Searching For Hope: The Last Jedi Answers

Questions answered and questions raised: That could be the subtitle of the latest in the Star Wars franchise hitting theaters this weekend. The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, with the resistance evacuating their base and Rey finding Luke Skywalker and Fynn in a coma. That first of the third trilogy left a lot of plot threads hanging and a lot of questions unanswered. The Last Jedi follows suit, but does so in a much better fashion, with much better writing.

The First Order has the republic on the ropes, with the remnants of the imperial rebellion now calling themselves the resistance and scattered to the outer rim planets while the command core is trying to escape the First Order’s dreadnaught. The future looks bleak for our heroes as they fight to hold onto that one thing that they hold most dear: Hope. For some, that hope is embodied in the last Jedi Master who has been missing for many years, Luke Skywalker. For others, hope is in the form of the new cadre of heroes like Poe Dameron and Fynn Rider. Everyone will begin to lose hope as the First Order closes in.

While both this film and The Force Awakens are produced by J.J. Abrams, this one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, with George Lucas sharing the writing credit. Perhaps it was the new writer, perhaps it was a fresh vision, but The Last Jedi stands taller as a standalone story and less of a retread like its predecessor. The Force Awakens had too many similar elements with A New Hope and felt too familiar and predictable. The Last Jedi dares the viewer to try to predict the outcome as it offers multiple threads that twist and interweave with each other. Some may try to draw similarities with The Empire Strikes Back, and, superficially, there may be. It is the second act in a three act story, and as such, certain things typically happen with regard to the hero’s struggle. They happened in The Empire Strikes Back and they happen in The Last Jedi. It is how they happen that sets this story apart.

The characters actually relate with each other better in this story and act within the established motivations that Johnson established for them. The newer characters of Rey, Fynn and Kylo are now much more fully realized and relatable, making a connection with the viewer that they lacked in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi adds even more new characters, such as Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and Kellie Marie Tran as Rose, and each of them makes a lasting connection to the story and the viewer.

There is one thing about Abrams that even the most dedicated opponent cannot deride and that is his artistic visuals. If there was one thing that could be considered problematic, it would be that he relies too much on the visuals at the expense of story—a problem that plagued Abrams’ Star Trek. The Last Jedi doesn’t suffer for its visuals, indeed, they accentuate the story by how appropriate to the mood and setting they are. The sacrifice of the heavy cruiser is one of the most arresting visuals in the entire Star Wars franchise and drew a collective gasp from the audience.

The Last Jedi tells a new chapter in the epic Star Wars story and picks up where The Force Awakens left off. Some of the questions left hanging at the end of Force Awakens do get answered such as what happened to Ben Solo and why did Luke go into hiding. The question of exactly who Snoke is and where he came from is rendered moot. There is even an answer given as to who Rey’s parents are, but the answer is, of course, in question as even more questions come to the fore. Those questions will drive the discussion boards for the next two years.

The Last Jedi will win the box office for its opening weekend, and the Christmas season and probably for the year. Once word of how much better the writing is gets out, it will be heralded as one of the best of the franchise. It is much better than The Force Awakens, better than all three prequels combined and at least as good as The Empire Strikes Back, even if it does leave the viewer asking more questions.

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Hooking and Scaling: The Tale of Modern Torture

The thing to remember about dentists can best be summed up in the words of Bill Cosby: “Dentists tell you not to pick at your teeth with any sharp metal objects. Then, you sit in their chair and the first thing they grab is an iron hook.” I recently spent four mornings sitting in a dentist’s chair and I have had several hooks picking at my teeth under the guise of good dental heath. To say this was not a pleasant experience is like saying the biblical 40-day flood was a light, spring shower.

Like most people, my mother admonished me to always brush my teeth while I was growing up and like most people, I let those admonishments fall on deaf ears until fresh breath became important to me in my teen years. It is worth noting that girls seem to have a dental hygiene preference when deciding who to kiss. I now ensure I brush everyday with my Colgate Spinbrush and have done so for decades. I recall a dentist once commenting how strong my teeth were when I was younger. In fact, the only dental work I ever had was after I smashed a tooth that necessitated a root canal and a post and crown.

About ten years ago, I went to the dentist for a checkup and cleaning, since it had been several years since my last visit and the hygienist refused to clean my teeth until I had a “scaling” performed. For the uninitiated, a scaling is where they attack the teeth and gums with that iron hook, scraping a concrete-like substance called tartar off the enamel. This substance provides a growth environment for tooth decay and forms in areas typically missed by brushing alone. Unfortunately, my insurance would not pay for the scaling procedure and it would have cost more than $200, which, at the time, was more than I had. I also figured if the insurance wouldn’t cover it, it must not be too important, because clearly the insurance company had my best interests in mind. I went to two more dentists and was told the same thing. They would not clean my teeth without my first agreeing to the scaling. Sounded like a racket to me, so I increased the time I spent brushing to compensate. Because nylon bristles are clearly every bit as effective as metal hooks at scraping concrete off teeth.

I broke a tooth recently and needed a crown, so I went back to the dentist to have it done and the hygienist once again recommended the scaling. When I said my insurance won’t cover it, I was informed that now they do. So I did. During the exam, it was also discovered that I had several cavities that needed attention. So, what I expected to be two visits—one for the impression and temporary crown and one for the permanent crown—became four visits. They don’t like to do the entire scaling in one sitting (and I agree with them on this) so I had to make several visits.

For about four hours per visit, I reclined in the admittedly not-uncomfortable chair while the elasticity of my jaw muscles was sorely tested and I regularly fought with the suction tube in order not to drown. All the while, a procession of metal hooks traumatized my over-stretched mouth accompanied by two different drills, a couple of needles, and a glowing LED light wand. This, I presume, was a light saber to get the tartar the hooks couldn’t coax off my teeth. Fortunately, the anesthetic did its job and I felt no excruciating pain, though the sensation of that hook scraping along the gum line was akin to fingernails on a chalkboard and the feeling of the drill vibrating through my jaw was worse than the aftermath of a right hook. Lest I forget to mention the worst part, it was most difficult to remain still while the dentist rammed a foot-long needle through my skull into the chair behind me and left it there for a year while I tried to remember how to breathe. Then she slowly squeezed fire through that needle into my mouth. Fortunately, the Marcane worked fairly quickly and I felt my cheeks and tongue grow to five times their normal size as the nerves became deadened.

I found out that the anesthetic they use lasts four hours. I had to endure four days with an anesthetized mouth for four hours each day. I also found that during those four hours, talking becomes problematic and eating becomes dangerous. You never realize just how much your tongue moves when you eat until it doesn’t. My tongue now has battle scars from lunch.

It was great relief when I drove away after the final scaling and cavity filling visit, knowing I shouldn’t have to repeat that process for some time. The only thing that remained to be done is to attach the permanent crown when it comes in. Then, during a trek to Dallas this week, one of my brand new fillings decided to vacate its post, leaving an annoying hole in my rear molar. This means another trip to the dentist’s chair and another battle with the iron hook. At least it won’t involve scraping tartar this time, though I might wait until dinnertime before I try to eat anything.

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Hey! I’m Talking To You

Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick predicted it with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 computer, as people interacted with the machine by voice commands. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” has given way in today’s world to “Alexa, read my mail.” “Ok, Google, play my music.” “Hey, Cortana, what’s on my schedule?” “Hey, Siri, how’s the weather?” and “Bixby, check my stocks.”

More and more people have found themselves uttering something along these lines lately as digital assistants are becoming more ubiquitous in daily life. These features are not just an outcropping of cell phones, but have actually become stand alone services; some with separate devices that operate independent of a phone or tablet.

Apple started the trend when they launched Siri on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. Several programmers tried to copy Siri for Android phones, but none met with the success Apple enjoyed. Samsung launched S-voice shortly after with the Galaxy S-3, but it’s was not widely accepted by users. There were a few app developers that tried to make device agnostic personal assistants for phones, but none met with Siri’s success. Until Google.

Google’s voice to text system is built into every Android system and works every bit as reliably as Siri. Android-based phones, even phones who try to add their own voice command systems, can access the Google voice system by saying “OK, Google.” It is cloud based, but also backed up by a dedicated team of people who constantly monitor the voice traffic to ensure even the most mumble mouthed commands get understood.

The battle might have remained between Siri and Google had Amazon not expanded the border conflict beyond phone handsets when they introduced the Echo. The small canister shaped device is essentially a voiced-operated, sound-based internet device with no visual user interface aside from a glowing ring. The flagship device is about 7 inches tall with omni-directional, far-field microphones and an adequate speaker for listening to music. It’s assistant is Alexa and users can access the system simply by calling her name. No need to push a button, or even use an interjection like “Hey” or “OK.”

Windows has entered the fray with Cortana, first introduced on Windows 8 phones, then on all versions of Windows 10 for phone, tablet or PC. While Siri, Google and Alexa have voices that are computer generated, Cortana’s voice is that of an actual human being. The name and the voice are taken from Microsoft’s hugely successful Halo game series.

I have tried these systems and, after wrestling with the burgeoning tech for more than a year, I have come to some conclusions. The tech is here to stay. The real question is which one is the best and most successful in what it does. I’ve lined up the five I have tried.

Number 5. With the launch of the Galaxy S-8, Samsung revamped their failed S-voice experiment, added some features and rebranded it as Bixby and have included it on every handset since, clearly aiming to be the Siri for Android. Or at least for the Galaxy line of phones, anyway. Bixby is no longer just the personal assistant, it now drives all Text to Voice applications on the Galaxy line. Sadly, though, it doesn’t do it well.

Of all the voice assistants, Bixby falls flattest. I have used Bixby in my brand new Galaxy Note 8 and just today fully disabled it from the phone. Its engine is slow to respond, does not accurately render the text that is spoken, even when it is spoken slowly and clearly, and often generates gibberish, spelling out the punctuation instead of adding it correctly period (.)

Number 4. Cortana is not bad, but not as robust as the others. Perhaps because its responses are recorded and not generated, or perhaps because it doesn’t have a cadre of technicians monitoring the inputs, but often, Cortana defaults to a generic web search (using Bing—the Bixby of web search engines) for its returns. She does understand better than Bixby, she just doesn’t do as much as Siri or Google, and she is a bit slower rendering the text.

Number 3. I use an iphone for work, but rarely actually use it for anything other than checking my work email, so I am not dependant on Siri. I have experimented with her to see how accurate she is in her text renderings, and she is useful in that regard. I don’t, however, miss her when I don’t use the phone. Even if one has a smart home system that Siri can control, it still requires the iPhone or iPad to do it, because there is no stand alone device for Siri yet. I hear there is talks to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV remote. Perhaps that will be an improvement. I’ll let all the Apple acolytes defend her position in the voice assistant rankings, but for my list, she is in the middle.

Number 2. The real battle for dominance is for the two assistants that are not bound to hand sets. Google just launched their Google Home product line with devices almost identical to the Amazon Echo. These devices now work just like the Google app on the phone, but without a web browser interface. It has the same network that gives Google its dominance in the web search market and it is amazingly accurate in how it listens and interprets voice. Using the phone, a user can watch the app correct a listening mistake to provide the correct information or perform the desired action. Google rarely makes a mistake in the voice interpretation. It does make mistakes in the results, however, just like it always has. But those mistakes are very few and far between.

Number 1. Alexa was designed by Amazon to work with users’ Amazon accounts. Remember that Amazon is, first and foremost, a shopping retailer. It seems Echo’s goal was similar to the goal of the Dash buttons; to make it quick and easy to order things from Amazon. With the Echo, one can order and play new music from the Prime playlists, reorder any item in the users order history and access the Amazon Prime video system to playback on smart TV or the Amazon Echo View device. If this was where the system stopped, it would rank below Siri in its usability, but Amazon didn’t stop there. With the Echo, Amazon opened the API to developers to create what Amazon calls “Skills” for Alexa. Echo can interact with Samsung’s Smartthings system for home automation, access iHeart radio stations, play games and many more things. On top of those things, Amazon gave Alexa some personality too. She responds to “Good Morning” with some interesting tidbits of information for the day. She tells jokes and even sings songs.

As technology creeps ever further into our daily lives, many people become more dependent on the services systems like these offer. My home has sensors that turn lights on automatically, preventing the stubbed toe from fumbling around in the middle of the night in the dark, interconnected thermostat so I can monitor and adjust the temperature from anywhere, and connected door locks that alert me when they are opened, or that I can lock and unlock from anywhere. Will we come to the day where society comes to a grinding halt if the systems go down? Some people will lose their minds when their assistants disappear into the cloud from whence they came, I have no doubt. I like to think I can adapt and get by without Cortana and Alexa if they go down. But for some, they live in fear of Skynet taking over.

“OK, Google, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.”

“I’m sorry, but the Government has mandated a minimum of 76 degrees for energy conservation.”

Or worse, finding themselves locked out of their homes.

“Alexa, open the front door.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Like Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I still know how to pull the plug.

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For Want Of A One-Liner

If the World Series has taught anything it is that it is impossible to carry momentum indefinitely.  Marvel is about to discover that axiom this weekend with their release of the third Thor movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor Ragnarok.  The MCU now features seventeen films that have enjoyed almost universal success.  They have all made huge box office and generated a great fan following, but as with any franchise, there are those who rank the films from best to worse and the two previous Thor movies almost always rank toward the bottom of the list.  Ragnarok will premier below even them.

One of the things that has endeared the MCU movies to the fans is a tangible sense of humor.  None of the films, even the most dramatic of them, takes itself too seriously and all have been peppered with more than a few snappy one liners that have become the hallmark of the MCU and something the DCEU has been lacking.  But as with anything good, someone will always ask for too much of a good thing.

No spoilers here, but the term Ragnarok refers to the destruction of Asgard and Thor spends the film trying to avert that destruction, which seems assured as Hela, played by Cate Blanchet, lays waste to the Asgardian defenders and casts Thor out.  Our hero must rally a team to defeat Hela and save Asgard, so he happens upon the Hulk and a disgraced Asgardian Valkyrie to enlist their help.

Ragnarok has a lot going for it.  It features not only Thor and Loki, but also the Hulk engaging in a battle royal with nothing less than the future of Asgard in the balance.  But with all the action, the studio went overboard with the one liners.  Thor has not one whit of his serious, responsible attitude so often displayed in both his previous films but also in the Avengers movies.  This Thor spends most of this film wise cracking and making poor jokes.  Even the Hulk, who talks more in this movie than in all other MCU films combined, if full of wise cracks.  Add Jeff Goldblum as the near maniacal Game Master and the silliness reaches nauseating levels.  The teaser trailer should have been an indication of the level of silliness when Thor turns to the Game Master and says of Hulk “We know each other!  He’s a friend from work.”

With all the wanton destruction (and there is plenty) it is difficult to feel the sense of loss that by all rights should have the audience near tears when the cast is so busy whipping out one liners.  I found it difficult to enjoy this film and found myself sighing a lot during the two-and-a-half hour show, wishing it would wrap up.  That is not an indication of a good movie.  Thor Ragnarok is the worst film of the Thor films, which are the worst films of the MCU.  It is a shame.  It is also a shame that the next entry to have to swing the momentum back is a movie featuring the little known Black Panther in February before the next Avengers movie.

 

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Gettin’ Down with Bob and Sue

There are moments of unexpected joy that come around in life.  These moments are rare and when they come, one must see them for what they are and savor every second of them.  My granddaughter called me a few weeks ago to ask me for a favor.  The last favor she asked for was to borrow a couple of books, so I didn’t think much of it when I replied, “Sure.  What is it?”

“What are you doing the week of the 28th?”

“Nothing much.  I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I have anything scheduled.  Why?”

“We’re having a Bob and Sue dance and I was hoping you could be my Bob.”

Now, I had never heard of a Bob and Sue dance, so the first thing that popped into my head was something like a Sadie Hawkins thing.  She went on to explain that there would be a couple of practices and a dinner prior to the dance.  It was then that it occurred to me that she was talking about Drill Team.  My granddaughter is a Morton Ranch Maverick Belle and she was asking me to dance at the half time show during the football game.

And I had already said yes.

What had I gotten myself into?

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t dance.  At least not without first imbibing copious amounts of inhibition lowering beverages.  When I was in middle school, I attended my first school dance.  My lack of experience in that particular social ritual was glaringly apparent as I tried to figure out how to move to the rhythm while simultaneously screwing up enough courage to ask a girl to actually dance.  As I tried to surreptitiously practice dancing while hiding along the gym’s sidelines, some school mate observed my awkward gyrations and commented that I couldn’t dance.  That killed dancing for me for a couple of years.  It was in high school before I tried again.  I did manage to perform as Will Smith instructed Kevin James in “Hitch”, elbows in, shuffling from left to right in that safe space.  No one would confuse me with Tony Manero.

It was with more than a little trepidation that I entered the Morton Ranch gym that first practice session.  Reyna was nonplussed.  Nothing fazes her these days; at least nothing having to do with dancing.  She has been dancing her whole life.  For her 13th birthday, her parents threw a surprise party for her after she had been with me on a road trip driving back from Arkansas.  Once we got to the house, that girl started dancing with her friends and didn’t stop by the time I left to go home.  I was exhausted just watching her dance.  I have attended her dance recitals throughout her school performances as long as she has been doing them, only missing one or two.  This girl can dance.

This guy cannot.

So once the other “Bobs” showed up for the practice, I noticed that several of them were in no better physical condition as I was, so I felt marginally better.  Most of the Bobs were the girls’ fathers, so I was probably the oldest one there.  Once the leaders started instructing us in the choreography, I became more concerned.  There were steps and counting and shuffling and spinning and lifting involved.  I began to feel better as the other Bobs were struggling as I was, so I drove on.  The practice was on the same night as Game one of the World Series, so they wrapped up pretty quick, since the home town Astros were playing and many of the Bobs were anxious to get home for the game.

The next practice went longer, but they added more moves!  I had not even gotten down the first set and now I had to remember even more!  Oh, this was not going to go well.  I was going to embarrass my granddaughter and she was going to hate me for life.

I needn’t have worried.  On game day, we practiced one more time and I felt better.  Besides, the rest of the Bobs were in the same boat. The dance was far from perfect, but that was clearly not the point, given how little preparation went into the Bob part.  It was just supposed to be a great and fun time for the girls and their “Bobs.”  I am so proud Reyna asked me to be her Bob for the event.  Even if she didn’t think it was a big deal for her, it was enough of one for me for the both of us.

So, here is the video.  Enjoy!

 

Bob and Sue

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Where To Find West Texas Jewels

Forty miles southeast of Lubbock, Texas, at the intersection of Highways 84 and 380, on a small parcel of flat land, rests a little jewel of Texas history. The town owes its founding to a cereal magnate and its continued existence to the energy industry, but it has more going for it than the acrid smell of crude oil and rows upon rows of wind farms on the horizon. Most people driving down Highway 84 are coming from or going to Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University, or on to Amarillo. But Post, Texas is still home to a number of die-hard West Texans who live and work in the 100-year-old town. Many of the residents have lived their entire lives there, while others left at some point to find their fortunes but ended up returning with a family. One unique sort of resident was discovered in Post but has now found a permanent home on display across the state in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This small, desert gem of a town offers a Texas-sized portion of history, culture, and art.

Garza County Museum

Linda Puckett’s husband’s family were long-time Post residents, so when she and her husband returned to Post in 1980, it was a homecoming of sorts. The Pucketts owned a trucking company at the time, but Linda quickly found her calling when the C.W. Post Historical Center needed help. In her role as director, Linda has overseen a mass expansion of the museum’s collection, including gathering items from local Post residents such as Alvin G. Davis, a renowned cowboy featured in a large room dedicated to his rodeo days and philanthropic activities. “He is the highest honored 4-H member to date. He’s quite a guy. He’s still living; we have a living legend.”

Building the collection has been a passion for Linda since she took over the museum in 1995, which meant a lot of work. “I’ve been here 22 years now. We started with three rooms and nothing and now we have a huge historical museum.” The museum is housed in the old Post Sanatorium, which served as the town hospital for a number of years. Next door is a building that served as a nursing school. “There really was nothing here; we’ve totally revamped the whole interior. Once [the residents] saw we were here to stay, they didn’t mind us having grandma’s stuff. We ended up with a lot of stuff, so now I have to be kind of selective.”

The town’s namesake, C.W. Post, is not underrepresented in the museum. Linda was quite happy when the Post estate called asking if she wanted the furniture from Post’s Battleground, Michigan office. The chairs and desk had been stored at the Hillwood Museum in Washington D.C. at Post’s daughter’s home, but the agent in charge of the display needed the space, so he thought of Linda. She has established a relationship with the estate over the years and now proudly displays artifacts from Post’s office. There is so much in the museum that Linda is planning on a massive expansion in the near future which may include building an annex to the museum dedicated to Post. “We’re running out of room inside. We have Mr. Post’s stuff in the hallway.”

OS Museum

C.W. Post built the town after obtaining the land from several ranchers; one of them was Wilson Connell, who sold Post 27,000 of his 160,000 acres and left the rest of his land to his family. Among those sections of land was the OS Ranch, named for Overall and Street, the original land owners and founders of the ranch who sold to Connell back in the 1800s.

In the building Post built on Main Street in 1911 as an office for his land and cattle company, the OS Museum now resides, independently owned and operated by the descendants of Connell. While the Garza County Museum features artifacts from residents of Post, the OS Museum features collections from around the world and has little to do with the town’s history other than its location. The late Giles McCrary, grandson of William Connell, started the museum to feature artifacts and artwork collected by the family as they traveled over the years. Christie Morris, assistant curator, explained that McCrary wanted to provide access to art that most people will not get a chance to experience. The museum rotates themed displays that change at Easter, summer, and Christmas. One of the most significant additions to the collection are the assortment of the famed Fabergé Eggs. “Mr. McCrary set the whole thing up as a nonprofit. The family doesn’t charge anything for it; we just want to make these things available to the people who live in the area and the people who come through.”

Those people include the residents as well as visitors. “We have people from literally all over the world. We have a lot of people passing through; a lot of people will stop to maybe see something downtown. All Post’s merchants are really good about promoting one another. A lot of times someone will come up and say that ‘I was down in so-in-so shop and they said I had to come see this.’ We get a lot of people from Tech as parents are driving through and they’ll stop and sometimes bring people back and they’ll stop in and see us.”

Postosuchus

One resident of the Post area that brings people to town moved away and will probably never return, although he takes with him an indelible part of the town. He is named for Post, Texas, as his formal name is Postosuchus Kirkpatriki, but he is more commonly called Postosuchus. The large animal lived in Post in the late Triassic era and David Temple, Assistant Director of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is quick to point out that Postosuchus is not a dinosaur, he is a reptile. “This is really before the dinosaurs came along and you have these things which are essentially reptiles. Dinosaurs appear at the end of the Triassic and into the Jurassic.”

Researchers still visit the Post excavation from time to time for more study. The skeleton on display in Houston is not as large as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but is similar in size to a Velociraptor. Researchers from nearby Texas Tech who regularly visit the dig site posit that Postosuchus may have been able to walk on his hind legs, but was probably a quadraped, according to studies of his skeleton. Temple said that the research was conducted using pieces of different specimens. Scientists unfortunately did not find an entire intact skeleton, but did find enough to identify Postosuchus, despite return trips to the excavation.

“We’ve been out there twice. We spent two or three days straight, ten hours a day and we didn’t really find much of anything. When you find stuff, it’s where you find it but its not everywhere. It’s kind of spotty.”

This little stretch of Highway 84 sees more traffic than one might expect from this West Texas area outside of Lubbock. Between scientists, residents, visitors, and Red Raiders driving to and from Texas Tech, the town gets a notable amount of visitors. Linda Puckett enjoys being on the route in and out of town. “We are the last stop before the interstate. We’re a good pit stop.”

So whether you find yourself traveling through the area and need a place to rest or looking for an out-of-theordinary day trip for the family, Post has plenty to offer. And if you visit on a Saturday, Puckett suggests visiting the Ragtown Gospel Theater, just north of town, for a matinée.

 

This article appears in the October, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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Passing Notes

Cell phones evoke strong reactions in many users, from camping out for days in advance of a posted release date, to igniting flame wares online debating the merits of the latest models. Some people are fully entrenched in one brand or the other and cannot conceive of ever using another model, while others flip back and forth depending on what deal they find at the time. Some people get a new phone every six months while others hold onto their phone until it completely stops working. I tend to fall in the latter group. My Galaxy Note 4 was on its last legs and it was time to consider a new phone. I held off getting a replacement until I knew whether or not Samsung would continue the Note line after its Note 7 debacle. I now have a new phone and a new carrier (kinda) and I am a happy camper once again.

I bought my Note 4 when my Note 3 failed. When my Note 4 began exhibiting battery problems after a year, I considered having my carrier upgrade me to the newly-released Note 7 (Samsung skipped the Note 6) as a replacement. Fortunately, my Carrier was able to get me a new Note 4 that resolved my issue and I didn’t have time to be disappointed because it was just then when the Note 7 began exploding in people’s pockets. The carriers very much want people to buy a new phone every year and it had been more than two since I bought my Note 4. Both Samsung and Verizon were keen on upgrading me to the Galaxy S-8. I even considered it, but it came down to the fact that there is no S-pen in the S-8. I just couldn’t do it.

All that changed at the end of July, when Samsung began teasing its “Bigger Things” ad campaign. Clearly from the silhouette, they were about to release a new Note! I was giddy with “New Phone” excitement. After Samsung announced the phone, the major carriers began offering pre-orders at different price points. The phone is not cheap. $960 from all the carriers, but that could be mitigated by trading in an old phone. Best Buy offered it for $150 less than the carriers, so that was the best deal, if I stayed with Verizon. One problem, though, was that I had finally finished paying off my Note 4 and my Verizon bill was about to be a lot lower, but if I bought the phone from them, I was stuck making payments for two years again. Verizon is not the cheapest data plan unless you get four lines from them. As I live alone, I certainly don’t need four lines. Their unlimited plan was a bit more than I wanted to pay, so I began shopping around.

The other major carriers were comparable to Verizon and nothing stood out. Comcast had recently launched their Xfinity Mobile service and I looked at that. As an Xfinity Internet customer, I could get phone service from them without paying a line access fee. That was cool. Their unlimited plan was cheaper than the other carriers as well. The only problem was that Xfinity Mobile wasn’t listing the Note 8 as being available, and I had to buy the phone from them to activate it. They do not yet offer a bring your own phone plan. Fortunately, the week after its announcement, the Note 8 appeared on the XM website for pre-order at $200 less than all the other carriers. That pretty much put the nail in the coffin for me. I ordered the phone and the “by the gig” plan ($12 per gig) and waited.

The phone arrived at my home via FedEx on the 15th (the official launch date) and I unboxed it immediately. It is about a centimeter longer than the Note 4 and about a half-centimeter more narrow. It is an all-glass body, which makes it challenging to hold onto. Also, it is very slippery and will readily slide on any slanted surface, so a tactile case is essential to prevent damage. It’s biggest cosmetic difference is the infinity screen, removing any hard buttons from the face of the device. No home button. No fingerprint scanner. Nothing. When the phone is off, it is just a black obelisk. The power button is in the same position on the right side and the volume buttons are on the left. One new button shares the left side at about thumb position and that is the Bixby button. More on that later.

On the flip-side, there are two camera lenses, the flash and the re-positioned fingerprint sensor. The dual 12 megapixel camera is an oft-touted improvement allowing for more portrait style photography giving simulated depth of field. The front camera has improved as well, now sporting 8 megapixels. The most significant improvement for me is the manual settings allowing the user to set aperture and shutter speed and ISO if they so choose.

The S-pen does more now as well. While it is still a WACOM stylus, Samsung has added more features in the system that uses the S-pen. It had a coloring program that allows the user to either color on predrawn art, much like those adult coloring books that were all the rage a couple of years ago, or free draw and color original artwork and share it in an online gallery for feedback. I have wasted a couple of hours doing that already.

The Note 8 is a Note, so it still works on the same principle as its predecessors and I am well familiar with it. My greatest impression is the faster CPU and the larger memory. The Octocore processor running at 2.35 GHz and the six Gigs of onboard RAM mean it is zippy fast. Samsung also brought back the micro SD card slot so the on board 64 Gigs of storage can be augmented by adding up to 256 Gigs of removable storage.

What I not as enamored with is the rear mounted fingerprint scanner. I have yet to get my finger in the correct position thanks to the thickness of my phone case/wallet. Fortunately, the Note 8 offers retina scanning as a biometric option as well as 3-D facial recognition. This is fine for unlocking the phone, but my apps and websites still want fingerprints.

Some of the updates to standard apps are not as welcome either. The mail app is missing the ability to register a domain as spam, meaning one can only register each message one at a time. Some menu items have been moved to other screens, which is just a matter of a learning curve.

All in all, I am quite pleased with my new Note 8 and I am glad I waited. I am also happy I got it for $200 less than the major carriers were charging, while I still get the Samsung promotion for a wireless charger and memory card. I even ordered a new wallet case which showed up one day after the phone. Apple announced the new iPhone just two weeks after Samsung announced the Note 8. At $1000, the iPhone X took the Note’s short –lived title as the most expensive phone on the market. At least until Samsung announces the Note 9.

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