Ethereality News & Weblog

May 31, 2013

Writing apps and book review (The Forever War)

Latest batch of Kitty Cat Diary is up (updated to December 2012):

I’ve been searching for an ideal writing app to use on my iPhone for a while now, and after much research, I have finally found one I like the most, and it’s Nebulous Notes.

While there are many other writing apps out there such as iA Writer, Byword, Write for Dropbox, Writing Kit, WriteRoom, etc, it was the highly customizable extra text bar of Nebulous Notes that won me over.

With other writing/note-taking apps, even if they have that extra top text bar for fast access to often used punctuation and symbols, they are locked and not customizable, so you have to live with the developer’s preference. For example, I actually started out using Write for Dropbox, but I couldn’t stand the fact it was missing common punctuations that writers actually used (such as ‘ ” ; ? -). It seems many of these writing apps place more emphasis on Markdown support, which is useless to me–I just want to write good ol’ fiction.

Write for Dropbox was also missing a landscape mode, which is vital for typing on an iPhone since the screen is so small compared to an iPad. I emailed the developer, but when the next update came out, my feature requests weren’t even listed on the developer’s future road map. That is a clear sign the developer’s vision for the app is not compatible with my needs.

With Nebulous Notes, you can add any of the available punctuation and symbols to the top bar, and you can add as many of them as you want (you can just scroll the bar sideways to access all of them), as well as place them in any order you want (extremely important for people who are picky about ergonomics). That is exactly the kind of flexibility I needed, and now I can finally write with a smile on my face on the iPhone. (I only write on the iPhone when I’m away from the computer–usually when I’m waiting for something at the doctor’s office or a long line at the store, or in bed when I’m suddenly struck with a great idea.)

Nebulous Notes allows syncing with Dropbox and can save to Evernote (just about all writing apps have similar syncing capabilities), so it’s easy to take what you’ve written and transfer it to your computer to continue working.

One more awesome thing about Nebulous Notes is that it has a free version (ad-supported), and the ad banner is only visible when in portrait mode. When in landscape more, the banner disappears, so if you prefer landscape mode like I do, the free version is essentially like the paid version. I’ll probably go ahead and pay for it anyway, after I’ve spent more time with it and made sure there are no hidden rude surprises.

I’ve known about The Forever War by Joe Haldemanfor a while, and finally got around to reading it after making my way through a pile of other books already on my to-read list. The fact it won both the Nebula and Hugo was part of the allure, but the premise sounded interesting as well.

The story is about a war with a mysterious alien species, and what the soldiers go through when they have to deal with time-dilation as they travel back and forth between missions, returning to human civilization hundreds or years in the future each time. That aspect is by far the most interesting one, because it poses a lot of questions regarding one’s sense of self and belonging when misplaced in time so severely. The war itself is actually nothing remarkable–it’s fairly standard sci-fi war stuff, and the military life aspect will either bore you or resonate with you, depending on whether you’re pro-military or not, or whether you’ve already seen plenty of similar depictions in other books, movies, and games.

One thing I found lacking was character development and relationship dynamics. The characters are never really fleshed out, since the focus is mostly on the technology, strategies, details of combat, and so on. The main character also seemed oddly unemotional most of the time, making it a bit unsatisfying when trying to immerse in his head. I guess this is a subjective preference, since some people might say if they wanted all that character and relationship stuff, they’d go read chick lit or family dramas. I personally feel that premises are only as important as how much we care about the characters that exist in the premises. The ending was good though–I was touched and it almost made up for the sterile personality of the main character.

The other thing that took me out of the story sometimes was the dated take on futuristic technology and culture, but that’s understandable since the book was written in the 70’s, and it’s very difficult to predict the future accurately when some of the most prevalent modern technologies haven’t been invented yet. There’s no way Haldeman could have foreseen the internet, the personal computer revolution, the powerful mobile devices, the development of popular culture, and the consuming habits of the public.

Although it didn’t quite live up to my expectations (whenever I know something has won a prestigious award, I can’t help but have extra high expectations, and when it has won more than one such distinctions, you can imagine what I would be expecting going in), I did enjoy the book, and I do recommend it. If you are a fan of Starship Troopers, you’ll likely enjoy The Forever War.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Sound City – A love song about the process of making music with other people, and a look back at a bygone era. It’s a feel-good documentary that could have been a depressing film if it had simply focused on how the “good ol’ days of analog and live studio recording” are now gone. The film was somewhat fair and acknowledged that digital tools can be very creative too (as demonstrated by the Trent Reznor segments), and the film feels more like a nostalgia than a bitter rant–something that could have happened if another filmmaker tackled the subject. But I think the film would have been more balanced if it also addressed the fact that being able to make music completely on your own is a blessing for a lot of people, especially when personality clashes and lack of funding can be a big problem. Recording together as a band isn’t always sunshine and rainbows–people get into fights and bridges are burned in recording sessions all the time.

I personally am a big supporter of digital tools and think that the technological revolution is in general a very liberating force that has brought the joy of music-making to far more people than analog ever did. If it wasn’t for digital sequencers and MIDI, many of us wouldn’t be composers today. For example, sampling technology has allowed us to be able to compose and record full-blown orchestral tracks, when in the past only privileged few had the budget and access to an orchestra. Today, if you can compose it, you can record it, and that is incredible freedom.

On a related note, “Mantra,” the original music Trent performed/recorded with them for the film was the one that resonated with me the most, and I agree with Dave Grohl that he’s the most brilliant among all the greats featured in the film, and has the versatility to be very creative regardless of what tools he used.

Norwegian Wood – This movie is adapted from the famous Japanese novel of the same name. It’s a melancholic coming-of-age story that involves suicides and first loves.

I read the book first, and then watched the movie, and I liked the book a lot more. There are a lot of interesting details missing from the movie that gave the book its unique quality, and the casting was hit or miss.

Kikuchi Yuriko looked way too old to play the character of Naoko, who’s supposed to be around nineteen years-old. She’s a good actress but she’s not nearly pretty enough for the role, since Naoko is supposed to be a stunning beauty, and Kikuchi just isn’t what anyone would consider a stunner. I think they should’ve swapped the actresses who played Harumi and Naoko.

In contrast, Mizuhara Kiko (this is her debut role) was an excellent pick for the character of Midori; she’s very cute and charming, and has this radiance about her that really captured the essence of the character. The characters aren’t very well developed for the most part, and this is one of the typical problems with film adaptations; the limited running time doesn’t really allow a lot of room for in-depth character exploration that books are allowed.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I recommend the book, and maybe watch the movie just to see how cute Mizuhara Kiko is in it.

Never Let Me Go – A moody little film about unrequited love, jealousy, and missed chances, adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro). Although the premise is science-fiction, it’s one of those films where you don’t even remember you’re watching a science-fiction film because the premise is merely the backdrop for the human drama to play out, and nothing in the film looked science-fiction, so even if you dislike science-fiction, you can watch it as simply a drama and still enjoy it.

Taken 2 – Even for an action flick, this was a big disappointment. It lacked the conviction and freshness of the first movie, and the action sequences were just silly this time around. A few things that really annoyed me were:

-I hate movies when a character grabs any random clothing to put on as disguise, and it just happens to fit perfectly, as if it’s tailored for that character. I couldn’t believe they did it in this movie, because it’s such a tired, eye-rolling, lazy thing to do.

-When a character is locked up and being guarded by someone just outside the door, he gabs on the phone at moderate to loud volume and won’t be heard. Seriously, are all door guards deaf?

-Trained killers throwing punches like street brawlers and risk damaging their hands, instead of fighting like how trained killers are supposed to fight (to use anything but your fists, so you don’t lose the ability to hold a weapon or operate tools if you damage your hands).

-There were crazy amounts of useless slap-fighting choreography that had no impact whatsoever. Trained assassins are supposed to make each blow a fatal one, not slap each other around and do fancy strikes and blocks that aren’t anywhere near powerful enough to take the opponent out instantly.

End of Watch – One of the best cop movies I’ve seen in a long time.

There are a lot of people who made disparaging remarks about the movie, saying it’s like an episode of cops or Southland, and I think people who make such comments are idiots who don’t have any sense of what makes great cinema and storytelling. The only reason they say that is because of the superficial similarities such as the point-of-view camera movements and the handheld shooting style. No episode of Cops had the stylistic flair and gritty gravitas of End of Watch. No episode of Southland had the dramatic intensity and caliber of acting as End of Watch.

I think End of Watch did an amazing job humanizing cops in a way I haven’t quite seen before, and the chemistry between the two leads was incredible. While the story doesn’t contain anything we haven’t seen before in cop movies/shows, it still pulls you in because the portrait it paints of the two leads is so compelling and realistic.

The only scenes I didn’t care for were the ones where the two leads were videotaping each other. It felt like a stylistic excess that served no real purpose, other than to hammer home the point that the filmmakers were trying to push for maximum level of verity. I think the handheld shooting already accomplished that, so pushing it more would simply feel a bit like trying too hard.

Wreck-It-Ralph – I think this should have been a Pixar production, while Brave should have been a Disney production. Maybe the two project got switched somehow? Brave was so conventional and by-the-book that it is the only Pixar film thus far to seems banal compared to the other films in Pixar’s body of work. In contrast, Wreck-It-Ralph had the kind of clever premise and subversive slant that we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

I’m not a Sarah Silverman fan (I find her vulgar, and not in an endearing way. She simply has no class and lacks sophistication in her comedy), but I think she did a great job on the voice acting.

Django Unchained – I enjoyed the scenes of tense conversation at the dinner table, and a few other clever scenes of fortune reversal, but as a whole, I was disappointed.

I’m one of those people who thinks that Tarantino’s only really good film was Pulp Fiction, and being such a huge fan of that film (it’s on my list of ultimate favorites), I have always wanted to believe that it wasn’t a fluke–that Tarantino was more than just this guy who made stylistically excessive exploitation films that were wildly entertaining but lacked depth. After all these years and now with Tarantino talking about retiring as a filmmaker, I can’t help but feel like it’s time to admit to myself that yes, Pulp Fiction was a fluke. It’s one of those examples of lighting-in-a-bottle that happens to somebody only once in a life time. Most filmmakers go through an entire career without producing one single masterpiece, and even if Tarantino has turned out to be a disappointment for me, he at least has one masterpiece I’ll always love.

Flight – Excellent thriller/drama about addiction and accountability. Once again, Denzel Washington shows us why he’s one of the most beloved actors of his generation.

Moonrise Kingdom – I rank this one as one of the lower Wes Anderson films. It’s enjoyable, and I have a soft spot for precocious children, but it wasn’t as resonant emotionally nor was it as funny as his better films. It reminds me a bit of old films like Melody and A Little Romance (also about kids falling in love and running away together). For this type of film, I prefer emotional honesty over quirky humor, and my favorite is still Jeremy, a very obscure film from the 70’s about the joy and pain of first love.

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