lends his virtuoso wheelman talents to a series of increasingly dangerous heists planned by Doc (Kevin Spacey), to whom he owes money. After Baby meets Debora (Lily James), the proverbial waitress with the heart of gold, he wants to get out – but crime keeps pulling him back in.

The plot sounds a little weak, and it is. But that’s not the draw here. Rather, Wright brings his montage game to new heights. The car chase scenes have bullet-fast editing timed perfectly to the music, and the music selections are all tight and form a soundtrack even greater than its parts. It’s the non-moving parts that need an upgrade. The macho criminal posturing dialogue is kept more or less entertaining by a deep selection of supporting cast, including Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx and of course Spacey. But the boy-meets-girl stuff is not up to code. The movie takes itself increasingly seriously as it goes on (common with most Edgar Wright films), and the dullness of the romance is an increasing drag that the action bits struggle to carry. (Indeed, the film is weak on female roles in general.) However, the driving scenes and the soundtrack are powerful enough to make this film worth seeing – even if it seems like it is doomed to be the B picture to Drive when the inevitable double bills of “Soundtrack-Heavy Driving Movies Featuring a Brooding Near-Mute Hunk” start showing up.

The Devil’s Candy

The Devil's Candy Poster

From the writer-director of The Loved Ones, Sean Byrne, The Devil’s Candy is a lean, nimble and nasty take on the haunted house genre.

Hip metalhead couple Jesse and Astrid (Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby) and their metalhead teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) get a nice house for cheap – because the previous owners met a violent, metalhead end. Jesse is an artist, and the new house gives him lots of studio space to become ensorcelled by Satan and paint inverted crosses and horrific beast faces and suffering children – including his own daughter.

If you think you know where this plot is going, you probably don’t. The Devil’s Candy is much less beholden to stale conventions than the typical entry in this genre. Even better, the characters are real, non-generic people, brought to life by a talented cast, and the craft – including the direction but also notably the sound design – is top-notch. A must-watch for those with the stomach for it, and if you have to ask if you do, you probably don’t.

RE: Magic Pens: Nebo

Funny how just after I post that article talking about magic notebooks and how I use One Note for handwriting recognition and how it’s not quite there yet, I discover this app Nebo.

Nebo is a handwriting recognition app. And it works. Really well. Just to prove it to you, I’m using it right now. here’s the screenshot of what I wrote:

screenshot of my crappy handwriting in the nebo app

Part of what makes it effective is that it displays its interpretation of your scrawl live as you write. So if you do get a little too sloppy – ironically, this happened to me with the wards “handwriting recognition” – you can immediately adjust. It has a lot of neat pencil gesture tricks, too. Like to erase a word, you scratch it out. Or underline for bold, etc. But the major part of it is that the text conversion works really, really well. Living-in-the-future well.

Anyway, this app is taking a place in my home screen IMMEDIATELY.

Magic Notebook

I wrote seven years ago about magic books. By that I meant various technologies that were transforming the way I/we read: RSS, read later services like Instapaper, e-readers like the Kindle, audiobooks and podcasts, etc. etc. What would a magic notebook be? Something that transformed the way we create, not just consume? For many years this has been a notebook computer, i.e. a laptop. But for me, the magic notebook is now the iPad Pro.

Pencil

Let me go out on a limb and declare writing with a pen or pencil as far more natural-feeling than typing on a keyboard. We learn to do it earlier, and because it’s easier to switch to drawing, and to use space to arrange your writing, it’s more versatile. I love handwriting, especially for brainstorming. But I’m not a Moleskine dude. I’m terrible at keeping track of physical pieces of paper and I am so totally into having everything all digital and linkable and searchable and easily revised.

I’ve had iPads since the first and almost as early on I was buying various styli. My dream was, I hand write something onto the sheer sparkling glass of the iPad and it converts itself into glorious digital text. Now that’s a magic notebook. But it was not to be, not then. The early styli felt like writing with someone else’s finger. But I knew I wanted to play around with the iPad Pros once they came out, more or less because of the Pencil.

So I got one. (Note: I got one a couple months ago, so I’m referring to the previous generation iPad Pro 9.7”, not the new ones that just came out (d’oh!).) And: my dream isn’t here, but it’s a hell of a lot closer.

The pencil works really well for my purposes, which are short on drawing, long on hand-written notes. I use OneNote and although the Pencil support isn’t the greatest, it lets me keep everything in one place. Also, it has handwriting-to-text! It’s not great, especially as my handwriting looks like something you might write in mud with a stick as death spasms wracked your mutilated body. Plus, seems that feature only works on Microsoft OSes right now (speaking of death spasms).

UPDATE: See this post about the app Nebo for some seriously next-level handwriting recognition.

But it’s getting there. So let’s imagine a near-future utopian world in which Microsoft has enabled this on the iPad. Then let’s imagine that same world where the machine vision craziness has continued to proceed apace. Assuming we’re not all cowering in the muck as T1000s hunt us down to force us into indentured servitude in SkyNet’s underground sugar mills – or something – then perhaps my dream will be here. Writing longhand, tapping convert and leaning back as my insta-posted genius blog post / promo script goes out into the world and somehow causes dollar bills basically to start flying out of my screen as I give a double thumbs up and grin wildly, revealing a full set of solid gold shark teeth…

Sorry, where was I?

Something something iPad something.

The Other Accessories

So anyway, I’m using it for brainstorming and rough notes and then kinda formulating my first draft with an actual keyboard. And oddly enough, here’s where two other Microsoft products make an appearance, in hardware form.

Number one is a $5 loop with adhesive, the Surface Pen Loop, which you can use to affix your Apple Pencil… well, anywhere really, but I’m sticking it to the edge of my case like so:

That way the pencil’s always with the iPad.

The case is a cheapo number, the Moko Ultra Slim. I’m… very fussy. There, I admitted it. So I bought two other cases and returned them, and tried a few others in-store, and this $17 Moko is my favourite. It’s like an Apple Smart Cover in principle, except a lot cheaper and the back is clear plastic. Importantly for me, it’s light and slim.

When I do need a keyboard I have Microsoft product number two, The Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard. Like I said I tried a lot of cases, including the two premier keyboard cases, the Apple Smart Keyboard and the Logitech Create. I didn’t find the Apple Keyboard comfortable to type on. The Logitech Create was great for typing, but as a case it’s not great – it doubles the weight of the iPad, for one. And both of them are expensive. The Microsoft folding one is thin and light, costs half as much, and stays in my bag until I need it. Most of the time I don’t need the keyboard, and so the iPad is as light and portable as possible until I do. in that case it folds out wider than the screen of the tablet, giving the keys more room. I will not lie: some of them are still cramped. But I find it quite agreeable to type on. I still have a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard at home and I figure if I ever need to write for hours on my iPad I will bring that.

The Experience

Short answer: I fucking love this thing.

Slightly longer: this iPad is my favourite thing for: reading the news, browsing the web, editing photos, writing, and general purpose computing. Certain things I still need a computer for: video editing, web stuff (although thanks to the incredible Coda I still do a bunch on the iPad), design. The pro apps are still lacking on the iPad. I love the portability compared to a laptop – I mostly have it in my bag by default.

The Future

My iPad is already out of date with the advent of the 10.5″ model, which has a slightly bigger and significantly better screen, is faster, and boasts better pencil performance. Thing is, I’m happy enough with this one to not care. I’m good. Mine is already overkill in all of those areas. (It could be, though, that the Smart Keyboard is greatly improved by the added width; that’s my one regret with this model, but it’s not much of one.)

IOS 11 has a shitload of iPad-specific improvements: easier app switching, better multitasking, a file browser, and more pencil functions. I’m excited about all of those.

The area that needs real improvement is the pro app world. I can’t find a good pro video editor: where is Final Cut iOS? I am having trouble finding a design app that meets my needs. I’ve run into situations with relatively simple photo manipulations, say wanting to rotate a batch of images at once, where the stock photos app doesn’t do the trick and I don’t know where to turn. Hopefully Apple pushes forward in this area. It certainly looks like they are. They’ve been touting the iPad as the future of computing for a while, and only recently have they begun to back that up. And only recently do I think I agree with them.

Logan

Certainly the most depressing, possibly the most emotionally powerful superhero movie ever made, Logan recasts two signature X-Men in a bleak future western about familial bonds in an uncaring world. This is the superhero movie Cormac McCarthy would make.

It’s 2029, mutants are near-extinct, and The Mutant Formerly Known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is driving a limo to pay the medical bills of self-described nonagenarian and Alzheimer’s victim Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). When a nurse seeks Logan’s help taking the lab-raised mute mutant child Laura (Dafne Keen) to the Canadian border (bonus points for casting Canada as Utopia again, American filmmakers!), he must decide what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, which may not be that long.

If that sounds grim, it’s because it is, although the despair is leavened by four setpiece action sequences that – by virtue of this film’s R rating, a first for the franchise – are more skull-stabbingly true to the Wolverine character than anything he’s done before. Part Western runaway slave story, part poignant family road trip, the film explores the parent-child relationships between several sets of characters, and shows the anger produced by our families, both biological and non-, may be overpowered only by the rage that comes when they are threatened, the rage born out of love. The film is both a reminder of the versatility of the men-in-tights genre and a moving swan song for one of its most beloved and perfectly cast characters.

Free Fire

I tried to describe this film to a friend. “It’s set in the 70s, about a arms deal gone wrong. A bunch of crooks are in a shootout in a big warehouse for basically the entire movie. Hey, I’m making it sound pretty great.” It’s the latest film from director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise). It’s a decent film best understood as a black comedy in the Tarantino vein, and it does manage some deliciously dark laughs, but it falls short of the significance of most Tony Scott films, let alone QT. (Tony Scott directing a reboot of The Hateful Eight might be the closest analogue.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it moves into action mode a good 15 minutes too early, not having had enough time to fill out any of the largish number of characters, which wastes a capable cast (Brie Larson, Cilian Murphy, Armie Hammer). One finds oneself not caring which ones lived or died, which one could describe as suboptimal from a dramatic perspective. It’s definitely watchable with some great, funny moments, but life’s too short.

Apple WWDC Keynote 2017

Some not particularly unique thoughts.

WatchOS stuff was all welcome, but relatively minor. Would like to see third party faces and maybe smart complications, i.e. same principle as the Siri watch face except for any face. But I suppose it’s been a good year for the watch, so there’s no need to rock the boat.

Mac stuff: OS and app stuff not particularly thrilling. New Macs! It’s nice to see them revving the MacBooks Pro so soon after the latest update – it’s gotten so that Apple refreshing hardware at faster than yearly pace is eyebrow-raising. I think it’s been longer than that for the other Macs, but they updated a lot of things at once: modern GPUs! VR support!

The iMac Pro looks sweet but obvs so expensive that I doubt I will ever get near one. Although I suppose it does put them back into contention in the workstation class.

As usual there was a lot more heat on the iOS front, and especially for the iPad. They implemented almost the entirety of an iPad nerd’s wishlist: improved multitasking, drag and drop, pencil improvements, proper file browser. Interesting to see Apple Notes getting a lot of improvements including a document scanner. And of course new iPads Pro to seal the deal. I just bought a new 9.7” iPad Pro a couple months ago, but I don’t even feel bad about it. For one, it’s waaay faster than I need it to be already, and for two I will get all the software improvements anyway.

The ARkit stuff is interesting. I’m fairly sure Apple will release some sort of AR device at some point in the near future (Apple Glasses? Apple Monocle? Apple Telescoping EyePiece?), and this is a significant step in that direction.

And the speaker. It’s overpriced, which is not really a shocker considering we’re talking about Apple here. Especially so if you consider it an Amazon Echo competitor, which Apple doesn’t want you to. They positioned it as a cross between an Echo and a Sonos. I have two Sonos speakers, so I have a dog in this hunt. I went with Sonos not so much because of the multi-room capability but because they deliver reliable wireless playback. Neither Bluetooth nor Apple’s AirPlay was able to do that for me, and believe me, I gave it a shot. So no matter how good this thing is I doubt I’ll sell my Sonoses as I love them, but I’d pay special attention to how reliable AirPlay 2 is.

Micro.blog

Just to warn you that I’m gonna be experimenting with this micro.blog thing. The logic is articulated here. Basically, on the major social media platforms you don’t own your content, increasingly the platforms themselves act as gatekeepers, and they are selling your information to advertisers. It’s more in keeping with the traditions of the web to treat small social media posts like tweets as micro blog posts (hence the name of this effort), and ideally such content should live on one’s own blog.

That’s where it gets complicated.

So I’d rather keep these micro blog posts on this blog rather than starting a new one. I can have a different “post format” called “aside” that will look more like my current quick links than my normal posts. So far, so good. But it would make sense to cross-post these posts to twitter, right? And not duplicate efforts across two networks? Sure. But I have two twitter accounts, my personal one and the one for this blog, which parrots anything posted here. If I auto post from micro.blog to my personal twitter, which makes most sense to me, the net result will be people who follow both accounts will see things twice. I will try to figure some way around this, but bear with me.

TL,DR: I may break things here soon, sorry!

OCR in OneNote

Here’s a note about notes. It turns out that there is some serious OCR (optical character recognition) in OneNote. I knew text in images and PDFs would show up in searches, which is handy but not mind-blowing as it’s been in Evernote for like 10 years. But what I didn’t know is:

  1. You can copy the text ‘out of’ an image and paste it as regular text, or simply convert it. I have been wanting this… For like 10 years.
  2. OneNote will OCR hand-written notes. I mean if your hardwiring has fallen into disrepair for lack of use like mine, it will be rocky, but OneNote will give it the college try.

Yup, it’s how I made this note. I wrote it last night with the Apple Pencil on an iPad Pro. I converted it and had to do some editing, and there’s the downside. Of course it’s not 100% or even 80% accurate (again, I mostly blame my handwriting). But also you can’t actually convert to text on the iPad. I’m using the Windows client right now which is the most full-featured, perhaps unsurprisingly. Checking…

No, you can’t do it on the Mac app either. That’s a shame. OCR is working in the background, indexing images so they show up in search results, but there is no feature in the interface that will convert to text.

Anyway, when this feature makes its way into the iOS client, this will be a wonderful option for note-taking. I definitely prefer handwriting for meetings, brainstorming, and some other uses – it’s great just to get away from a keyboard for a bit. It’s certainly one of those things that tablets are good at and feel a lot more delightful than typing. But the ability to turn that scrawl into usable text is to me, kind of a killer app.

The Nintendo Switch

Is there a nerd who hasn’t felt the sweet breath of obsessive-compulsive disorder whisper in her ear as she is forced by the cruel demands of life to quit her gaming den to sleep and/or go to work: I wish I could keep playing in bed and/or on the subway. That voice does not encourage you to just play a different game on your phone on the subway, it wants you to keep playing this game on the subway, which of course is never possible.

Nintendo understands this more than most companies, having for decades produced both portable and home consoles, yet only now producing one that is both at the same time.

The Switch feels like a remix of everything Nintendo’s ever made. It’s physically similar to the failed Wii U GamePad, as it’s a games-specific tablet. The slide-off “Joy-Con” controllers are motion-sensitive like the Wii Remote, yet physically evoke the tiny NES gamepads. The tablet screen is touch-sensitive, like that of the DS and 3DS.

From the pictures before the launch, I couldn’t really place the size of the thing. I knew it had a 6.1” screen which didn’t sound that big… my phone’s is 5.5”. Yet in hand, it’s much larger. It’s more the size of an iPad Mini, except thicker and more squat. Compared to Apple engineering, it feels clumsy, or amateurish: too thick, too heavy, too much bezel, too much plastic. Yet of course your hands are given space away from the screen, making the viewable area bigger compared to using a phone.

I’ve had it only a couple weeks, and already I am in love. The convenience of this thing is unparalleled. Let alone taking it out of the house, it’s really handy in the house as well. We don’t have a TV in our tiny living room; it’s in the rec room in the basement. I love playing down there, but there are times where it doesn’t make a certain kind of sense to go down there (killing ten minutes while cooking, waiting to make sure the kid has settled), let alone those times when someone else is using the TV.

The Switch is by nature a compromise device, sitting somewhere between portability and immersion. That it never feels like it is remarkable. That compromise is instead its very essence, cleverly captured by its name and brand identity.

It feels fetishistic to discuss a console without talking about the actual games, and the only one I have so far is Zelda, so I will move on to that in the next couple days. But a quick word first! Nintendo’s historical weakness is third-party software. They come up with quirky, underpowered hardware, so unlike their competitors’ machines that third party publishers either dial in low-quality ports (Wii), or ignore the platform altogether (Wii U). Traditionally, they make up for it with stellar first party titles (Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda, Metroid, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, etc. etc.). I’m sure that will continue to be the case, but the really encouraging thing is the developing slate of indies. Sounds like the Switch is easier to develop for, and Nintendo is doing a better job of talking to independents, so if this keeps up it could be a pretty good situation.

The iPad These Days

So the iPad has issues. After exploding out of the gate in 2010, with sales growth greater even than the iPhone, sales have decreased over the past few years, as Horace Dediu discusses in iPad Optics:

The iPad is considered to be failing, with a presumption of an end of life in the near future. The evidence of this failure the year-on-year decline in units sold… The iPad decline is paired with a steady increase in the Mac. The iPad exhibits a four year decrease in overall volumes. This has, as they say, bad optics.

Neil Cybart notes:

A quick look at overall iPad sales reveals an ominous trend. Sales have declined for 12 consecutive quarters. After topping out 74M units in 1Q14, the annualized iPad sales rate has declined by 42% to 43M units.

Yeowch! Except it’s not all gloom. As Dediu notes,

the iPad is still a much loved and much used product. … Tablet ownership among US adults increased from 45% in April 2015 to 48% in April 2016 and 51% in November 2016. The rise has been steady. Although this counts tablets, the iPad had 85% share of the U.S. market for tablets priced above $200 so it’s a fair assumption that the iPad audience is growing.

Furthermore, iPads are still growing in “non-consuming” markets. iPad posted double-digit growth in both Mainland China and India, it continues to attract a very high percentage of first-time tablet buyers.

His explanation for the odd numbers is that “iPads remain in use far longer than phones, and perhaps even longer than some computers.”

Interestingly, Cybart blames iPad’s troubles on something else: its little brother.

People aren’t buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture… iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product’s value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini.

Whatever the reasons for the “bad optics” are, Apple is suddenly pushing iPad really hard, as Cybart notes. And they’re pushing it in two different directions, as indicated by the two main model lines. The Pro is more expensive than a normal iPad and has added hardware features, mainly the pencil and the keyboard. The iPad Pros are the subject of a new ad campaign, which Apple is clearly targeting at people who want a PC replacement.

Going the other direction, the regular ol’ iPad has just been refreshed. The biggest change is that they dropped the starting price to $329 US. That’s a big deal! The cheap new iPad will compete with Chromebooks in education, it will entice owners of ancient iPads, and it has at least a chance of competing against cheap Android tabs.

There’s a lot interesting about Apple’s strategy on both fronts: they think iPads are their best chance in education, and they think iPads are their best chance at switchers. It wasn’t so long ago it was to the Mac they were encouraging PC users to switch. We’ve known for some time that the iPad was Apple’s “vision for the future of personal computing”. But its latest moves indicate it’s their vision for the present.

The Dallas Runaway Cart GIF

"This GIF has so many characters and subplots, it's like a Shakespearean tragedy"

Indeed. It even has its own oral history article, which contains this amazing quote:

I was hurt probably more than I’d ever been hurt before. But honestly, it was hilarious. I laughed like crazy for about 15 minutes the first time I watched that video, and for the next three or four months I’d just pull that video up and laugh. I was like, man, that cart didn’t have nobody on it, and I wondered if it was Bugs Bunny was driving it or something. There was just something hilarious about that video. I mean, nobody was even driving it!

(via Josh Marshall's twitter, which had a lot of amazing discussion of the GIF he calls "the last supper of fail")

Meta update 3

Most of the legwork moving the site to WordPress is now over, along with some spit-n-polish and nice-to-haves I’ve been meaning to implement for some time now. Such as… give me an unordered list-themed drum roll…

Lately I’ve been working on a big elaborate Workflow for posting here, something I’ve been really dying to do, and it’s pretty cool, but that’s probably a separate post.

Pretty soon I’m going to launch a new project for the site, and it’s not about Trump! Or Apple! Or video games! Is it blowing your mind yet? I just have to figure out some design stuff and then we should be good to go.

Nintendo Switch!

This Switch thing coming from Nintendo is interesting. Here’s the full announcement video for reference:

Some random thoughts now that we have some more details on the thing:

More Meta

Ok! In terms of this redesign: now we are cooking with fire! White-hot blogfire, I would say. The feed should be working right; so too the search and the contact form.

Also, I’ve reanimated the long-dormant Angry Robot Twitter Parrot Bot and it should be squawking out whatever gets posted to the site. In addition, there is now an Angry Robot Facebook Page that should also link to everything here. So if you prefer reading web sites without actually going to the web, you have options now!

That should be the last of the meta posts for now – now back to our regularly scheduled Angry Roboting.

Apple Watch: The Pretty, The Bad, and The Pretty Damn Cool

Ed. Note: this is my first post in a series on the Apple Watch. I mostly wrote it in September, in the weeks after I first got the watch. My views have changed somewhat since, but rather than rewrite this whole damned thing I’m just posting it as-is. It’s still got some good points.

I sat out the first incarnation because it sounded bad. Slow, mostly; too fussy; unnecessary.

I started to change my mind with reports of speed and interface improvements in WatchOS 3. And with the new hardware announced at the event last September, I decided to pony up.

I got the “Series 1” model, because price is an issue, and I don’t need full waterproofing or GPS, not being a swimmer or a jogger. (What they’re calling Series 1 has the same processors as the Series 2 models.)

Pretty Things

I always liked the look of the things in the abstract, but was surprised at how striking the hardware is in person. My plan was to swap out the strap with third party (read: cheaper) ones anyway, so I got the rubber strap, which I really like. It feels and looks great.

The “rings”, the visualization of physical activity, are inspired design. They fit into a tiny complication, they can be understood at a glance, and they match the general iconography of timekeeping in a way a straight step or calorie count number doesn’t. Closing one’s rings feels like a physical act itself.

apple watch rings
The outside ring is active calories burned, the middle is minutes of exercise, and the inside is times you've stood for a minute each hour.

Bad Things

Pricey, sleepy, and needy. The three worst dwarfs, and also the problems with The Watch. It costs a lot. I think the numbers may not be that bad in the US but in Canada they seem really high for something that doesn’t really do anything your phone can’t do. They would sell a lot more if you could get in for like $200.

The screen doesn’t always stay on. I understand why, but I don’t like it. “Raise to wake” means you have to do a big, pantomime stage-acting I AM LOOKING AT MY WATCH gesture. Or you can tap it. But you can’t discreetly glance at it hoping to see how long the meeting is dragging on for. This makes it worse than a normal watch in a significant way. Hopefully at some point soon they can squeeze out enough power to let it stay on indefinitely, perhaps at low brightness.

Needy as in, this watch needs an iPhone to work. Things will get more interesting once it has its own cell modem and one has options to maybe not bring a phone, maybe to not even have a phone.

Pretty Damn Cool Things

This watch may be unnecessary, but it is still a pretty awesome gadget. Paying for things with your watch is strictly baller behaviour. Same goes for controlling your TV, lights and speakers with it. And people seem to love the idea that you can answer phone calls with it (more than I find it useful, certainly).

As a fitness tracker, and a fitness encourager, it works really well. Not having used a FitBit I don’t know which is better. But I know I like the way the Watch works for this.

Siri is a little bit hit and miss but I’m still using it and there is definitely something cool about responding to a text by speaking into your wrist, Kirk-style. Phone-siri doesn’t work properly in my car, so it’s nice to be able to ask wrist-Siri to play whatever song it is my kid wants to hear.

The Watch is in some ways the anti-phone. One of its greatest strengths – and one it is difficult for Apple to highlight in marketing materials – is how it saves you from having to fuss with your phone too much. This is mostly about sneaking a peek at incoming notifications without having to do anything more than look at your wrist. When you think about this it’s more useful the more active your are, as if you’re already looking at a screen at that moment it won’t help you. But when you’re out, active, and maybe holding groceries with your other hand, being able to triage notifications with a glance is a big help.

I love complications. Basically the idea is your different software watch faces have little areas for customizable data display slash quick links to open apps. A simple example is having a date display that when tapped opens the calendar app. The different faces have spots for three to five of these things.

What’s really cool is with the latest OS, it’s easy to switch between watch faces, which means you can set up different faces for different modes of your day. I have one face for the morning, which shows weather in detail, plus sunrise, the date, the next calendar appointment, and a link to a transit tracking app. Once I’m out of the house I have a moving around face that has activity rings, weather, the workout app and transit again. At work I have a different one that features OmniFocus, and for home later on I focus on a timer, the AppleTV remote app, and something to control the Sonos system. For timers alone this thing is really handy – I use them a lot when cooking and that’s also when I tend to have wet/dirty hands which makes using my phone a little awkward.

That’s it for now – next I’m going to write up how I’m currently using watch faces, and which apps I use the most. Beyond that – third party bands! Totally obsessed!

Moved

Well, that took a while. This site is now on wordpress. Most things should be good. (all the old posts are moved over! even all the old comments, but they’re not being displayed! but they exist!) Some things are still broken. That I know of:

You will also be seeing the new design. Not that different. But here are the highlights:

Any issues or comments, try me on twitter @dsankey, or you could try the new contact form on the contact page? Maybe it even works!