Review: Couldn’t fall for ‘Her’ (** of four)

For a movie about the unexpected romantic connection between a man and his computer, “Her” from writer/director Spike Jonze was oddly disengaging.

I must admit that I didn’t enter the film with a lot of energy on a lazy Saturday afternoon, but I was completely checked out and ultimately dissatisfied at the end of the film’s 2+ hours (although my two companions enjoyed it). I was so desperate for something energetic to happen that I was expecting/hoping the protagonist would jump off a building in the final scenes. Alas, no.*

Joaquin Phoenix does a decent job portraying Theodore Twombly, a relatively successful, yet schlubby, man who ironically works as an intermediary writing romantic and touching cards for others, but is unable to find romantic fulfillment for himself since before his marriage ended in divorce.

Enter Samantha, an artificial intelligence “operating system” voiced by Scarlett Johansson, whom Twombly develops a near-instant rapport with. While Twombly appears as a man who desperately needs a connection, Samantha has different motivations, but becomes as smitten as he after she absorbs the emails and other detritus of Phoenix’s life.

While the couple’s love apparently deepens as they explore the frontiers and boundaries of their nascent relationship, I continued to feel on the outside. Perhaps it may have been more engaging if the AI had a physical presence (although the film addresses that in a quirky way). I do not fault Johansson’s performance given what she had to work with.

Oftentimes, creators of TV and film are encouraged to show and not tell. Given the non-corporeal status of the titular character, Jonze has to resort to Samantha telling more often than not. Compounding that problem is that the dialog can be oddly clunky at times, such as in scenes were Samantha says she feels liberated by her lack of a body. The act of showing the development of the relationship falls on Phoenix’s shoulders, but his earnest effort failed to win me over.

The pacing of the movie is often languid, which had the unfortunate side effect of lulling me into a near stupor. Interspersed are rare frenetic and jarring moments — some of them deal with virtual sex experiences that aren’t necessarily obscene, but audibly suggestive. They are blatant enough to justify the film’s “R” rating.

On a positive note, the film is often beautiful and slyly futuristic — 3-D interactive games that work!, a Los Angeles subway that goes to the ocean!, high-speed rail in California!, etc. One of the brightest moments was a puckishly profane non-playable character in the game Phoenix plays.

The film is firmly set in Los Angeles, but occasionally includes other-worldly glimpses that likely reflect the secondary filming location in Singapore (the high-speed train and the Chinese language signs were easy tells).

Perhaps one of Jonze’s points is that people are as likely to succeed in finding unexpected ways to connect as they are to fail. One can see that theme repeated throughout the film, at Phoenix’s job, with the AI and other characters’ relationships.

Even in the end, when I wanted Phoenix’s character to jump off a building, at least he was with someone.

* – Such comments are about fictional characters. In reality, suicide is a serious matter and I wouldn’t kid about it. Know the signs. Go back to previous paragraph.

Two stars out of four.

Surfing Internet from train a breeze… when I could get online

Surfing the Web from the Surfliner

A window decal on a train at Los Angeles Union Station notes the arrival of Wi-Fi Internet service aboard Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner trains.

Taking the train to visit family in Southern California over the holidays gave me a chance to check out the new Wi-Fi Internet service from Amtrak. The service was convenient when it worked, but I often had problems connecting to the Web.

Dubbed Amtrak Connect, the free service is available on many regional routes including the Amtrak California services — the Pacific Surfliner in Southern California, the San Joaquin in the Central Valley and the Capitol Corridor connecting Sacramento to the Bay Area. Amtrak California rolled out the service just in time for the holiday travel season.

There was a cool surprise even before I boarded my first train. Many of the buses, which are operated by a contractor, also have Wi-Fi. When I started my trip aboard the Amtrak Thruway motorcoach from Chico to Stockton, I was able to get some work done as we sped down Highway 70. That’s something I couldn’t do if I was driving by myself.

As the San Joaquin train pulled out for Bakersfield, I sought to get online but ran into problems right off the bat. I’m not sure if it is a problem on my end, the network’s or a combination of the two.

Before getting into my difficulty, I should explain how the Wi-Fi works aboard the train. As I understand it, there is one car on the train that pulls in outside cell phone signals carrying the Internet connection. That one car then becomes the head of a local network providing the Internet connection to the rest of the cars in the train.

My issue wasn’t with the Internet connection. When it was available, it was fairly reliable and speedy for basic surfing for things such as email or Facebook. Amtrak Connect caps downloads to 10 MB and blocks some popular video/audio websites (but my Spotify streaming music app was able to make a connection although I didn’t fully test it).

There were some points where the connection lagged, but I suppose they were in areas where the cell phone networks aren’t as well established.

The biggest issue appeared to be how the Internet connection was established throughout the train. I could establish a connection in some cars, but very rarely in the cars where I was sitting for some reason. I was able to connect to the train’s network, but I wasn’t able to get the right connection to get on the Internet.

While I preferred the seats in the cars I chose (and I could do a whole series of posts about the different types of seats on these trains), I often moved to a different car for a while to get online.

I never was really able to determine what was going on. Unfortunately, I ran into this problem on nearly every train I rode during the Christmas break.

The immediate matter was that my computer couldn’t get the right Internet Protocol or IP address to connect until I moved cars, but I don’t know why. I thought it may be something on my computer because many Mac users have reported similar problems for different Wi-Fi networks (and I have had the problem at work). However, some people near me experienced the same problem.

I also thought it was possible the network ran out of addresses to give computers (but that doesn’t necessarily explain why changing cars often helped with the connection). I was riding on very full trains and I was surprised to see so many people on their smartphones and notebook computers. If that’s the case, I read it may be possible to change the network’s settings to allow more connections.

Regardless of where the problem originated, it would be nice if Amtrak Connect had some better help documents to assist people experiencing problems. Of course, if you can’t get online you may not be able to get to the documents.

When it works, the Wi-Fi is a great service to provide passengers. While many people, myself included, like to tout the ability to relax and be somewhat isolated from the hectic outside world aboard a train, Wi-Fi helps those who wish or need to stay connected or productive while traveling. It certainly helped me — I posted two blog entries while aboard the train and got the idea for this current post.

In addition to providing an amenity for passengers, I’ve read that the Internet access can also help with train operations. One component is being able to constantly relay train status data, including its location, back to a central office.

Conveniently, Amtrak Connect’s homepage provides passengers with an estimate of where the train is (although you have to reload the page to get updated locations). Unfortunately, it appears to triangulate its location based off of cell phone signals and sometimes the system gets it hilariously wrong.

This was apparent when the Pacific Surfliner sped down the coast toward San Diego. The map status showed the train running on (or under) the ocean. Based on my estimate, it was about 4.8 miles away from the actual tracks.

Rails? We don't need rails where we're going.

Rails? We don't need rails where we're going. Amtrak Connect guesses train location, sometimes to hilarious effect.

Betty White an unlikely SNL fit, but could do well with backups

One of the latest Internet campaigns that seems to be gaining traction is a push to get comedienne Betty White to host an upcoming episode of “Saturday Night Live.” While she showed some toughness and strong comedic chops in a Super Bowl ad, I don’t know if the 88-year-old would want to go through the grueling, week-long gauntlet of live television.
The discussion kicked on Super Bowl Sunday when White appeared in a Snickers ad as a player of a rough game of pick-up football. She gets bullied about until she eats a Snickers candy bar and turns into a younger player. The spot, which also featured a Pleasant Valley High grad, ranked highly by USA Today’s Ad Meter.
Since then, people have been pushing for “Saturday Night Live” to offer White a hosting gig. A Facebook fan page had more than 441,000 fans, as of this writing. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker imagined how the show might go.
The effort seems to be gathering strength, according to EWs Michael Ausiello.
I’m kinda excited about her getting this opportunity, but I was initially leery about her shouldering the entire show herself. Thankfully, it seems like SNL may give her a bench of relief pitchers, so to speak.
Ausiello reports that SNL producers are close to a deal with a possible catch — that White is teamed up to host with a “Women of Comedy” dream team. Names bandied about include Molly Shannon, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — all good choices, but I hope they cast a wider net than just former SNL alumni.
Having a dream team co-host with Betty makes a lot of sense. It could be better than my idea of just having her pop up in a few Digital Shorts (which I think could still be funny and work well as viral video).
Betty is a trooper — she deserves to be the starter and should be the star attraction. However, hosting the show can be a grind. This is based on what I’ve read of the production — including the epic book “Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live” by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. NPR’s “Fresh Air” also apparently has an interview with Tina Fey discussing behind-the-scenes of the show.
During any given show week, there are days of work of turning ideas into tangible sketches for broadcast. On Saturday, there are rehearsals leading to an 8 p.m. dress rehearsal filmed before a live studio audience. Based on that rehearsal, executive producer Lorne Michaels determines which sketches will air live at 11:35 p.m.
If Betty hosts, she would need to be “on” for more than 6 hours on Saturday (the two performances and additional morning rehearsals). That’s a lot to ask of anybody, but if anybody can do it, White can.
What White may lack compared to the pretty faces hosting this year, she makes up for with moxie, a proven history of performing in live situations, and sharp sense of humor that has stayed fresh over the years.

Google’s holiday WiFi gift – 15 of 47 airports already had free Internet

I love free stuff — lots of people do. That’s probably one big reason why Google’s offer of free WiFi at 47 participating airports during the holidays (through Jan. 15) sounds so nice. But looks can be deceiving.
I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I peeked at the list of airports and was intrigued at what I saw — several airports where I knew they already offered free Internet (including Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Diego).
A couple dozen Google searches revealed that nearly a third of the 47 airports participating in Google’s program had pre-existing free WiFi in place (view the list). Two more airports (Seattle-Tacoma and Burbank) stated they would participate in Google’s program and then continue offering free service after Jan. 15.
Part of this rubbed me the wrong way — could Google claim credit for offering free WiFi at airports where it already existed? Could it also claim that it was offering free WiFi at other airports with free Internet (like at Chico, Calif. and Hancock, Mich.)?
According to, many airports not on Google’s list offer free Internet. Even that list is incomplete (I noticed that Chico and Hancock aren’t listed).
To be fair, someone has to pay for Internet access that is offered for “free” to the end user. According to Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, the San Jose airport has had free Internet since May 2008. Officials said Google was offsetting the cost of offering the free service during the holidays.
Ultimately, I can be more jolly than Grinch-y about Google’s gift. For a limited time, Google is offering free Internet at more than 30 airports where there currently is a fee (typically about $8/day). Hopefully, more airports will pursue free Internet solutions in the future.
Also, Google will match up to $250,000 worth of donations made over the WiFi networks to three charities.
A list of the airports participating in the Google Free Holiday WiFi is available after the jump.

Continue reading

For want of spite, Twitter was lost

Less than a day after the microblogging Web site Twitter was briefly knocked offline and social Web site Facebook was hampered, a picture of what happened began to develop and who was targeted. Instead of some sort of corporate or international intrigue, it appeared like the attacks were a massively misguided effort to silence one individual.
It was pretty clear that Twitter, Facebook and others were hampered because of a Denial of Service attack — where a Web site is hit with so many requests or Web traffic that it buckles under the pressure. According to BBC News, the target was believed to be one blogger, named Georgy, who has criticized Russia’s role in last year’s war against the country of Georgia, the BBC reported.
Facebook officials said the attack was directed at the blogger’s page, but it impacted the rest of the service as well.
Talk about overkill. In this effort to target one individual, the people responsible attacked several networks affecting hundreds of millions of people. It would be like nuking a large city in an effort to kill one man, or burning the haystack to get at that needle.
If the intent was to silence one person’s opinion — it will probably backfire. More people will now probably be more interested in what this one person has to say because of this effort.
Additionally, cyberterrorism is not likely to engender the hackers to the general public. Personally speaking, I feel a little bit of animus toward whoever would be willing to launch such a foolhardy and unsophisticated attack.
While the target was apparently Georgy, also known as Cyxymu, it’s not known who launched the attack. The blogger apparently blames Russia although some experts said there is no evidence that this is the case.
I definitely hope that we find the parties responsible. It’s also a reminder to Web sites that they need to develop more defenses against these types of attacks.