Thursday, April 24, 2008

OK, Apple, you win; I finally have an iPod

“I bought an iPod. It can hold 20,000 songs or one message from my mother.”
— Steven Wright, comedian

I’ve finally given in and purchased Apple’s signature product, the iPod. Funny, I remember when Apple was a computer company. Now, it’s a music company that also makes computers.

If it weren’t for Apple’s “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” commercials, I might not remember that Apple even makes computers. And what’s up with those commercials? The PC guy is likable, but the Mac guy is a jerk. This is supposed to make me want to buy a Mac? Now, Windows Vista — that’s a good reason to buy a Mac.

Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. My new iPod.

For years, I’d gotten by with my iRiver MP3 player. Yeah, you may think the iRiver is just a cheap iPod knock-off, what with the similar names and all. But, trust me, the iRiver is huge in Asia. Still, my first-generation iRiver didn’t hold enough songs, and it was a pain keeping extra AA batteries on the go. I’m sure iRiver makes better MP3 players now, but it’s hard to keep up with the iPod. Not even Microsoft can do it. How many people own Microsoft’s Zune players? A lot fewer than Bill Gates would like.

I swear, the Zunes on the display shelf at Best Buy are gathering dust. OK, not really. But I’m sure that’s only because the staff dusts them.

Part of me still says the iPod is a textbook case of style triumphing over substance. Other MP3 players can do pretty much everything the iPod does. Everything, that is, except play music downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store. But with other companies, including, offering music downloads without Apple’s proprietary copy protection, that’s less of an issue.

So, what is the iPod’s allure? It’s sleek. It’s shiny. It has an easy-to-use interface. And it comes right out of the box ready to plug into your computer. It automatically synchronizes with the iTunes software and copies all of the music on your computer’s hard drive. Within minutes, it’s ready to go. Like most Apple products, the iPod is idiot-proof.

I take pride in my computer skills, so being idiot-proof is not normally a selling point with me, and it’s not an unequivocal plus with the iPod. Idiot-proof electronics are often harder to deal with for those of us who know what we are doing.

To manually manage my iPod’s content, I must connect it to my computer and turn off the automatic synchronization. Then, iTunes asks me if I’m sure I want to do that. Well, my name isn’t Dave, and iTunes isn’t HAL. So, yes, I’m sure.

But the same idiot-proof features that make Macs annoying and Microsoft’s Vista insufferable are a plus with something simple like an iPod. You don’t want it to do anything fancy. You just want it to play music.

Then there are the peripherals. Since iPod is by far the market leader in the U.S., every other electronics company wants to make gadgets to go with it. So, I can buy a cable that plugs my iPod into my car’s cigarette lighter and then plays my iPod over the car’s speakers. Presto! No need to ever lug compact discs to and from my car again. Plus, everything from the largest stereo system to the smallest clock radio now features an iPod plug-in port.

Ironically for Microsoft-hating Apple partisans, this is exactly how Microsoft came to dominate desktop computing — by gaining such a large market share that everyone else had to make Microsoft-compatible applications. What Microsoft did for computers, Apple has done for digital music.

So, I give in. After years of avoiding Apple’s sleek, trendy products, I have an iPod. And, yes, it’s as good as advertised.

But I’m still not buying an iPhone.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Things to do on the Internet when you’re dead

Note: The following column contains Internet language. It may be unintelligible to people over 30. Teenage translation is suggested.

I don’t have statistics to prove it, but I’m reasonably sure that the second most common use of the Internet, after looking up naked pictures of celebrities, is wasting time.
But there are more and less productive ways of wasting time while surfing the Internet. So, here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

Lolcats. Once upon a time, there was a photo of a forlorn kitty who asked a simple, if grammatically suspect, question: “I can has cheezburger?” Did the cat ever get a cheeseburger? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what followed. From that one photo and its semiliterate plea grew a phenomenon.

Now, the lolcats — cats who will make you “laugh out loud” — are everywhere. They’re in cars, buckets, washing machines and, yes, even in ceilings. Some are happy, others sad. They can’t quite grasp the English language. They made you a cookie, but then eated(cq) it. And most have simply had enough of you silly humans.

One Web site collects them all: At last count, the site was up to more than 240 pages of pictures of cats, and a few others animals, too, in funny situations with funnier captions.

But just Google “lolcat,” and you’ll find them everywhere.

The lolcats have become so popular that the dogs have become jealous. So, now the loldogs have their own Web site, But it’s not as good as the lolcats’ site, because LOLCATS > LOLDOGS LOL!!!

(Author’s note: All dog lovers offended by the idea that cats are better than dogs, please e-mail your complaints to Scott Morris, managing editor and cat hater, at K? THX.)

The Rickroll. There you are, minding your own business, when a friend e-mails you a link. You click it. Then, you realize your mistake, but it’s too late. You’ve been subjected to totally unexpected Rick Astley. Now you’re going to have his stupid song stuck in your head for the rest of the day. You’ve been Rickrolled.

Astley is the freckle-faced poster boy for 1980s musical mediocrity, as exemplified by his biggest hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” He was everything that was wrong with pop music during the decade of Ronald Reagan and “Family Ties.” He couldn’t even succeed as a one-hit wonder, because he actually had a second hit, “Together Forever.” There is some minimal amount of coolness that comes with being a one-hit wonder. But there is no such thing as a two-hit wonder. Having two hit singles before sliding into obscurity just makes you lame.

That’s what makes the Rickroll such a devious Internet prank. Well, that and the fact that Astley’s lyrics make him sound like a potentially dangerous stalker. First there was Friendster. Then MySpace. Then Facebook. But there is one social networking Web site that lets you truly appreciate how terrible your friends’ taste in music is —

In addition to letting you listen to a lot of music online and free of charge, can monitor the MP3s you play on your computer or iPod and match you with others who have similar musical tastes. You can also see what music your friends are listening to, and if it’s good, you can then e-mail your so-called friends and ask them why they haven’t already burned you a CD. (Editor’s note: The Decatur Daily’s staff and management do not condone music piracy.)

Of course, you’re more likely to discover that your friends, like most users, have rotten musical tastes. And in that case, you can mock them for it. I mean, really, Coldplay? Coldplay??? I thought I knew you people.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Charlton Heston: a conservative mugged by reality

If his obituaries are any indication, Charlton Heston will be remembered for two things: starring in lavish biblical epics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” and his Second Amendment activism.

Heston died Saturday at age 84, less than six years after he announced that he had been diagnosed with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Just about every report of Heston’s death focuses on the late actor’s conservative politics — a rarity in Hollywood — and, in particular, his longtime support of an individual’s right to own firearms, which culminated in his becoming president of the National Rifle Association in 1998.

Less attention is given to Heston’s starring roles in a trio of apocalyptic science-fiction films.
Irving Kristol, the founder of American neoconservatism, once described a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” That was his bumper-sticker explanation for why he and some of his fellow leftists moved right during the 1960s.

Heston’s movie characters during the same period can be described as conservatives who have been mugged by the future.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Heston starred in “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “The Omega Man” (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973). Each, in its own way, reflects the anxieties of American society during the Vietnam era, and depicts a world in which humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain.

Heston’s characters are cynical and world-weary. Sometimes they’re downright misanthropic, as in “Planet of the Apes,” when Heston’s wayward astronaut, Taylor, says he left Earth because somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.

How are Heston’s characters in these films conservatives? Consider what each represents. Although he doesn’t know it at first, Taylor represents the past. He’s a human trapped in a future where humanity has literally bombed itself back to the Stone Age, only to be replaced as Earth’s dominant species by apes. Evolution takes no prisoners, even if, fortunately for Taylor, the apes do.

Still, there is one way in which the apes reaffirm Taylor’s cynical brand of conservatism: They’re no better than men. They have the same class divisions and prejudices. If Taylor is a conservative, he is a conservative in the mode of the late political theorist Russell Kirk, for whom progress was just an illusion. The apes prove him right.

“The Omega Man” was Hollywood’s second attempt to film Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” the most recent version of which, starring Will Smith, came out last year.

In “The Omega Man,” Heston’s Robert Neville is the last man on Earth, and the embodiment of an industrial society that destroyed itself through biological warfare. Unlike the vampiric, mutated survivors of the plague, Neville still uses technology. He drives a car and uses electricity. The mutants, however, blame technology for humanity’s downfall and have embraced primitivism. Neville isn’t just the last man, he’s the last remnant of civilization in a world that blames civilization for everything that has gone wrong. The parallel between Neville vs. the mutants on the one hand and the political establishment vs. the 1960s counterculture on the other is inescapable.

Set in the year 2022, when overpopulation has led to food shortages and the threat of mass starvation, “Soylent Green” stars Heston as New York City police Detective Robert Thorn, whose murder investigation uncovers a far more sinister conspiracy. I hate to give away the ending, but this movie did come out 35 years ago. Thorn learns that soylent green, the processed food ration that feeds the masses, is made of people.

In “Soylent Green,” Heston is part of the establishment but finds himself pitted against it. You can’t trust “the man” even when you are “the man.”

During the midpoint of his acting career, Heston was a lonely Hollywood conservative playing establishment/conservative characters in films in which the characters’ conservatism becomes their undoing.

I wonder if he was aware of the irony.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The best show on TV returns for a final season

If nothing else, “Battlestar Galactica” vindicates one of my long-held beliefs: If you’re going to remake a movie or TV show, you should remake one that wasn’t all that good to begin with. That way, there’s little chance of screwing up.

The 1970s “Galactica” was, at best, a fair to middling children’s show, which is not what you really want in a series that depicts the near annihilation of the human race and its aftermath. Somehow — and maybe it’s just me — a holocaust doesn’t seem like appropriate subject matter for Sunday night’s family hour.

So, when I first read that the Sci-Fi Channel was launching a new, darker version of “Battlestar Galactica,” my first thought was that it could only improve on the original.
That, as it turned out, was an understatement.

It’s almost a cliché at this point to say “Battlestar Galactica” isn’t just the best science fiction show on television, it’s one of the best things on TV, period.

Now, after seemingly endless, agonizing months on hiatus, “Battlestar Galactica” returns Friday night for the start of its fourth and final season. And given the revelations of last season’s finale, I’d say the show’s return comes not a moment too soon.

“Battlestar Galactica” isn’t the type of show I’d recommend coming to late. It’s definitely best to watch all three previous seasons on DVD before jumping into the new season. But if you don’t have time for that, the Sci-Fi Channel has posted a handy eight-minute recap video of the story so far, along with the last five, jaw-dropping episodes of the third season, on its Web site,

Like the best American SF programs that came before it — “The Twilight Zone,” the original “Outer Limits,” “Firefly” and most of “Star Trek” up until “Star Trek: Voyager” — “Battlestar Galactica” demonstrates the ability of science fiction to tackle big subjects, whether they are political, religious or philosophical.

“Galactica” executive producer Ronald D. Moore and his writing team have cleverly turned what once was “Wagon Train” in space into a show that goes beyond its outer-space setting to address issues facing the United States and the world today. The battle between the surviving humans and the Cylons has so many parallels to America’s “war on terror” that it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Whether it’s the consequences of military occupation, such as when the Cylons invade the human settlement on New Caprica, the ethics of torture, or when and if suicide bombing is ever justified, “Galactica” hasn’t shied away from thorny questions. And it has done so in a way, I think, that is far more compelling than watching Jack Bauer save the world in a day or President Bartlet and his “West Wing” staff talking in circles.

You can’t just say the humans of “Galactica” are “us” and the Cylons are “them.” The humans are a polytheistic but officially secular, democratic society, while the Cylons are religious extremists bent on spreading the love of their one, true God — at gunpoint, if necessary. But it’s the humans who resort to terrorism and suicide bombings when the Cylons overrun their New Caprica encampment at the end of the second season. When you can’t fit either camp into the neatly tailored roles of contemporary politics, it forces you to see each side’s point of view.

If anything, the Cylons are more interesting than the humans. They’re torn between wanting to eradicate their former masters and wanting to bring them to God. They hate the humans who created them but have evolved to look like them and to have human emotions. The Cylons have a genocidal Oedipus complex.

Yes, the new “Battlestar Galactica” is just a little deeper than your average TV show. And I’m glad it’s back.