Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history

11-Jul-14 10:56 AM by
Filed under Reviews, Television; 2 comments.

In the fifteen years since I cancelled my cable service, the television landscape has changed: "reality TV" was invented, medical and legal procedural dramas boomed, and HDTV became the norm. So it was interesting to watch and review the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire for Computerworld. Not being an AMC subscriber, I bought a season pass for the first four episodes on Amazon Instant Video and paid for the fifth episode individually.

It's hard to judge any show by its early episodes — I doubt any of the various Star Trek series would've lasted long by that metric. So I tried to keep my critical eye at bay for the first few episodes, which was not easy. The three main characters — Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) — are trying to develop one of the first IBM clones of 1983, but their subterfuge and machinations, with both corporations and each other. I roll my eyes at such drama for the same reason that I stopped watching soap operas. MacMillian, who physically reminds me of a cross between John Cusack and Andy Garcia, is a vile businessman who oozes deceit and smarm. He's a character you love to hate.

Halt and Catch Fire

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillian. What a jerk.


But there are some really nice moments of character development, too. Clark, the show's Steve Wozniak-like character, struggles to realize his dream of creating the ultimate computer and will hitch his wagon to whoever can help him get there. At the same time, he's trying to be a good husband and father, though his family clearly isn't his priority.

Overall, I've enjoyed watching the first five episodes and will likely continue watching the series as time permits. For more details, read my full review on Computerworld.com, "Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history".

It's easy to fall in love with Her, Computerworld, and MIT

20-Jan-14 7:30 PM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on It's easy to fall in love with Her, Computerworld, and MIT

This month marks two one-year anniversaries. January 12 was my departure from Computerworld, the magazine and website where I'd been an editor for six years; January 22 commemorates my arrival at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I now work on the MIT Medical marketing team. I was concerned that leaving the publishing field would diminish my value as, and opportunities to be, a journalist. Much to my pleasant surprise, the opposite has proven true, with resources and collaborations now possible that weren't a year ago.

When Monica Castillo of the Cinema Fix podcast recommended I see the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, I sensed the opportunity for a story. Monica had previously gotten me into a press screening of Jobs, which I turned into a review for Computerworld. With Her's focus on a lonely bachelor's romantic relationship with a Siri-like mobile operating system, this film also seemed up the alley of Computerworld's readers. I sold my pitch to their news editor.

Here's the thing about writing film reviews for Computerworld: it's a publication that covers IT, not cinema. For the article to be a good fit, it would have to connect to the IT angle somehow. Past methods of doing so wouldn't work. For my first Computerworld movie reviews — The Bourne Ultimatum, Live Free or Die Hard, Iron Man, and Iron Man 2 — I paired with a security expert and analyzed that aspect of the movie's tech. But Computerworld didn't feel I needed a co-writer for Her. Jobs had plenty of historical fact to assess, but Her was a fictional, futuristic work. My editor suggested that "It would be great if we could set the context around the melding of technology and day to day life as opposed to just a straight out 'this was a good/bad movie'." I wanted to do more than that — but what do I know about artificial intelligence?


Fortunately, whatever technical knowledge I lack, MIT has in spades. Right in my own academic backyard is CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I reached out to the MIT News Office, and Abby Abazorius connected me with principal research scientist Boris Katz. On short notice, Katz made himself available to discuss the basics of artificial intelligence and consciousness and how they compared with the capabilities of Samantha in Her. Even though Katz had not seen the film, my line of questions based on my own viewing opened him right up. After just 45 minutes of conversation, I had ample material to transcribe.

The resulting article, "It's easy to fall in love with Her", was published on January 11 — a year to the Friday that I left Computerworld for MIT. I found it a fitting manifestation of the ways in which I can continue to be a contributing member of the Computerworld community, even more so now that I have access to everything MIT has to offer. Who knows what other stories lie about MIT, waiting to be unearthed?

Jobs movie applies its own reality distortion field

19-Aug-13 1:45 PM by
Filed under Reviews; Comments Off on Jobs movie applies its own reality distortion field

Less than two years since Steve Jobs' passing, his life story hits the silver screen today. The limited release of Jobs, the feature-length film directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher, was delayed from its original April release after it received poor reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. The official release will please Apple fans with its casting and acting as much as it will frustrate them with its script and dramatic reinterpretation of events.

Josh Gad & Ashton Kutcher

Josh Gad & Ashton Kutcher as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.


Continue reading my review at Computerworld.com »

A big thanks to the Cinema Fix weekly movie review podcast, whose co-host got me into the Jobs press screening that made my review possible!

Darth Vader's License to Intimidate

20-May-11 12:00 PM by
Filed under Star Wars; Comments Off on Darth Vader's License to Intimidate

Go to any science fiction convention and you'll see geeks sporting their hearts on their sleeves — or, more accurately, their license plates. Vanity plates reading everything from "X-WING" to "FIREFLY" are not uncommon sightings.

However, such a display was not something I expected to see in my own workplace's parking lot:

(Note that clicking on the thumbnails will result in loading some very large files!)

I eventually tracked down the Jeep Wrangler's owner to Computerworld's COO, whom I quizzed: "So are you a big Star Wars nut? Or were you just looking to intimidate folks?" His response:

My family has a tradition of having grandchildren call their grandparents some name other than grandpa or grandma. Nana, papa, grandma, granddad, etc. are some of names selected over time by various grandparents. I chose Vader pretty much just to bug my mother. So my three grandchildren are going to call me Vader — as soon as they can talk; all are under six months old at this point.

Courtesy this gentleman's vivid imagination, an entire generation will grow up unafraid of the Dark Lord of the Sith. How will they feel when they learn his true origin? Will they rebel against their seemingly loving grandfather? Will the Star Wars saga play out once again, pitting blood against blood? Only time will tell… Until then, he can at least be counted on for a lollipop or two.

The Technology and Security of Iron Man 2

17-May-10 10:49 AM by
Filed under Reviews; Comments Off on The Technology and Security of Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 Three years ago, my then-new employment at Computerworld partnered me with security maven Angela Gunn to produce a series of articles on a topic of mutual interest: geeky films. To make it appropriate for our employer's audience, we dissected the IT in films, she from a security perspective and I from a cinematic one. We wrote three such articles before Angela found employment elsewhere.

Movies are not a core topic for an enterprise IT magazine, so the series was put on the backburner. Fortunately, I recently found a new co-author with whom to collaborate. Bill Brenner of CSO Online, a publication affiliated with Computerworld, and I decide to revive the "Security Goes to the Movies" brand with a few changes. Instead of writing in two voices with one commenting on the other, we tried integrating our commentary into a consistent tone, making for a less jarring reading experience.

Our first outing was to see Iron Man 2 opening night with former Computerworld copyeditor Gene Demaitre, with whom I wrote the similarly cinematic IT piece, "Do Sci-Fi Films Get Advanced Tech Right?". Angela and I had reviewed the original Iron Man, and I was eager to put its successor to the same scrutiny.

The first fruit of this labor is now online:

The summer blockbuster season officially kicked off last Friday with Iron Man 2, an action-packed superhero flick that had the fifth-highest-grossing opening weekend in Hollywood's history. Whether you like the movie or not, at least one thing about it rings true — the plot and the characters provide a striking reflection of today's tech security industry.

Marvel's metallic superhero was first portrayed on the silver screen by Robert Downey Jr. in 2008's Iron Man. In that film, playboy industrialist Tony Stark has a crisis of conscience and brings the manufacture of weapons at his defense company to a halt. To chase down terrorists who have misappropriated his munitions, Stark builds himself an armored, weaponized exoskeleton suit (that can fly!) and becomes Iron Man, making his invention an object of desire to military profiteers.

The sequel is much the same, with more villains, more conniving and more suits. A montage catches us up on what's happened since the previous movie: With no country's military able to match Iron Man's technological superiority, Stark's vigilante action and deterrent policy have brought about a worldwide détente.

Since Stark is the only person who knows what makes Iron Man tick, the world's security rests entirely in his hands. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government wants to reproduce the Iron Man suit for its own militaristic purposes; the debate over private vs. public security forms one of the movie's core conflicts.

You can read the rest of our story at Computerworld.com (or CSO Online, if you prefer). Bill and I pretty happy with it and look forward to working together again.

One passage was rightfully left on the cutting room floor as it had little relevance to security technology, but Showbits readers may find it helpful to know:

There is a scene in Monaco in which Stark acts heroically without his suit, underscoring the fact that superpowers do not a superhero make. But the pendulum swings both ways, as later, we see an armored Stark making an ass of himself, akin to the Iron Man comic book plot "Demon in a Bottle." When he does battle evildoers, the film focuses tightly on the action, which provides less context for the overall scene; had the director pulled back on the camera a bit more, we'd have a better grasp of what's happening when.

Have you seen the film that kicked off the summer blockbuster season? What did you think, from any perspective?

The Best of the Super Bowl's IT Commercials

07-Feb-10 2:45 PM by
Filed under Television; Comments Off on The Best of the Super Bowl's IT Commercials

The Super Bowl is about to begin, and for many people, the main attraction is the commercials. Since recent studies show that a three-hour telecast of a football game has only 11 minutes of actual gameplay, this evening will be a greater bounty for advertisement viewers than for sports enthusiasts.

If history is any indication, it'll be an especially good evening for geeks. Computerworld is running a gallery of ten favorite IT commercials from Super Bowls past (and two terrible ones). Yes, Apple's iconic and much-parodied 1984 ad is there — how could it not be? — but I think my favorite of the lot is "Cat Herders", reminiscent of one of the AFI's funniest films of all-time, City Slickers:

Meanwhile, Network Associates' ad came 15 years after that seminal geek film, WarGames:

What are some of your most memorable Super Bowl ads, from either this year or ones past?

To Boldly Go Where No Mac Has Gone Before

17-Sep-09 4:48 PM by
Filed under Celebrities, Star Trek; Comments Off on To Boldly Go Where No Mac Has Gone Before

Every now and then, something will pop up in an auction that sets geeks drooling. Whether it's an undiscovered Macintosh prototype or a famous movie prop, the chance to own a piece of history can drive us to extremes. But the combined fanaticism of Apple devotees and sci-fi fans will likely have more destructive potential than the Genesis device when this relic shows up on sensors: an early Macintosh Plus, given by Apple Computer Inc. to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Read the rest of this entry at Computerworld.com »

Do Sci-Fi Films Get Advanced Tech Right?

11-May-09 2:47 PM by
Filed under Films, Star Trek; 1 comment.

Summer is a popular season not just for blockbuster films, but also for highly technical ones. Last year featured Batman and Iron Man, and their associated gadgetry, while the previous summer marked the 25th anniversary of Tron. My employer's sister publication, PC World, recently capitalized on this seasonal trend with an article blandly titled "Five movies starring computers". Showbits contributor and former co-worker GeneD. and I felt we could could compile our intimate knowledge of the genre into something better than a brief and unthematic list of 20-year-old movies. Since our outlet would be Computerworld — "The voice of IT management" — we chose a correspondingly relevant thesis: how sci-fi movies predict the development of technology, and whether reality is approaching or diverging from that future. We further categorized our topic into six specific kinds of technology: artificial intelligence; genetic engineering; virtual reality; cybersecurity; surveillance; and military.

GeneD. and I each tackled three of the six sections (can you tell which are mine?). We collaborated on the introduction and conclusion, I arranged it all into a cohesive whole, and editors Val and Barbara applied some insightful packaging, including the "At the movies/In reality" contrast. GeneD. and I are both pretty pleased with the final article, "Do sci-fi films get advanced tech right?", feeling it hits upon a variety of significant sci-fi films without requiring a previous knowledge of the more esoteric ones.

Though the article and the new Star Trek movie came out the same day, our piece isn't really about the science of Star Trek. Unfortunately, the flood of such analyses timed to coincide with the film's release made it difficult for our story to stand out. But if those are your druthers, there are plenty of great articles that focus specifically on Gene Roddenberry's pseudoscience, including "4 Star Trek technologies that are almost here (and 3 that are really far off)", as well as Phil Plait's review of the scientific accuracy of the new film.

If you like science fiction and technology, I think you'll enjoy our Computerworld article. What other genres of films (such as James Bond and his gadgets) or science (like space exploration) do you think would make for a similarly interesting read? Point us in the direction of our next article, and we'll see what we can do!