• Newsletter Issue #366

    December 4th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Headlong into the holiday season, I spent a large portion of last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE talking about some of the best holiday gear. First up was Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who is busy choosing from a matte or glossy screen for his new MacBook Pro. A more varied menu of gadgets for the holidays came from, of course, Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen.

    While Steve tends to present a positive viewpoint on most of the products he talks about when he’s interviewed on radio and TV, this time he spent several minutes explaining why he’s pretty much given up on Windows except for reviewing products that require that platform. He also explained why the iPod is the only viable music player for you to consider.

    Some of you might wonder why I continue to cover Microsoft’s Zune, which appears to be on the fast track to failure after a small spurt in sales the first week after its release. Well, anything Microsoft does must be taken seriously, if only because the company has deep pockets and is prepared to ride out years of financial losses in a bid to usurp the dominance of the iPod. So I brought on digital music columnist Eliot Van Buskirk to talk about the subject You may not know this, but Eliot has been writing about digital music long before the iPod was a gleam in Apple’s eye, and he tries to treat these matters as fairly as possible.

    On Sunday’s episode of The Paracast, David Biedny and I explored Martian mysteries, and whether such phenomena as the “Face on Mars” truly represent evidence of extraterrestrial artifacts, with Mac Tonnies, author of “After the Martian Apocalypse.”

    Is it all just optical illusion, or are there some real facts that space scientists will want to examine more carefully? Since it’ll be at least a decade before men are sent to Mars, these are mysteries that are not going to be solved any time soon, unless some compelling evidence appears one way or the other.

    In the other half of the show, we presented a realistic discussion of crop circles and related mysteries with Nancy Talbott from the BLT Research Team. She and her team of scientists have spent years examining this phenomena around the world, and she had some fascinating conclusions to voice.

    Next week, The Paracast will present a special UFO Roundtable, subtitled, “UFOs: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Featured guests include researchers Royce Myers III, of UFOWatchdog.com, and Jeff Ritzmann.

    By the way, The Paracast has been nominated for something called The Zorgy Award. Feel free to check out the site and, if you decide to honor us with your vote, we’d really appreciate it.

    PARALLELS DESKTOP BECOMES MORE COHESIVE

    It’s fair to say that you can almost become dizzy trying to track the various and sundry changes with Parallels Desktop, the premier Windows emulation environment on the Mac these days. It all began last April, almost before the ink had dried on printed stories about the first public beta of Apple’s Boot Camp.

    The initial prerelease offering from Parallels was rough and not-quite-ready. It crashed a lot, but there was, at the core, an incredible amount of potential. Unlike previous efforts at emulation, Parallels Desktop was incredibly fast, and came close enough to native performance in some respects that the difference wasn’t significant, except for the lack of support for 3D graphics and some peripheral products. It was also only available for Intel-based Macs, so those with a PowerPC need not apply.

    Within a couple of months, the first official release of the program was at hand, followed by Microsoft’s decision not to bother making a Universal version of Virtual PC. To them, the process would be too daunting, like starting all over again with a version 1.0 product. They somehow wanted us to forget that Parallels, a company that had only been in business for a year or thereabouts, managed the task in almost an embarrassingly easy fashion.

    Now a lot of companies might have rested on their laurels, and waited a year or so for any major upgrades, making sure to exact a sufficient upgrade fee for their efforts, but not Parallels.

    As Apple rolled out new hardware, such as the Mac Pro, and upgrades to its previous Intel-based computers that employed the Intel Core 2 Duo chip, the relatively small development team at Parallels massaged the interface, improved performance, and even added preliminary support for Windows Vista.

    No, full 3D graphics support isn’t there yet, but it’s said to be weeks away. So I’ll leave that be for now, although I rather suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about it when Macworld opens in January.

    In the meantime, a new public beta of Parallels desktop, labeled as build 3036, has appeared and it’s a much larger upgrade than anything Microsoft or Connectix ever did with Virtual PC.

    The somewhat clunky look and feel of Parallels Desktop has been replaced with a more mature Mac OS X Tiger interface, along with some fancy visual effects. For example, when you launch a virtual machine, which is an emulated operating system environment, the opening window flips over like a playing card to display the system’s opening screen. Clearly Parallels has been heavily influence by the visual effects in Apple’s Keynote.

    There’s also an auto-adjust feature in the new release that configures the Windows screen resolution to the main window size. This trick evidently doesn’t operate yet in Linux, by the way. What’s more, files and folders can be dragged and dropped from the Mac to the Windows environment and back again. Previously, you had to set up a special shared folder within Windows to accomplish this task.

    Parallels has also extended support for Boot Camp, allowing you to run its Windows XP environment directly from Parallels Desktop. No restarts necessary. The first effort to import virtual machines from a Windows PC, including those from VMware and Virtual PC, is enabled with an application known as Parallels Transporter. It doesn’t support the Mac version of Virtual PC yet, but that ought to be coming soon.

    This is only the beginning. Clever features abound, and I don’t want this article to consist simply of a laundry list. So I’ll just cover a few more highlights, such as Coherency. What’s that about? Well, after you launch a Windows operating system, the desktop vanishes, except for the taskbar. Click on the Start menu and your chosen application appears transparently within Mac OS X, almost in the fashion of the Mac OS Classic environment. It’s not quite the same, of course, as there’s no custom icon in the Dock for a Windows application, in the fashion of the last version of Virtual PC. But with Parallels, it seems you only have to ask before they find a way to make it happen.

    Other improvements include transparent support of Mac copy and paste key combos in Windows, so you no longer have to remember choosing Control-V instead of Command-V. Graphics support is said to be enhanced up to 50%, but, as I said, 3D support is still not available.

    Since this is a beta, not everything works as well as it should, and the message boards at Parallels are filled with the usual spate of problems one finds in prelease software. On the other hand, things operate far better than you have a right to expect at this point.

    For example, dragging and resizing application windows is far more fluid. The slight raggedness of previous versions is largely history, and there’s more of the feeling of running a native Windows PC.

    In addition to not yet being able to play 3D games on a Windows virtual machine, there’s still no support for USB 2.0, although USB peripherals do operate more efficiently in the 3036 update.

    If you’re not tempted to try it this new build, no doubt there will be more available as Parallels rushes headlong into the final release. But there is no stopping them, and if they keep on delivering updates at this level over the next few months, it’s possible, just possible, that Boot Camp will be rendered nearly obsolete even before Leopard arrives.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: SUPERMAN AND MORE SUPERMAN

    Yes, it’s true that Superman Returns wasn’t the fabulous success Time Warner banked on, but it did well enough to green light a sequel, some three years hence. In the meantime, you’ll be surfeited with Superman with the release of multiple DVDs going back to the 1940s.

    Indeed, after watching all this stuff, you may be sick and tired of the “Man of Steel” for good, or just have your curiosity satisfied about how America’s favorite hero was treated in live action movies and on TV.

    Back in the 40s, live action films about comic book heroes didn’t get “A” budgets, and thus special effects and other production values, even decent acting, was lacking. The best of the breed, in my opinion, was 1941’s “Adventures of Captain Marvel.” But that didn’t stop Columbia Pictures from releasing two 15-chapter serials featuring Kirk Alyn as the last son of Krypton. Alyn wasn’t much of an actor, but he did look the part. Noel Neill, the quintessential Lois Lane on TV, originated that role here.

    Forget about special effects. This was strictly low-budget, and other than the usual flying leaps, many of the flying scenes consisted of cartoon images. It’s all very dated, and the action is very much in the fashion of other superhero serials of its time, but the “Theatrical Serials Collection” is definitely worth a Netflix rental.

    Also out this season is the third and final volume of “Adventures of Superman,” consisting of seasons five and six. Poor George Reeves began to age somewhat in his final year in the role, and you can almost understand the frustration he might have felt being typecast as a children’s character. Signaling a possible career change, however, was the fact that he directed the final three episodes. His death a year or so later remains one of Hollywood’s mysteries, and became the topic of “Hollywoodland,” which did so-so box office business earlier this year.

    Fans of TV’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” will appreciate the release of the fourth and final season on DVD. Ratings were down, schedules changed, and ABC cut back on the heavy promotion, but there’s still some good material here. After lots and lots of teases, Superman got married, and some of the later episodes took on a little too much of a romantic comedy aspect than in previous years. As always, the wonderful Teri Hatcher steals the show.

    One of my favorite episodes, which aired during the Christmas season in 1996, featured a popular character from the comic book, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the evil imp from the fifth dimension, who can’t be banished to his home unless he’s tricked into saying his name backwards. But the series seemed to be running out of steam, although the final episode was intended as the cliffhanger for the fifth season that never happened.

    Superman aficionados will most appreciate the Superman! Ultimate Collector’s Edition, a tour de force that consists of 14 DVDs. The first part of this huge and fancy package contains the original four theatrical movies featuring the late Christopher Reeve, including an expanded edition of the first film, and the Richard Donner Cut of the second. The latter is largely based on the footage shot under the direction of Richard Donner before he was fired in a dispute with the film’s producers. He was replaced by Richard Lester, who also helmed the extremely disappointing Superman III.

    The Donner version of Superman II is somewhat darker than Lester’s vision. In some respects, it seems a little unfinished, and in other respects, you might prefer it to the official version.

    I’ll pass over Superman IV, which put the series to rest for 19 years, and concentrate briefly on Superman Returns, which is, in effect, a sequel to Superman II (you pick the version!). The special effects are spectacular, befitting a movie that supposedly cost over $200 million to produce. For some reason, however, it seems to play better at home, where some of its quieter moments are more easily appreciated.

    Newcomer Brandon Routh’s performance seems to channel Christopher Reeve in some respects, but otherwises makes the roles of Superman and Clark Kent his own. He will, I gather, be back for the expected sequel in 2009. I’m still on the fence about Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She is not as hyper as Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher, but she’s also portraying a single mother, and hence would be expected to take a more serious attitude. As you might expect, Kevin Spacey makes a terrific Lex Luther.

    In the end, regardless of which incarnation of Superman you prefer, you should find plenty to like in the recent DVD collections. What a terrific way to spend many evenings away from the hustle and bustle and pressures of real life.

    THE FINAL WORD

    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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