Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Second Coming of Steve Jobs

Book: The Second Coming of Steve Jobs

This is an older book I picked up at a discount store. Somehow I missed it when it was published. As a huge fan of Jobs and Macintosh and Silicon Valley lore, it's a book I wanted to read. It tells the story of how Steve was kicked out of Apple, founded NeXT and rebuilt Pixar, and how he ended up back at Apple and took it to unprecedented success. All this was written back in 2000 and is, of course, pre-iPod -- Apple had their most successful quarter this past Christmas, selling nearly $6 billion worth of iPods and Macs, and making a huge $500+ million profit, and last week's Disney/Pixar merger just made Jobs a multi-billionaire -- so the book is ironic in that Jobs' turnaround was hardly started! The book uncovers fascinating personal details about Jobs, private conversations, both the Good Steve and the infamous Bad Steve. It's an amazing portrait of a private public man, a man who is full of seeming controdictions and despite being famous for more than 25 years, is still a mystery to most (even those who know him). This is excellently written and appears balanced, though of course I don't know the truth more than anyone else. It was fascinating to me that as I was reading about Jobs' dealing with the Pixar/Disney contracts, Disney and Pixar agreed to a merger. What a huge deal that is! Steve now has a seat on Disney's board and who knows where that will lead. The three companies -- for Apple, as the leading supplier of digital music and video content, is part of the trio -- are primed for massive growth. It's a fascinating time!


Monday, January 30, 2006


Book: Cell
Writer(s): Stephen King (book)

It's a bit of an absurd premise -- a pulse or some signal hits all the cell phones on the planet, erasing the minds of anyone who hears it. This causes instant insanity, as people resort to mindless beings of extreme violence. Since cell phones are everywhere, this is basically the end of civilization as we know it. People driving crash, kill their children, children attack their parents, planes fall out of the sky, and pretty much all authority -- fire, police, rescue, etc. -- use cell phones and are destroyed. Some withiin a couple days civilization is back to the stone age. Partly this is King's playful attack on cellular phones, partly it's just an excuse for a good zombie flick (since the "phoners" are essentially zombies, except the aren't dead). King takes pains to vividly describe all the gory details of society's derailment, and the result, while interesting, is too grim and not particularly enlightening. It's a one-joke premise stretched out too long. Cell phone users are bad, we get it. They're rude, wealthy, privileged, we get it. Using them to destroy the earth is ironic, we get it. But come, enough already! Move on. But King doesn't. Fortunately the book is saved by King's unique prose and an actual plot, though the latter isn't evident until late in the novel. The book does remind me a lot of King's Dreamcatcher, which was similarly gory and depressing, but like that one he does create an ensemble of interesting characters that make the story bearable. In the end, I liked this, I'm not unhappy having read it, but I'm mostly glad I read it in two days so I'm done with it.


Friday, January 27, 2006


Movie: Capote

I knew nothing about Truman Capote before going to see this film. I'd heard the name and knew he was a writer, but that was about it. I vaguely remember the title In Cold Blood, which was a non-fiction book about some murders, but not much beyond that. Well, I learned a great deal. I had no idea he was such an influential writer (or that he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's). I definitely must get a few of his books. This film is not about Capote's life, as I expected, but entirely about his writing of In Cold Blood, which was his final work (other things of his were later published, but he never finished anything after Blood). I also learned that Bloodreally did invent a new form of writing: what Truman called the "non-fiction novel." That's how he wrote the story of the murders of an entire family in Kansas, and about the killers who were caught and executed for the crime. It's an amazing four years of research and writing, countless interviews with the criminals on death row, and he even watches one of them hanged. The film's incredibly well-done with a fantastic performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors, but I did find some aspects confusing, simply because I knew nothing about Capote. The film assumes we know things about him and I didn't. I would have preferred a little more biographical info, details about his other works, etc. I guess I'll have to watch a real biography to get that. Other than that, though, this is a terrific film, engrossing, deep, and thought-provoking.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ambler Warning

Book: Ambler Warning
Writer(s): Robert Ludlum

Ludlum's back! I've stayed away from his recent books as they were co-written (I hate that) and seemed derivitive. I am pleased to say that the old Ludlum is back with his best book since The Bourne Identity. This time Ludlum has created two amazing characters. The first is Ambler, of the title, and he's got a fantastic skill. He's basically a human lie detector. While most of us don't notice the fleeting expressions that pass across a face, he sees everything -- it's almost superhuman -- and he can instantly tell, with near 100% accuracy, if a person is lying or telling the truth. And where is this skill most valuable? Why in the world of espionage, of course!

The second cool character is the antithesis of cool. He's a real geek, an accountant, an auditor. He works in the CIA. This guy's so dry he makes the Sahara seem wet. But he's also got an amazing skill. Though he seems invisible and powerless, via his audits, he can find almost anyone or anything. By following the money he can infer all kinds of information. No one has to tell him about top secret missions and plans because he sees the invoices and can deduce what's really going on!

The book begins with Ambler locked in a psychiatric facility, a particular high-security government institution where former spies and others with secrets are kept so they don't accidentally spill the beans. The difference is that Ambler is not insane -- he's been put away by people unknown and he's desperate to escape and find out what's going on. Once again, Ludlum's created an amnesiac character (like Jason Bourne), this time with a twist. And trust me, you can't put this book down until you get to the dramatic conclusion. Awesomely fun book, surprisingly eloquent, and Ludlum at his very best.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Underworld: Evolution

Movie: Underworld: Evolution

Like the first one, this is not a serious film, but pure fun. Kate Beckinsale is back as the lead, and looking gorgeous in her tight leather outfits as she slaughters werewolves and others. This movie takes up right where the last one ended, getting us deeper into the mysterious past of the vampires and werewolves. It actually makes some sense, though it's not really worth explaining -- after all, the plot's mostly an excuse to kill things. It's fun with plenty of gore and monsters and such.


Friday, January 20, 2006

End of the Spear

Movie: End of the Spear

This is a film updating the "Through Gates of Splendor" story about missionaries in South America in the 1950s who are killed trying to make contact with a remote and savage native tribe. The story is amazing: the Indians have a culture of killing and are literally wiping themselves out (at one point there were only 60 or so natives remaining) through vengeance killings. When the white missionary men come, the distrustful and supersticious Indians spear them. Then it is the wives of the missionaries who come and live with the Indians. The Indians are not fearful of the women, dismissing them, and thus a communication is formed. Eventually the missionaries' word of peace and of a loving God is communicated, in part because the Indians are shocked and bewildered that the wives and children (especially the son) of the murdered men are not after revenge but offering love. Today there are more grandparents in the tribe than any time in hundreds of years. In the past, the grandparents were all killed before their grandchildren were born.

I was familiar with most of this story, but the film brings the story to modern day, where the son of one of the murdered missionaries has gone back with his own family to live among the Indians. That is quite a legacy. But do you see God's incredible plan? The Indians would never have accepted the missionary men. Men, to them, were warriors, always to be distrusted as the enemy. But the women had an "in" with the natives that only God could see. By allowing the missionary men to die, God opened a door for communication with the Indians that never would have been possible in any other way.

While surprisingly well-done in many ways, this film is not without flaws, however. The producers purposely left out much religiosity, a decision I'm generally in favor of as we don't want the movie to be preachy or detract from the story. Unfortunately, too much was removed, for we never see the missionaries praying or doing anything remotely religious -- if we weren't told they were missionaries we might have thought they were anthropologists or something! The first third of the movie's confusing, and there are some technical issues, but this gets better as the film progresses -- it made me think they started with one budget and got more money and were able to up the quality mid-stream. The acting and directing was decent, but much of the film takes place among the natives, speaking their tongue with subtitles, so it's difficult to judge performances. Overall I was pleased. I was impressed at how much care was given to the native's dilemma of giving up their killing lifestyle. This was a huge decision for them. It was not easy to put down their spears. The film respects this and does not give us a sitcom resolution. The women were in constant danger for the Indians threatened to kill them many times and in anger and suspicion almost did on several occasions. But eventually, gradually, the Indians put down their spears and began to live in peace. Quite an amazing transformation, when you think of it. My thought was that gangs in L.A., NY, etc. ought to see the film since they subscribe to the same circle of violence (vegeance killings).


Friday, January 13, 2006

Las Vegas Trip

I've never been to Vegas before. I have no interest in gambling, so it didn't attract me that much, however I was curious about the place, the architecture, the shows, etc. This particular trip was sudden: old friends of ours from France were visting their sister in Vegas for a week and we managed to get a cheap flight/hotel stay to join them. So we didn't gamble or anything like that; we just walked around, shopped, and ate -- a lot. They have really good food in Vegas. Especially the French restaurants in the "Paris in Vegas" casino, which even our French friends liked. I had to bring out my rusty French (it's been over twenty years since spoke it regularly) which was an adventure, but we had a great time. It was a quick trip as my mom had to get back for a doctor's appointment this afternoon, but we're glad we went.

I did have one sort of Vegas mysterious thing happen. I'd cleaned out my jeans pocket before we went as you can't take pocket knives and such on the airplane. So the only thing in my pocket was my Dramamine (I get airsick). My mom found a dime on the ground the first night we were there and gave it to me, so I put it in my pocket. The next morning, I had my hand in my pocket and I realized there were two dimes there! I was surprised, but a few hours later I was shocked, for again I put my hand in my pocket and this time there were three dimes! That's all I got, and I have no explaination. I am positive my pocket was empty before I put the first dime in, and I examined the original when my mom gave it to me, so I know it wasn't like two or three dimes stuck together. And I know absolutely that after I found the second dime I checked my pocket thoroughly for more -- so the third one appearing really makes this unusual. Oh, and we didn't spend any cash -- credit cards only -- so it's not like I got change back from a transaction and absent-mindedly put some of it in my pocket and forgot about it. Very strange and mysterious. I'm not a conspirist, so I'll leave the theories to readers, but it was interesting. The thought did occur to me that maybe I should have gambled these dimes -- like they were meant to be found and used -- but the slot machines just didn't interest me at all. I cannot fathom the fascination with them. What's the point? Where's the fun? (BTW, I was suprised that Vegas is 90% slot machines. I saw very little of other kinds of gambling. I guess you have to go into special rooms for other games, like poker, which does interest me as it's not entirely dumb luck.)


Friday, January 6, 2006


Movie: Bloodrayne

I knew this was supposed to be horrible before I went, but I was bored and there was nothing else even vaguely interesting available, so I gave it a whirl. I figured it would have action and couldn't be that bad, could it? Let me just say that this film makes Doom seem like a masterpiece of cohesion and brilliant acting. "Shockingly bad" is the mother of all understatements. This film is disjointed, with confusing out-of-sequence flashbacks that serve no purpose I could tell (nothing really is clear until later in the film when the backstory is actually explained). The story is lightweight with what I call "fake depth" -- that's where depth is implied but not delivered, so we're given the illusion that a character had a past without knowing much about it. The film, of course, is based on a video game (which I'd never heard of) and is about vampires. The lead is a woman named Rayne who's a "damfir" -- half human and half vampire, the result of a union between vampire and human. Thus she has some vampire qualities (drinks blood, etc.) but is immune from crosses. Supposedly her father is hunting her and she is seeking to kill him for killing her mother; but when she finds a relic her father seeks, it seems that's what he's interested in -- his original purpose in finding her is never explained. Besides the silly plot, which is only complicated because it makes little sense, everything else about this film sucks. The acting is terrible; wooden dialog just makes every scene plod as tortously slow as a root canal. A few of the actors get above their material, but several, such as the normally decent Michael Madsen, just seem to not even care. A variety of accents abound, which is bewildering: we've got broken English Germans, crisp British, and modern American drawls. Combined with the lame dialogue the result is chaos. Even the action, which I figured at least wouldn't be boring, was terrible. Except for the climactic fight at the end, none of the fights are the least bit interesting. There's a good dose of gore as heads are lopped off in close-up and such, but the fighting itself is awkward, especially by lead Rayne, who seems unsure of how to even hold a sword and moves slowly like a non-athlete. Speaking of the swords, many look like kids toys, way too light and not even sharp! Cinematically the film is decent, but over-directed, with the too many "clever" techniques and special camera effects that serve no purpose. I really am shocked at how bad this film is. It does get slightly better as it goes along, and there are a handful of half-decent scenes, and a few of the actors try, but there's no saving a mess like this. Great movie to watch if you want to learn about bad movies.


Thursday, January 5, 2006

If Death Ever Slept

Book: If Death Ever Slept
Writer(s): Rex Stout

I'm starting to get a feel for these Nero Wolfe novels now. Though I've only read a few, they do seem to have certain things in common: 1. The crime is always murder; 2. Nero never leaves his house and hates working. 3. The group of suspects is small and we know one of them is guilty; 4. There are no real clues; 5. Extra murders are always done to cover up the first murder, and it is these murders that help break the case (and Stout is oddly dispassionate about murder -- death is extremely casual in his stories); 6. Nero solves the murders using logic about human behavior (pyschology, if you will), instead of traditional crime detecting techniques (for instance, he can deduce that so-and-so wouldn't have done a particular murder because it wasn't done in their "style"); 7. Archie Goodwin, Nero's assistant and narrator of the stories, is really the main character as Wolfe just makes grand cameo appearances as necessary; 8. Wolfe is highly motivated by money but always seems to turn down fees or fire clients, which is rather odd.

This particular novel is more about Archie as he leaves Wolfe to live with a family as a spy for their client, and when murder happens, he's right in the middle of it. While this one is well-written and has some good characters, the mystery part of it -- including the conclusion -- is weak and boring. Wolfe does nothing extraordinary except fire his client. It's my least favorite of those I read so far.


Wednesday, January 4, 2006


Movie: Luther

Surprisingly good film about the life of Martin Luther. I learned a great deal that I didn't know about what all the conflicts were, why he was ostricized from the Roman Catholic Church, and why he wrote his famous letters. I was expecting direct-to-video quality but everything -- the acting, writing, direction, costumes, etc. -- was surperbly done. I can't speak for the historical accuracy (this was produced, at least in part, by the Lutheran Church), but I enjoyed the story and the performances.