Nov 282014

It appears that the only thing that could snap me out of my extended blogging absence is the first trailer for the next Star Wars movie. As I frequently note, trailers can be deceptive indicators of a movie’s true quality, but this brief preview does its best to hit all the classic Star Wars motifs. We see glimpses of a desert world (Tatooine, perhaps?) as well as a menacing Sith-like figure, X-wing fighters skimming the surface of a body of water, and a magnificent shot of the Millennium Falcon evading a squad of TIE fighters. The trailer does a nice job of sparking speculation about the rest of the movie. Does the Empire still exist? What are the Sith up to? Who are these young whippersnappers featured in the trailer?

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next December (or perhaps the next trailer) for answers. In the meantime, here’s your fix:

Nov 112014

Interstellar tries so hard to say something profound about humanity’s place in the universe and our ability to overcome our more self-destructive impulses, but some silly plotting and overwrought dialogue pull the movie into the gravity well of mediocrity. The movie is set on a future Earth that is slowly dying. Crops are failing around the world and dust storms regularly plague the countryside. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-pilot and farmer who discovers a gravitational anomaly that leads him to a secret NASA project to save humanity. nASA has discovered a wormhole to another galaxy and has already sent several manned missions to assess the region for human habitability. It now wants to send another mission to check on the scientists from the original mission and determine whether colonization is possible. Cooper is asked to join the mission. Because life is all about just showing up.

The movie does explore some truly interesting ideas regarding time dilation, black holes, and artificial intelligence. At times, I felt like I was watching an updated version of 2001 (a movie that I love). But then the story crumbles in the third act, taking the tone of a late-night, pot-fueled bullshit session between philosophy majors. I’m not sure why so many science fiction movies succumb to this kind of New Age faux profundity, but it completely takes me out of the story. My eyeballs are still sore from the rolling. The movie is worth seeing for the spectacle, but I’m still waiting for the true successor to Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Nov 072014

My election predictions were mostly accurate, although I underestimated the strength of Republicans in both Minnesota and nationally. Four years of political stalemate, combined with stagnant wage growth, has left voters frustrated and angry. They directed that anger at the most obvious target: the President. I’m not sure Tuesday’s results point to a more conservative electorate, though. Republicans did so well because they didn’t have to define a specific agenda; attacking Democrats was all the strategy they needed to win. We’ll see whether voters remain as enamored with Republicans once they take control of Congress and start putting policy proposals in writing.

Even if Republicans wear out their welcome, Democrats are unlikely to take back Congress anytime soon. As long as Democratic voters are concentrated in urban areas, it will be a struggle to recapture the House. The Senate and the Presidency may swing between the parties in coming years, but it’s going to be a long while before Democrats have enough power to advance a truly progressive agenda.

Nov 042014

It’s Election Day and Republicans are poised to take control of the Senate. As I’ve noted previously, Republican control of Congress won’t make our national politics any less dysfunctional. The GOP will need to win the Presidency and probably a few more Senate seats in 2016 before they can start enacting their agenda. In the meantime, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch gushing public displays of affection between Mitch McConnell and John Boehner while Obama does his best to tame that pulsating vein in his forehead at every press conference for the next two years.

Here are my predictions for the Senate and state races:

  • U.S. Senate: Republicans will secure a 53-seat majority with victories in Montana, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, and Iowa. Democrats, through the strength of their ground operations, will eke out victories in North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Here in Minnesota, Al Franken should easily win a second term against an opponent who didn’t attract much national attention and struggled to introduce himself to voters.
  • Minnesota Governor: This race has tightened in recent weeks, but Dayton should win by 5-7 points. Minnesota’s economy has been performing well and Republican Jeff Johnson hasn’t been able to make a compelling case for Dayton’s ouster.
  • Minnesota House of Representatives: This is a difficult call. Minnesotans don’t like to give either party extended control of government, but the DFL should benefit from Dayton and Franken appearing on the ballot. I’ll take a chance and predict that the DFL will retain a slim House majority, which could allow Minnesota to follow a progressive path for another two years despite the ongoing policy stalemate at the national level.
Oct 222014

Ars Technica profiles the Uni, a tablet that is designed to translate American Sign Language into spoken English and vice versa. The startup company behind the Uni hopes that the device will help the deaf and hearing impaired communicate in a variety of everyday situations without relying on a human interpreter. For the Uni to achieve widespread adoption among the deaf community, it will need to overcome a high sticker price and a limited vocabulary. The vocabulary can be expanded through software updates, but price might be a more difficult issue to address (something that is true for a lot of assistive technology).

The Uni seems to rely on a combination of hardware and software to achieve its goals. As the technology on consumer tablets and phones improves, perhaps an app (or even the operating system) will be able to perform these functions. It might be a more cost-effective solution. In the meantime, let’s hope the Uni can get enough traction to continue development.

Oct 212014

I don’t subscribe to Cinemax, but that hasn’t stopped The Knick from becoming one of my favorite new shows of the year. The Knick is a medical drama set in a struggling New York hospital at the dawn of the twentieth century, just as medicine (and surgery in particular) is leaving behind its grisly sawbones era and entering an age of innovation and revolution. The show has earned a reputation for its depictions of gory and decidedly unsanitary surgical procedures, but the amazing cast is the real reason to watch. Clive Owen is tone-perfect as an arrogant yet brilliant chief surgeon who embodies both the best and worst tendencies of his time. He spends coke-fuelled weekends in his lab devising new surgical procedures and instruments, yet he is openly hostile to the first African American surgeon to join the hospital staff (played with seething intelligence by Andre Holland).

Steven Soderbergh’s direction infuses every episode with a kinetic energy that is bathed in both harsh light and soft shadow. It’s probably one of the most meticulously composed shows since Breaking Bad. And Cliff Martinez provides an electronic score that should seem anachronistic but somehow fits with the show’s theme of messy, halting progression. The Knick was renewed for a second season before it even aired, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show and its characters evolve. It may even persuade me to subscribe to Cinemax.

Oct 162014

It has become fashionable for technology writers to question the utility of the iPad. They point out that phones are becoming bigger and more powerful while competing tablets can provide the same functionality for less money. These observations are certainly true, but I remain a big fan of the device. Much of that has to do with my particular use cases for the iPad. The iPad allows me to read a book or watch video without being at my desk. And thanks to the addition of Switch Control in ios, I can operate the tablet with a single switch. No other tablet can beat the iPad in terms of accessibility.

When the iPad first debuted, many predicted that it would quickly supplant desktop and laptop computers. That hasn’t happened and I’m confident that the iPad will continue to thrive in a world of jumbo-sized phones. It will never match a phone’s portability, but it doesn’t need to. It needs to excel as a tablet, which it does.

Oct 092014

Americans are masters at freaking about things that really aren’t threats. Case in point: Ebola. 20% of Americans are afraid of catching Ebola; a ridiculously high number considering that exactly one case has been diagnosed in the country. As Jeffrey Young of HuffPo points out, the flu virus presents a much more significant danger to public health. Thousands of Americans will die from the flu in the coming months, yet I’m betting that most of the people in hysterics about Ebola won’t bother getting a flu shot.

If you are concerned about becoming sick in the next few months, get a flu shot. Tell your friends and family to get flu shots. A flu shot will provide actual protection against a real threat. Panicking about anything is rarely helpful and only makes us look incredibly silly to the eyes of the world.

Oct 072014

The Supreme Court doesn’t allow itself many progressive moments. And even when those moments arrive, the Court likes to be coy about it, presumably to give Scalia the opportunity to have a tantrum in private. Yesterday’s decision to let stand various appellate decisions striking down same-sex marriage bans is not the end of the struggle for marriage equality, but it perhaps marks the beginning of the final chapter. A lower court could still uphold such a ban, forcing the Court to issue an actual opinion on the matter. But it seems nearly inconceivable that the Court would uphold such a ban after yesterday’s news. The unconstitutional nature of these bans is now a settled matter.

The Court is likely to continue dismantling the Voting Rights Act, so we should try to appreciate these rare instances when the Court shows that it is still capable of demonstrating good sense.