• Newsletter Issue #291

    June 27th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Our June 23rd episode had another quartet of great guests. You leaned about the rich history of QuickTime with Apple’s resident expert, Frank Casanova. MacCentral’s Jim Dalrymple came on board to talk about his visit to the “belly of the beast,” the main headquarters of Intel. mp3.com’s digital music editor, Eliot Van Buskirk, talked about Logitech’s new wireless headphones for the iPod, and John Rizzo, author of “Mac Annoyances,” looked at the good, the bad, and the ugly elements of Apple’s switch to Intel processors.

    We’re taking the week off and our June 30th show will feature a specially selected “Best of” episode. Stay tuned for news about the guest list.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. More great prizes are coming in July.

    If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives. Enjoy.

    ANOTHER WEEKLY RANT: THE DANGEROUS POWER OF WALL STREET ANALYSTS

    Imagine if you will that you were a well-known maker of personal computers and consumer electronics gear. You have a perennial problem of building enough product to meet the demand, and customers sometimes have to wait weeks or months to get what they want. Unless they decide to go elsewhere, of course, which isn’t something you’d want.

    Well, after working real hard, you finally manage to get production in sync with demand, so your loyal user base can get almost immediate delivery on anything they want from your product repertoire. That’s something to be envied, right, an achievement that will, if anything, maximize your potential income.

    Of course, if you’re a Wall Street analyst, this turn of events is something that must be bad. Maybe the demand for your wares is no longer as high as it used to be, and you’re poised for a sales slump. The competitors biting at your heels are making progress, and you’ll no longer be basking in the sun of huge sales growth and high profits. Maybe your stockholders should sell their shares and look elsewhere for reliable sources of investment income.

    Understand that the demand hasn’t changed one bit. If anything your sales are actually increasing, but you are able to ship enough product to keep up with the demand. However, Wall Street’s wrong-headed conclusions cause your stock to tank big time. You see, they haven’t a clue what your sales really are, although a few simple surveys might give them a clue. Of course, since you sell a lot of your products direct, through your own sales outlets and online, those analysts really won’t know what’s truly happening until you deliver your quarterly financial report.

    But that won’t stop them from making guesses. Yes, obviously this is Apple’s present situation. If you believe some of those published reports, the iPod is losing its luster, even though there isn’t any real evidence of that. Nor is there any evidence that those subscription music services are yet making much, if any, impact on the dominance of the iTunes Music Store. As to personal computers, it appears that Apple’s sales growth exceeded that of the PC industry big time, and that market share actually increased in May.

    Of course, that’s poised to change when this month’s figures are tallied, right? Aren’t most Mac users sitting on the sidelines waiting for those new models with Intel processors, as if that’s the holy grail of PC performance? I guess we’ll know the truth in a few weeks, so it’s best to simply assume the worst.

    Now it is true that I’ve read surveys that some Mac users actually do intend to wait a year or two to buy new computers, because they must have Intel Inside, as if that is something they’ve long craved for. I suppose those of you who feel that way believe that a Mac with a PowerPC processor is a lame duck, and that it will magically stop working when the transition to Intel is complete, or software publishers will quickly abandon the old architecture.

    Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. Be careful what you wish for, and all that stuff.

    Now let me assure all of you that there is no time bomb embedded in your Mac. On the other hand, you can bet that the computer you buy today, regardless of the processor it contains, will be supplanted by a better, faster model in the not-too-distant future. In fact, that applies to a host of product categories. While you may not see much difference in toaster ovens or microwaves year after year, you can bet that the high definition TV you bring home now will be supplanted by something with a bigger, brighter, sharper picture next year or the year after. Why buy a TV at all, since the manufacturers are already testing something better in their development labs?

    A new car? Don’t be ridiculous. The 2006 models are just weeks away. In fact, some cars and trucks with 2006 model year designations are out now, so you can get one leg up on your neighbor. After all, you wouldn’t want to buy that old fashioned 2005 motor vehicle, because the gas tank will lock up real tight once its replacement is in the showrooms. Got a hybrid in your sights? Well, why bother. Isn’t the auto industry switching to hydrogen powered vehicles in another decade or so? Sure you can afford to wait. Just keep the old jalopy running a little longer. Maybe it needs a new transmission or an engine rebuild, maybe the repairs will cost more than the monthly payments on a new or “certified preowned” vehicle, but you have to keep it running no matter what. If you replace it now, you’ll just be buying something that will eventually be obsolete.

    Obsolete? Yes, you can’t have any of that. Oh, and by the way, run, don’t walk from any dealership that can promise you immediate delivery of the exact vehicle you want, the one that has the color and options you lust after. It’s not supposed to be available now. You’re supposed to plunk down a deposit and wait six months for the manufacturer to get around to building what you want. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

    Now I could go on, and make this scenario more and more ridiculous by the moment, but I think you get the picture. Oh, and by the way, Wall Street will be delivering more and more estimates of Apple’s financials for the current quarter real soon now. And, as usual, they’ll be wrong. But I have a solution. I understand a local novelty store has a big sale on crystal balls and the analysts ought get them real quick before they’re sold out and replaced by next year’s model.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE TECHNOLOGY BEHIND SUPER HEROES

    To paraphrase what kind-faced Aunt May told angst-ridden Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2: Everybody needs a hero, and there are plenty of them around in the comics and on the silver screen. Whether the hero comes from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortals, or got those powers by accident, say as the result of a bite from a radioactive spider, the special effects artists in Hollywood have to find ways to make the character’s antics seem real.

    Before they had computer animation to fall back on, they had to be clever, or just make do, particularly if the budget didn’t allow for much in the way of luxuries. When it came to having your favorite hero fly, they would affix a harness to the actor to make him appear to leap across buildings with a single bound. Or just use a tiny model, one that seemed to be speeding across the landscape. Such techniques were used, in part, to allow the world’s mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel, to fly in 1941’s movie serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

    Like most movie serials of that era, the budgets were real slim, and acting and dialog was, to be generous, wooden at best. But 64 years later, this particular movie really doesn’t seem all that bad. If you can suspend your sense of disbelief, and the fact that all the action is in black and white, you may find yourself actually enjoying it, as I did when I viewed the DVD version recently. It doesn’t hurt to discover that the actor chosen to play Captain Marvel, Tom Tyler, a B-movie western star of that era, actually looked the part, with a face and physique that closely matched the character in the comic books. All right, his acting chops were barely adequate, but shouldn’t expect much from a movie serial.
    When a live action version of Superman was brought to the screen in a pair of movie serials, the filmmakers didn’t bother with flying scenes. Instead, they had the actor playing the Man of Steel, Kirk Alyn, appear to leap into the sky, and then use a cartoon figure to show the character actually airborne. All right, a lame attempt to improve on the flying scenes was employed in the second cliffhanger, Atom Man vs. Superman, but the cartoon figure was still invoked from time to time.

    When Superman made it to television, the flying scenes got a little better; in fact, they weren’t all that bad considering the tight-fisted budgets of that era, and were only improved upon in 1978’s Superman: The Movie.

    When it came time to deliver a big screen version of Spider-Man, the character’s incredibly rapid, insect-like movements were mostly done via CGI, carefully integrated with the live action sequences so you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t know the difference. Fortunately, the two Spider-Man movies also had real stories and a first-rate cast, so the dependence on special effects was simply the icing on the cake.

    That wasn’t necessarily true with the second and, I assume, final Star Wars trilogy, where George Lucas got so immersed in computer animation that he somehow forget about snappy dialog and believable acting. On the other hand, maybe such things aren’t really needed in space opera. It’s all about the special effects, right?

    Not necessarily. In his Lord of the Rings trilogy, director/producer Peter Jackson succeeded in integrating live action and animation almost seamlessly, and I’m sure most of you never gave a moment’s thought to the fact that one of the lead characters, Gollum, was a computer simulation based on the movements of a real actor, the incredibly talented Andy Serkis. Then again, a great script and a cast of superbly talented performers didn’t hurt.

    In reinventing the legend of the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan eschewed the campy elements that destroyed the previous films. Instead, he went back to the original concept of an angst-ridden masked avenger who was scarred for live when he witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of a mugger. He also employed real stunt people for fighting scenes, and the famous batmobile is a custom-designed tank-like motor vehicle capable of speeds of over 100 miles an hour. Yes, computer animation was also employed, particularly in the action-filled second half, but there were also miniatures, as in the old days. But the most important elements included a great script, plus an ensemble cast of A-list actors that grounded the whole story in an amazing degree of reality.

    You see, despite the best special effects in the world, the old fashioned concept of simply telling a good story with believable characters and talented performers should never be forgotten. Fortunately, a very few filmmakers haven’t forgotten the basics. That’s what the real magic of the motion picture is all about, even if it’s based on a comic book super hero.

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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