Kubo and the Two Strings – Moving Art that Moves You

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Imagine taking a favorite artist’s works of art, putting them into motion, and telling a story. That’s Kubo and the two strings. Forget about the meticulously designed sets and tedious work of moving stop-action figures (you are given a little sense of this as the end credits roll). Set aside all of the effort that goes into telling stories in this manner. Simply drink in the visuals. Revel in the surprising fluidity of the scenes and characters and a beautiful story being told. That’s Kubo and the two strings.Our protagonist Kubo is in desperate straits, having only two strings for his shamisen and a mother to nurse, he only has his super powers of origami to rely on (so reminiscent of Ceony of The Paper Magician).

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There are so many brilliant choice points made throughout this film, one of which is themed color palettes for each of the major set pieces. For example, when you come to the Kubo’s family castle, all is dark. When you walk in the fields, you’re immersed in tans, browns and yellows. Not only do these color palettes set some of the emotion of the scene but they also provide a great way for that scene to stick in your memory.  You’ll recall the dark time at the castle, the hues of late summer fields and blues mixed with the autumn colors of the boat in the sea. While I love the comparatively oversaturated and polychromatic nature of Pixar films, I really appreciate the organic feel of the more muted and similar color threads that are used in a scene in Kubo and the Two Strings. You don’t have vibrant reds clashing with greens and blues and blacks. While the color schemes are clear and beautiful the more natural organic feel to the overall look brings a human element that you typically don’t see in modern animation. I think the producers are right that this element of humanity does come across with the handmade sets, hand-crafted creatures who are set in motion by hand. This is such a human story, after all, even though there are fantastical elements used to tell it. So while there are the Moon King and the (anonymously) masked sisters with their magical powers, it is a story of control vs. letting go, of holding everything to the vest or deep-felt love. Our will willing to be stripped of our humanity so that we may rule from afar or shall we dwell in the midst of murky, messy bits of humanity, both good and bad? These are the issues Kubo and the Two Strings addresses in this beautiful and human manner.

Accompanying Kubo’s journey into his past which points to the future is a poignant, lovely soundtrack by Dario Marianelli (of Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and V for Vendetta fame). The movie begins with the brooding scene with the mother in the midst of The Impossible Waves and capped off by Regina Spektor’s lilting cover of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Obviously, the Beatles have a great, original rendition with one of my favorite covers by Santana, Yo-Yo Ma and India Arie. Ms. Spektor’s is my favorite recording full stop. Her turn of phrase, the haunting lilt in her voice, and overall tone paired with the shamisen (actually, a three-stringed instrument) are near perfection.

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So, in sum, I love the look and sound of this movie. The story breathes of humanity and pathos, with the exception of the very kid-friendly ending. Speaking of kids, there are dark and scary moments for the very little and those sensitive to these things. I’ve seen parents have to take their children out, so you may want to let the young and sensitive skip this one.

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I won’t wade into the treacherous waters of the controversy around the lack of diversity on the film. Clearly, the main family in this film are not oriental, let alone Japanese. They are white with the white male (McConaughey) having a particularly distinctive voice. I will simply say that the folks at Laika Studios have given this some real thought, though you might find it inadequate, see their response in The Wrap here.   

I really cannot recommend the movie enough.

Story – 4/5

Acting (voice) – 4.5/5

Visuals – 5/5

Sound – 4.5/5

Music – 5/5

 

[****Warning slight spoilers are given below to dive more deeply into the points I’ve discussed***]

One of the chief examples of this lovely mess is the skeletal monster. It’s a huge, scary and a bit of a mess. Its teeth are chaotic bits of bone, it has swords sticking out of its head and its armor is falling apart. Yet it’s powerful, large and daunting with its glowing eyes. Its own color scheme is rusty reds and reddish browns within a cave of verdant green.

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Along with color, texture is used to clue us into the creatures of this world as well. The Kubo and the village were nubby silk and cotton, have coarse hair and their eyes are alive. The two sisters wear hard, smooth masks, reminiscent of Guy Fawkes masks worn by Anonymous, which must be broken through to reach them.These masks show how cold and untouchable they are. The Moon King is ethereal and shimmering; he is not substantial or fully here. They are not truly alive.

 

Mpow’s Value Proposition

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I don’t normally review or comment on vendors in general but I’ve recently been introduced to the electronics company Mpow when I bought an inexpensive Bluetooth wireless speaker that was waterproof for my son. I was surprised by its overall quality construction and sound. For about $20 (when I bought it, it’s now going for about $14.50) the Buckler delivers reasonable sound, fair loudness, and seriously IPX4 level protection. This not something that you want to drop in a pool but you can certainly stick it in a shower. This seems to me to be good value for what you pay. I’m not all about the best nor the cheapest; I am about value for your particular use. If you going to do serious, careful listening, your value proposition changes than if you’re doing casual listening of a Bluetooth speaker while doing homework or take a shower. So your application your use of the item does play an important role in figuring out what is reasonable enough even for an inexpensive price. For our particular application, this was awesome. [Note: I have no affiliation with Mpow; all of the items mentioned here were purchased by me]

 

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Mpow Buckler Bluetooth Speaker

 

So when I saw they had a gizmo that kills the noise I get when my phone is plugged into the car recharger and the aux cord, I thought I would give it a try. “Good enough” in this case meant it had to be easy and result in no noise since I really wanted to get rid of the annoying noise over my car’s speakers. Mpow “Ground Loop Noise Isolator” to the rescue. For $7.50, on promotion (currently $10), this thing works perfectly. There is no noise when my phone is both plugged into the auxiliary and into power and it’s as easy as plugging it into my phone and the aux. cord into it. In this case, partial noise reduction wouldn’t fit the bill; it had to be all or nothing.

 

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Mpow Noise Isolator

 

Next, I was looking for an inexpensive set of decent sounding Bluetooth headphones that I could use while working out. This was not an urgent need since I have wired in-ear monitors that worked well for this but would look forward to not having to deal with the wire. So I could take my time looking. Along came Mpow “Wolverine Bluetooth Headphones 4.1 Wireless Sport with Noise Cancellation.” Now there’s quite a mouthful. For $15 (again on promotion, currently $22), I was shocked how good these sounded. Now, I had pretty low expectations, but they were far exceeded. They’re mainly used when I’m working out or doing chores, so my focus on the music, podcast or audiobook isn’t the focus. Certainly, for this use, they are more than adequate. Even sitting down and really listening to the music, they’re pretty good. Certainly better than any wired $20 headset (I’ve never tried any other Bluetooth headset at this low of a price point). These really fit the bill when I need to have music take my mind away from the grind (or the stroke, when rowing) but even for casual music listening, While initially pairing them is dead easy, they do have some challenges, from time to time, reconnecting to a paired phone (both on iOS and Windows 10 Mobile). They tend to connect, then turn off unless you start streaming sound to them almost immediately (maybe to save battery life). So it often takes to attempts to connect. In terms of sound, range, and battery life, I’m amazed at what these do. They even take phone calls in a reasonably decent way. All for $20 normally priced. So if you can accept the occasional pain of reconnecting or pairing, these offer stunning value. NOTE: They have a new version call Mpow Coach for the same price; it may (or may not)  address the connection issue

 

 

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Mpow Wolverine

 

Finally, we recently had to replace an FM transmitter for an old van whose previous transmitter went with my oldest son to college. Again, I turned Mpow. They seem determined to always deliver more than you anticipate, so they included a USB port to the car plug for the transmitter. This is a digital transmitter that allows you to go to many channels, not just a few static channels typical of a physical switch and the results are better connection, less interference and good sound. This actually looks good, works well and you don’t lose a potential phone charger when you plug it in and it currently goes for $10.

 

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Mpow FM Transmitter

 

 

I’m becoming a Mpow fan. Is this the place that I would go from a high-end gear? Not so much. However, for delivering value under a plethora of uses, I’m going back to Mpow because the quality they deliver at their price point provides lots of value.

Halie and the Moon’s Marvelous Million Suns

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Halie and the Moon’s recently released their second EP, A Million Suns Vol. 1. I loved their debut Blue Transmissions Vol. 1 and so, waited with bated breath for this new addition. Of course, this begs the question: “When are volumes 2 dropping?” Equally perplexing to their naming practice is attempting to pigeonhole their music. Is it folksy pop with jazz overtones or, as their site describes, “acoustic dream pop ethereal atmospheric folk.” By any name, it’s lovely. It’s also not that far afield for Halie Loren; much of the style is reminiscent of Full Circle, Ms. Loren’s debut album recently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The melodic underlying structure and vocal overtones are quite similar while the writing and combined sounds of the instrumental members of the band do provide a different flavor.

[Note: I received a copy of the EP for review. While this didn’t effect my review, there’s my full disclosure.]

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The overall sound of this EP is less of the dream ethereal nature the Blue Transmissions and more along the lines of ballad pop. Trying to peg it, while fun, is not all that informative, so let’s dive into the pieces themselves. Shangri La is an ode to that notion that we desire to share our best moments – that fabulously slowly and chromatically shifting sunset, those perfect vignettes of a street side café with early light filtering over your cappuccino and croissant or lovely mundane moments of: “…tangerines/ and here’s the scene/ I got the light just right / and the Beatles in the kitchen.” I don’t know if there’s irony in this, but there seems nothing missing in this symphony of sound. While it starts with a simple guitar and Ms. Loren’s voice coming together on the melody, as it moves on, layers of instruments (cello, voices, piano) converge to create a more complex sound mix. As if that someone came and joined in the moment. I love the play with complexity as it’s broken back down to Ms. Loren a capella then to layers and next to an instrumental interlude. The tapestry of sound woven in this song is just right.

The sentiment of Shiny New Thing is that we will bob together on the sea of life whatever waves may come; this is reflected in the bouncy beat of the music. She sings of her willingness to be the “shiny new thing” to the end: ‘Til I stop shining/ The light of your days/ ‘Til we grow sick of trying/ Or ’til we live with the crazies /Or we’re pushing up daisies/ Or slide into the steep sea/ With the angels below.” We will be the ones who ramble life together: “I’ll be the bread in your mouth/ Poetry on the table/ The one who remembers/ To weave all the fables…” These slightly crazy lyrics looped into this bubbly song make for a wonderful combination of ardent sentiment and a light heart. Rather than cloying or heavy on the notion of sticking together, this celebrates the wackiness of life in riding the rapids together.

Sunshine in Disguise seems to pair the first two songs where we’re stumbling along together and that’s precisely how we have those missed moments from Shangri La of perfect (and not so perfect) vignettes shared. Sharing those moments (“I can taste the sunshine in your voice when you’re singing along”) keeps us both shiny new things for each other (“So let’s stay and dance all of our prayers until the dawn”). Clearly, I love this song. While its beat is up, it’s also more directed. The moment the drums start the rhythm to the final tone from Halie Loren, there is purpose and play, poignancy and whimsy.

 

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Halie and the Moon – photo by Bob Williams

 

Paint the Stars provides a sonic impressionist image drifting near the edges of jazz and pop where we sense the stars and crickets, taste the ocean in the sand and leave wrapped in devastating joy. I love the textures of the song, how the individual clear notes of the piano infused in the overlay of Ms. Halley’s voice and then the layers of the percussion, guitar, and layered voices come in and out and all weave together this wonderful harmony as the melodic narrative thread continues through it. This song epitomizes this group; it all comes together to make for glorious sound, brilliant images where the whole woven together takes on a quality no individual element quite matches.

 

A Million Suns, Vol. 1, is a great celebration of summer, love, and beauty, and in these days of so much hate and violence, an homage to love and beauty is to be cherished. The combination of Daniel Gallo’s writing (and guitar playing), Halie Loren’s vocals and the precise yet lyrical playing of Katherine Dudley on cello, Bobby Stevens on bass, and Beau Eastlund on drums bring together magical moments on the EP. I cannot recommend it enough.

 

 

Madeline Ashby’s Company Town in which the disenfranchised save the white knight and the selfish are lost.

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Company Town is set in the future on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland which makes the rig itself a company town. It feels very much like a novel of the gold rush days but with futuristic ability to augment and modify the human body. It is owned by the powerful Lynch family who purchased it after a disastrous fire that took the lives of a third of the town. It is a working man’s platform and, so, there is a cadre of sex workers (unionized, of course) who live there and have a number of protectors including our hero, Hwa. In the midst of her duties, she is pulled into a series of murders of her sex worker friends, the Lynch family and man’s constant desire for eternal life.

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Madeline Ashby

While the premise, as I’ve laid it out, seems “normal” and prosaic, Ms. Ashby makes it anything but. Hwa is a phenomenon in herself. While most of her upbringing has done its utmost to teach her not to value herself, she has pushed back and will suffer no fools. While she doesn’t see her own value as she might, she is no doormat. Yes, as part of her job, she kicks butt and asks questions later, but it is her ability to put the puzzle together, to think through the challenges put before her that set her apart.     Her relationships between her family (in the form of a prostitute mother and a dead brother), her employers (both the sex union and the Lynches) and her “under-world friends” are rich, varied and multi-dimensional. The augmented bodies around her make for a difficult world to navigate as one who still has pure and natural biology.

One of the processes that fascinates me is to see an already really good writer become an even better writer. I believe that’s happened here with Ms. Ashby’s writing. So what makes it better? It’s more accessible and draws us into caring more about the characters and relationships while remaining edgy and holding no punches. How is this magic achieved? At least for me, I found myself more able to empathize with Hwa than I ever did with Amy, Charlotte or even Javier in her previous Machine Dynasty duology (vN and iD). While her characters there were rich and fascinating, they were different enough, both in capabilities and outlook, that I couldn’t empathize with them.

My life has been considerably different than Hwa’s. First, I had parents who in many different ways and forms made it quite clear to me that I was unconditionally loved. There are a few more freeing gifts than this. Second, I had a relatively comfortable middle-class life. Yet we all feel those moments of exclusion, where we feel substantially different from and, somehow, less than those around us. All, while not to her same degree, have suffered loss. Merely because she bears the stares with an insouciant shrug makes them no less painful. We take heart in seeing her network of friends. We sense the steel in our own spine stiffen when she makes clear that she suffers no fools. So while there are many differences, including physical and intellectual talents, well beyond our own among them, Hwa is someone with whom we may empathize.

Another mark of Company Town is that a mutually caring relationship takes center stage. The relationships were at best awkward, sometimes antagonistic while always complex in the Machine Dynasty duology; while the relationships between Daniel Siofra and Go Jung-hwa or Hwa and Joel are different types, they are both mutual caring relationships while remaining complex.  Javier relationships with Charlotte and Amy were all too strange. While that strangeness added to the novels but distanced us from the charachters, here, we more naturally care even in the midst of the strangeness

Our vision of the world is all too often upended in both good and difficult ways. So too in the Lynches’ New Arcardia.. The “white knight” proves to be the one in need (bought that t-shirt). The broken one proves to heal many and the man in control finds his reign illusory. It’s a masterful bit of writing that pulls that off without feeling artificial and manipulative. While I know some may disagree, I love the ending; it brings things together in a beautiful but possible way without ignoring the realties that we never have a perfect world when we’re done. So is justice fully achieved? No. While we may long for “… justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24 ESV), it will not, on this side of the grave; Company Town reflects that fallen state oh so accurately.

So, what do I love about Company Town?

  • Hwa – her tenacious character who cannot fail to help others
  • This world of augmentation and biological adoptions and their social implications
  • The complex, multi-dimensional relationships and interactions.
  • The riveting, quick-paced yet thoughtful narrative

I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about the book; even the depiction of the seedier side of New Arcadia was intriguing.

I highly commend Company Town to your reading pleasure.

Phrasing: 3.5/5

World Building:  4.5/5

Character:  4.5/5

Narrative: 4.5/5

 

The Golem and the Jinni: A Cultural Treat

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The Golem and the Jinni provides the rare treat of historical fiction infused with fantastic elements whilst mixing multiple cultures. The characters are compelling, multiple related story lines are deftly woven together and the story itself provides a beautiful tableau on which to paint these characters. The turn-of-the-(previous)-century, immigrant New York that Helene Wecker paints is a full character in itself.

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Courtesy of Harper Books

Ms. Wecker doesn’t simply invite us to know her characters, she has fully immerses us in their world, their lives, and in their thoughts. As we read the book, the rhythm of our own thoughts and the vocabulary of our own reflections begin to take on a hint of flavor from those of the characters. These characters are so rich in their responses and their thought life as well as the way they see the challenges ahead of them that, while there is a lovely driving narrative throughout the whole story, you can simply enjoy diving into the well of these lives.

Helene_Wecker_cr_Sheldon_WeckerHelene Wecker – Photo Credit Sheldon Wecker

Let’s take a little deeper look at the culture picture given of early Easter European Jewish and Syrian Christian immigrants to America. There is much in their cultures that overlap – the near-eastern tradition of honoring and taking care of strangers in need as well as some of their cuisine. In New York, each had a tight community to deal with the transition to this new world in which they found themselves. Standing on the streets of each neighborhood would have brought similar impressions – busy, smells of coffee and spices, street vendors and calls of friendship. There were, of course, differences and sometimes hostility. Ms. Wecker allows you to vicariously experience this world while weaving in fantastical elements with the story between the Golem and the Jinni. The warp and woof of the cultures brings out the features of the various characters, how they perceive others and respond. It’s not like their cultural automaton but culture flavors all that they do; Ms. Wecker brings this all about in an organic and realist manner. It provides a framework for the character’s relations and the direction of the narrative.

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Jinn, Bedouin, caring Rabbi, crafty and cruel magician trained as a rabbi, coffee shop owners, a scion of the Winston family who wanted to be more than a jewel on some man’s arm and so much more. Indeed, both Chava, the poor Golem and Sophia, the Heiress, live under the burden of limiting expectation. Both are expected to be obedient wives who exist solely to please their husbands. Clearly, they walk in different worlds (that eventually collide), but their primary issues are similar  There are multiple story threads that smoothly come together. Each person, each thread, every story told and each bit of action are all masterfully used to build the narrative and drive the story toward the conclusion. There are no wasted bits and yet it doesn’t fill artificially contrived.

In this debut novel, Ms. Wecker already exhibit a mastery of her craft. The dialog, story, characters and worlds (whether New York, the desert, Poland or an oasis) are perfectly married, her phrasing carefully reflects each setting and person and she understands and conveys the challenges and longings that come to us all.

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George Guidall – Photo Credit Joanna Perrin

I heard the book, performed by audiobook veteran George Guidall, as much of the story as I read. His pacing, inflection and characterization are spot-on. In particular, his pacing allows you to fully soak up the world, the characters and storyline. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you love this one. If you want to luxuriate in the wording, you can always user Whispersync for Voice to jump between the Audible version and the Kindle.

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I highly recommend this story of love and loss, moving beyond people’s expectations laid down for you and rising about your cultural limitations even as you embrace it.

Phrasing  4.5/5
World Building  5/5
Character  5/5
Narrative  4.5/5

 

 

SnagIt – Real World Notes from the Field

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I’ve used TechSmith’s SnagIt for well over a decade. I’ve used it at work to create training documents, user manuals, document issues and overall communication about software systems I use, support or help develop. In the evenings, I’ve also used it from my work laptop/tablet to edit photos, capture screenshots to communicate with others how to do things or to document support issues when things go awry. I think are a lot of folks think about SnagIt  simply as a screen-capture tool and, hey, doesn’t the Snipping tool included with Windows do that for you? For some, the Snipping tool may be all they need, but SnagIt’s ability to capture scrolling areas within a page, add annotation, make it dead easy to share and countless other activities all leave the Snipping tool and other capture tools (free and otherwise) in the dust (about which more later)

 

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All images courtesy of Techsmith.com

 

While its screen capture ability is the gold standard, I use its editing tool at least as much; I use it for photos as well as screen captures. Now, it’s not going to have filters, change of white balance or other pure photo editing features, however, I tend to use those aspects sparingly. I typically use the original image but will crop/paste, annotate or resize for web use. One of the primary uses I’ve had over the last couple of year is to manage images for this blog. There are times I’m just using my home computer and I always run into a challenge – there is no other tool in its price range (roughly $50) that I can find that allows me to edit an image for a particular pixel dimension without degradation of the image. Many online platforms have defined recommended pixel height and width (they’ll accept others but the aspect ratio or quality will be degraded). For example, the particular WordPress template I use has the banner set to 960 x 260. Not too many images have that as their native dimension.  I typically mashup images such as an author picture with book cover elements to create a banner (with their permission, of course). SnagIt’s editor is a huge help in this. I can crop, resize and paste in images with clear feedback on the pixel size throughout the editing process. The editor has some of the best annotation tools as well as ability to obscure sensitive information with highly configurable blurring. Simply put, SnagIt is my business and personal workhorse for image editing. Yes, I’ll turn to other tools to create a collage, to apply rarely used filters and to fix an image’s white balance, but nothing is as easy, intuitive and functional as SnagIt for my purposes. This is key for an impatient, non-artistically inclined guy such as myself. It returns its value on its editor alone.

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The editor, however, is certainly not the only story; indeed, it’s not the main event. SnagIt’s ability to capture exactly what you want on screen is dead-on simple and accurate. If you word within web applications or just grabbing information from a web site, SnagIt can accurately capture the most obscure elements whether that is a drop-down box with values listed, a window within a window or an area on the screen that scrolls or where you select an area like a slide show. It can capture all of it. You can also create presets to manage the way you capture for your use. For example, the default capture mode will present the captured screen in a box that allows you to quickly set the pixel dimensions and whether you’re capturing a still image or a video (see below). The vast majority of my captures keep whatever pixel size I originally selected and it’s a still image. So, for my use, that dialog is redundant. Presets to the rescue! I created a preset that bypasses the dialog and brings it right into the editor. By the way, this is a tribute to Techsmith’s excellent customer service. I actually fussed about the intermediary dialog when it first came on the scene in release 12 and didn’t like that there wasn’t a setting to ignore it in this post. The folks at TechSmith came right back with the suggested preset. I felt partly idiotic for not thinking of it myself but mostly grateful for their detailed suggestion.

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The magic of the latest release, along with improved user experience through changes in the user interface, is its enhanced ability to capture any region and especially a part of an application or web page that scrolls they’ve dubbed panoramic capture. Here’s a little video example of how it works:

This latest ability has finally pushed me over the edge. As cheap as I am (for example, I still have a 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon for the use of my children), I finally broke down and bought my own copy for personal use. I’m not sure I have a better evidence for how well the tool works for me than that.

There are some tools that, over the years, that simply nail their niches such as Scooter Software’s Beyond Compare, Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IDM Software’s UltraEdit; Techsmith’s SnagIt (as well as their Camtasia video creation/editing tool, but that’s another post) belong in that pantheon that own their category of software tools. If you need to do anything beyond the most rudimentary of screen captures or image edits, I highly recommend SnagIt, you’ll be glad you grabbed it.

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Microsoft Band 2 – Real World Notes from the Field

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I’ve had my Microsoft Band 2 for roughly 3 months. I use it within Microsoft’s ecosystem (yeah, I drank the Kool-Aid). I have Windows 10 on my PC and Surface as well as Windows 10 mobile on my Lumia 950 phone. (All that I indicate in this post will also hold for those using the Band with iOS (Apple) or Android except the Cortana integration isn’t as good). During this time, I went from walking as my main form of exercise to walking, running and various strength and toning exercises. I also lost about 25 pounds. What role did the Band have in helping to improve my fitness so far? It’s been instrumental in providing data and helping to analyze that data. (Here‘s some notes on my experience with Microsoft’s fabulous support of the Band)

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Courtesy of thedigitallifestyle.com

To understand this picture, we’ll need to go back a little bit. I have a yearly health assessment that dives into a lot of health indicators including blood pressure, BMI, and various blood tests to look at cholesterol etc. Last year, I started walking on a regular basis but made no other changes to my behavior related to health. I used a step-counter. Most of that time it was a Fitlinxx Pebble+ and shared my progress with others on http://meyouhealth.com/. This was helpful to see my progress, give me some daily goals and to have some shared encouragement from others using the site. As the year progressed, I switched over to a Fitbit Flex that my daughter was no longer using. I ate pretty much whatever I wanted and my sleep was less than optimal. As a result of that year walking, all my health indicators at my yearly assessment improved slightly. So, I began to wonder, what it would look like if I took a more active role with my diet and sleep? In particular, what would be the impact if I knocked out the junk and reduced portions in eating while making more of an effort to get a reasonable amount of sleep? So, my plan was simply to change my eating and sleep a bit.

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Courtesy of Microsoftstore.com

On my additional quest to eat better and sleep better, I saw some limitations with simply using a step-counter with some additional function). Flex can give you some feedback on sleep and provides a way to enter data related to what you eat in related application. There just wasn’t enough feedback and tracking the food I eat was never been something that enticed me. The Microsoft Band 2 went on sale with the siren song of more more information and a bit of a productivity boost. I thought I would give it a shot.

What a difference it made. Part of that difference is the Microsoft health app and the related website http://dashboard.Microsofthealth.com. I started tracking daily weight. Over the next couple weeks, I could start seeing a pattern in the data that walking was not having the same impact on my health as it did when I started. Based on my heart rate and other indicators, I could see that the sessions of walking that used to improve my fitness or at least maintaining it, now they were simply denoted as having light impact. I  had become fit enough through the walking that, short of serious speed walking, I had reached a plateau. I could not get my heart rate up enough to have a serious impact on improving my health simply by walking any longer. I don’t think I would’ve come to that conclusion without the data that Microsoft Band 2 provided. So, if somebody were to talk to me about a fitness device, I would say opt for one that has at least an optical heart rate monitor.

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Courtesy of Microsoft.com

 

Based on that feedback, I changed my program to begin to run. I say “begin” because I actually used what Microsoft calls a guided workout. This is a workout that you can load down to the Band and it will take each step vibrate on your rest and give you text related to what you should be doing. I used it to start with a run-walk workout. Now, this was designed to be a minute of walking then 2 minutes of running for 30 mins. After the first part of the first session, I did 1 minute of running and 2 minutes of walking. Within two weeks I switched it up to the normal program. Within a few weeks, however, I was forced to focus more on fitness in the gym and less on running due to challenges pounding pavement brought to my legs. During this whole period, I have been losing roughly a couple pounds a week and was now down 20 Ibs (or 1.5 stone to my friends in the UK). For me, the guided workouts are a godsend because it takes all of the temptation to be guided by how I feel at the moment and simply gives me the next step to do.

  • Courtesy Winbeta

 

So far, I haven’t given any deep technical review of Microsoft Band 2 over other fitness devices that can monitor heart rate, sleep and have some mechanism for providing a guided workout while providing productivity apps. Nor will I do so. There aren’t a ton of those devices and they all have their quirks. For me, it’s a really good combination of a productivity tool, with phone, text, email, and calendar notifications with built-in Cortana (digital personal assistant) integration, and its primary role as a fitness device. The Apple Watch seems more productivity and less fitness focused and most of the Fitbit products seem more fitness and less productivity focused. I like that Microsoft continues to develop new applications such as Explore which provides great information for hiking such as longitude/latitude coordinates, compass heading, trekking rate of climb and providing a picture of the climate and terrain if you have GPS on. Is it perfect? No. The GPS doesn’t always acquire the signal and sometimes takes longer than it should to do so. Cortana just recently became fully functional with a fix for Microsoft. For me, it is the right combination.

MSBand2

 

So what have I learned so far?

  • Real data is key. Whether it’s heart rate, weight, how good my sleep is, or improvement on split times, getting detailed, solid data is foundational for making good choices about what you do next. In my case, I would still just be walking had I not gotten feedback that it wasn’t really doing that much for me. I love being able to track my improvement and the Health app provides feedback on personal bests.
  • Clearly, fitness devices won’t make you fit or healthy. They only provide you information for you to use. That information, however, can make all the difference. I make a marginally better effort to getting reasonable sleep knowing that my Band will tell me how poorly I did if I don’t improve.
  • Sometimes the data surprising and sometimes it’s not. It’s always helpful.
  • As all the literature and everyone will tell you, this is a life journey. I’m just barely into it and there will come a time, I hope, I’m maintaining weight rather than losing it, but there will never be a time where I don’t have to pay attention. Whether that’s to my sleep, what I eat or whether I workout that day.
  • Even with all the great downloadable workouts, tons of information on the web and pressure to measure up, chill. Seriously, it’s you, your body and your pace. If I felt obligated to do my first run-walk as designed, I may have given up. Take your time. It’s not a diet, it’s not a phase, it’s a life change. It’s all about improvement and personal bests. Don’t worry about others or expectations.
  • There are always options. If running is not working for you, and in my case the high impact nature of it is too much for me, find something else. I’m now working on ellipticals and rowing machines as well as strength exercises to tone muscle.
  • Change up your workout as your fitness changes. While starting to just reduce eating and sleep more, based on the information I received, I changed my workout to run. Based on the weight loss, I started strength training to reduce muscle loss and keep up metabolism. Be flexible (literally and figuratively) with your workout.
  • There are challenges with losing weight. The above-referenced need to tone muscle is one of them. You lose muscle mass along with fat. I’ve seen sag where I’ve never seen sag before, hence the toning. You also have the challenge of your wardrobe, especially in transition. Nothing is gonna fit perfectly for a while. The upsides clearly outweigh these few challenges, but it’s good to remember that there are challenges.

So, we can talk about the Band’s 11 sensors, improved ergonomic design, or its less than stellar battery life. All of those are interesting points. Ultimately, however, it’s a tool to help you be more productive and become fitter. Your mileage may (and likely will) differ. It’s been an effective tool for me.

Jennifer Foehner Wells’ Remanence is a Nearly Perfect Sequel Whose Protagonist is Among the Best

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The Confluence series is quickly becoming one of my favorites due to its world-building, strong characters (without being one-dimensional) and relationships. I particularly like that Jane Holloway and her crew are strong and willing to do what must be done without tons of aggression ala Star Trek.

RemanenceCover

Jennifer Foehner Wells‘ series began with Fluency (reviewed here) in which a team of astronauts investigate an alien ship only to find out that it’s abandoned except for its navigator who looks startlingly like an octopus or Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. They get caught up in saving the ship and themselves. In Remanence, they set “…off to return that ship’s marooned navigator to his home world, determined to discover who was behind the genocide that destroyed his original crew.” [from Amazon’s plot summary].

Jennifer Foehner Wells

Jennifer Foehner Wells

[Note: read Fluency prior to reading this review, it have Fluency spoilers, and Remanence]

Let me address the world-building of this series first. While interesting and novel, it’s not so much the species, planets or technology that make it so intriguing but the perspective. Ms. Wells focus is on the culture of the worlds rather than the mechanics. While this is true of other ScitFi novels, this is an area where the protagonist’s focus on communication accentuates the cultural aspect of these worlds and people. If that sounds boring to you, it’s not. I want to emphasize that all of this is brought out through the narrative, dialog and interaction. Little “straight” exposition is used.

Not only is it a brilliant move to make Jane Holloway a linguist from a world building perspective, it also deemphasizes a military focus. For all of that, Jane Holloway is strong.  If we look more closely at Jane Holloway’s strength of character and leadership in the midst of normal and extreme tension, we see an “ordinary” hero. So often we’re tempted to feel obligated to overdo a character to rid ourselves of stereotypes. Hence, the literarily butt-kicking women who fight among the best as well as are brilliant and emotionally adjusted. There is a place for that, but I like Ms. Wells’ protagonist who is strong but not “action-hero” strong. She is able to withstand pain, adjudicates amongst different species and navigates multiple challenging relationships, romantic and otherwise, while still commanding her ship during tense moments while feeling the weight of responsibility. In this day of seemingly daily acts of violence, it’s refreshing to see strength portrayed without aggression.

I seriously liked Fluency; I love Remanence. It is a nearly perfectly executed sequel: it provides a deeper dive into all characters and relationships. There is a consistently smooth progression of the storyline with no major jerks or cheats but still plenty of surprises. We also come to a deeper understanding of the world Wells creates with new aspects and people groups brought int but always in a consistent way that drives the story.

The characters of the book are multi-dimensional and grow (or we grow to know them more) in Remanence. Their relationships are well done, especially the relationships between the humans and aliens. These characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves have the mark of authenticity. Her aliens feel starkly “other” but accessible. Most of the events are ones with which we can identify but on a more low-key level (except for the great by an extraordinary ending.

Ms. Wells tackles issues of freedom and responsibility, appropriate use of violence and culture/species bias. She incorporates these as part of the story and, following great SciFi tradition, tackles these social issues head-on without being preachy or “making a point.” This is primarily a story and the narrative rules the day but one that addresses important and interesting nevertheless.

In sum, Ms. Wells has a clear, consistent vision of her series’ world. Her characters and relationships amongst the crew and the alien species are complex and interesting, made even more so when worked through the lens of a linguist’s understanding of complex communications that goes beyond mere language. She portrays strength without an emphasis on firepower and builds the narrative well. One of the other things I like about Ms. Well writing is that she knows how to end a story in a series well. There is a well-hewn balance between completing the current novel and alluding to the next. Clearly, I highly recommend Remanence and will take up the next in the series as soon as it is available.

 

Phrasing  3.5/5
World Building  5/5
Character  4.5/5
Narrative  4.5/5

 

Open Minds Opens a New World of Mind Games

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In Susan Kaye Quinn‘s opening salvo in the Mindjacking trilogy, Open Minds, it’s tough being a teen and being substantially different. It seems our dear Kira is a Zero – she can’t read others thoughts as can most in society once of age. Readers thoughts are open to each other; Zeros can’t be read and, hence, can’t be trusted. They can keep secrets. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that Readers were the odd ones, they were mistrusted because they can read you. Now that they were the majority, they looked askance at everyone else. Some things never change.  In addition to trying to navigate life as a Zero while in high school (ugh), she accidentally discovers she can control others thoughts and down the mindjacking rabbit-hole she goes.

OpenMindsCover

Open Minds has a clever premise that is well executed. Susan Kaye Quinn builds a consistent vision of this oppressive world where being different can get you locked up in jail, or worse. While this is clearly a targeted YA book, her characters and relationships are built to the point where they seem real. Often these characters make unwise decisions as we do in “real” live. For example, our protagonist gets involved with two guys, one of whom plays on her not being “normal” like him. They’re odd together. Avoiding spoilers one way or another, he has the image of a “bad boy.” It’s one of the more interesting love triangles I’ve read with real plausibility. Like this triangle, the relationships developed seem natural, the characters, have reasonable depth and her world is sparkling new and intriguing. These mind-talents also lend themselves to great story material.

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Susan Kaye Quinn

 

I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book, spending the majority of my time with the audiobook.    Kelli Shane provides narration for the book.  Ms. Shane seemed to have an uneven performance. There are times when her timing, pitch, and tone are spot-on and others where she sounds like she’s reading a book report for a 10th grade English class. The words are neutrally placed before us with no emphasis, timing or pitch variations. I don’t know if she was left alone in a recording booth and there was no direction when she wavered from a full-blooded performance, but while she never becomes monotone and completely devoid of emotional connection to the material, it comes across weakly. Her narration is professional enough to not distract but it doesn’t really add to the book either.

Overall, Ms. Quinn’s writing matches the audience and her fast narrative approach. It’s fairly straight-forward and uncomplicated.  The characters are well-developed and her world is fascinating. Open Minds is a worthwhile read; I’ve already picked up the sequel, Close Hearts and will review it separately.

ClosedHeartsCover

Phrasing:                    3/5

World Building:        5/5

Character:                 3.5/5

Narrative:                  4/5

The Band, a Break and Brilliant Customer Service

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On a day when I took some time off from work to run some errands, I looked down as I was walking down my stairs and noticed a rip/break on my Microsoft Band 2. A little more intense examination revealed that the “thermal plastic elastomer silicone vulcanate (TPSiV)”, that is, rubber band part had torn and separated from the middle display part. While it was still connected and running, this was clearly disconcerting. Since all of the components of the Band are integrated together into the device, you can’t simply replace the band part of it. No worries, however. I had bought this a couple of months ago and I’d even paid for the extended warranty, so I was covered. What I didn’t know was whether this would be a pain in the derriere to have resolved. I needed this resolved because after two months of owning this, I can’t imagine living without out it. The feedback I receive has helped me drop over 15 pounds, get fitter and work to get more sleep (still working on that one). While I have a long way to go and no one will confuse me with Chis Evans, I’m definitely fitter and healthier; I also love the quick notifications. (I’ll review the Band separately later).

MSBand2

Microsoft Band 2

After my morning errands, I drove to the Microsoft store at Southpoint Mall in Durham to see about getting a replacement. How was I greeted? Did they reluctantly come up and grumble and suggest I did something wrong? Did they give me a number and suggest that they would be able to help me in an hour or two? Absolutely not. I walked in and was met by their point guy who was greeting incoming customers. He apologized for the Band breaking and quickly set me up so that I could have it resolved with a new Band. This didn’t just involve getting a new Band out of the back, but setting up, testing (I wanted to make sure the GPS would work because that failed on a previous unit) and transferring my warranty information to the new Band. So, I gave him the old knowing this would take a bit.

MSStore

So time to check out the toys. I looked at the Microsoft Surface Book (I seriously love this). While doing so, an employee came over and checked in on me, asked if I wanted anything to drink, he chatted with me a little bit about what I do, about some of the devices I have and then suggested taking the demo of the HTC Vive, a VR device. By the way, all of this is happening while the store has plenty of activity. It wasn’t super busy, but it wasn’t exactly empty either.

 

HTCVive

Oh yeah, I looked exactly this cool playing the demo (or not)

 

The HTC Vive demo is some of the best wait time I’ve ever had on the planet. Their demo includes standing on a sunken ship in the ocean and watching fish and a huge whale swim by while utterly immersed in the ocean depths. A painting demo where you can use different brushes and not only can you paint all around you, what you paint stays in 3-D. So if you paint with oil brushes, these ribbons of light-paint are displayed in the air all around you. You can walk around, underneath and above them; if you paint something spherical you can walk around the sphere. Really cool. Finally, you save the world by shooting up alien ships trying to take over the world and your super sleek spaceship.

When the fun was done, my Band was ready. Not only did they give me a new Band, but since I had a screen protector on my old Band, they put a screen protector on my new Band and they threw in the charger that came with that unit. So I’m coming in with “problem” and they greeted me with open arms, offered stuff to drink, suggested a cool demo of the game and went above and beyond in making sure that my new experience was at least as good as my last. Almost all of my dealings with Microsoft, either through the web or through the store have been good, but this was just one of those times where everything was done perfectly. All of the folks that helped, there were three of them whose names I’ve unfortunately have forgotten, were polite, helpful and informative. So, as much as we all like to fuss and complain about bad service in retail, I simply want to highlight a really stellar customer experience with Microsoft’s Store and some great employees.

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