I’m a Macbook user who just purchased a Chromebook, and I’m seriously impressed

When my Macbook crapped out on me a few weeks ago, and the repairs were looking likely to cost several hundred dollars, I began to get more and more desperate for a usable but inexpensive alternative for my computing needs.  After extensive research into a variety of options, I ultimately settled on the Acer Chromebook 11 CB3-111.  And you know what?  It’s pretty cool so far.

At only $199, this Chromebook is not only affordable, but allows me to take care of all the basic functions I was using my Macbook for.  Off and on all evening I’ve been grabbing it to read articles online, check my Facebook and email, and even watch Youtube videos.  I’m also typing this short blog post on it.  In fact, after multiple hours of use tonight, chromebookI still have 6 hours of battery life left.  At this rate, I may not have to charge it up for another day or two.  That feels pretty good after dealing with the short battery life on my Macbook for the past couple years.

Because this laptop uses Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, it helps to be familiar with the Chrome web browser, GMail, Google Docs, and other such Google applications.  Because I was already using many of them regularly, transitioning from my Mac to the Chromebook has been pretty easy.  Save for a few minor adjustments, such as using different trackpad gestures and getting used to a new keyboard, the whole thing has been just about seamless.  Even setting up the machine straight out of the box was simple!  It booted up quickly, took me through a brief menu, asked for my Google username and password, and I was set.  I am by no means a computer guru, and I’m telling you there was nothing to it.

So, what are its downsides?  For me, not many.  But I’ve read reviews where people have complained about the matte screen and the design being largely plastic.  I researched this Chromebook before I bought it, and knew about these “limitations” going in.  I could not care less.  It’s a lightweight, eminently usable little laptop and, best of all, at this price tag I feel like I’m going to get my money’s worth and much more.

I still plan to get my Macbook fixed eventually.  But while a couple weeks ago I felt desperate for something to tide me over, I’m now thinking the Macbook can sit on the shelf and collect dust a little while longer.  The Chromebook and I are getting along just fine.

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Film Review: “The Unbelievers” starring Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

“There are no scientific authorities,” the physicist Lawrence Krauss says at the top of The Unbelievers.  While there are certainly scientific experts, Krauss says that no expert should be above questioning.  So why, then, do so many of us make religion off-limits from critical inquiry and ridicule?  Why are we threatened when our religion is challenged by evidence?  Are we truly willing to believe something that is wrong just because it may make us feel better?
unbelievers
The Unbelievers is a documentary film which aims to illuminate these very issues.  It follows evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world spreading a message of science and reason in opposition to religion and superstition.  With a runtime of just slightly over an hour, our subjects have their work cut out for them from the very beginning.

Krauss, with an executive producer credit on the film, comes off as slightly more likable than the often sour Dawkins, and probably with more screen time as well,  though he is a lesser known public intellectual.  He is shown walking through a crowd at the Reason Rally shaking hands, taking pictures with admirers, and seems always to be wearing a brightly colored pair of low-top Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.  You can’t help but be drawn to the guy.

But give Dawkins his due as well.  While he does glare incredulously at a religious leader who misinterprets evolution during a debate, and can come across as somewhat grumpy at times, he speaks with reverence of “the poetry of reality,” and with an eloquent turn of phrase alternately commands an audience’s every attention, then quickly sends them into passionate applause.  His is a rare gift, and it speaks to both his knowledge and incredible charisma that he has been at the forefront of the science vs. religion debate for so long.

Then again, why shouldn’t Dawkins be angry?  I’m downright pissed myself.  Whether some of us want to admit it or not, religion is a force which does a great deal of harm.  It leads to the cover-up of child sexual abuse, to the witch hunts of Salem in the 1600s, and the Inquisition, to name a few.  And let’s not forget the ultimate faith-based initiative of recent memory:  the horrific events of September 11th, 2001.

Sure, there are positive elements to religion as well.   Religious people will say that they get their morality from their holy books.  They learned to be kind to one another, or to give to the poor and support charities.  These are good things, I agree.  But do we need to believe in a timeless, undetectable wizard in the sky to do them?  We don’t.  We should do them simply because they are good, not for some perceived reward we may believe we will get in the afterlife.  Besides, if you are only being kind because you want a reward, are you really all that moral anyway?
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In keeping with the theme that no expert should go unchallenged, there are scenes in the film in which Dawkins and Krauss are at odds, which I enjoyed.  Dawkins, for instance, speaks openly about his lack of trust in politicians who do not accept science, comparing them to a physician who believes babies come from storks.  Krauss, in opposition, feels that there is a certain degree of privacy that should be respected in these matters.  Provided, say, a politician does not wear his supernatural religious beliefs on his sleeve (and if the physician can successfully remove a spleen despite his ignorance of sexual reproduction) they are better kept out of public discourse.

Overall, though, this film was a mixed bag for me.  While there are plenty of interesting conversations that occur which left me with food for thought, there was also a noticeable absence of direction.  What you will see in The Unbelievers is a collection of vignettes of two scientists talking about science and atheism, both with each other and assembled audiences.  What you won’t see, however, is any kind of linear direction or theme that keeps the film moving forward.  You could literally re-edit it in a completely different order, and have the exact same experience while watching it.  It is a movie that says a lot, but never actually leads anywhere.

As an “unbeliever” myself, this was a documentary I was very much looking forward to seeing.  While there is much about it I enjoyed, in the end its shortcomings were too big to ignore, and ultimately held it back from becoming the film it should have been.

Horror Films I Have Known and Loved: 3 Movie Recommendations

As the summer of 2013 winds down, and the September air turns to an autumn chill, it’s nice to sit in your favorite chair with a tasty beverage and….take in a classic slasher film.

Yeah, I know, maybe that’s not everyone’s idea of a good time. But, just in case you’re anything like me, here’s a few recommendations for late-night horror viewing that I think you just might enjoy.

DEATHDREAM
Released under several titles, including “Dead of Night” and “The Night Andy Came Home,” 1972’s DeathDream was one of the first films to deal with the reality of the mental health issues veterans had after coming back from Vietnam. Taking its cue from the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” and a “be careful what you wish for” type of vibe, the filmmakers hid the message in the tale of a family’s “dead” son returning from war not quite the same as deathdreamhe was when he left. You see, while Andy was once happy and fun-loving, he is now very quiet, doesn’t care much to be around his old friends, and needs human blood to keep from decaying. So, ya know, kinda like post-traumatic stress disorder, only more vampiric and zombified!

I like the performances in this movie.  Richard Backus, who plays Andy Brooks, was notable mostly for his acting and writing for soap operas. But the presence he shows here is chilling. Watch him stare silently at his family from his rocking chair and try not to get the creeps! The parents, too, are outstanding. Played by Academy Award nominees Lynn Carlin and John Marley, they anchor the film well as they react to their son’s increasingly bizarre behavior which threatens to fracture the family.

Featuring the debut of horror make-up and special effects icon Tom Savini, the writing of Alan Ormsby, as well as the direction of Bob Clark, who would later go on to make classic comedies like “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story,” I absolutely recommend DeathDream to anyone looking for a bit of social commentary with their horror flick.

MANIAC
Do you remember Joe Spinell? If you don’t recall the name, you probably remember his work. He played Will Cicci in The Godfather parts 1 and 2, was the personnel officer Robert De Niro goes to see about a cab job at the beginning of Taxi Driver and, perhaps most notably, the loan shark Gazzo that Rocky Balboa knows and/or works for in the early Rocky movies. He remained a working actor until his untimely death at the age of 52 in 1989.

But in the prime of his career, in 1980, Spinell created a character named Frank Zito that would live on after him. maniac-spinellZito, a highly psychotic man traumatized by childhood abuse at the hands of the mother he loved, stalks and kills women on the streets of New York City, taking their scalps as trophies. While one could argue this type of film is beneath the obvious talent of Spinell, it is hard to deny that the world he created in this film is without artistic merit. Aside from the ongoing inner dialogue of a madman, there are several disturbing scenes.  One in particular will curdle your blood as the Frank Zito character explains to an intended victim how he has no intention of killing her, but instead wants only to “keep her.”

Maniac remains influential enough that even the hobbits want in! Elijah Wood currently stars as Frank Zito in a recent remake that has earned some positive reviews. But there is seldom anything quite like the original. And if you can handle the psychologically distressing kill scenes, not to mention the horrors Zito keeps in his apartment, I think you’ll enjoy this film. While it would be easy enough to label this a horror movie, Joe Spinell himself didn’t think of it that way.

“The horrible thing is that people like this really exist,” he said. Perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all.

TARGETS
Not so much a traditional horror film as much as it is a taut thriller, Targets does star a legend of the horror genre, the one and only Boris Karloff.  Karloff, in some ways, plays himself in this movie. As Byron Orlok, he is an aging star of the screen disillusioned with the film industry and his place in it. He announces his sudden retirement, much to the shock of studio executives, and plans to walk away from this part of his life forever.
targets
Meanwhile, across town, Bobby Thompson has killed his wife and mother, hoarded a variety of guns, and goes on a shooting spree, picking people off at random. Shades of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper, are clear, though modern audiences will draw parallels to the Beltway Snipers of recent history as well.

Agreeing to make one last public performance at the screening of his final film, the lives of Orlok and Thompson intersect, and the results of the confrontation will change both of them forever.

Perhaps it may surprise you, but for an actor (Karloff) who gave some of the monumental performances in horror film history, and having portraying characters as diverse as Frankenstein’s Monster, Detective Wong, and even voicing How The Grinch Stole Christmas, this, to me, is right up there with his finest work. Marking the feature debut of director Peter Bogdanovich, Targets is an appropriate swan-song for Karloff, who filmed it shortly before his death in 1969, and a must-see if you appreciate a good thrill.

Happy viewing, everyone!

Have you seen any of these movies and want to share your thoughts? Or, perhaps you have a few recommendations of your own? Have at it in the comments below.

Book Review: “Life’s Operating Manual” by Tom Shadyac

Disclosure: I was sent a free copy of “Life’s Operating Manual” by Hay House Publishing for the purpose of this review

If you haven’t heard of Tom Shadyac, you probably have heard of his movies. Beginning in the 90s, he teamed with Jim Carrey to direct three of the star’s biggest comedies. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar and, in 2003, Bruce Almighty. Along the way he worked with Robin Williams in Patch Adams and Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor.

shadyacbookWhile Shadyac may have a knack for showcasing comedic performances, I’m not so sure that this spiritual stuff is his forte.

His book, “Life’s Operating Manual,” was born out of a documentary he produced called I AM. The book, much like the film, is Shadyac’s attempt to figure out how we have gone so wrong. He looks at war, poverty, environmental destruction and other societal ills not so much as problems in and of themselves, but as symptoms of a larger sickness. And it is only by following the directions of, yes, an “operation manual” for life, that we can begin to find out who we truly are and start to heal the world.

It’s a noble goal, and I believe Shadyac is sincere in his desire. This, after all, is a guy who, at one time, lived in a mansion and flew on private jets. After a bicycle accident and its related series of lingering injuries led him to believe he was dying, he gave away much of his money, moved into a mobile home (in Malibu, but still…) and began to teach college.

Shadyac begins to make his case by the use of line graphs, like on page 23, that show population growth, technological advancement and environmental issues, such as global warming, correlating with each other by aggregating it all into a single line. The same graph also charts morality with a second line, but it is not exactly clear how he quantifies any this data. Without knowing that, it is difficult to understand his conclusions.

graph

He defines ethical progress as laws being codified, the legal abolishment of slavery, and discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation and gender drifting away; claiming this all began around 2,000 BC. But the same chart shows that our degree of morality, while going through ups and downs, was the same in 50,000 BC as it is today. What?!? How is this possible when he just wrote that our ethical progress began 4000 years ago? I could be accused of a dim view of human nature at times, but I give us a bit more credit for our advancement. Either way, the case isn’t made one way or the other, so we are left to just kind of take his word for it. But if it is true, as the graph shows, that we are on an uptick of moral progress, why just a few pages later do we need a “true revolution;” one that will “turn things completely around”?

Scattered throughout the book are dialogues that Shadyac has had with himself, as aspects of his personality called “Fear” and “Truth” duke it out with one other. My problem is that far too often they are New Age tautology that don’t seem to say a whole lot. Take this passage, one of the book’s earliest, from page 11:

TRUTH: People are not fallen. They have forgotten.
FEAR: Forgotten? Forgotten what?
TRUTH: Who they are.
FEAR: That again! Are there no other questions to ask? Fine, write your book. I won’t remain silent, you know. I will speak my mind.
TRUTH: You will speak from the mind, certainly.
FEAR: And what’s wrong with that? Our minds are what make us different. Descartes said, I think therefore I am.
TRUTH: And I say, I AM, therefore I think.
FEAR: You confuse me. What is it you want to accomplish here?
TRUTH: Nothing. It is already accomplished.

Great. So what am I reading this book for?

tomshadyacYou may have noticed the examples I have used are very early in the book. That is because I couldn’t quite make it halfway through before I put it down. I’m just not predisposed for the metaphysical, New Age-style “Truth,” I guess. If you are, you may enjoy it more than I did. Perhaps I’ll pick it up another time and try again, but I’m afraid not much changes.

The late Roger Ebert reviewed the movie I AM that this book was borne out of. He describes scenes in which Shadyac demonstrates belief that yogurt can read our minds, that our brain and heart can tell the future, and that we are all connected at the quantum level. It’s flapdoodle of the variety that was pushed on a credulous public in movies like “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” six years prior and debunked soon thereafter by a variety of people. Ebert chides Shadyac for not asking questions or being skeptical.

If this is the type of thing I missed by not reading the rest of the book, I don’t feel as if I missed out. Instead, I’ll be happy to stuff this book in a random drawer which, come to think of it, is probably where a variety of other operating manuals I’ve accumulated over the years are.

Book Review: “An Atheist in the FOXhole” by Joe Muto

In April of 2012, Joe Muto made headlines around the world as the anonymous “Fox Mole,” a staffer at the cable news giant who was surreptitiously feeding Gawker.com embarrassing unaired video of political candidates, as well as dishing dirt from inside the newsroom about the network’s biggest stars. It lasted all of about two days before he was found out and summarily dismissed. He went on to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft and computer tampering, perform some community service and, ultimately, sign a low six-figure book deal from Dutton.

foxholeThat book, “An Atheist in the FOXhole,” is deceptive in a couple of different ways. The title, which as an atheist myself I love, may possibly mislead some into thinking it is a manifesto of godlessness. That would be an unfortunate presumption as Muto mentions his own non-belief a grand total or maybe three times, if that, and the book in no way travels down a road of secularism or anti-religious ramblings. Not that it would have been a bad thing from my perspective, but that is simply not what the book is about. Secondly, the marketing of the book itself as merely an insider’s trashing of Fox News belies what I feel is a more broad and satisfying story; one in which the ethical dilemma of hiding your personal beliefs in exchange for professional gain is explored, as well as how working in the hectic television news industry can take a toll on personal relationships.

But, of course, while all that may be a welcome addition, it’s likely not why many people will want to read this book. They want the dirt! And that’s okay, too, because there’s plenty of it.

Bill O’Reilly, the highly rated host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” makes many appearances. While his gruff demeanor is on full display as he belittles and downgrades Muto and his other underlings during pitch meetings, it’s the stories about his dustups with upper management, as well as other Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity (they can’t stand each other) that make for even more entertaining reading. You read other funny tidbits as well; from Bill’s inability to understand the concept of wireless printing, thus forcing his staff to simply tell him they are “faxing” him documents, to the story behind the legendary “Jack Mehoffer” email. Most any story involving O’Reilly is funny because Muto successfully captures his immense presence. You can see and hear the tirades playing out in your mind.

Then again, some Bill-O moments are less comical than they are downright embarrassing. Here I am speaking of the sexual harassment debacle involving Andrea Mackris and O’Reilly’s odd, yet extraordinarily detailed, sexual fantasies involving a loofah mitt and falafel. Bill’s “Factor” staff were basically forced to walk on eggshells around him more than usual, while also having to tread very carefully when ordering Middle Eastern lunch items, lest he believe they were making fun of him.

mutoBut Muto is wise in including a softer, more human side of Papa Bear, too, explaining that despite all the grief O’Reilly put him through, there is a latent affection still present. He details Bill’s fondness for his children, which leads him to keep incredibly short office hours in order to spend as much time as possible with them. His love of a free buffet, in which he is found bull-rushing his way to the front of the line for a hot dog, despite the millions in salary he pulls down each year. And how the sizable proceeds of the corny merchandise Bill promotes at the end of each episode of “The Factor” go directly to charity.

But that’s really just one part of the story. He explains why he went undercover for Gawker in the first place, and the method by which he was found out. You’ll also learn plenty about the inner workings of the Fox right-wing empire, including surprising revelations about whether or not the talent truly receive “marching orders,” the archaic video playback system that always seemed on the verge of breaking down, and the curious peccadillos of a variety of on-air personalities that manifest during off-camera moments.

What’s next for Joe Muto is unknown. It is a strong possibility that his actions as the “Fox News Mole” have cost him any opportunity of finding work in television news again. CNN and MSNBC, for instance, may simply find him untrustworthy. But he has produced here an enlightening tale about the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of Fox News, and one that I found a great deal of enjoyment in reading. I am pleased to recommend it to you.

On a related note, this past Sunday on Strange Frequencies Radio, myself and my friend/co-host Bobby Nelson spoke to Mr. Muto about this book and his time at Fox News. Click here to find out more information about the episode, which is available as a download, or on iTunes and Stitcher in podcast form.

FOX’s “The Following” Lacks Originality

They may as well have called this one “The Forgery.”

The Following,” a new series on FOX, stars Kevin Bacon, who plays former FBI agent Ryan Hardy.  Hardy is a psychologically damaged investigator who once captured notorious serial killer Joe Carroll, nearly being killed in the process.  Carroll is a brilliant literary professor who uses references to Edgar Allen Poe in his killings in order to “create art.”  One of the signatures of his murders involve removing the eyes from his victims.  After Carroll escapes, Hardy is lured from exile to capture him once again.

thefollowingSound familiar?  It should if you’re at all a fan of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books or the movies they spawned.  The character archetypes and storyline are nearly beat for beat identical to “Red Dragon.”  In that story, FBI agent Will Graham has already captured Lecter, having nearly been killed in the process.  Lecter, of course, was an academic as well, though, in this case, a psychiatrist.  Agent Will Graham is lured out of retirement to help capture “The Tooth Fairy,” whose criminal signature involves doing creepy things with his victim’s eyes.

Now, to be fair, there is slightly more to it than that.  For what it’s worth, Kevin Bacon is the best thing about the show and, if it is to have any hope at all, it will be owed to his performance.  Plus, there is a decent twist and scare here and there in the pilot episode, but nothing that really warrants enough interest to excite me for next week.

This effort from FOX is really quite pathetic.  The supporting characters were lifted straight out of the cliche’ handbook and the references to Poe were completely beaten into the ground.  But even more disappointing is that it has debuted just several months before Bryan Fuller’s series coming to NBC, in which the origins of the relationship between Lecter and Graham will be explored.  If viewers have any sense at all, they’ll see to it that “The Following” is killed off before the Hannibal series makes air.

Dirk Manning Delivers a WRITE OR WRONG Guide to Creating Comics

I have a confession to make:  I may not be the world’s biggest fan of comic books.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do read them and I certainly enjoy them.  There’s no other storytelling medium quite like it.  I have a big box of ’em I collected from grade school during weekly visits to my local comic shop, and I have a few dozen more volumes of great stuff balanced precariously on the headboard of my bed.  What I mean is that I’m not an active collector and, to be completely honest, I don’t know that I’ll be attempting to create my own comic in the near future.

WOWCoverSo, why in hell am I reviewing this book by Dirk Manning?  A few reasons.  One, I genuinely like Dirk a lot.  He’s local to my area, he’s been kind enough to do print and internet radio interviews with me before, and he’s very generous with his time.  Two, I dig his work.  He’s creative, funny and, yes, has a great sense of creating drama and intriguing stories through his chosen medium.  While I consider myself a fan of a few of his projects, “Nightmare World” alone has many of the best short comic stories I’ve ever read.  Finally, I truly believe that Dirk has the experience, ability, and honesty required to help young writers have a better chance at creating comics.  So if that’s what you’re looking for, too, buy “Write or Wrong:  A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics.”  When you’re done reading it, there’s a lot of things you’ll be:  more knowledgeable, better prepared, and ready to get started.  But what you certainly won’t be is sorry.

I think it’s the “honesty” part that I liked best about this book.  In “Write or Wrong,” based on his long-running column on Newsarama, the very last thing you can accuse Dirk of doing is mincing words.  He’s straightforward to the point of being blunt at times – but that’s good!  Creating comics may be fun, but it’s also hard work.  This book won’t coddle you and probably won’t tell you what you always want to hear.  But it will outline exactly what you need to hear if you’re going to be prepared.

For instance, early in the book he asks you the question:  “Why comics?”  Hint:  answering “because I love comics” isn’t enough.  He also challenges you to seriously ask yourself if you are really as good as you think you are.  Honestly, that may be the toughest question a writer can ask themselves, but it’s important to do so.  Why?  Because, while you may think your comic is unique, imaginative, or speaks to the human condition, the last thing you want to hear is, “Dude, this is lame.”  It’s bad enough hearing it from a friend.  But what about hearing it from an editor?  You should be your own worst critic.  Dirk writes in this book that the business of honing your skills is “not a race.”  Instead, take the time to make your work the best it possibly can be.  Only then, Dirk writes, can you present it to “the right people at the right time.”

DirkDon’t let any of this scare you off, creatives!  It’s not all comic-creating boot camp.  A lot of times, you’ll find yourself laughing at different situations Dirk has found himself in over the years.  And, of course, you’ll be happy to know that he does offer practical advice about how to meet artists, how to assemble a team and, yes, how to get your work published, too.  In fact, one of the most informative sections of the book is a chapter in which he asks a variety of artists and comic creators the same three questions geared toward helping you get started and how to make your relationship with your artists the best it can be.  I learned a lot about the comics creating world just from reading this chapter alone!  I have little doubt you will too.

I honestly cannot recommend this book enough to writers interested in creating comics.  It’s honest, it’s funny, and it’s extremely useful.  Dirk writes in a friendly, conversational tone that I found very welcoming.  Technical details that weren’t familiar to me before were explained in an easy and forthright manner and, generally speaking, I found it a joy to read.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.  In chatting with Dirk a bit about this book, he’s let me know that, while originally available through Diamond, it has sold out and is now available only through Amazon.  So, word to the wise, get your copy now.  I guarantee that you’ll learn something.