Wednesday, March 24, 2010

POP CULTURE: Garfunkel and Oates - Not a couple of old guys.

Some time last Fall, I was driving someplace with my friends Kevin (@kezdawg) and Matt, and they introduced me to Dear Deer by Kate Micucci (@katemicucci). Then they played Mister Moon, and by the end of the car ride, I was hooked. Later that night, like a nerd, I scoured the internet for other songs, and discovered a wonderful little piece of music about Sex with Ducks. And that's when I found out that Garfunkel and Oates are awesome.

Together, as Garfunkel and Oates, (@garfunkeloates) Riki "Garfunkel" Lindhome (@rikilindhome) and the aforementioned Kate "Oates" Micucci write songs that appeal to nerds. Their music is about awkwardness, dating-related awkwardness, and the awkwardness associated with things that nerds find annoying. Did I mention awkwardness? Believe me, you will relate. You may not want to, but you definitely will. Somehow through all the awkwardness and snark, something magical happens. Your heart swells up a few sizes, all Grinch-like. Even if that sucker was already normal sized. They will sing you a cheerful-sounding song about something insane and heartbreaking that has also happened to you. But somehow, you'll feel better about it. Garfunkel and Oates are tall and short, light and dark happy pills that you take with your ears.

These first two pictures came from a weeknight show last year. I took my friend Clair (@crunchysunshine) to see them, without her knowing anything about them beforehand. Seconds into the first song, she was sold. Despite essentially being a musical act, Garfunkel and Oates tend to book shows at comedy clubs, and it works for them. Sitting down at a comedy club seems to make more sense to me than standing up in a music hall would. You're far more likely to laugh your face off than dance your ass off, but that's what you're going for. Kate and Riki are amazing musicians and singers, but they're also comedic geniuses with a healthy dose of acting talent (Check them out on! You've totally seen them in stuff before.). They know exactly the right muppet-like facial expression that will sell you a joke, as if the joke itself wasn't already great, which it was. They have just the right combination of goofy on-stage insecurity and talent that makes comedy really happen.

This is @rikilindhome, me and @katemicucci after their March 20 show at @comixny. (I'm not sure who or what that guy is pointing at. Maybe he likes knees.) Closing their eyes and smiling way too big for photos is something they do, so I joined them after first goofily asking permission. It's both funny and practical as it ensures you never have to check to see if anyone's eyes were closed.

Musical comedy is a nerd medium. Kate and Riki are nerds. You can hear it in the music and taste it in the often deliciously bitter lyrics. They are our people, and as such it is our responsibility to support them. It is worth your time and effort. If they are playing a show near you, definitely get tickets. Happiness can often be difficult for nerds, so we should learn to take it where we can get it. At a Garfunkel and Oates show, I promise you will get happy. And you might get to meet them. They are awesome. They hang around after their sets to personally sell you a copy of their CD (featuring more closed-eye smiles on the cover), chat with you, and take pictures.

You already enjoy musical acts like They Might Be Giants, Weird Al and Jonathan Coulton. You will also enjoy Garfunkel and Oates.

@nerdsherpa, fan of criminally hilarious not-old-guys.

Monday, March 22, 2010

GADGETS: Choosing a Laptop over a Netbook

A few articles ago I wrote about what to look for in a Netbook. Recently, it occurred to me that some people might actually need a laptop for the reasons I outlined previously.

The main reason to buy a laptop instead of a netbook is because you want to do some hard core multi-tasking or play games. Your laptop will probably be your desktop replacement. Laptops, while not the preferred venue for the most advanced games out there, will still run most of games pretty well. This is at least in part because of the similarities in PC and Xbox architecture. The relatively simple port makes it economical for companies to write PC games that will also play on an xbox (which is a few years old) and expand their market. Additionally, it's kind of a bad idea to limit their customer base to the narrow group of people with outrageously expensive computers.

I will say, I'm a PC. I am still a fan of Apple's portable gadgets, and if I had unlimited financial resources, or was really into video production, I might get a Macbook Air or Macbook Pro. I'm not a Mac hater. They make beautiful gear that's easy to use and incredibly reliable. However, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to go ahead and not recommend an Apple laptop. Macs multi-task well if productivity is your thing, but nobody writes games for Mac OS. Also, you pay a lot for Apple. This is partly because they have fairly unreasonable hardware standards and your computer will never have driver issues, but also partly for the symbol on the case. Also, if you're looking for a Mac laptop, you have three choices, and you really can't go that wrong. So you really don't need any advice.

Shopping for a PC, there are three key items to consider: Price, Power and Style.

PRICE: Price range is important, but doesn't require too much advising. You're going to need to spend a bit more than you would on a netbook. It could be as little as double or as much as 3-4 times. I would budget around $1200 or so. Less than that, and you might not be getting something better than a netbook, and more than that, you're just spending money on marginal increases in power.

POWER: This is the single most important factor in your laptop purchase. You're buying a laptop instead of a netbook. You need to make sure it's actually more powerful than a netbook. To this end, I'm going to briefly discuss how CPUs work, and how Windows 7 differs from previous versions. You need a basic understanding of this to help you make an informed purchase, so bear with me for a couple of paragraphs.

Think of each piece of software you want to run as a liquid, and think of your CPU as a cup. Many modern computers have multi-core CPUs. Think of these as having more than one cup where your operating system can pour programs. Under Windows XP and Vista, multi-core CPUs were not used effectively. It was like holding one cup above the other, and waiting for the first cup to fill until programs spill over. In practice, this rarely ever happened. Windows 7 is considerably smarter. Under a heavy load, Win7 will pour programs into different cups to help distribute the load and make your multi-core CPU do a lot more work.

It is for this reason that you want to make sure your laptop has a multi-core CPU. Even if its clock speed is similar to a netbook, with two or more cores operating under Win7, it will be considerably faster at multi-tasking. Stay away from any CPU that says "Celeron". It's decade-old technology, which is why it's really cheap. They have multi-core versions, but you're better off getting a more modern CPU. I would also stay away from any CORE 2 CPUs. While they are dual core, they're affordable again because they're slightly outdated. What you want to look for is the new Core i3, i5 or i7 models. The i3 and i5 have 2 cores, so they'll be considerably faster than any netbook, and the i7 can have up to 4 cores, which will blow away a lot of desktop machines. You're probably best off going with an i3, as the price of the others scales up faster than their capabilities. If the computer you're using is more than a couple of years old, it will be a huge upgrade in speed, while still being affordable. If you're used to an i3, you might not even notice the speed increase on an i7 anyway.

Another advantage of the iX series of processors is that they're all 64 bit, so you can get even more out of Win7. Most users probably won't really notice because there's not a lot of 64 bit software out there right now, but there will likely be a lot more soon, and this is a long overdue upgrade.

Another super important thing to look for is a dedicated video card. On the label, it will say something like ATI or nVIDIA on a separate line. If the label doesn't specifically mention it, keep looking for another option. Drawing pictures on your screen takes a lot of math. Netbooks do all of this math with their already-limited CPU and ram. If you're buying a laptop, make sure it has a fancy mobile video card in it. It will have its own dedicated video ram and another processor to help carry the picture-drawing load. This is important for everything. Multi-tasking, YouTube, gaming. Literally everything your computer does. I cannot stress this enough. Make sure it has a dedicated video card. If you're still not sure, ask a salesman or a Nerd Sherpa.

STYLE: I'm generally a function over form kind of guy, but let's face it. You're buying a portable computer. It's portable. You want it to look cool, because people will see it, and inducing gadget-envy is every nerd's responsibility. Sony does an especially good job at this, but you're going to pay a little more for the VAIO stamp than for a similarly-powered Dell or Gateway. However, Best Buy seems to have fairly uniform pricing based on the unit's capabilities with only limited brand name variance, so definitely let the design of the machine play a part in your decision.

As with any computer, there are a number of other considerations. Hard drive space isn't generally too limited in modern laptops. Your hard drive is going to be relatively huge, and with external drives, it's super easy to expand. Any laptop is going to have plenty of USB ports, and again you can expand with external hubs. RAM is the last thing I would worry about when making your choice. While RAM is super important, if you chose an i3-XXXm processor with a dedicated video card as I've advised above, the machine most likely already comes with plenty of RAM. If you're nervous about it, look for 4gb. More than that is kind of overkill and while less slides you down into Netbook range, it probably won't kill you if the rest of the specs are acceptable. Battery life may be of concern to you, but remember. This thing is going to be a beast. It's going to suck down battery like mad. You're mostly going to use it plugged in. Still, if mobility is of concern, just about any laptop battery will let you watch a DVD before it dies.

Lastly, don't forget stickers! They're important for laptops too. Gadget envy!

As usual, if you require any personal sherping for your laptop purchase, drop me a line! I can help.

@nerdsherpa, purveyor of portable computing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SURVIVAL SKILLS: A hair salon is pilates for your self esteem.

It's easy to forget that self esteem is as much a muscle to exercise as a commodity to spend or accrue. So, what do you get when you buy a haircut? Do you just get a haircut, or do you get a workout for your self esteem?

I suspect many nerds fall prey to the former. I myself went to a HairCutFactory for many years. And you're not totally wrong. A haircut is a haircut. If you don't like it, give it a month and it will grow back. But by the same reasoning, the HairCutFactory is the Chevy Metro of haircuts. Sure, it'll get you there. Maybe the stereo sounds fine. But why merely accept adequacy when you can spend a little more and get something much better. Here's my recommendation. Once a month or so, spend 1-3 hours of your pay on a haircut. Go to a fancy salon. Get a hairdresser for whom self esteem engineering is a career. Pay him or her for their expertise. Trust their judgment. The HairCutFactory is the entry-level job in the salon industry. Pass on the intern. You deserve and can afford a pro.

I was lucky. During my nerd renaissance, my friend Kate (@katewallftw) was working at a place called Salon du Monde in scenic Point Pleasant Beach, NJ. She brought me in and introduced me to Judy, who has been cutting my hair ever since. Let me walk you through the way your haircut experience should go. It's not a may-step process, but it's very different from what you're used to at a discount HairCutFactory.

Step 1: Shampoo: Now, you may or may not need your hair washed, but at a fancy salon, it's going to be included, and it's an important part of the process, because often the person conducting your shampoo will be a massage therapist.You probably have no idea how much stress and awfulness the little bit of meat on your skull can contain, but your shampoo technician does and will spend a few minutes doing their best to fix it. It may just be the best ten minutes of your week. By the time this is finished, you will already be a repeat customer before any hair makes it to the floor.

Step 2: Haircut: Sure, you've gotten your haircut before, but like I said earlier the HairCutFactory is for beginners. Depending on your jurisdiction, the staff there may have licenses from beauty school, but this is the job they have while they dream of something else or look for a real job in the self esteem industry. They may talk to you about this week's reality TV or procedural crime drama... And their HairCutFactory probably has the local dance music or adult contemporary station playing. But you don't want that. My salon generally has 80s music playing. My hairdresser knows me, talks to me about stuff I like, and remembers what we talked about last time, even if I forget to go for two months. Your self esteem engineer should treat you like your favorite bartender. They will get to know you, and remember pertinent details about you. Think about this when they're cutting your hair. They know you. A trusted friend is working on your appearance, and not some stranger with really outrageous beauty-school-graduate nails.

Step 3: Product: For most nerds, this will be the hardest sell. But it's definitely worth it. This is something they have at HairCutFactory, but not something they really push. And that's to their credit. If you're spending $10 on your haircut, you probably shouldn't bother spending $30 on goop to put in your hair. But when you're spending considerably more, you should really go all the way and add some junk into your daily prep regime. Remember, we're exercising your self esteem muscles. Looking good is good for your self esteem. Spiffy hair can help you look good. This is why male lions have manes, people. Why roosters have those red things. Why awesome Discovery channel lizards have those frills. This said, I recommend against gel. Unless you have a really specific color of hair and style of haircut, gel is probably going to make you look like a guido, and nobody wants that. Go with something along the lines of a styling wax/paste. I use stuff called "sumotech" by Bumble and Bumble. I put a tiny bit into dry hair, which it makes it stand up and look goofy without looking like I have a ton of gunk in it. It's usually even completely dry to the touch and not tacky at all. This is important too. You don't want touching your hair to be gross, in case you or someone else winds up touching it.

The best thing about this advice is that you can give it a shot, and if you don't like the results, next month you can go back to the old way. But definitely give it a shot. Spiffy hair is fun to have, and requires only a relatively tiny investment of your monthly budget and daily effort. Nerds can and should look awesome. Join me!

@nerdsherpa, your personal Discovery channel lizard.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

GADGETS: How the iPad could force you to shower.

This week was iPad pre-order day, and among all of the hoopla, I happened to catch this post on Ars Technica. Behold, in only two months Apple took user feedback from people who got to handle their pre-release iPads, and put a solution in place for a rotation lock.

Their solution? Change the hardware mute switch to a hardware rotation lock switch.

So, yes. They took constructive criticism, and banged out a rapid response to consumer desire. Unfortunately, the method by which they accomplished this kludge represents the worst possible failure of Apple's organizational and management structure.

Who thought of this idea? It's an awful awful idea. They need to start thinking along the lines of the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad all basically being the same device, and the hardware tilt-lock switch screams "three teams that don't communicate!" at me. I'm not only complaining, though. Look, I have a constructive idea for what they should have done instead of a hardware solution.

Put rotation lock in the operating system.

Let the iPad launch fly with a mute switch. Tell people, hey, we know it doesn't tilt-lock yet. We hear you. We're fixing it across the entire iDevice line. Then release a new version of the OS for iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad that includes a software managed tilt-lock. Here's how it should have worked. You multi-touch any two adjacent corners of your iDevice screen. Now that edge is locked to be the bottom until you release it by multi-touching those corners again, or multi-touch another pair of corners, making those the bottom.

I recognize this modification would also require a line in the Setup options to enable or disable tilt-lock, and probably some API changes, to allow apps to ignore tilt-lock for whatever reason. But what people would rather have than an awful kludge is something clever and useful. I hate it when I try to use my iPhone laying down. I wish I had a tilt-lock on it. I'm sure iPod touch users feel the same way. Doesn't Apple want the iBook store to be awesome for their entire touchscreen iDevice line? Some people just aren't going to buy an iPad. But those people could still buy iBooks. Seriously, Apple. Think things through, guys. The iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad are all awesome, and fill slightly different needs, but at their core they're the same device. Also, while I'm on the subject, why the crap are the analog switches on the opposite side from the iPhone? What's wrong with you guys?

Now that I have that out of the way, here are some things they got right and my thoughts on whether or not you should buy an iPad.

Power management. This is something that Apple gets right, and seemingly nobody else in the consumer electronics business has grasped yet. Apple mobile devices manage batter power so much more effectively than any other company, I can hardly understand it. Battery power is EVERYTHING to your mobile device. It's something Apple picked up on when they first put out the iPod, and they've been consistently getting it right ever since.

User interface. The interface is super stylish and awesome, and from Dillinger's desk in TRON to every control surface in Star Trek: The Next Generation, I continue to wonder why more devices aren't being made with super-magic on-the-fly formattable touch screen interfaces.

Are you a mass-transit commuter? Do you spend an hour or so of down time on a bus or train? If yes, the iPad 3G is probably a handy gadget for you to have. Read a book, browse the web, watch a movie, write stuff for work... All on a thing that weighs a pound, and is super awesome and nifty. There's even already a case for it available from Apple that folds out into a triangle so it's oriented on your lap for typing.

Are you a business traveler? You probably need a netbook. The iPad is not intended to replace a laptop, and it can't do everything you want to do on a laptop. It probably should have been intended to replace a laptop, but alas, Apple sells those too.

Do you like to read a lot? The iPad is a little less convenient to carry around than a Kindle, and you probably already own a Kindle. Also, the Kindle's magic etch-a-sketch ink consumes next to zero battery life. You can read a Kindle almost forever on one charge. The iPad's battery lasts +/-10 hours. Don't get me wrong, 10 hours is an amazing feat of power consumption for an iPad. It's just considerably less than forever. Super iPad also costs almost three times as much as a Kindle, and doesn't come with a free global wireless access to its book downloading service.

Are you an Apple fanboy and/or do you love awesome gadgets and have some disposable income? Definitely get one. iPad 2.0 needs your help and financing to be a billion times better than iPad 1.0. Your technolust will do literally every nerd on the planet a favor, because iPad 2.0 is going to be the most amazing thing anyone has ever conceived. iPad 2.0 (and likely that generation of iPhone) will have 2 cameras, one on screen-side for video conferencing and one on the back for augmented reality. iPad 2.0 will have a repulsively huge solid state hard drive, and a couple of USB ports. iPad 2.0 will realize it needs to replace a laptop, and not be an extra unnecessary device. And let me jump back a second. iPad 2.0's cellular phone hardware will replace your home phone, and with a you-facing camera and screen, iPad 2.0 and that generation of iPhone could make video phone calls a reality. That thing that's existed in science fiction forever could finally catch on, and the next generation of iDevice could be what makes it happen.

Get ready to shower daily!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


I had plenty of ideas for this week's post. How to buy pants, why you should probably spend more on your haircut, the magnificence of Ghost in the Shell... Plenty of ideas. And then the jerks at Disney put the new trailer for TRON: LEGACY up on their website

Just like that, every nerd fiber in my body was sucked into the black-on-black-horizoned world of TRON.

Last week, when I was preparing to write the Cowboy Bebop article, I was at Best Buy, and saw a 20th Anniversary copy of TRON for only ten bucks, and I bought the hell out of it. When I first found out about TRON: LEGACY, some time last year, I remember searching Best Buy, and finding no copies. Apparently the folks at Disney, in what I consider to be a fairly brilliant move, printed up a bunch of new copies, threw a sticker on them offering a free ticket to Alice in Wonderland, and promoted the LEGACY trailer that shipped out on the first reel of Alice. Double assault on nerds to get us in the seat for Alice.

I mentioned to my roommate that I got TRON on dvd, and he said that he had never seen it, but having heard me talking about how excited I am for LEGACY on numerous occasions over the last year, he suggested we watch it. It is thus that I can safely say, TRON doesn't stand the test of time. It is, in fact, an awful movie of which your fond memories are most likely wrong. Regardless, you will love it as I do. Just be ready for it to suck. The acting is kind of awful, the computer graphics are awful, and there's one goofy shot of this green hand-animated robot thing that isn't even in the movie for any reason.

What TRON does accomplish is this: it stays with you. They created a powerful and detailed setting which lives and breathes, despite the movie's technical limitations. My dad's standard greeting for the past 20 years has been "Greetings, programs!". The entire plot of a super-powered human savior in a computer-generated world was happily stolen/re-imagined into the Matrix. And have you seen Dillinger's desk? I bet Steve Jobs has one just like it and if you own an iPhone, you kind of do too.

Most importantly, TRON opened the door for nearly every nerd-movie you love. The producers convinced Disney to take a chance on something strange and new, and their moderate success helped soften other studios to exploring new technologies. At the time, the MPAA refused to nominate TRON for an effects award because they felt using computers was cheating. But fifteen years later in 1997, Ken Perlin would win a Technical Achievement Oscar for creating a graphical texture (Perlin Noise) used in TRON. This is TRON's true legacy. It was a pioneer in a brand new motion picture art form that was previously unimagined.

Will the sequel blow my mind? I know I can't wait to see the landscapes in IMAX 3D. I know they'll do pokey-outy 3D for discs to come flying at the audience... I accept that, and perhaps even welcome it, if it means I get to see distant glowing cities of light on the double-black horizon, while lightcycles duel in the foreground. I know now, 9 months in advance, that I will be in an IMAX theater at midnight no matter who I have to de-rez to make it happen. I only hope that LEGACY has a little more dialogue and a little better screenplay than its forefather.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

POP CULTURE: Anime Baby Steps

Geeks tend to like animation. Whether it's Batman: The Animated Series, or the latest PIXAR masterpiece, or even obscurities like Galaxy Rangers or Bionic Six, geek imagination responds well to cartoons. Some of you will obviously already be well aware of Japanese animation, having seen Akira on VHS back in college, or maybe you first saw Ninja Scroll or Ghost in the Shell in similar magnetic tape format. Perhaps you got in on the ground floor years ago and like many, you're starting to find recent anime offerings to be lackluster. Personally, I got started with Gundam Wing on Cartoon Network, which at the time I remember really enjoying. Rewatching it recently on DVD, the constant reuse of stock battle scenes really got to me, so I moved on to the next piece of anime in my DVD collection. Cowboy Bebop.

Here's what you need to do. Find a copy of Cowboy Bebop, schedule an hour or two a day for a couple of weeks, and watch it. Will it make you a better nerd? Definitely. Remember, it's your responsibility to know about things that are awesome, and spread those things to others. And Cowboy Bebop is one of the originators of Japanese animated awesomeness.

From the moment you hear the opening theme, this show should have you. And keep that in mind as you watch, because all of the music is composed by Yoko Kanno, and the woman is a genius. I have few complaints about Cowboy Bebop. The two in particular are both the whining of a fanboy more than anything else. I wish there was more Cowboy Bebop in general, and I wish there were more episodes about the arc plot. But these are not actual bad things about the show. They pretty much nail everything. Every character in the series has at least two episodes about their personal story, and several of those will wring tears out of you if you are in fact a living person. The show has five main characters, which to me, seems to be about right for almost any show. More than that, and character roles and personalities start to overlap too much, and it becomes increasingly difficult for a team of writers to compose episodes where all of the characters actually stay in character. Cowboy Bebop also eases you into the characters, starting with only two, and then gradually adding the others.

Here's something else I like about Cowboy Bebop. One of the characters is a dog. And yet, somehow the show remains serious and mature. Ein, the Welsh Corgi "data dog" will make you smile, even as the arc storyline strives to extract your heart through your tear ducts. Ein is frequently teamed up with Ed, the teenage computer hacker who also serves to bring some fun to an otherwise serious show. Spike, Jet and Faye are all about the aforementioned heart wrenching, however. The overall theme of the show is that in the modern world, there's no effective distinction between a friend and a family member. Your family is who you choose and in some cases, who chooses you. This is part of the secret magic of Cowboy Bebop... It's a lot more deep than just a cartoon with a dog who can play Go.

And yes, here is the one stuffed animal that has stayed with me for the past ten or so years of what passes for my adulthood. It's Ein. He's adorable.

Perhaps one of my favorite things about Cowboy Bebop is that the production company told the creator, Shinichiro Watanabe, they wanted him to do something with space ships, and this is what they got. There are all of about 4 episodes that feature space ships, and a couple of brief scenes in the movie. What Watanabe delivers instead of just spaceships is a fully realized vision of a near future where terraforming and interplanetary travel are possible. He takes you from the massive Tokyo-like cities of Mars to the slightly screwed up atmosphere of Venus, to the ruins of Earth, to the colonized moons of Jupiter. And they give you just enough story about how the tech works that it feels like science fiction without being focused on the tech. He gives us a setting that Joss Whedon would later soak up and make his own for Firefly. He makes space cowboys work. I promise you will love it.

You definitely want to get in on the Cowboy Bebop action now, because Fox has signed up the rights, and are currently working with Watanabe, and a number of other producers and writers from the series to create a live-action movie due in 2011, starring Keanu Reaves as Spike. So, watch it soon and enjoy it before you have to take your chances with Hollywood.

...see you @nerdsherpa