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Here be (minor) SPOILERS!

I was really, really looking forward to seeing “Hancock” after watching the trailer. Unfortunately, before the film came out I saw snippets of a couple of negative reviews that dented my enthusiasm. But I went to see it ASAP anyway with my usual movie-going friend.

I enjoyed the first 40 minutes or so immensely. It was fun and cool and I thought there was a nice undertone about adulthood, fatherhood and accepting responsibility. The redemption (as it often does in movies) actually made me well up a little bit. I was looking forward to coming home and writing about how wrong the critics were.

But then, halfway through the film, there’s a plot twist. The twist itself was pretty interesting, but at that point the movie just started to fall apart for me. I didn’t feel like the twist or its consequences were adequately explained, and frankly, I found the Hancock character much more interesting without the half-baked hints of an origin story. There’s also an under-developed bad-guy who I didn’t find remotely interesting, and for the second half of the film nothing funny happens and nothing cool happens, which is in stark contrast to the first half where the funny cool things are coming thick and fast.

The studio is clearly aiming for a franchise (and by “clearly”, I mean that they almost stick a big banner up saying “SEQUEL IN 2010!” at the end), but I don’t know how well that will work. The character was interesting because of his (considerable) flaws, but if they want the flaws back then they would have to undo the redemption, and then redeem him again without it seeming like the same movie. That would be tricky, I imagine.

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I rented a movie from the Xbox Live Marketplace today and I thought I’d give some thoughts about it. I’m particularly interested in movie rentals at the moment, because I’ve noticed that I’ve only watched the vast majority of the DVDs that I own once. I’m keen not to make the same mistake again with high definition (HD) movies, so I’m planning to just rent from now on, except for the handful of things that I love and expect to watch many times. I’m also quite excited about online movie rentals because it seems clear to me that this is the future, but, as we’ll see, sadly they haven’t got it perfected just yet.

Apple have also started doing movie rentals from their iTunes Store, and they’ve just launched in the UK, so I’ll be comparing how it matches up with the Xbox Live Marketplace (although I haven’t actually tried Apple’s service yet, so I’m just talking about specifications and such at this point). I’ve also recently started renting DVDs and Blu-Ray discs from LOVEFiLM (just like a UK version of Netflix), so I’ll be comparing with that, too.

I realize that this is a long article, so if you just want the highlights: the video and audio quality is good, but not as good as Blu-Ray, and the price seems very expensive when compared with disc rental services.

If you want the (glorious?) detail, please read on!

What’s good?

The movie I rented was “I Am Legend”, which is 100 minutes long and the HD version was a 4.54GB file. I was expecting that to take a while to download, so I started it downloading last night, planning to leave it going while I went out food shopping. To my surprise, though, the movie said it was ready to play about 3 minutes after I started downloading it, so the movie can play even when it’s only partially downloaded. That’s a great, great feature, so I’m surprised that Microsoft doesn’t make a big deal about it. It’s particularly important that they should be clear about this, because when you download a regular video file from Xbox Live (such as a game trailer) those have to be downloaded completely before you can start watching them, so I think that most Xbox Live users would expect movie rentals to work the same way. Dividing 4.54GB by 100 minutes gives a bitrate of 6.5Mbps, so anyone with broadband faster than about 7Mbps (including a margin for download overheads and such) should be able to watch the film as soon as they’ve purchased it.

The huge convenience of being able to rent and watch very quickly is the main advantage of the download services, since DVD rental by post requires you to wait at least a day to get your disc, and old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar rental shops require you to expend a certain amount of time and effort to rent, and then more time and effort to return afterwards. Apple also allows you to start watching while downloading, and they also do a lousy job of telling potential customers about that advantage.

I don’t have one of the Xbox media remotes, so I was using the standard controller to watch the movie. That was actually perfectly fine; the functions are sensibly mapped to buttons and it just took a minute of experimenting to figure out what was what. The only niggle is that the controller switches itself off if you don’t use it for 15 minutes, so it has to be turned back on next time you use it by holding down the start button for a few seconds.

What’s not so good?

As I mentioned before, the movie is encoded at approximately 6.5Mbps. That’s probably 6Mbps for the video and 448kbps for the audio. The video is 720p (1280×720) and the audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s actually a lower bitrate than a typical standard definition DVD, but the resolution and quality are higher because it is using a more efficient encoding (Windows Media Video, aka VC-1). How does that compare with the competition? Well, the iTunes HD rentals are also 720p, but apparently their file sizes are a bit smaller (~4GB versus ~6GB) so presumably their bitrate is lower. Xbox rentals don’t compare so well with Blu-Ray, though. Blu-Ray discs can store up to 50GB so they can be very luxurious with the encodings. The “Juno” Blu-Ray I’ve rented, for example, has 1080p video (1920×1080) at around 35Mbps.

Subjectively, the video quality of “I Am Legend” was exactly what I was expecting: better than DVD, but not as good as Blu-Ray. I didn’t notice any encoding artifacts, and everything looked very good, on the whole. I’ve already been spoilt by Blu-Ray though, because I did notice at times that things were a little “soft”, compared with the sharpness of 1080p on Blu-Ray.

The sound is a similar story to the video. As I mentioned, it’s Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound at around 448kbps, which is exactly the same as you’d get on a DVD, and from Apple’s HD rentals. Blu-Ray’s extra capacity comes in handy again, here, and they can manage 7.1 channel uncompressed audio at higher than CD quality. I’m not too fussy about that at the moment, because my audio system isn’t fancy enough to take advantage of that.

What’s bad?

The video/audio quality described in the section above is an understandable compromise given the equipment and bandwidth that the majority of Microsoft’s customers will have available today. Unfortunately the problems in this section are less forgivable, because they are oversights that could and should be corrected:

This first point might bother you, because it describes a small technical problem that you’ve probably never noticed before, but you might notice it every time you watch a film after you’ve been told about it, so you might want to skip this paragraph if that’s the sort of thing that bothers you. Still here? Cool. As you might know, films are recorded at 24 frames per second. Most TVs, on the other hand, display 60 frames per second (fps), so to display a film on a TV we have to do something a bit odd. On a 60 fps HDTV, we have to repeat the frames. The first frame is shown twice and then the second frame is shown three times. That pattern repeats so that 24 frames fit into 60. That works okay, and most people don’t notice that the motion is not completely smooth (I’ve found it’s most noticeable on slow panning shots and during scrolling credits). In the last few years, however, TVs have started coming out that have a mode that actually displays 24 frames per second (usually referred to as 24Hz, and unfortunately you have to very careful to ensure that a TV can actually do 24Hz display, because some of them will accept a 24Hz signal, but then display it at 60 fps as described above). This is great and marvelous, because we can finally watch movies just the same as they are on the big screen. Unfortunately, though, the Xbox 360 doesn’t know how to output 24 fps, so you don’t get the benefit of a smoother picture even if you have a fancy-pants TV. Likewise, Apple TV can’t output 24 fps, but Blu-Ray wins again because it definitely does support 24 fps (hallelujah!) I really hope that this can be fixed with a software update on the Xbox 360 and Apple TV, because it’s one of the small things that really bugs perfectionists like me.

As anyone who’s ever played a DVD knows, most of them come with plenty of bonus features, such as making-of documentaries and commentaries, and even the most basic disc comes with chapter marks and subtitles. So what did my download rental of “I Am Legend” come with? Not a thing! There’s no reason why extra videos and commentaries shouldn’t be available as additional downloads, and I was really surprised that the movie didn’t even have subtitles. That was mildly annoying for me, as I sometimes use subtitles to catch inaudible dialogue, but if I was deaf you can bet I’d be fuming right now about accessibility and equal rights. The Xbox 360 video player does have options for alternate sound tracks and subtitles, but they simply weren’t used. Obviously all that material is prepared for the DVD release, so the fact that is wasn’t available with the download just seems lazy, like the download is done as an afterthought.

If you have a 360 then you’ve probably noticed that it’s a noisy son-of-a-gun, with the cooling fans doing a passable impression of a wind tunnel. My 360 is one of the newer models that is supposedly cooler and quieter than the old ones, so I dread to think what they were like. Playing a movie shouldn’t be a particularly stressful task for this console, so I was hoping that the system would be smart enough to slow down its processor and the cooling fans, but it doesn’t do so. In fact, bizarrely enough, it seemed that it kept the game disc spinning (albeit at a slow speed) even while the movie was playing from the hard disk. That’s easily enough fixed by taking the disc out, but it’s mildly annoying and contributes to the impresssion that the movie downloads are a bit half-assed. While I was watching the movie the fan noise did fade into the background mostly, but I did notice it a few times during quiet scenes. Again, I really hope this can fixed by a software update.

When downloading a movie from the Xbox Live Marketplace the user is reminded about the “usage rights” that they have with regard to the download. Now, I’m totally opposed to all DRM when it comes to things that are purchased for keeps, but I can accept that it’s necessary when dealing with rentals (I can’t imagine the honor system working too well in this case). For the Xbox Live movie rentals you have to start watching the movie within 14 days of downloading it, and you can watch it as much as you like for 24 hours after you first press play. That’s pretty reasonable, I think. What’s annoying is that the download is locked to the console you downloaded it on and can’t be transferred to a PC or a portable device. That’s particularly annoying for me because I have a nice quiet computer hooked up to my TV (and it can do 24 fps too!), but I can’t use it, presumably because the movie studios are paranoid and irrational about copyright infringement. It’s odd that Microsoft has this fairly nice movie rental service, but it isn’t available to people using PCs. I know that not many people have a PC connected to their TV, but I also know that lots of people have laptops, and lots of people like watching movies on planes and in hotel rooms and such. Apple doesn’t shine on this front either, unfortunately, because although you can use their movie rental service on PCs or Macs, you can only download HD movies using their Apple TV device, and when you do that you can’t transfer them back to a computer. Basically, this is yet another pain in the neck caused by the hyper-protectiveness of copyright owners. Dear Hollywood, The latest snake-oil “copy-protection” systems that you signed up to are already broken. Anyone that wants your movies for free can get them already. Please stop annoying the people who actually want to give you money. Yours sincerely, Common Sense.

I’ve left the biggest problem for last, but it’s the first one I noticed when renting the movie. It is, of course, the price. The HD rental that I bought costs 600 “Microsoft Points”. Using a handy calculator, that works out as £5.10, or $7.50 for Americans. No, I’m not going to complain that £5.10 is a third more than $7.50: I get that you can’t compare prices across different economies with widely different tax structures (Euro-users may like to complain, however, that they’re paying 8% more than we are in the UK: that may well be illegal). What I am going to complain about is that it’s much more expensive than the alternatives. Apple’s rentals cost £4.49 for a new HD release. Okay, that’s not much better, but at least I don’t have to buy 1000 Microsoft “points” in order to pay for it (thus letting Microsoft hold on to £3.40 of my money for me). LOVEFiLM, though, is hugely more attractive from a price point-of-view, because their rentals are basically £2 each, including postage both ways. The price varies depending on exactly which package you use or how many credits you buy in advance, but it’s clearly structured around £2 per rental. So for £2 I could have rented the Blu-Ray edition of “I Am Legend”, with substantially better video and audio quality, and with commentaries, subtitles and special features (including, as I’ve just annoyingly read, an interesting-sounding alternate ending). There’s also no difference in price between renting DVDs and renting Blu-Ray discs at LOVEFiLM. Microsoft charges an extra £1.02 for the HD version of a film. They would argue that it costs more because they’re sending me more data, which is a fair point, but I just did the calculations using the prices that Amazon charges for their data hosting service, and it would cost approximately £0.25 to send me the extra 3.2GB for the HD file.

Conclusions?

So close, but yet so far. I feel like I’ve been waiting for too many years already for online movie rentals to become available, so it’s frustrating that both Apple and Microsoft have made available interesting but flawed products. I’m definitely going to stick with getting most of my movies from LOVEFiLM. I might have been able to accept the lower quality of the downloads for the sake of the convenience of being able to decide what to watch spontaneously, but paying more than double for the lower quality option is simply too hard to stomach on a regular basis. I might still use the Xbox Live Movie rentals occasionally, perhaps if I’m particularly in the mood for a certain film right now, for example, but I’ll continue to hope that Microsoft or Apple (or someone else) will fix the problems and put out the online rental service that I really want.

So, the US Supreme Court has decided that it would be nice to give the Guantanamo Bay detainees some of their human rights back, and give them access to civilian courts and that habeas corpus thingy (whatever that is — sounds foreign, and therefore un-American). Antonin Scalia is one of the brave judges who disagreed with the ruling, and in his dissenting opinion he wrote:

“it sets our military commanders the impossible task of proving to a civilian court … that evidence supports the confinement of each and every enemy prisoner”.

Wow. Imagine that; having to prove that you have a good reason for confining every prisoner! Every single one! What a bunch of unreasonable bastards those other Supreme Court judges are! Personally, I’d just take George’s word for it that they’re evil-doers and throw away the key, but I guess those other judges just ain’t patriotic enough to trust the President!

…but still, Hillary Clinton just gave a very good speech. I’m trying to decide if I was being too demanding by expecting that speech on election night. I guess that doing something like running for office requires so much self-belief that it makes it very difficult to switch it off suddenly when the results aren’t what you were hoping for. I know that feeling somewhat.

I’m really pissed off at Hillary Clinton right now. In the last hour or so Barack Obama has finally clinched the Democratic Party nomination for President. So what would you expect her to do in her speech afterwards? Well, first of all she’d concede and congratulate Obama. Then, she’d start the work of reunifying the party. Disturbingly large percentages of her supporters have said that they’ll vote for John McCain rather than Obama in the general election. So, of course she should take this opportunity of intense media coverage to point out that her policies are incredibly similar to Obama’s, and a world away from McCain’s. She’d point out that she’d much rather see a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. She’d sing Obama’s praises and start setting him up for a great win in November.

So, did she do any of that?

NO SHE FUCKING DID NOT!

She continued to campaign! She continued to make her claim that she has more of the popular vote. That claim requires you to ignore the caucus states which do not release official vote totals. The claim isn’t accepted by anyone outside her campaign, but she refuses to stop making it. She continued to make her case that she’d do better in a general election. That claim doesn’t have any merit either, because, as the pollsters themselves say, polls five months before an election are not predictive. Even if it did have merit, it doesn’t matter! She lost the primary! At one point her supporters started chanting “Denver! Denver!”, indicating that she should continue to campaign all the way to the national convention in August, trying to change the minds of the Super Delegates who could still theoretically change sides. Did she calm them down and say that she wouldn’t dream of being so silly? Nope! She just smiled!

I can’t believe how stubborn Clinton is being. It’s a huge missed opportunity. It’s disgustingly ungracious. She said that she’s not making any decisions tonight, but there isn’t a decision to make! When the referee blows the whistle and you have less points, you don’t get to decide if you lost or not! You get on with it and shake hands with the winner… unless you’re a complete asshat.

GRRRRRRRR!

Calming thoughts… calming thoughts…

But let’s look on the bright side. Today is the first time that a black candidate has been nominated for President by a major American political party. That’s a wonderful achievement that will be remembered for a long time. If Obama goes on to win the general election (and he could use a little help, Clintons!), then that will be remembered forever.

Over the past few days I’ve realized something important: there isn’t enough time to do everything that I want to do. I can’t play all the games that I want to play; I can’t watch all the films and TV shows and YouTube channels that I want to watch; I can’t listen to all the music that I want to listen to. This might be blindingly obvious to everyone, but, even though I guess I already knew it in some way, I’ve think I’ve been living my life as if I’ll eventually be able to get around to doing everything that I want to do, and it’s becoming clear to me that it probably isn’t the best way to live. So there are two things I’ve decided to do to deal with this (re?)realization:

Firstly, I need to prioritize. I find lots of different things interesting. I can follow my nose and click about on Wikipedia or YouTube and lose hours and hours. There are lots of different types of music that I enjoy. Same with films and games. So what happens is that I aimlessly stumble around, find something interesting and do that. Sounds fine, but I’m worried that in the process I’m missing out on the really good stuff by just focussing on whatever I have to hand. For instance, I bought the game Worms for the Xbox 360 a few weeks ago and spent a good few hours playing it. It’s a pretty cool game, but at the same time I’ve barely scratched the surface of Super Mario Galaxy, which is a sublimely good game that I’ve been meaning to make time for ever since it came out six months ago. So I think I need to simply up my standards and stop accepting “this is interesting” as adequate justification for spending time on things. It needs to be — y’know — very interesting. Today I walked past someone watching the news and there was an item about the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in the UK. I paused to watch it because it looked interesting, but then I decided that paleontology is not one of my primary interests, and if it was then there are probably more interesting things that I could be learning about it, so I kept on walking.

Secondly, I feel like I waste an awful lot of time by doing things slowly. In my life at the moment there are very few deadlines to worry about. That sounds very luxurious, and I don’t mean to complain, but it does make it hard to get things done. Tasks tend to fill up whatever time is available for them, and when there’s no deadline at all, that means that trivial things can end up taking far too long. I also tend to pay a lot of attention to detail in everything I do, even when it there really isn’t any benefit to doing so. By way of example, the other day I was shopping online for a USB hub. Those things are plain old commodities these days: the difference between the best one in the world and the worst one in the world is not worth caring about. But that didn’t stop me from spending a few hours looking for the best looking, best priced one from the most reputable seller and brand.

So what I’ve decided to do is to keep a log of what I spend my time doing. Each time I start a new activity I’m going to make a note of the time and what it is I’m doing. I highly doubt that I’ll ever go back and analyze the logs, but I hope that just the act of making them will help to focus my mind on how much time I’m spending on things and force me to make conscious decisions about what to do, rather than just idly procrastinating with whatever shininess catches my eye. I might also notice some useful trends. For instance, today it was 3 hours and 35 minutes from when I woke up to when I started working: far too long by any standard!

So… wish me luck! (PS The first person to point out the irony of writing about time-wasting on a blog that no one reads gets a free slap).

Kimberleigh (one of the YouTubers I wish I was friends with) posted about this song on her blog:

Flobots – Handlebars

I love it to pieces. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve heard a song that is so interesting in a, let’s say, “literary” way, such that it provokes thoughts and invites interpretation. The video is also very appealing in its own right. The visual style reminds me of The Second Renaissance from The Animatrix.

The band’s latest album is being re-released on a major label on Tuesday in the US. It’s crazy cheap at Amazon; I didn’t realize that CDs had fallen in price so much over there (although the current exchange rate helps, of course).

See my contact details and more stuff from me at JJC1138.net.