Z2K9 — The Day the Music Froze During the Loading Screen

Update 1/1/2009: All better. The thing “fixed” itself. I was this close to composing a strongly worded letter written under only natural light.

In the time between beginning this post and finishing it, it looks like Microsoft formally announced a solution to the issue, the always exciting “it’ll fix itself tomorrow.” Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that I want to listen to my party mix now. Anyway, um, enjoy the increasingly less relevant post below.

I’ve stood by my MP3 player for more than one-and-a-half years. The 30GB Zune isn’t the prettiest, thinnest, or most useful MP3 player, but I like what it does and how it does it. I spent a lot of time getting the video compression settings “just right,” and I didn’t need to purchase wrist weights to “maximize” my runs. I’ve gotten used to people confusing it with a dumbbell but I have never had the “I think someone stole my mp3 player,” panic because I know my husky baby isn’t going anywhere, if only because it would be a real burden for a potential thief if he or she needed to scale a fence.

My previous MP3 player, the geek approved Rio Karma served me just fine (though a few minor repairs) from 2003-2007, at which point it started turning into “computer junk,” component by component, necessitating a new player. Microsoft’s been good about updating the original, 30GB, player even though it’s now one-and-a-half generations old. I can’t argue with that, and the free Zune Software/Music Player is actually a program I’d whole-heartedly recommend to anyone, whether he owns a Zune or not. Everything was going swimmingly – the only real issues I had were occasional freezes (which disappeared with the latest 3.1 firmware) and a totally buff right bicep. This morning, I saw that one of the “tech news” websites I visit was reporting “Hundreds of 30GB Zune Players Fail Across the Country.” I have one of those. Uh-oh.

zune crash
Probably not the sort of top 10 list for which they hoped.

Skimming the article, I saw that the problems started around midnight PST last night, and most users experienced the freeze as their greeting as they turned on the device this morning. Of course, I still hadn’t turned it on, but I was watching The Matrix last night, and needless to say, perhaps the computer gods were not happy at the ending (with Neo’s bring the physical virtual and verbal smackdown to computer program) and were taking their vengeance. Being that guy, I decided I wanted to see the crash myself so I could poke around at it. Well, I succeeded in seeing it crash/freeze, but that was about all she wrote. Apparently, one can disassemble the player, change the computer calendar to any date but 12/31/08, unplug and replug the battery, then reassemble and use it just fine with no issues, but I decided I was done losing tiny screws when I decided the Rio Karma wasn’t worth fixing.

For a device considered not very popular, the news certainly got around. CNN posted a front page link (below “the fold,” though) to a brief writeup. (Now, to the doubters’ credit, the time between Christmas and New Years is ridiculously slow for the news.)

In terms of why it crashed, December 31, 2008 is the 366th day of the year. Odds are it has something to do with something in the software planning on each year being 365 days. Not the most exciting bug, but an easy one to forget to check for. Of course it could be an ugly coincidence, but Occam’s Razor, people.

I was going to write here about how it could be a challenging bug to fix because the devices didn’t even get to the point where the firmware updates can be initiated and it could be a support disaster, but being that the darn thing will apparently fix itself, I’ll spare the words. (Note to Microsoft employees: I have no idea if that little spiel back there about “doesn’t even get to the point where the firmware updates can be initiated” is even remotely accurate. I’m just counting on all 7 of the readers of this site nodding their heads and saying, “that Dan. He knows about computers.”)

Star Rating is pending the results of tomorrow’s self-update, but let’s not jump to any conclusions.

**

Two stars – nice it sort of fixed itself, not so nice that I actually had to say, “well, I have that song on my MP3 player, but unfortunately, it’s not going to work until noon tomorrow.”

BUT, I have seen some pretty good overly dramatic names for the “situation”: Z2K, Z2K9, ZUNEPOCOLYPSE. I guess give credit for the “social” for making enough noise the problem to be seen in more places than just some isolated support forums.

Of course, none of the postings made any mention of Judgment Day or this being Skynet’s first move, so I’m not completely impressed. That said, in terms of a future where our ground up brains might be used to fuel Gregorian Calendar does help me sleep better at night.

Cloverfield

Pirated video that shows clearly what the monster really is.

It’s been a while since we’ve posted… I know.

To put it simply, Cloverfield is effin’ scary. I would venture as far as to say that it was the most viscerally affecting movie I’ve seen since Children of Men. This isn’t just a monster movie; it’s a movie, that, like The Mist and I Am Legend before it, plays on our greatest unthought-of fear, that something so disastrous could happen that all manner of government protection would be rendered moot. Mass chaos with no way out, and nothing to keep you alive but your own strength of will in circumstances that you’d never imagine yourself in. Cloverfield is so effective at what it sets out to do, reminding us that our modern “civilized” society is one catastrophic event away from being reduced to nothing more than bickering people who’ve been taken over by primitive “fight or flight” survival instincts.

The way the reviewers have talked about it, I’m sure you’ve all heard complaints ad nauseum about the “lack of story”, the “unlikeablility” of characters, the illogical choices made by certain people, and that it didn’t make sense for someone to keep recording through the whole thing. Honestly, I didn’t care about any of those things at all, and it’s a testament to how involving the movie is that I only once stopped to think about the fact that a camera battery wouldn’t last as long it does, and only one other time to think about how long it would take them to walk in a subway tunnel the distance that they said they did. Despite the rich, hipster vibe that the characters exuded, I didn’t really find them all that grating, even though it was basically as if Godzilla interrupted an episode of Felicity (with good reason; both the executive producer and the director were co-creators of that show). If they indeed go ahead with a sequel to be shot in the same style, telling a different story from the same night, I would love to see people from the opposite end of the spectrum and how they managed, how different their priorities were, and just how they would differ in their actions in general.

More often than not though, I found myself sitting in my chair, with my mouth wide open, totally enraptured by what was going on. Would I too be able to climb across a roof of a forty-story building that was leaning at a sixty degree angle from the ground, only being held up by the building next to it? Would I have gone back to save someone from a giant killer spider-crab in a pitch black subway tunnel? Why was this monster movie the first one that ever made me question the lengths I would go to survive? As intense as it was, The Mist, never made me feel this way, despite the fact that the subject material was quite similar. In my opinion, it goes to media theorist Marshall McLuhan‘s statement from his book “Understanding Media:Extensions of Man“, that “The Medium is the Message”. To put a very long and convoluted series of the oftentimes contradictory thoughts by a raving Canadian lunatic into a simplistic summary, the method by which a message is sent from one person to another is oftentimes more important to the delivery than the message itself. The best example of this is the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate where the majority of radio listeners seemed to think that Nixon had won, while the television viewers, able to see Nixon’s body language, sweating, and poor make-up job, were convinced that Kennedy won. On a side note, I always wondered if the people who did that study took into account the differences in politics between the people who listened and people who watched, and if that played into their answers to the question.

How this idea of medium applies to Cloverfield is that we’ve been programmed with the language of film over the past one-hundred years. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we’ve come to expect a certain syntax. We don’t notice it though, until a reverse angle of a shot doesn’t match, or an edit isn’t smooth. The Mist lives by these rules, and the whole time it tries to invoke this question of “what happens when the world goes to hell?”, while also playing it like a 1950s B-horror movie creature feature. Issues with the unfocused nature of the plot set aside, it’s the fact that the movie’s presented in the language of Film that makes you step back and realize how preposterous the story really is.

Ironically, it’s the movie inspired by the crude and incredibly repetitive Godzilla series that has effectively transcended this medium and broken out of the box, leaving genuine lasting emotion. The same way that we’ve been trained to understand that movies aren’t real and that we shouldn’t feel anguish when Jason Vorhees, “an unstoppable killing machine“, hacks someone up with a machete, we’ve been trained to recognize video as infallible. Which affects you more: watching an alien pop out of someone’s chest killing them in a movie, or watching a video of a skateboarder falling fifty feet to a hard wooden surface and seeing his shoes explode, but then being able to walk off, relatively unharmed? We haven’t yet learned to apply the same reality filters to video that we currently do to film, and this is what Cloverfield exploits.

No matter how many times you try to tell yourself this movie isn’t real, the medium that the message is delivered in contradicts your thoughts and plays to your instincts. What would happen if you took this movie over to undeveloped parts of Africa (as McLuhan puts it, a place where people have not been “immunized” to this medium) or if someone years down the line saw this without the context to put it in? It’s very likely that they might think it actually happened, especially if they’ve seen the 2001 attack footage. Critics (used literally, not film critics) of the movie have been saying that it exploits September 11th imagery, but I would argue that it successfully uses those scenes we have committed to memory to scare us in a very real way, much more than any slasher flick or monster movie has done before. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been spending a large amount of time in the area that was directly affected in the movie. It’s more likely that I was less able to discern the difference between the two because when the twin towers fell I was watching it on a movie screen in a film auditorium. Watching Cloverfield, it was hard not to think back to this moment and relate the two, drawing all that emotion out.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the whole thing is the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I’ve walked over a few times. It may very well be the most frightening destruction of a major landmark ever to be created in a movie, far scarier than anything in the modern classic Independence Day or its red-headed step-brother The Day After Tomorrow, completely because of its realism and the point of view of the person delivering the message.

Here’s where the debate rages though. Should a movie be judged on how effective it is at making you feel a certain way, or on the quality of story and characters? If it uses the story and characters as well as technically impressive work to achieve this emotional effect (such as in I Am Legend), then it’s obvious that it’s a good movie. What happens though, when the two aren’t mutually exclusive, when character development and a tight story take second chair to exceptional method and incredibly well-realized scenes? Is it still a good movie? This isn’t to say that Cloverfield offered no cohesive story or successful characterizations (the realism in the actors’ portrayals ” not so much film acting, but moreso being in the situation with a natural intensity that you would expect of someone living out this unthinkable scenario””certainly drives the moments and carries the film as much as the technique), but it’s a chase movie in the most basic sense. Something’s attacking, nobody knows what it is, but we’re running from it. There’s really nothing more to it than that, and I would be hard-pressed to say the movie had an effective story to tell, instead opting to give you a few character dynamics and letting them provide the motivation for an hour’s worth of recorded events. I’ve heard completely mixed reviews from friends and film critics in regards to this movie, and it seems as though this question of how to judge is where the basic disagreement lies. For me, the movie was incredibly effective at what it set out to do, and was plenty enjoyable from start to finish (and I loved the epic “Cloverfield Theme” that scored the credits) and that’s all I can ask for in a threatrical experience.

One last thing. If in my diatribe about the presentation of the movie I left out the success of The Blair Witch Project, which this movie couldn’t have come about without, it was because that was not a successful movie. Where the difference between the two films lies is that while The Blair Witch created a very real found-footage aura, it was overly-long and for the most part, boring and whiny. Think about it. The bulk of the movie was about kids wandering around the woods and arguing with each other. It took on the found-footage medium and while it succeeded at creating a realistic portrayal of what one might look like (as in “normal people are generally boring and spend a lot of time fighting and talking about nothing at all”), it completely failed as entertainment for all but about 15 minutes. It had a few interesting story elements, but needed to pad out its runtime with lame characterizations and nothing really happening. It was also completely visually uninteresting, giving you nothing to fall back on when you got tired of all the complaining going on onscreen. Cloverfield takes a look at the mistakes of this film and basically imports action movie beats into the style in order to fix its problems, never stopping to let us take a breath or think about all the implausibilities. The people behind this movie have brilliantly created a hybrid “found-footage/blockbuster action movie” medium, and by doing this, it skews our perception of its events, leaving our common sense to duke it out with our basic media instincts, and that is why it truly succeeds.

****½

Cloverfield is not only a genre-redefining movie, but a medium redefining movie that uses the language of video and film together to confuse our perception of events. You know it isn’t real, but once it wraps you up in its swift pace, that notion leaves your mind, making the horror of the scenario all the more genuine. The entire group of people involved were committed to making you believe that this had really happened, and they succeeded admirably at doing it. Now next time, give us some better characters and a more plausible story arc for them.

While I’m at it….

The Mist
*½
I really wanted to love it, but it completely tears itself in two directions, trying to be a giant killer insect horror movie, and a bold statement on how far our civility falls when we’re presented with dire circumstances. Not only that but characters are either underused (Andre Braugher) or completely over-the-top crazy (Marcia Gay Harden), and though Tom Jane gives a strong performance (before he brings it on a little too strong at the end) he can’t keep down all my hatred for the main antagonist, the crazy religious nut-job who wants everyone to repent or die. If it’s supposed to be allegory, it takes a very ham-fisted approach that really turned me off. Subtlety isn’t this movie’s strong point. Visually, it’s spectacular, but unfortunately a great premise is undermined by story issues, probably stemming from the source material. Much like most of the movie, the end sort of rips off of “Night of the Living Dead” in its painful irony, though it may have one of the best “downer” endings I’ve seen in a long time.

I Am Legend
****
Visually, the most realistically drastic transformation of any actual location that I’ve ever seen put to film, I Am Legend decides to “show” us, and not “tell” us about the collapse of humanity, unlike The Mist . By that I mean that while the previous movie spends its time preaching to you about how everyone will turn on one another to survive, this movie shows the result of that, in a devastatingly real fashion. You are left to create your own account of how it all went down, only giving us brief glimpses into society’s fall in flashbacks that serve more to develop Will Smith’s character’s personal story. It was completely refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t give you every detail and leaves some things open to the imagination. Will Smith’s character and portrayal are perfectly subtle in the ways that his past, his loneliness, and his obsession with curing the sick have taken its toll on his sanity, but the critics are correct that unfortunately all of this strong set-up seems to devolve with about twenty-five minutes left into some more action-oriented, less suspenseful version of Signs, right down to the “oh, it all makes sense now, God has a plan for me” revelation. I Am Legend is a completely haunting vision of what life would be like if you were the last person on earth, Zombie storylines aside.

Inadvertently Recreating a Scene from Garden State

Though each time I go to China, I make a pledge to write many reviews (usually a stretch where I’ve written very few) and not follow through, I’ll quietly imply that same pledge now, and begin and start here.

With the fact that flying to China from the U.S. is an awful experience, many of my co-workers get small prescriptions (2 or 3 pills total) for sleeping medicine. I’m not a big fan of taking even over-the-counter taking medicine as it is (my family has a history of awesomeness), but the flight is just plain awful for 15+ hours at a time. With that in mind, I stopped at CVS the night before my trip and purchased a bottle of Advil PM, not exactly prescription sleeping pills per se, but maybe they’d help a little bit.

scrubs
Potential captions for this picture
1) No, not this scene.
2) I’m dark and brooding, too!
3) Because if the girl on the far left weren’t touching his hand, he’d return to the land of lollipops and gumdrops.

Skipping ahead to being on the plane between Chicago and Hong Kong (China), the first (of like 7 drink services – the flight is that long) came through, and international flights serve alcoholic drinks free. For whatever reason (maybe because it seems poetic), sleeping pills are “supposed” to be taken with red wine. Sure, the package explicitly says “do not mix with alcohol,” but I want to be dramatic, darn it. I get a 175mL mini-bottle (about half of a soda can) of red wine from a whichever vintner in California was willing to offer United Airlines wine at 3rd world prices. I take two Advil PM pills, then finish the bottle of wine.

Now, I had to be at the Allentown airport at 5:15am, so as one could imagine, I was pretty tired to begin with but rather uncomfortable because of the whole “being on an airplane” thing. I started noticing the fact that I had drunk wine, then shortly thereafter, went from lazy-feeling because of the wine to full-out, “boy, I’m starting to feel more sleepy than I was before.” This turned into, “wow, I really don’t feel like moving, but I’m not sleepy. Ooh, look how interesting the wall in front of me is.”

So, for about an hour (I think – it was about half of the movie “Marie Antoinette”) I sat there, dazed staring at the wall in front of me on the airplane as other passengers did their business, getting things from their stowed luggage, heading to the facilities, taking little strolls down the aisle. It’s like the chemicals had slowed me down to the point of not being able to process the outside world my choices had made it so life was passing me by. Oh no, I was inadvertently recreating a scene from Garden State!

Extra bonus points for providing which Scrubs episode ending on a similar note to my ending.

**½

Inadvertently Recreating a Scene from Garden State receives two-and-a-half stars for, well, I’m not sure. I won’t be repeating the experience on the way back (maybe with significantly more Advil PM’s, though I doubt it), so I guess that counts for everything.

A refresher for those who haven’t seen the movie or for whom it’s been awhile…

Game 3 of the LaFrance China vs. LaFrance US Basketball Series

Chinese people love their basketball. Playing, watching, talking about it, assuming that the black guy that’s over here for four weeks is both an engineer and in the NBA (because he’s black, duh). They love it the way the same way that noted friend of The Bookshelf™ (Josh) Calloway loves ginger ale.

basketball

Score: 92-80 US
Any color blue jersey: Chinese Team
Front Row (minus one basketball player): Basketball Groupies
Whistle-Owner: Referee
The rest: The US team (including the girl in the back right who’s from the US)
(This victory made the US team 3-0. Notice, the US team member holding 3 fingers up. The Chinese people hold 2 fingers up because, well, that’s what Chinese people seem to do when they have their picture taken.)

So, naturally, the Chinese all-stars (pulled from the ranks of security guards, engineers, factory workers, etc, etc.) from the company want to play the Americans, who they assume are seasoned basketball veterans, being that they’re Americans. So, here are the requirements for a successful intercontinental basketball dominance challenge:

1. It has to be Wednesday. Selective brown-outs make it so the court is only illuminated on Wednesdays. Let’s say you have some sort of conflict that can only be resolved on the basketball court… and it’s Thursday. You have to wait one whole week to get it taken care of.

2. You need a court with the gigantic, trapezoidal, official international basketball lane dimensions. Well, this is the only type you’ll find in China, you’re all set. And be careful, if the referee (see below) feels like calling offensive 3 second violations, and you’re in for some embarrassment until you get used to it.

3. You need fans. The court is between two dorms which probably house 200 people combined. These fans need to bring a drum to bang on whenever the Chinese team scores.

4. You need groupies. When you’ve just missed two layups, airballed a shot from the arc, and you’re out of breath only three minutes into the game, you need someone to tell you that you’re “number 1 basketball star.”

5. You need a referee. No, scratch that. You need someone who owns a whistle. Two older (in their 40’s) whistle-owning guys who live in the dorms provided law and order (and a bafflingly inadequate grasp of the concepts of the backcourt violation and team foul) for our game.

6. You need to have at least 4 of 5 players who are taller than 6’2″. Otherwise, the speed of the Chinese will overwhelm the rebound and layup differentials.

7. You need to figure out which Chinese player is the best and switch to a box and one zone to cause him to take shots with an exceedingly low chance of being successful. The four people in #6 take care of the rebounds resulting from these shots.

8. You need a time keeper who keeps time by his watch and yells when the 12 minute quarters are over. Also, he should speak no English; this way, the US team is unable to know how much time is remaining. More importantly, he should arbitrarily add time to the fourth quarter whenever the Chinese team slightly closes the point differential. This way, what should be 48 minutes of basketball ends up being closer to 60 minutes.

9. You need a security guard to operate the scoreboard. Because he wouldn’t let anyone else near it.

10. Most importantly, the US team needs an in-shape 40ish guy who plays basketball three times a week.

****½

Game 3 of the LaFrance China vs. LaFrance US Basketball Series receives four-and-a-half stars due largely to the fact that we won the game and that games against the Chinese team don’t end up with someone from one team wanting to fight someone on the other team, like most (if not all) other competitive-in-some-way basketball games in which I’ve participated. And how often does someone get to represent their country successfully without doing something stupid? Minus 1/2 star for the ungodly amount of running involved in basketball.