From Steve Jobs to Tim Cook

News of Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO from Apple began trickling down Twitter, then the regular news outlets yesterday evening. You know you’re an integral part of ongoing history when the major newspapers can’t decide whether to lead with “4.5 Aftershock in Virginia” or “Steve Jobs resigns as CEO from Apple”. That’s how much of an impact Steve Jobs has made not only on the IT industry, but on society as a whole. I’m not exaggerating: the man has become an icon, Apple products have become the machines to have if you’re serious about your tech (and if you’d like your equipment to make your life easier rather than harder, and your IT-experience more smooth and enjoyable).

The man is a visionary, and has been a CEO that has demonstrated remarkable insight into not only product development, but also into marketing. Of course, the products that come from Apple work, and they work well; they’re innovative; they’re beautiful. But while much has been made of Jobs’s “reality distortion field” when he is up on stage launching new products or a new line of an existing product, what the RDF really is is a man who is genuinely and unabashedly excited about the product he is selling. He doesn’t hide his enthusiasm, he radiates it and transfers it to his audience. Of course, credit where credit is due, few people have the charisma to do this as effectively as Steve Jobs has done. That’s half of what makes people go out and buy every single new Apple gadget and computer that is released. The other half, the half that ultimately matters, is quality.

And that is why it is important to remember that while Apple in its current configuration is Steve Jobs’s baby, in addition to having been its CEO, he has also been a figurehead. The essence of Apple’s performance has been in the hands of a team and Tim Cook has been an integral part of that team since 1998. He has stepped up as acting CEO three times before, while Steve Jobs was on sick leave. The company didn’t suffer at all during those periods, and it wasn’t because Steve Jobs was secretly still running the whole show after all – he couldn’t; the man was seriously ill. The fact is that Tim Cook is more than capable of running Apple successfully. One of the qualities most associated with the now former CEO of Apple is his tendency to personally control every aspect of his company: Jobs is viewed as a perfectionist and a control freak. It’s what makes Apple’s products so successful. People in general, and the market specifically, would do well to remember that fact, since it is extremely unlikely that detail-driven Jobs would have been negligent in paying attention to the massively important detail of transferring leadership of Apple when the time came.

The time has come, and Tim Cook is ready; Apple will maintain its quality standards; Steve Jobs’s vision will be continued. I have no doubts about that.

Apple is entering a new phase, and in my mind I can almost hear Steve Jobs saying it: “We’re really excited about this!”*

*Just to be clear, this is my opinion of these developments and not actually Steve Jobs’s statement upon transferring leadership to Tim Cook.

Digging through boxes and finding books and memories

This past week, I’ve been helping my mother sort through some boxes of my grandmother’s things. There’s a lot in there: old books, magazines, photographs, documents, letters, and almost everything brings back a memory – for her as well as for me – or carries a story with it.
We started out easy (or so we thought): books first. We figured: how hard can it be? Clean them, catalogue them, then on to the more time-consuming boxes of photographs, documents, letters, etc.
I should have known better, of course. Very few things evoke so many memories and stories as old books.
There were the books my mother had read to her when she was young. And those books bring back other memories as well. My mother was born just before WW II broke out in the Netherlands, so those memories aren’t just the usual “oh I remember my father read this to me when I was just a little girl”, but rather “this book used to make me feel better when there was an air raid”.
Then there were the books my mother passed on to me to read when I was a little girl, books whose covers instantly transport me back to the warmth of my bedroom when I was 5 years old – not unlike Ego’s reaction to the ratatouille in Ratatouille, really.
There were the translated (into Dutch) works of literary fiction: Louise Alcott’s “Good Wives”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Jean Webster’s “Jerry”, all of which had been hidden away in moving boxes for years. These were books I would have loved to read when I was younger, but I never knew they were there.
But there were other discoveries as well – some of them simply delightful – such as the box of cookbooks (I abducted a few of those) and tips for domestic bliss, most of which was apparently dependent on the cleaning and cooking capabilities of the good housewife. One such title, and its cover illustration, I don’t want to withhold from you:

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(“Wat zullen we morgen eten..?”, Uitgave NV Universum A’dam, Onder redactie van G. G. C. Beumer, gediplomeerd vleesexpert, H. Elsbeth, S. V. O., bak- en braadspecialist, P. J. Kers Jr., voormalig radio-kok)
(“What shall we eat tomorrow..?”, Publication NV Universum A’dam, Ed. G. G. C. Beumer, certified meat expert, H. Eksteen, S. V. O., baking and roasting specialist, P. J. Kers Jr., former radio chef)

This book just made me smile: its cover so very 50s, as was the sentiment! The illustration shows the woman cooking, and her family just waiting for dinner to be served, and with the help of this essential guide that dinner will undoubtedly be excellent indeed! Such a practical instruction manual for the perfect homemaker…

But on a more serious note, this sorting, cleaning and cataloguing is giving me an opportunity I have been looking for for years: a chance to delve into my mother’s life before she married my father and had my sister and me. I’m finally getting to see and hear a far more complete history of her childhood and early adolescence than I have ever heard before. There was the odd story here and there, of course, but these documents and letters and photographs trigger a much more comprehensive telling of her memories of her parents, and of their parents and siblings. I’m getting some very enlightening glimpses into family traits and talents, tragedies and triumphs, love stories and their happy – and occasionally sad – endings.
I am also learning about my grandfather, my mother’s father, a man I remember loving very much, but whom I barely remember otherwise. A man who survived not one but two world wars, suffered a devastating blow to his health when he was in his early twenties and never fully recovered from it, but still went on to live an active and fairly long life (he died aged 73).
I was so young during visits to my mother’s aunts and uncles that I barely remember them at all, and we stopped going when I was older – most if not all of them had died by then and we never stayed in touch with their children; no connection, I guess.

As I find out more, I know I’ll feel compelled to write down some of what I’ve discovered. I hope to understand my mother’s ‘building’ blocks, to know about my granddad’s life, and to get a better idea of the fabric of what has always seemed to me an oddly fragmented family. But then, perhaps it wasn’t as fragmented as it seemed to me; I just don’t know yet how the pieces fit together.

Zombie Proofing

I make it a habit to read my twitter feed every morning after I’m done feeding everyone breakfast, coffee and so on. And every so often, someone tweets a link that’s simply too good to ignore. This morning, @wwwabcnl tweeted a good one, good enough to share on my blog: please be amazed, astounded and awed by the first zombie-proofed house.

Not that I expect a zombie apocalypse any time soon – though, of course, you never know: after all, the world recently ended too; oh wait, no it didn’t! – but I’m thinking Robert Neville in “I Am Legend” could have used a place like this. And of course, the ABC’s suggestion of its more reality-based usefulness of keeping out evangelists and door-to-door salesmen is excellent…

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides – a review

Despite the world not ending this weekend, I did enjoy my own private moment of rapture. It came in the form of an unsuspecting noblewoman, a passenger in a coach-and-two, briefly hijacked by Jack Sparrow – pardon me: Captain Jack Sparrow. The lady in question, first shocked, then seduced, disappointed and finally indignant, was none other than the brilliant Dame Judi Dench, who can make her indelible mark on a film irrespective of however brief her screen time may be. The scene, which can’t have been longer than a minute, was the highlight of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides.

As with the other movies in the franchise, On Stranger Tides (D. Rob Marshall, 2011) is a convoluted journey through various twists and turns, some funny, others annoying, most all of them rather overtly contrived.

[spoiler alert]

The movie’s prologue shows a devoutly catholic, yet otherwise unidentified Spanish nobleman (Óscar Jaeneda) finding out that the fountain of youth really exists, and setting out to find it.
As the film itself kicks off, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back in London, trying to spring Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from jail and save him from certain death at the end of a rope. He succeeds, naturally, but soon after they are both caught again. It turns out Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has turned from pirating to privateering – a difference in terminology only – working to find King George (Richard Griffiths) the fountain of youth and he has convinced his King that Jack has the map required for the expedition. Jack, however, makes it clear he is not interested in this particular venture, and makes his escape, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
Soon after, he once again finds himself in harm’s way in a pub, confronting his mirror image who in fact proves to be an old girlfriend, one Angelica (Penélope Cruz), posing as the famous Captain Jack Sparrow in order to procure a crew for her ship. The King’s men, still hunting Jack after his escape, find him there and corral the two in the back room. Jack again escapes, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers. Not for long however, since devious little Angelica manages to subdue Jack shortly after.
He now finds himself on Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a magical ship remotely operated by an equally magical sword (which, in all honesty, really negates the need for a crew). Blackbeard (Ian McShane) for reasons of his own is also looking for the fountain of youth.
And so, three different parties set out to look for the fountain, and all three of them are apparently aware of the ritual involved in making the water from it work for them. A pair of silver chalices is required – quickly and cleverly procured by the Spanish contingent – the tear of a mermaid, which Blackbeard manages to obtain, and apparently the fountain will test the user when the time comes to use its powers, evidence of which never becomes clear at any point.
Sparrow, by now conscripted into Blackbeard’s service, finds out that his former girlfriend also happens to be Blackbeard’s daughter; awkward, that. Jack finds himself doing Blackbeard’s dirty work, helping to catch the previously mentioned mermaid and stealing back the chalices from the Spanish, which adventure once again teams him with Barbossa. They are both caught, naturally, but Jack once again escapes, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
Of course, the end of the film finds everyone at the fountain of youth, which, it turns out, the Spanish merely wanted to destroy as it is sacrilegious since only God can grant life. There is a fight between Angelica and one of her crew members, and Jack, over the mermaid’s tear. Jack manages to get hold of the tear, using some patented Sparrow maneuvers.
In the end, all but one walk away from this adventure and everyone goes their separate ways.
Oh yes, there’s an easter egg at the very end of it all.

In addition to all the above, there are various subplots: the romance between a missionary, Philip (Sam Claflin), who has for some reason been brought aboard Blackbeard’s ship and the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who ends up shedding a tear for the cause; Barbossa seeking revenge on Blackbeard for a lost leg; Captain Jack Sparrow seeking revenge on Barbossa for the lost Black Pearl and wanting to reclaim his ship from the deep once he finds out that he can; Gibbs, uhm, being there.

But there are a few very enjoyable moments in the movie too. Besides Dame Judi Dench’s cameo, there is Gemma Ward giving a fine rendition of “My jolly sailor bold” in her performance as mermaid no. 1 (apparently called Tamara).

If the plot I outlined just now sounds confusing and convoluted, that’s because it is. If Captain Jack Sparrow’s escapes sound repetitive, that’s because they are. There is no denying that all the actors involved deliver a solid performance, but the very considerable talents of Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane, to name but a few, are wasted here simply because they have very little to work with.

While I was watching the movie, which never managed to engage me enough to stop me thinking about other things and have me focus on the action, I began wondering what it is about the Pirates of the Caribbean that makes them fall just short of being fun. At best, the installments are amusing. As the plot meandered and meandered, I finally managed to put my finger on the problem: Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides should have been a video game. It feels like a video game, it looks like a video game, and the story is suited to a video game, much more so than a 2-hour plus movie. Every scene exists pretty much entirely to allow Jack Sparrow to do what Jack Sparrow does. That in itself would be fine, if Captain Jack Sparrow was an interesting enough character to carry an entire franchise. He is not, though Johnny Depp, who is a perfect Jack Sparrow as the Captain is, has managed to endow him with iconic status somehow. But there is nothing that lifts Jack even an inch above amusing, and that’s a shame, since – for me at least – that more or less negates the need for future installments. If they really insist on continuing the Jack Sparrow saga, perhaps a children’s series on the Disney Channel would be an option?

Prince of Persia – a review

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ;(D. Mike Newell) has already been reviewed by many reputable reviewers, but after seeing it last night I have some thoughts on the movie that I would like to post here.

Based on the Ubisoft game series Prince of Persia, this movie was always going to have to prove itself to gamers, but in its desire to draw in the uninitiated as well it has failed to achieve either goal. Prince of Persia tries to cram too much into a single movie, resulting in a jumbled effort to entertain the masses. Rather than trying to provide a little something for everyone, the movie would have benefited from some focus. Instead it has become a collage of disjointed elements, some literally taken from the game (the near supernatural free-running, the dagger’s time rewind) and some thrown in to please the viewers that are unfamiliar with the gaming franchise. Interestingly, keeping in mind the audience the movie aims for, in making this choice to throw in as much plot as possible the writers do rely heavily on the presumption that every viewer coming to see the movie, gamer or no, is aware of Prince Dastan’s talents, powers and character; this apparently absolved them from having to add any further substance to the character. The overall result is a movie in which not a single character is really fleshed out, which makes the whole experience rather unsatisfying.

An unfortunate side-effect of this is that one of the characters holding great potential to hook the audience, Sir Ben Kingsley‘s bitterly ambitious Prince Nizam, has become little more than an afterthought. Nizam is after the Dagger of Time, a dagger whose hilt is filled with mystical sand; a push of the jewel placed atop the hilt turns back time for some seconds, with only the person holding the dagger being aware of what happened. With only a handful of scenes, Sir Ben Kingsley’s otherwise impressive screen presence – which could have added some much needed richness to an otherwise barren, if overstuffed plot – is reduced to a few scowls and some facial contortions designed to convince the audience how evil, untrustworthy and back-handed he really is.

Similarly, Gemma Arterton‘s Tamina spends most of the movie being a plot device, mostly annoying and choosing the most inopportune moments for discourse and displays of emotional involvement that seem to come out of nowhere. Whether it is Arterton’s approach to the role or Mike Newell’s direction of her, her talent is wasted here with her playing a character not nearly fleshed out enough to invoke Prince Dastan’s intense interest in and affection for her. There is simply not enough there to position Tamina as a person, let alone a credible love interest. ;

Dastan’s affection, expressed as well as possible by Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, seems to lack any basis in, well, anything really. The suggestion is, apparently, that if two people spend a fair amount of time together and go through some intense crap (the intensity of which is, by the way, as unconvincing as the attraction between the prince and the princess) they will automatically fall irrevocably in love with each other. However, there is no sign of any chemistry between Dastan and Tamina throughout the entire film, much as Gyllenhaal regularly throws puppy-like glances in the general direction of Arterton. A hint of mutual interest is, ironically, only very briefly visibly at the end of the movie when Dastan and Tamina share a moment in the courtyard of the now de-occupied sacred city of Alamut, about to embark on married life together (these things are arranged rather quickly in such settings), with only Dastan knowing their never-happened history together.

Another unfortunate writing decision was the choice of ‘bad guys’: the rather more entertaining monsters from the game have been replaced with a tribe of supernaturally skilled assassins called the Hassansin (which sadly sounds rather like the writers were unable to spell the name Hashshashin; ironically, Alamut was the capital of this Persian tribe of warriors, whose name supposedly inspired the later term ‘assassin’), who for all their powers and talents still fall miserably short in presenting themselves as a credible menace. Granted, they can train snakes to perform long-distance attacks, but snake-charming and glazed-over eyeballs? Not really enough to convince you of the urgency to destroy them for posing any sort of serious threat.

The superficial treatment of pretty much all the characters the audience is asked to engage with has its effects on every element of the movie. The death of several key characters makes little to no impression, and the betrayal by one or possibly more priests of Tamina’s order, having been bribed to aid prince Nazim in his selfish quest, barely even registers.

The plot is heavy-handed, with the writers spoon-feeding the audience the emotional essence of the film (Persia only works when the brothers are undivided in their brotherhood, etc.) and rehashing it every so often. Possibly the worst moment of the film comes near the end, when the dagger’s powers and the need for its use are literally spelled out to the audience as Dastan convinces his brother, Prince Tus (Richard Coyle), of Nazim’s treachery. I think I have honestly never seen any movie patronize its audience more than Prince of Persia does at that moment.

For all this, the movie also has some very good elements.

The opening sequence was promising, giving a brief history of how Dastan has come to be a Prince of Persia. The action sequence is fun and William Foster as the young Dastan is defiant and clearly enjoying himself. ;

Jake Gyllenhaal is well-cast as Prince Dastan. He is charming, athletic and overall credible as the Prince Dastan we know from the game series. He brings an intensity to the character without ever overplaying him, and that is impressive in light of the rest of the movie. His English accent sounds natural and flawless; there is no hint of his being American in his pronunciation. He keeps up the accent consistently throughout, but the real proof is in the scenes with Dastan’s brothers, played by British actors Richard Coyle (Prince Tus) and Toby Kebbell (Prince Garsiv), where he sounds as natural in British English as they do.

Both Richard Coyle and Toby Kebell do an impressive job and manage to somehow spark an interest in the two brothers, despite the characters of Tus and Garsiv getting as superficial a treatment as the other characters. ;

Alfred Molina does a delightful turn as Sheik Amar, an ostrich-racing overblown bookie in charge of a Las Vegas-like oasis where gamblers from far and wide come to make him rich and ogle scantily clad serving girls. His performance injects some much-needed spirit into the proceedings and he manages to make even the lamest of jokes (the size of one’s sword… enough said) funny through pitch perfect delivery. ;

The free-running/climbing scenes were a joy to look at and well executed.

On the whole, I felt Prince of Persia was disappointing. I had expected at least an entertaining romp, but instead ended up seeing a movie that for all its ambitions simply failed to connect with its audience.