Reviews are supposed to be helpful

So I’m watching a short little comparison/review video to find out more about a new-to-me Linux distro. And they’re comparing it to a distro I’m familiar with, so that’s helpful.
But the caliber of the reviewing is leaving something to be desired.


Distro A has a very Windows 10-esque interface, with a solid-black bottom bar that has an application menu (in text/list form) with a search box on it, and icons for apps (not sure if those are running, pinned, or both) running along the bottom on the left, and notifications and widgets on the bottom to the right, at least one of which can launch a panel that slides in from the right with more details. Window chrome is a little bit more macOS-like, with categories on the left rather than a tree, but fairly plain and traditional these days.
Solus Budgie default desktop with application menu visible Solus Budgie default desktop with file browser visible
So, it basically looks like Windows 10 without the Metro touches, Windows 7, or Windows Vista with less transparency.
The reviewer describes it as a “very modern interface”.
Distro B has a more iPad-esque interface, with a translucent top bar for notifications and widgets (on the right), a HUD for searching, a translucent panel on the left that serves as an application dock, and when you open up the application launcher you get a grid of large icons overlaid on the middle of the screen. File browser windows make me think a little bit of macOS: some categories pinned on the left side, a few view/control buttons on the top, but also a file path style display of location.
ubuntu default desktop ubuntu application picker ubuntu search heads-up-display with results ubuntu file browser
The reviewer describes it as a “very modern interface”.

What is “Modern”?

Beyond having a graphical desktop and some panels/menubars arrayed around it, some of which are always visible and some of which can be shown only when needed, there’s very little in common between these two. What even does “modern” mean, in this context? I would’ve thought something more iOS- or Android-esque (Distro B) would be more “modern” in the context of GUI design than something that is basically just a modest evolution of the 2001 Mac GUI (Windows 10, and therefore Distro A).
Unless we’re going with the formal art movement definition and they don’t mean “modern” but “Modern”, in which case Windows 8 is arguably the most Modern GUI with any real market awareness, what with the vast slabs of bright solid colors, flatness, and lack of skeuomorphic elements or even visual cues. And neither of these distros really look anything like that.


This is one of those reviewers who is “scoring” the things they’re comparing. So for each category, they decide which one “wins”. On the GUI front, the reviewer, after going on about how great both GUIs are, and acknowledging that UI has a significant subjective component, declares Distro A the winner. It’s not really supported by what they said, but neither is it contradicted. But I guess someone has to win, right?
Then we get to stability. They talk about how Distro A is pretty new but seems to be stable enough (with no substantiation for the claim). They then gush for several minutes straight about how amazingly stable Distro B is, and how it’s the distro that people use when they want a server that absolutely must not fail ever, and how Distro B has recently extended long-term support from 5 years to 10, and how the reviewer has used Distro B for years for critical production work and never had a problem.
They declare this a tie, awarding a point to each distro.

Mind you, I’m watching this for the info they’re summing up, not their personal opinion. I know that I can’t get a full overview of a Linux distro in a <10-min video. And I might not weigh all the categories that the reviewer chose equally. So I know that the score part doesn’t really matter.
But, yeesh! If you’re going to allow ties, apply them consistently. And maybe you should check to see if the scores you give and the evidence you provide match up, at least superficially.

Unreview: Star Trek: the Motion Picture

I rewatched Star Trek: the Motion Picture over the weekend. First time in decades. I still think it’s much better than its reputation, but this isn’t a proper review. Instead, a few observations:

I had forgotten about the shuttle flyby when boarding: Due to the position of the space station and the maintenance docks, they’re coming from behind the Enterprise. They take a wide arc out and around the docks to the front of the ship. They then fly into the docks, past the entire ship to the rear, presumably where the shuttle bay is. But they don’t actually head for the shuttle bay, instead swooping past and heading back towards the front of the ship, finally docking at the base of the neck. So they basically do two complete flybys of the entire ship for no reason…when they’re on a super tight schedule where every minute counts.

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I Visited the Dark Side, So You Don’t Have To

I’ve strayed. I thought I had learned my lesson in grade school when I picked up a cool Tente space truck. Or maybe in middle school when I got some Tyco Super Blocks as a present. I certainly “knew” that the clone bricks just aren’t worth it—sure, you might get some cool shapes you can’t find in Lego, but at what cost?

I’d keep seeing these Mega Bloks Halo sets, with their many different curves and gorgeous shimmery purples. And there was that big puzzle-piece dome. Of course I knew I shouldn’t. But Nnenn did. And then I saw this Silent Running-esque ship using the Mega Bloks domes. And Jang (of Jangbricks) started buying and reviewing Mega Bloks sets. And I started looking a little too closely when I was in the store. I’d pick a box up, turn it over and check out its pieces. Look at the little window where you could see some actual pieces shimmering. 

And then one day I thought “well, it can’t hurt to look”, and checked a price. 

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Story vs. Story Arc

I think I’m becoming disenchanted by Doctor Who–still love it, particularly the individual stories, but the story arcs are starting to be more annoying than wonderful. Which is very surprising to me. Either I want what I can’t have, or it is possible to have too much of a good thing. When I was a kid, the thing that most disappointed me about Star Trek: The Next Generation (and any number of other shows) was the lack of development—the way that the characters and setting didn’t seem to change nearly as much as episode events seemed to warrant. Sure, solving the problem of the week was interesting, but it just left me feeling unfulfilled. Ongoing development of the story and the characters is what made me love Blake’s 7 so much. Continue reading

Red Riding Hood Isn’t That Bad

We went to see Red Riding Hood last night. It’s really not anywhere near as bad as reviews–or the Tomatometer–would make you think. In fact, most of it was great fun. Oh, no art here–but the acting was actually pretty decent and the story mostly struck a good balance between cliche and surprise. However, to explain both what was good about it and, crucially, where they totally f’ed up, is gonna involve spoilers. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, but it will give some things away. You have been warned.
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Dixit, a Review

I played Dixit at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party, and can’t wait to play it again. Everyone who played it absolutely loved it. Dixit plays on the intersection of the visual and verbal parts of the brain in a way that is just about perfect. Unlike games like Pictionary, a lack of artistic talent is no impediment. And unlike Scrabble or Taboo, a large vocabulary or particular facility with language isn’t really required, either.

The basic game play is very simple: everyone is dealt out some cards, and then each player in turn chooses a card from their hand. Everyone else then chooses a “matching” card from their hand, the chosen cards are all shuffled together, and everyone tries to identify the original card. So far, much like a lot of games out there. Where the wonderfulness comes in is in the details.
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Essential Doctor Who

A couple years ago, some of my friends were loving the new Doctor Who series, and curious about the classic series. I loved the idea of having an excuse to watch it again, but when they found out just how much of it there is, they were more than a little daunted. Plus, honestly, a lot of the stories just don’t stand up to a modern audience. So, I put together this guide for them, highlighting what I  feel are the best and most-essential stories from the original 26-year run.

In order to keep it down to a manageable list, a lot of very good stories were left off the list–if you look around at reviews, you’ll find a lot of good, even great, stories that aren’t on this list. I was also trying to cover as much as I could of the mythology and universe of Doctor Who in as few stories as possible, and with as little duplication as possible. So in a few cases, a really great story was left out only because all of the territory it covered was already covered in some other story or combination of stories. So, for example, there are some other good cybermen stories–but they don’t really add anything to the overall canon of the series.
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Vigilante =/= Mutant

Smallville is this season very transparently stealing the mutant registration act storyline from the various X-Men comics. I’m impressed at how many ways it doesn’t work. For starters, it just doesn’t fit the tone of the series or the universe, IMHO. But that might just be me; the other problems are more significant.

The Mutant registration act was, of course, an allegory of the Holocaust, and various other historical–and current–attempts to scapegoat a group of people. As such, the allegory required that the victims be blameless, at least as a group. In the Marvel universe, nobody chooses to be a mutant. Thus, condemning them for that status, irrespective of their behavior, is what makes the allegory work. Vigilante is a behavior–a profession, i suppose–and something that the characters clearly chose. So the “Vigilante Registration Act” is not immorally condemning them for an accident of their birth, or even for their beliefs, but for their actions. It’s like the writers completely missed the allegory of the mutant registration act, so when they went to copy it, they copied the superficial details, but changed the one bit that gave it moral weight.

On top of that, they chose as their “persecuted group” those who made a set of decisions and behaviors that is pretty morally gray. Which could possibly work–you could explore some really complex questions, and Smallville has at least taken stabs at them in the past–except that they’re not examining the morality. They’ve simply replaced “mutant” with “vigilante” wherever it appears in the script, and written the stories as though “vigilante” is inherently and obviously good. Our heroes are the good guys because they’re the good guys. Which, I suppose, takes us back to the origins of Superman. :-/

What’s worse is that Smallville has flirted with these themes in the past–in fact, for the majority of the run–and done it much better. So a heavy-handed attempt at cloning a popular theme from the rivals is even more insulting, since we’ve seen them much-less-clumsily tackle this same theme on the show already. The persecution and ostracization of “meteor freaks”, most obviously. But for a couple of seasons, at least, they’ve toyed with the question of “alien invasion” or how the populace would react to knowing Clark is an alien. They’ve tread this ground before, posed some great questions, answering some of them and letting us mull over the others. This new plot arc wouldn’t be doing anything new or interesting even if it were doing it right–which it’s not.

Battle for Terra

Battle for Terra is an excellent science fiction movie that you probably haven’t even heard of. I say that because I didn’t see a single ad for it, print or TV, there were no trailers released with other movies as near as I can tell, and not a lot of other publicity. And it opened the weekend before Star Trek. When we went to see it opening weekend, there were fewer than 10 people in the theater, and i suspect the only reason it lasted a week was because they’d already contracted for it. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that to improve—it had been making the circuit of film festivals and the like for 2 years, before getting distribution, and doesn’t appear to have anybody lined up for DVD sales, either. Which is really too bad, because it’s pretty rare that we get a good science fiction movie, and Battle for Terra definitely is.

The basic story is a staple of science fiction—and a host of other sorts of films: it is the story of conquest, and conflict over limited resources. In this particular case, humans are trying to colonize another planet, which necessitates terraforming it and thus wiping out the indigenous life. Where it gets interesting is that it is told from the point of view of the invaded, which means the aliens. It’s War of the Worlds in reverse.

We start off by meeting the aliens, and their world is gorgeously realized. I don’t think I’ve seen a more-believable or better-detailed alien world since The Dark Crystal (though I can think of several others that come close, such as Kaena). Only once we’ve gotten a good overview of the world, seen what it is like, do the “aliens” arrive. And begin to wreak havoc.

The protagonists are brought to life in a way that aliens rarely are. I truly believed in these characters, despite their animated nature, despite their alienness. But, at the same time, they weren’t just men in funny masks, which is so often the failing of aliens in cinema. Also, unlike so many science fiction films, Battle for Terra sticks true to its premises, rather than just devolving into an action flick with funny-looking characters and unexplained technology.

My only complaint about the movie would be the ending. It could definitely have used a bit more of a denouement. As is, while the resolution is perfectly believable, it would’ve been nice to see a few more of the steps to get there spelled out.

Despite this one flaw, I still heartily recommend Battle for Terra—if you can find a way to see it.