the pre-professional push

November 4, 2006

It happens so soon: far too soon, I should think. The “it”, of course, is the inevitable shift in focus away from education for its own sake and towards, horror of horrors, the job. The job. The one in which you will distinguish yourself, find personal satisfaction, and (oh yes) bring home a nice paycheck each month. That thing that you, your parents, or perhaps someone else are spending many thousands of dollars for you to get, and the one that you will bring up in the course of countless dinner party conversations, assuming, of course, that it is something worth bringing up. Getting there is the trick. I wrote not long ago about the unfortunate power of grades over nearly every aspect of a college education. The corollary to those worries is the realization that grades are not an end in themselves but a means to something else, namely “the job.”

But for those who lack the questionable drive to move to New York and slave away for one of the financial services companies there, first comes intermediate step of graduate school. Or law school, business school, medical school, or any of the countless other “schools.” College thus becomes about the dreaded pastime of “resume building,” whether through overcommitment to dozens (hundreds?) of clubs and organizations or through time-sucking marathon study sessions in the library for each and every exam to produce, at the end of four years, a transcript littered with mind-bogglingly high marks. Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

Rhetorical questions aside, these aforementioned issues are of great concern to me in particular as I aspire, however gingerly and fearfully, towards a PhD program of some repute in some yet-to-be-determined subject area. Grades shouldn’t matter, I have been told and have decided, but the fact that they do behooves me to value them to some degree, however undeserving they are of such consideration, and even change things when they aren’t going (as) well. At the same time, the distressing rapidity of time’s passage–four years is far too short a time for all there is to do and be done–urges me to find ever-better uses for it. It will all work out in the end, I believe. The trick, as I said, is getting there.

–D. S. W.


think different. really.

November 4, 2006

Long have I considered myself a “power user.” While not skilled in the ways of coding until quite recently, I lorded over my PC with an iron fist, keeping tabs on the minute details of processes, services, and registry obscurities whose operation is essential to the stability of any Windows session. How humbled I was, then, when the MacBook Pro arrived, and with it OS X, an operating system whose power and elegance are only nominally under my control at this early juncture. What a rush.

Yes, the “welcome” video is hokey. Yes, the Aqua interface has its cutesy bits. No, OS X is not perfection incarnate. But it’s close, far closer in almost every way than Windows XP manages to be and even than Vista promises to be. Start with built-in search (called Spotlight). With it, any file, regardless of location, can be instantly located and opened from any window in the Finder (OS X’s file browser). Examine the beauty of the whiz-bang effects that accompany even the most minor of operations–the fade-in of Dashboard is particularly nice.

Then consider that I have yet to have OS X crash, seize up, or otherwise fail despite numerous deliberate attempts to do just that; simply put, OS X is steeled against all manner of would-be catastrophes by virtue of its UNIX underpinnings. That framework also allows its command line, Terminal, to behave just like a UNIX shell–you can ssh and chmod to your heart’s content with no additional software required. PDF support too, is native to the OS, and reading those files is far more responsive than is Adobe Acrobat on my PC. Much faster, indeed.
In fact, the sheer usefulness of each and every included feature, coupled with a few freely available 3rd party programs, is staggering, so much so that I wonder how I ever got along without them. The Finder is not without its oddities–no photo thumbnails, for one (a feature that Windows does have)—but I love the simplicity of having an “Applications” folder with one, and only one, file per program. Installing and uninstalling are a snap to perform, with no unnecessary detritus to clutter things up.

Windows never struck me as especially bad in any regard, but compared to OS X it seems faded and old. Much of this is due to the advanced graphics subsystem, but using both makes me recognize a difference in design philosophies: both are quite powerful, but Windows chooses (perhaps wrongly) to make its options and features plainly obvious in the form of myriad tabs, buttons, settings menus, and utilities.

OS X can seem a bit simplistic on first blush; the Terminal is where its power ultimately lies, and Apple designers have done a miraculous job of channeling that sophistication into a spare graphical interface that displays relatively few settings at any one time and for any one application or feature. Once glance at the Windows Registry or Device Manager is enough to send any Mac fan scurrying off in abject terror.

I jest, of course, but not as much you might think–or, perhaps, not as much as I should. Simply put, Redmond and Cupertino think differently about what an operating system can and should be about. Both have their merits, and both have their established audiences–Windows’ being much bigger of course. As a newbie, a technically-minded computer user, and unabashed fan of the Jobsian mystique, I find my initiation into the Cult of Mac positively delectable.

–D. S. W.

in search of lost time

October 26, 2006

You may have come across this article on a deluded notion that it is, actually, about something of note. It is, but not in the way that the title might indicate. The title is a joke, you see: a pun on, well, something that I will leave you, the reader, to divine (hint: it has been mentioned here before). The actual focus of this posting is on the curious feeling of emptiness that seems to surround the seemingly attractive notion of a little time off, a break from the normal that permits you to pursue all those pursuits that you’ve been meaning to get around to, but have cast aside in favor of more traditionally important (and time consuming) practices like sleep, work, and more work, school-related and otherwise.

As it so happens, I recently passed just such a break. Looking forward to it with some measure of enthusiasm, I was captivated by the notion that, at long last, I would be able to watch a few films, surf the Interweb (ignore my jargon) for hours on end, and perhaps catch up on some reading. I did all of those things in some form or fashion over those few days, so why am I left feeling like the whole thing was a waste of many potentially productive hours? Why did I end up feeling sluggish for nearly the entire duration, sleeping until noon and lapsing into unconsciousness only in the early hours of the morning, and rising with only a vague notion of what, if anything, went on the previous day?

The problem, I think, is twofold. First, the lack of clear objectives for any sufficiently long space of time is hardly conducive to feelings of achievement (and, more importantly, actual achievement). Schedules, however harrying and however often they induce paroxysms of exhaustion and desires for rest, are an all too necessary facet of life here and now in 2006; those of the sufficiently full variety allow just enough “down time” for decompression and a bout (or three) of pondering without making full-on laziness a legitimate occupation.

Second is the eternal problem of putting off what you really want in favor of the current, passably enjoyable activity. Writing for mr_wizard is an excellent example, as I will, embarrassingly frequently, come across some odd or end that provokes the thought of, “Gee, wouldn’t this be a great thing to write about?” But, I think, there will always be time for that later, “later” being some undefined future point that, sadly, may never come up. On the subject of “the break,” then, the not-so-noble pastime of video gaming (I hang my head as I write this) sucked up large chunks of time, punctuated by infrequent glances at my watch coupled with corresponding thoughts of, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to jump into Proust again, and to do so right now?” Alas, weakness of the will won that round, as it has so many others.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting to attend.


–D. S. W.

After literally months of “it’s just got to be tomorrow!” Apple today updated the MacBook Pro line to include, among other niceties, Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors (the mobile variety, of course) at 2.16GHz and 2.33GHz speeds, a minor bump from the previous generation. The new models also receive upgraded RAM loadouts (1GB standard on base models, upgradeable to 3GB), 6x double-layer SuperDrives for 15-inch varieties, FireWire 800, and bigger hard drives (120GB standard). Graphics duties are still handled by the ATI Radeon X1600, the same as before.

And there was much rejoicing. I, at least, will be purchasing one later today. You can expect some sort of write-up on it when it arrives in “2-4 business days” (we’ll see). In all, though, it’s just enough of an upgrade to keep me from feeling guilty about not waiting (groan) for the new Santa Rosa platform, due in 1H ’07. At least those guys over at MacRumors can be at peace now.

–D. S. W.

firefox 2, now available

October 23, 2006

It’s been quite a long road for the Firefox development team, starting off in Fall 2004 with the release of version 1.0 (though I had been using it for quite a while before that) and now continuing with version 2.0, which updates the browser to be even more competitive with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7, the market leader, and various lesser-known offerings like Safari and Opera. Its market share, too, has grown immensely, sitting now at 12% or more from essentially zero two years ago.

New features for the 2.0 release include anti-phishing features, better management of extensions and themes, built-in spell checking, and numerous other graphical and technical updates. While release day is, at least officially, tomorrow, the final build has been uploaded to the development trunk and is accessible here (win32) and here (Linux). Before upgrading, consider that some extensions and themes have not yet been adjusted to work correctly with the new version, so you may be stuck with a rather minimal feature set until various third-party developers can take care of those issues.

I am writing this in in the new version, actually, and have found it (so far) competently designed. The spell check in particular is well thought out, with small red lines appearing under words the browser thinks are misspelled; a right click brings up a list of possible replacements. It’s simple, clear, and elegant. So too is the new default theme, which adds some nifty gloss to many of the buttons and tabs while retaining the character of the skin it replaces. It’s a good thing, too, since none of the other themes I had installed worked with 2.0 and the ones that have been updated are decidedly deficient in that all-important area of good taste. (Judge for yourself here and here.)

While Internet Explorer is no longer the dinosaur it once was, I still prefer the flexibility of a plug-in architecture to Microsoft’s more exhaustive approach. Version 2.0 takes Firefox ahead just enough to make using it nearly a foregone conclusion for the technically inclined and all those they can sway.

–D. S. W.

You always remember your first brush with fame. I, for instance, have vivid recollections of a Star Trek convention I attended way back in 2001 in celebration of the franchise’s 35 years of influence on science-fiction nerds everywhere. All the big names were there, including Shatner and Nimoy and host of other actors from the various series. To have an idolized, iconic figure just inches (in one memorable moment) from my person, looking effortlessly “cool” while cameras flashed incessantly, was a thrill that I carry with me to this day.

An even bigger fantasy, though, is to imagine actually, say, having a drink with one of them. So, the moment in which puerile agent Darren Lamb nonchalantly asks one of the most pedigreed movie stars living today if he would “wanna go for a pint?” was more than a little special, even in an age saturated by voyeuristic coverage from the likes of E! and Access Hollywood.

The appearance of that star, who will remain nameless for now lest the surprise be ruined (though his is the face obscured above), is a testament to how much weight Ricky Gervais and Extras now carry after two seasons, the second of which concluded just today with this sixth episode on BBC2. While neither as magically ridiculous or genuinely touching as last year’s finale, it nonetheless marks a high point of the season with two other excellent guest stars besides and scenes that adeptly evoke the most compelling aspects of the show, from celebrities making fun of their own pomposity to Darren’s ever-tenuous relationship with his only real client, Andy (played, as only he can, by Mr. Gervais).

And what about Andy? Predictably, fame has made him more than a bit arrogant, as we find him neglecting his best–in more than one sense of the word–friend in the world for spots of sunbathing and other tomfoolery with new buddy Jonathan Ross, the UK talk show host. What to do, what to do? Andy’s frolicking in the countryside is disrupted by the insertion of an…attachment to a young boy preparing for brain surgery (his mother is very persuasive). Visits to the hospital, coupled with Maggie’s loving support, bring him back into the light in time for the end, which is nearly perfect.

This leaves more than enough time some great bits between Gervais and Merchant; Darren’s ineptitude is becoming a liability, Andy decides, and, as this is the finale, anything can happen (yes, anything). The blank and devastated on his sad little face is more than enough reason for us to hope he makes out all right, though a certain ballpoint pen (I’ll say no more) keeps things interesting–cringe-inducing, more like it. There’s great fun, too, in Robert Lindsay’s epic struggle to show everyone “how much joy I bring to people” as “one of Britain’s best-loved actors.” He of course does this in the most obnoxious way possible.

Ah, celebrities: will they ever learn?

Now would seem to be an appropriate time to take stock of how the series has gone; if you have followed my reviews, you have noted that it was not, for the most part, up to the standards of last season. Whether this is evidence for some sort of comedic exhaustion from Gervais or if it simply marks a change in his thoughts on what is funny is an open question, one that I look forward to perhaps answering if the show does go on to a third series or, more likely, a one-off special (no news on that as of yet). That said, it is still one of the best comedies on television; only NBC’s The Office comes close (note that it too is a product, though an indirect one, of Mr. Gervais’ imagining), and Extras has a far better ensemble of actors.

I do think that the novelty of the celebrity guests is wearing off, though, and many of the jokes do stay in territory familiar to viewers of the first series and of The Office (the UK original version, that is), targeting the hit parade of homosexuals, the famous, and the mentally and physically handicapped–and midgets too. They are revisited and reused precisely because they are so ripe for ridicule, and Mr. Gervais often scores even with banality close at hand, but an expansion of the show’s thematic underpinnings and also its types of situations coulds serve it well if (when) it returns.

It must, I declare, if only for a last hurrah.

Update: I’ve named the mystery guest in the comments in case your curiosity gets the better of you. Do think carefully before peeking.

–D. S. W.

Several days ago, Apple announced via its Support site that “less than 1%” of the newly updated video iPods sold since September 12th shipped from the factory infected with the RavMonE.exe Windows virus, a not all that problematic trojan. In its blurb on the issue, the company assigned blame not only to itself for allowing the issue to slip through but also to Microsoft. They wrote, “As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses,” perhaps as a way of sneakily drawing attention to OS X’s immunity to most forms of digital malice.

Yesterday, in response to the “charges” (I suppose that’s what they are), Microsoft’s product release virus scanning guy, Jonathan Poon, posted a blog entry that ridicules Apple for being lax in their quality control–it’s their system, ergo the onus is on them to prevent these sorts of issues–and for not being more specific in their press release about the real nature of the problem, referring to the virus by name rather than by its type and capacity for harm.

And round and round and round we go, whining, pointing fingers, and calling names. Aren’t company rivalries terrific?

–D. S. W.

Sir Ian McKellen, you are surely a godsend. The venerable Shakespearean actor’s appearance on this week’s episode of Extras could not have come at a more fortuitous moment, breaking the show’s steep decline into irrelevance with an inspired plot built around, you guessed it, homosexuality (don’t groan) and made all the more uproarious by Andy’s at times flagrant homophobia. Specifically, boneheaded agent Darren Lamb (Stephen Merchant, of course) books Andy for a play directed by Sir Ian, who plays a demented version of himself, not realizing that it is, as Andy later rants, “a gay play.” It is familiar, to be sure, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

That is, I couldn’t stop laughing once the first 10 minutes or so had passed; the opening is devoted, inexplicably, to a dreadful scenario involving a makeup girl who expects, not unreasonably, that Andy knows her name after their weeks of working on set together–well enough, that is, to address an autograph to her. Naturally, Andy has no idea what her name is, and so we watch him fumble his way through their protracted conversation before she storms off, irate. Yes, it really is that dull.

Part of the joy of watching Extras has always been seeing famous stars behaving badly, and doing so without so much as a whiff of shame. Fellow RSC alumnus Patrick Stewart took that art to new heights in last season’s finale, but Sir Ian does him one better here by mustering his considerable presence in the service of some of the more embarassing dialogue I have ever heard anyone utter. “How do I act so well?” So begins his gravely worded oration to Andy at their first meeting, head waving slightly and brow furrowed as he leans intently towards a thoroughly befuddled Andy. It only gets better from there.

The other half of this week’s goings-on revolves around an unlikely romantic entanglement between two of our more prominent characters; I won’t reveal who, so as not to spoil the surprise–and it is quite a surprise–but I can say that, if it bears out in the future, it could certainly end up as one of the more genius turns by writers Gervais and Merchant; it strikes me as both blatantly obvious and yet completely unexpected. The implications are exciting, to say the least.

So, the play. It is indeed quite “gay,” with Andy awkwardly flirting with a “male acquaintance” while doing his very best to carry it off, if only for the sake of his bruised public image. And of course, opening night sees the attendance of Andy’s macho non-gay sort-of buddy with “butch” pals in tow and, in a not-so-shocking turn of events, all of the “Village People” (gays) Andy knows (including, in one mortifying scene, the one pictured above–remember him?); they of course defy all Andy’s efforts to convince everyone that he’s “just in it for the *rubs fingers together.*”

A last-minute bid by Sir Ian for a “physicalization of the emotional liberation” (I kid you not) provides the catalyst for the appropriate devolution into hyperbolic absurdity which, while not entirely satisfying, left me with the impression of a far more carefully constructed product than did any of the last few endings–with a smile, that is. The high point of the season has come and gone, I fear, but Sir Ian, more than anything else, rescues the show from the doldrums of mediocrity.  I salute him.

Next Week: Jonathan Ross and Robert Lindsay (not that I know who they are) round out this season’s crop of episodes, hopefully in high style. Bring a handkerchief, and start praying for another series.

–D. S. W.

is this progress?

October 15, 2006

The Times recently ran a story profiling a set of technologies under development at a Santa Monica startup called Image Metrics that purports to offer a lifelike means of creating virtual actors and performances for film, videogames, and more. Though motion capture, the process of recording a performance based on marker dots placed on an actor’s face, has long been available, the company claims that their software goes beyond this by replicating eye movements and other subtle facial details that, collectively, can make a virtual actor seem “real.” Chairman Andy Wood calls it “soul transferrence.”

They have certainly convinced Hollywood correspondent and article author Sharon Waxman, who writes, “Ultimately, though, Image Metrics could even go beyond the need for Tom Hanks — or any other actor — altogether.” Bold words, indeed. While the demonstration provided in the accompanying video (see the link above) and the potential applications mentioned by convert Taylor Hackford (director of Ray and other films)–allowing actors to “play” younger versions of themselves; bringing dead actors back to life to share scenes with modern ones–are undeniably intriguing, I have significant reservations about its implications.

According to its web site, an early version of Image Metrics’ technology powered the 2004 animated feature The Polar Express, a film that, more than any other, exemplifies the phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” Current animation techniques allow for creations that are almost, but not quite, identical to real actors. I say almost; the gap between the best artificial creations and actual reality can come off as disastrously eerie if it becomes small enough, as it did (sort of) in The Polar Express–many critics derided its animated characters as “disturbing” and “doll-like”–and as I fear we may see in the products of this new iteration of the technology that Image Metrics is promoting, no matter how much more “real” it is.

Simply put, until the dawn of animation that is practically perfect–read: absolutely indistinguishable from reality–I, and much of the moviegoing public I think, have little use for digital actors that are incrementally more evocative of their mores substantial counterparts. It is the same problem that, to a lesser extent, afflicted the Star Wars prequels, whose overenthusiastic author eschewed physical sets (and even actors) for the immaterial creations of Industrial Light & Magic, and that cheapens visually ambitious upcoming “next-generation” video games such as Crysis and Alan Wake. Mr. Hackford’s examples too, for all their promise, sound more like a silly hypothetical construct than something that consumers (and film buffs) would care too see in a multiplex of the year 2015. It smacks of technology being developed and used for its own sake, which effectively renders it meaningless.

Yes, what is most distressing here is that there is no apparent necessity for any of the avenues of possibility that the Image Metrics tech would offer. VFX has been, at least until now, a means of creating visually fantastic backdrops for human drama–that’s human, as in “consisting of non-artificial people.” Unlike, say, squadrons of TIE fighters or glowing laser-swords, ordinary human actors need no magical help in representing themselves as they are, and thus the search for a replacement for them is a puzzling choice of endeavors. Doubtless there is money to be made, but even if it succeeds, I am very much inclined to ask, “So what?”

If this is progress, count me out.

–D. S. W.

Overcoming a disastrous reception at Cannes last May, Sofia Coppola’s second feature Marie Antoinette is garnering respect from critics, or at least from those fortunate enough to see it this weekend at the New York Film Festival. A.O. Scott of the Times calls it “not so much a psychological portrait as a tableau of mood and atmosphere,” one filled with “lovingly composed and rendered images,” while David Edelstein, writing for New York Magazine, praises it as “one of the most immediate, personal costume dramas ever made.”

I have long been looking forward to it, both because of Ms. Coppola’s amazing success in her 2003 film Lost in Translation and because of the eclectic ensemble cast headlined by Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman (as Louis XVI) and also featuring, among others, the delightful Steve Coogan, of Tristram Shandy and 24 Hour Party People, and veteran character actor Rip Torn. The film opens wide next Friday, October the 20th, and you can count on a review from me shortly thereafter. Do go see it yourself as well, won’t you?

–D. S. W.