• Newsletter Issue #403

    August 19th, 2007

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    On this week’s all-star episode The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we explored the good, bad and ugly aspects of Apple’s recent Mac-related announcements with Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths, and author and commentator Kirk McElhearn. Among their concerns were the glossy screens on the new iMacs, and Apple’s new wireless keyboard, which comes sans a numeric keypad.

    We also presented the latest benchmark results for the newest Apple hardware from Rob-ART Morgan, of BareFeats. In addition, Denis Motova came onboard to give you a brief introduction to online blogging.

    You’ll also find a new feature on our site, a Flash-based audio player that will always play the latest episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE with a single click.

    This week on The Paracast, James Fox, one of the producers of the UFO documentary, “Out of the Blue,” discusses the background of this terrific film that convincingly demonstrates UFO reality, and also provides his personal views on the subject.

    You’ll also hear inside details on the making of the film, along with his own UFO sighting.

    One of the subjects interviewed in “Out of the Blue” is the late Philip J. Corso,” lead author of the controversial book, “The Day After Roswell.” If Corso is to be believed, he was one of the key people responsible for delivering parcels of alien technology to private industry several decades ago. Further, that the technology used in such devices as today’s personal computers were, in part, based on techniques reversed engineered from the wreckage of a space ship that purportedly crashed in the New Mexico desert 60 years ago.

    Thanks in large part to the efforts of co-author William Birnes, Corso’s book is eminently readable and seems quite credible. But some key elements of the UFO community don’t take it seriously, saying that there are factual lapses that give one reason to dismiss Corso’s claims as fanciful.

    I’ve been reluctant to reach that conclusion, in part because Corso was a highly-decorated military figure who never had a history of writing science fiction or making suspicious claims. Why, towards the end of his days, would he fabricate a tale of this sort, in light of his stellar military record? Just to earn some cash for his family to inherit after his death? That doesn’t seem enough cause to lie, particularly when you consider his history and achievements.

    Could it be that the faults in Corso’s book were more the result of the manuscript having a few too many cooks before William Birnes got involved in the project? I honestly don’t know, and I began to wonder even further when I watched James Fox’ excellent UFO documentary, “Out of the Blue,” recently. Corso appears in just a few short segments, but it’s enough to come away with the impression that he was a straight shooter, a totally honest reporter of genuine experiences.

    Alas, Corso is not here to explain the disparity, and so I remain on the fence about the whole thing.

    CAN YOU DEPEND ON PRODUCT REVIEWS ANYMORE?

    Over the years, I’ve complained about Consumer Reports and its reviews of personal computers, particularly Macs. It’s not because they necessarily print false information, but incomplete reports, simplified to make it acceptable to what they regard as a non-technical audience. But that also makes it extremely deficient and of little use if you really want to make a decision as to whether to buy a Mac or a PC.

    So where do you find the product reviews on tech gear you need to make an informed decision on what to buy?

    Well, there are all those print magazines you’re accustomed to, such as Macworld, MacLife (the magazine formerly known as MacAddict) and their online equivalents. They have been around for years, and gained reputations for careful research and attention to detail. They also promise to separate the advertising from the editorial departments, so content isn’t dictated by how many pages a company buys.

    For the most part, I’ve been pleased with the quality of their work. I’ve found exceptions, of course, such as InfoWorld, which has published some printer reviews that I found totally unacceptable in terms of basic accuracy and objectivity. Attempts to contact the writers and get an explanation as to why they made such egregious errors resulted in one of the silliest attempts at stonewalling I’ve seen in quite some time.

    I think it’s also fair that I put my cards on the table. You see, I spent a number of years reviewing tech gear for various publications, and I have a pretty thorough knowledge of the process and its limitations. Despite the best of intentions, an article’s quality suffers if the writer is more a “gun for hire,” just a regular freelance writer, rather than an expert on the subject.

    This is where you run into trouble, because the writer has to become a fast learner of a product that might require a fair degree of advanced knowledge and experience to fully grasp. Sure, you can probably get the basics down and at least determine if the learning curve and complexity of the product is suited for the novice user.

    But when it comes to a high-end content creation program, and the ability to tell the reader if you can produce work for which you’ll get paid, those casual reviews aren’t very useful.

    Alas, there are also some lazy writers in our midst — and they won’t be named — who rarely do much more than summarize a company’s press release or reviewer’s guide, paste in a few pithy comments and some snap conclusions, and call it a day, and a finished review.

    Indeed, some writers readily betray total ignorance of a subject, and you wonder how they got the assignment in the first place.

    Take CNET, for example. I wrote for them before the dot-com meltdown resulted in a sharp cutback of original content, and I even earned an award for an investigative piece I wrote about a failed PC company. I suspect they also cut the prices they paid to some of their writers, because the quality has suffered severely, and I find it more and more difficult to take them seriously anymore. Having worked there, I have to say that with lots of regret.

    In a recent review of Apple’s iLife ’08, for example, CNET gave the product a 7.0 rating, not so bad in the scheme of things, but you had to wonder about their basis for comparison. I mean, it’s not that there’s any competition on the Mac platform, and few credible Windows alternatives.

    But they are entitled to their opinions and conclusions. What concerns me most of all is the writer’s apparent lack of basic knowledge of the Mac platform. You wonder, for example, where author Elsa Wenzel came up with the silly statement that, when you import pictures from a digital camera, “iPhoto would send them to some hard-to-locate folder on your hard drive.”

    I just wonder how she can regard the iPhoto Library, in the Pictures folder, as “hard-to-locate,” and why she has apparently made little effort to understand the organizational layout of the Mac OS.

    She also complains about the application’s constant crashes, yet fails to mention the iPhoto 7.0.1 update that supposedly fixed some of the early-release issues. It came out the very same day iLife ’08 was introduced, as a downloadable update, but maybe she didn’t bother to run Software Update before the review was written.

    For some reason, Wenzel also seems to regard iPhoto as the most important application in the suite, because everything else gets short shrift, except, perhaps, for the controversial iMovie ’08. Like other reviewers, alas, she fails to understand the fundamental alteration of iMovie’s focus, making it less a useful tool for budding filmmakers, and more adept at building fast video compilations of home movies for family and the YouTube generation.

    That means, of course, that iMovie doesn’t do things in the same fashion is the previous version, which is now available free from Apple for those who prefer its interface and features.

    It’s possible some of the review’s lapses are due to having to meet the word count. But other mistakes aren’t so forgivable. If this were an exception at CNET, I probably wouldn’t be so upset, but seriously flawed reviews are not uncommon over there these days.

    Unfortunately, CNET and Consumer Reports aren’t the only offenders. The list can be expanded to include USA Today and other supposedly responsible members of the media and that’s nothing if not a tragedy of the first order.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE VAST WASTELAND REVISITED

    Long, long ago, before some of you gentle readers were born, Newton Norman Minow, once chairman of the FCC, referred to TV as a “vast wasteland.”

    Indeed, with its menu of quiz shows, sitcoms, soap operas and westerns in those days, it was all-too-easy to blame the “tube” as the source of many of our society’s ills. Of course, Minow wasn’t the first nor the last to cast blame on TV and/or the movies for such things, and today’s diet of reality shows is probably no worse an offender.

    Nowadays, however, cable and satellite providers deliver literally hundreds of choices, while network TV’s influence has been waning for years. This summer, for example, broadcast TV is losing out to cable in some critical timeslots, as audiences have decided that they prefer the sometimes over-the-top antics of Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer” to network fare.

    To be perfectly frank, I do as well. You no longer have to wait for the fall season to get the most entertaining programming TV has to offer.

    For example, you can now savor the latest incarnation of that famous comic book hero, “Flash Gordon” and even “Dr. Who” and “Painkiller Jane,” if you prefer science fiction, plus the wonderful scene stealing from Glenn Close in “Damages,” the legal drama where she plays a character that is, at the same time, both heroine and villain.

    No, we’re not necessarily talking about great drama here, but there are far worse ways to spend an evening. Besides, in contrast to the programming in the days when Newton Minow was in charge, you’ll find that production values are far, far superior.

    Compared to the paper and cardboard sets used in the 1950s with such weekly kiddie programs as “Space Patrol,” even the simpler special effects in, say, “Battlestar Galactica,” are far superior, and often amazingly realistic. Chalk that up to decent budgets and the ability to create classy visual images with a handful of Macs and 3D rendering sofware.

    But it’s not just the look of realism. The quality of acting and the scripts have improved as well. You no longer feel that someone’s reading the lines off a teleprompter after a couple of hours of quick study. In some cases, performances deserve the coveted “Emmy,” and you have to wonder if a few might even deserve that other award if the shows were transferred to the big screen.

    In part, you can chalk up to these vast improvements to the fact that audiences are more sophisticated, and they won’t suffer through substandard programming as readily did in the “old” days at the dawn of the TV era. What’s more, you do have choices these days, and sometimes it really is possible to find a few good shows on some of the 300 stations that are available if you buy a high-end programming package.

    So maybe there’s still a vast wasteland out there, but there are also a few more needles to be found in those haystacks.

    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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    4 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #403”

    1. Terry McCune says:

      That means, of course, that iMovie doesn’t do things in the same fashion is the previous version, which is now available free from Apple for those who prefer its interface and features.

      Hi Gene
      Yet another great piece. I really fear for the existence of the Mac print journals. If they can’t get reviews right, then they are sawing off one of two legs they stand on. (The other being how-to articles)
      I included the above quote because, in searching Apple Canada’s website, I couldn’t find any means of downloading any version of iMovie for free. A fellow teacher used iMovie 2 to great advantage in his art classes many years ago. After the changes to that version, he became so frustrated that he hasn’t used it since. I’m still trying to get him back in the “fold” but he wants something he can use with 12 year olds. This latest version may be it.
      Please keep up the excellent writing. Yours is one of a very few “must read” spots on the web.

    2. Hi Gene
      Yet another great piece. I really fear for the existence of the Mac print journals. If they can’t get reviews right, then they are sawing off one of two legs they stand on. (The other being how-to articles)
      I included the above quote because, in searching Apple Canada’s website, I couldn’t find any means of downloading any version of iMovie for free. A fellow teacher used iMovie 2 to great advantage in his art classes many years ago. After the changes to that version, he became so frustrated that he hasn’t used it since. I’m still trying to get him back in the”fold,” but he wants something he can use with 12 year olds. This latest version may be it.
      Please keep up the excellent writing. Yours is one of a very few “must read” spots on the web.

      From the USA, you can try this link for the iMovie ’06 download:

      http://www.apple.com/support/downloads/imovieHD6.html

      I’m curious to know if it delivers the goods in other parts of the world.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Mike Mihalik says:

      Gene,

      Great observation, but how will things improve?

      Disclaimer: I work for LaCie

      I have talked to many editors, publishers, and writers for many years. Some realize that the written reviews could be better; some are oblivious; and others are justly quite proud of their work. The simple fact is that the publications do have a tough time in the present economic climate, and have for some time. They depend on advertising revenue.

      Manufacturers don’t automtically run printed advertisements. Instead, they direct their advertising dollars (and yen, and euros, etc) to a number of alternatives.

      The ripple effect is that this directly determines what a print publication can afford and do. Worldwide, there are several publications that do a good job. There are also many who are still thinking their past writing will make up for today’s mediocre articles. The same goes for online content. If an editor is not on top of things, almost anything can be published – good and bad. There should be a return to objectivity,a nd comparison to previous products or competing products. many reviews lack context.

      I don’t have a solution, except to make sure readers and consumers know who the cognescenti are, and to be well versed in internet search techniques. There are good sources of information out there, printed and on the internet. Comparing these different sources is much more rewarding than relying on a numerical score or number of stars awarded.

      Finally, the presence of unmoderated comments after many online articles taint many reviews. Sometimes the comments are quite informative; many times they aren’t. Again look for content, and whether the commenter is actually contributing.

      Mike

    4. Disclaimer: I’ve known Mike for a number of years, and I welcome his contributions to this discussion.

      Peace,
      Gene

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