Quick Review: Pacific Rim 2

Was off work on Friday with the wife, so we decided to take in a movie with my oldest son. My wife has really been wanting to see Pacific Rim 2, so we grabbed some cheap tickets and hit the local theater.

I really loved Pacific Rim when it came out a few years ago. It was a snappy monster action flick that knew it was all about the visual effects. It’s storyline was over-the-top, and was all there to facilitate more insane action between the giant mechs and monsters. It knew what it wanted to be, and it didn’t try to hide it with some deep hidden meaning.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Pacific Rim 2. I’ll keep this spoiler free, but suffice it to say, the story was poorly written, and seemed very disjointed from the overall goal of getting big giant robots to fight with monsters. There were deaths of characters that were meant to move you, but they just felt tacked on and forced. One of them in particular just seemed dumb and wasteful.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. The visuals in this were amazing, and of course, seeing giant robots fight with monsters is awesome. They even threw in a small twist at the end that was hilarious and amazing at the same time. It feels like the final 3rd of the movie is where everything hit it’s stride, but that was after the monsters started showing up for the robots to battle. I feel like the early part of the movie didn’t add much, and was mostly forgettable. Which is sad, considering the great talent they had in the lead roles.

So should you go to see Pacific Rim 2? Sure, but I wouldn’t spend more than a matinee price. The visual effects are great, and the fight scenes are all that you’d expect. If you’ve got a good home theater setup, it might even be worth waiting for rental. Just don’t expect to be wow’d by the story, or frankly, even consider it more than adequate. When it focuses on being a monster bash-em-up, it’s a lot more fun.

Some urbanism basics

Sometimes when I’m out for a run I get interesting thoughts flowing through my head, and before I’m done with my journey, I have an entire presentation and blog entry written in my head. Today was one of those days. We went for a run around the river road in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, from Ford Parkway up to Marshall/Lake street. While we were out I came across some leftover signs that are protesting the new development that is going in to the old Ford Motor Plant area of Highland Park.

There are a few people in the neighborhood who are opposed to the development. They feel it’s too dense, and will bring in the wrong kind of people, destroying the feel of the Highland Park neighborhood. They believe that it will increase traffic and lower property values, and that the neighborhood should take a slower, market-based approach. The plans that the city put forward would increase density, with a large scale development approach involving multi-unit buildings, as opposed to single family homes.

At the same time, I often hear from residents of Saint Paul who feel that their streets are not well maintained, or plowed properly in the winter. They complain about lack of funds for parks and the development of new bike trails. This got me thinking, that everyone needs a quick little primer about how life works in a city. At least a simplified methodology that can be the beginning of deeper discussions.

There are three things that people often ask for in their neighborhoods.

  1. Low density
  2. Low taxes
  3. Nice things (well maintained streets, infrastructure, good police/fire, and great parks)

This is a simplified list, but in general this is what people complain about. Here’s the problem though.

You can only have two out of the three. 

These three things are not mutually exclusive, but they are exclusive when you combine them into a triad. At a high level you can’t have all three things at the same time, and you need to chose between which two things you want to focus your energy on.

  • If you want low density and low taxes, there isn’t enough money to have nice things and infrastructure will suffer.
  • If you want low taxes and nice things, then you need high density to create a large enough tax base to pay for it all.
  • If you want low density and nice things then you need high taxes to pay for everything with a smaller tax base.

There are nuances in all of this, but you need to pick what is most important to you, and it will dictate your other choices.

Some may argue that you can go for a moderate approach. Perhaps you can have medium density, with moderate taxes, and simply adequate things. The difficulty with this approach is that we all have an idea in our head of what low and high density looks like. Most people would agree that a suburb like Coon Rapids, MN is a lower density environment, and NE Minneapolis is a higher one. However, what constitutes “in between” is a large swath of ideas that are difficult to agree on, and relates not just to the number of houses, but to the numbers of roads and transit options.

The same goes for taxes and nice things. We know what the ends of the spectrum look like, but coming to agreement on where the middle is can be quite difficult. The issue of property taxes can be affected by not just the reality of people’s ability to pay, but by their underlying political philosophies.

Compromise solutions can also be a challenge for cities to administer, but it’s a situation that many places find themselves in because of their desire to bring everyone together. It creates a scenario where cities have to live on the razor edge of a knife with their budget and planning, worrying about what happens if they make any slight movement to one side. For example, a low density suburb, with low taxes, might decide that it wants to start investing in more bike paths because of resident demands. Due to the incredibly spread-out nature of the suburb, these amenities can be expensive to build and to maintain. Yet, they build them with one time money, and often can’t afford to keep them maintained over the long haul. It creates a scenario where no one wins.

I don’t envy cities that have to deal with choices around these topics. But, perhaps, if we all start with a better foundation of knowledge about what our choices are, we can have a better conversation right from the start. Understanding what the levers are, and how we all feel about each of them, can guide better discussions among residents. Making people aware of how all the facets of our cities need to work together creates a better informed electorate, and a healthier dialogue among elected and non-elected officials.

Apple’s Education Event

Yesterday I took the time to watch the live blog of Apple’s “Field Trip” education event. Apple in education has been something that has been near and dear to me since my childhood. The very first computers I worked with were Apple IIe computers in our computer lab. I was even lucky enough to have a teacher-aide in the family who was able to bring one home for me over the summer for me to work with. Although my first computer that I owned was a Commodore 64, the Apple line was always present in my educational settings.

However, in recent years Apple has been getting it’s butt handed to it by Google in the education space. Specifically, the advent of the Chromebook and it’s associated Google services. Google took their model of cheap computers that can access web based applications, and brought it to schools that were suffering from lack of funds to keep expensive Mac computers refreshed. Google’s GSuite is a robust set of tools that allows for all sorts of productivity, and isn’t dependent on any specific piece of hardware from any specific manufacture. This is a perfect situation for schools that are often strapped for cash, and for system administrators. Google’s user-based design means that devices can be passed around from student to student, and everyone’s content stays with them, no matter which device they’re on.

Apple is still married to the old way of doing things, with documents stored locally and then sync’d to the cloud. Despite Apple’s best attempts at web based versions of their productivity suite, the best experience is still the locally installed fat clients on either a Mac or an iPad. This means that you’re tied to an expensive Apple device to use these services to the best of their ability. There is one area though that Apple shines… content creation.

Apple and MacOS/iOS have always been the king of creative digital creation. Ever since the first iMovie and Garageband apps hit the scene, they have ruled this lower-to-middle end of the creator space. Apple still has to compete in the high-end, professional market, but for the regular guy/gal, tools like iMovie and GarageBand are more than adequate to create amazing content, quickly and easily. This also applies to students who need nice and easy tools to learn and create things for school and for their budding creative endeavors. This type of simple creation just too hard to accomplish on a Chromebook, and get the same level of results.

Where I think many schools are landing is with a hybrid approach. They have dozens of Chromebooks lying around for students to do writing and create presentations. But then for creative content creations, such as music or video, they have a few Mac’s that students can use for those purposes. This is what one of my son’s school’s does, and it seems to work really well. The kids are able to move between the devices just fine and context switching just seems natural for them.

I feel bad that Apple has lost their lead in the education field, but they got beat fair and square by Google, who offers a better solution for cash and resource strapped schools. However, if they keep their focus on creativity, and things that simply can’t be done on the web, they still can have an important role in schools for a long, long time.

Good Comcast Customer Service?

For the past couple of months my old trusty cable modem (SB6121) has been acting a bit flaky. In particular it would completely freeze up if I started doing a large upload (like to a backup provider). I lived with the flakiness for a while, but with needing to switch from CrashPlan to Backblaze for my backup solution, I needed large scale uploading to work better. So I went out and purchased a nice shiny SB6190, excited to see if it fixed my problem.

I got home, hooked it up and once it was activated I did a speed test. I got 50% of what I was supposed to get. Something wasn’t right, so I called Comcast. Unfortunately, the first person I talked to decided that it was a hardware problem and told me to call the modem manufacturer. When I talked to them, they said bring it back to the store and exchange it. One more trip to Best Buy, and then another modem hook up and activation, and sure enough it did the same thing. I only got 50% of the speed I was supposed to.

At this point I was getting miffed. I called Comcast again and this time the rep that I talked to was far more helpful. She told me straight out that the last person I talked to didn’t know what they were talking about and that she could see a definite problem on my line. It would require a technician, but one could be there the next day. It was a breath of fresh air to her them admit they made a mistake, and they quickly moved to correct it.

Sunday arrived and I received multiple texts reminding me of my appointment, as well as a text when my technician was leaving his last job, as well as when he arrived outside my house. It was almost communication overkill, but it shows that they were trying. The tech that showed up was a great guy and very personable. I showed him to the demarc and he got to work. Soon he was climbing the pole, and fifteen minutes later my internet came back to life with full speed.

I asked what the issue was and it was actually kinda fascinating. Back in the old days, if you were an Internet-only customer, they would put a special blocking device on your line (in the pole) to stop you from getting TV service with your Internet package. However, with the newer versions of their transmission technology, these blockers are no longer required. The problem is, these blockers interfere with newer modems that have 24 channels in them. My modem was literally being blocked from half of what it thought it could access. He removed the blocker and everything sprang to life, good as new.

On top of it all, my large backup upload to Backblaze is zipping along at a good clip, with zero interference for anything else on my network. Despite the one foobar with the first Comcast technician, I was very, very happy with the service I received. They were quick to admit fault, and fix the problem. The technician even showed up right on time with no waiting around. I know people complain about Comcast service, but it sounds like they’re actually doing a lot to change things, and I’m happy with how it all turned out this weekend.

Quick Review: Murder on the Orient Express

I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie murder mysteries since I was a kid, and so a year ago when I saw Murder on the Orient Express had been re-done, I was excited to see a new take on it. I ended up not seeing it in the theaters, and then never got around to watching it on rental until the other night. My wife had seen it on a plane recently and really enjoyed it, so I went in with high expectations.

One of the benefits of not having read or seen this movie in decades was that I had completely forgotten about the plot twists. Since this is a Hercule Poirot mystery, it’s best to always go in knowing as little as possible, since the unraveling of the mystery is often brilliant and fun to watch. Therefore, I’ll keep this review short and spoiler free.

The main thing I wanted to comment on was the cast. This ensemble was amazing. Led by Kenneth Branagh, the cast put on one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley all created an environment that was beautiful and believable. I love movies like this where an ensemble is stuck together and gets to play off of each other. These actors do an amazing job, and it shows how incredibly talented they all are.

I’ll end this review here, as to not give anything away, but I highly recommend renting this one and sitting back with a bowl of popcorn and watching as the twists and turns of the mystery unfold around you. It’s a wonderful film, and well worth your time.