One Sentence(ish) Movie Reviews: July 2014

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 6. July 2014 10:23

Been watching a lot of movies lately, here is a quick debrief of my thoughts on a few - old and new:

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2.5/5) - Manages to give Avatar's "Unobtanium" strong competition for the most ludicrously named element in film history. Also -- as per usual with Mr. Bay -- about 45 minutes too long.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (4/5) - An ultimately poignant and touching film containing strange tonal qualities that could make it difficult for most to properly parse what's happening -- maybe that's by design.

The Edge of Tomorrow (3.5/5) - Squeezes great tension from an ostensibly tensionless premise and then mildly cops out. Emily Blunt looks like Cloud Strife.

Melancholia (4.5/5) - Catching the wave this film builds probably won't come easily to many and, if it does, it won't end at a nice place -- but I think it's worth the trip. 

Another Earth (4.5/5) - An unconventional and effectively low-key tale of redemption with a simultaneously ominous and hopeful Sci-Fi backdrop.

The Lego Movie (4/5) - If I were still a kid, 80% of this hyperkinetic production would go over my head. Thankfully I'm an adult and I loved it.

Looper (5/5)Fight Club for Millennial men. That's a big deal. Instant classic.

Robocop (2014) (3.5/5) - A daring new vision for the RoboCop origin story largely eschewing the blood and snark of the original for a thoughtful look at the loss of agency accompanying more pervasive -- and invasive -- technology.

A Boy and His Dog (2.5/5) - Focusing on the sexual aspects of human survival in a post-apocalyptic world - with a distinctly 70s manner of luridity - I found the film's execution crushed under the weight of its concepts.

Rush (3/5) - The story doesn't do much for me as Lauda was unquestionably the better driver while Hunt's contention had as much to do with luck as skill, but this is a first rate telling of it that is worth checking out.

Oblivion (3.5/5) - Slightly derivative but beautifully realized and entertaining vision of an Earth sterile with humans and the conflict over its future.

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Movies

Community Forward

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 17. January 2014 15:00

Back in 2009 I decided to formally get involved in my community by serving on the executive board of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association. At the time I had lived downtown for 10 years and thought it was beyond time to see how I could positively contribute to the development of my surroundings. In the five years since, I have become a better citizen and, I would like to think, a better man.

This year I decided to take a bigger step in my involvement and ran to become Chairperson of my Neighborhood Planning Unit. The NPU System in Atlanta is a group of 25 clustered neighborhoods which provide the official voice of the citizens to the city on a wide array of matters from administrative fees to zoning code changes. My NPU, which is designated by the letter M, represents the Downtown, Old Fourth Ward, Castleberry Hill and Marietta St. Artery (partially) neighborhoods. NPU M is fortunate to contain several of the most important developments in the city at this moment including: the Atlanta Streetcar, Ponce City Market, College Football Hall of Fame, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights - and those are just a few of the projects due for completion this year! The new Atlanta Falcons stadium, the Multi Modal Passenger Terminal, and new hotel, student housing, facilities development by Georgia State and the red-hot Auburn / Edgewood corridor provide much to anticipate in our communities.

With this amount of activity and a recovering economy making more development likely, it is important our NPU and the neighborhoods within take a step forward to meet the increased challenges head on. In order to get there, I think it is important to focus on the efficacy of our organization by working on strong process development, broadening our membership base, and developing our human capital to increase our capability to render compelling decisions.

Process development is about protecting the integrity of the NPU by reducing ad hoc decision making that can lead to inconsistent behavior. It is my belief that in bodies where time-sensitive deliberated opinions are rendered, procedural justice is extremely important. My desire is to dramatically reduce the opportunities for judgment calls by working with the neighborhood leadership to develop thorough operating procedures that will be made public for all to see and only deviated from in extreme circumstances. Sticking to our published rules will introduce efficiency by streamlining decision making and instill trust in those who participate in our processes whether they are internal or external.

Managing our affairs in a disciplined manner is important, but the quality of decisions being rendered by the body is key. A key component of quality decisions - where "quality" means effectively persuasive and well vetted with members - is making sure the group making the decisions is representative of the population. NPU M is probably as diverse as any in the city, which means agreement can sometimes be challenging but arriving at difficult consensus is the mark of a mature and productive constituency. For us to reach this difficult but desirable state it is important that the NPU is as representative as possible so we will make every effort this year to engage as wide and multifarious a membership as possible.

Given the NPU is an advisory entity - meaning the city is not bound to follow our recommendations - our primary mechanism for influence has to be convincing those who have power to act in a manner we believe is correct. Convincing requires credible recommendations backed up by a vision supported by facts and evidence framed by an understanding of the letter and spirit of the law. Our ability to provide this type of insight will require us to pull from the myriad professional members we have and also make investments (likely using the NPU Grant Program) to formally educate members with training applicable to the duties the organization is expected to perform.

Process. People. Empowerment through developing expertise. I believe if we focus on these three things, we will build a strong foundation for engaging the city, developers, and any other potential partners in our mission to maximize the realization of NPU M's potential.

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Music - December 2013

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 23. December 2013 06:17

Thoughts on some music I've been listening to lately. This might be the first time I've only included records released in the last year or so. Progress?

Kanye West - Yeezus

Brilliant production (I find the hard-driving and minimalist Black Skinhead to possibly be Kanye's best work yet). Lyrical content is witty, but disposable. Even with the big production risks that work very well, I feel like it's a step down from Yeezy's last effort. That's not too bad a statement given the incredible quality of his last album.

Bruno Mars - Unorthodox Jukebox

This genre-bending album hits hard when it hits hard, the Police-ish Locked out of Heaven is undoubtedly the high point for me, but more often than not it feels too derivative. Yes I realize the paradox in that last sentence. I guess I feel tracks like Locked out of Heaven and Money Makes Her Smile add a little something to the retro vibe they initially invoke while most of the other tracks only succeed at creating familiarity. That's really academic in the end because the production, songwriting, and performances are all solid.

Childish Gambino - because the internet

I'm a big fan of Community, but I missed the first Childish Gambino effort. Mr. Glover is a serviceable singer and a very good MC even if he often feels like a weird amalgamation of Kanye, Kendrick, and Drake. Regardless, the themes and sensibilities of the record are refreshing and, while not a classic effort, the record should be a pleasure for anyone who appreciates witty Hip Hop but is tired of the rough edges displayed by the most popular MCs these days.

R. Kelly - Black Panties

There was a time when "Arugh" had some semblance of restraint when it came to the lyrical content of his songs. Unfortunately nowadays what used to be "Honey Love" is just outright "pu**y" and what was once soulful singing has been replaced in many (most?) places by auto-tuney sing/rapping. Listening to this album turned me into an old man pining for the days of yore.

Donell Jones - Forever

See the Black Panties commentary. Given the rift in talent between Mr. Jones and Mr. Kelly however, the disappointment is much lower here.

Deltron 3030 - Event II

I waited patiently for 13 years to hear this album and it was all I wanted. Del's style takes a slightly more conversational tone, and Automator's tracks lose just a tad of their Hip Hop edge but the whole thing works to create a more disciplined production that doesn't transcend the first effort, but extends and compliments it very well.

K. Michelle - Rebellious Soul

I wasn't really checking for this, it just popped up on my phone as a new release and I wanted to try something different. As an R&B album I find it uneven. As the baring of a woman's soul it is compelling, if slightly generic. I don't know much about Ms. Michelle, who I understand is a reality TV star, but she comes across as relatable and produces a few songs I keep in rotation (V.S.O.P in particular) even though I have moved past the record.

2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME

I'm sort of conflicted over this album. On its face you have the well worn "Trap Rap" formula of songs about drug dealing and all of the trimmings - good and bad - coming along with that lifestyle. What makes B.O.A.T.S. (Based on a True Story) II so fun to listen to is Mr. Chainz ability to conjure up insanely catchy hooks and audaciously brash, non-sequitur punchlines. One of my favorite examples:

I get high and I fly past / I don't know nothing bout iChat /

I'm workin this iPhone / they need a app called 'iTrap'

I trap / shining like a night lamp

I just hit my girlfriend and asked her where her wife at?

Maybe you just have to hear it yourself...

Coming soon: Arcade Fire, Drake, Eminem, Wale, Bombino, My Bloody Valentine and many many more...

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Music

Thoughts on Government IT

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 15. November 2013 06:00

NOTE: I originally wrote this in October of 2011 but never published it. I have made one modification which was to update the Councilmatic link.

A few weeks ago I went on a mental health trip to Chicago, and the ability of that city to inspire me has not abated one iota. The city was running an "Apps for Metro Chicago" competition where entrants were challenged to turn data provided by the city into useful applications (congrats Elizabeth!). Mayor Rahm Emanuel's rationale as explained during the announcement:

"Help us help you figure out how to make government an accessible piece. Help us write an app. We can't think of everything," Mayor Emanuel told RedEye. "We want the consumer involved in helping draft the applications for that information that they think would be useful for them. If it's useful for them, it's highly likely the other consumers will want similar information."

This idea of the government relying on volunteer efforts to create better products for citizens is one that has caught on as of late and is well represented by Code For America. It's a good approach, but it's only part of the solution. As best as I can tell, most of the applications coming out of these hackathons or public development efforts are essentially new front ends for data published by a government entity. Visibility of information is extremely important, but I would argue that the most important aspects of government IT are the process and systems that go about populating the systems with the data being visualized." Garbage in" and all that.

For example, Code for America lists a project called Councilmatic. The purpose of this application is to lace legislation records with metadata so the city can publish information on current legislation based on properties such as who submitted it, what general subject does it address, and the current status of the legislation. This is a great idea, and will provide a lot of value, but there are big problems on the front end of this process that need to be addressed. Knowing where the document is in the process (e.g. first reading, in committee) is useful, but what is also useful is a record of the composition of the legislation over time. What has changed? Who changed it? When was it changed? Can we broaden perspective by linking the change log to the moment in the video of the council or committee meeting when it was discussed?

In theory these things could be accomplished by using metadata, but it seems to me that the effectiveness of crowdsourcing in data gathering is inversely related to the complexity of the data set being targeted: code compliance artifacts are easier for the masses to manage than legislation data. Some would argue that Wikipedia represents an exception, but my response would be to ask those people to use it for finding the square mileage of the top ten US metropolitan areas.

This type of work requires long term coordinated efforts that can't (or at least shouldn't) be "hacked" into existence. The challenge I see is that acquiring this type of operational efficiency requires long term organizational commitment in operational areas whose policies can often be informed by political considerations. This might require another level of civic engagement where highly skilled people actually take jobs with cities.

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Code | Politics | Technology

Random Thoughts - 9.14.2013

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 14. September 2013 18:17

- I've realized that I don't use Twitter enough. It is such an important cultural force with amazing networking properties and I'm not leveraging it.

- I've been listening to the new Goodie MoB album and I am a fan. Though the passage of time is evident in the song - and lead single - Special Education when T-Mo brags about being friends with the Mayor of Atlanta. This in and of itself it unremarkable but, one of the signature Goodie MoB lines is Big Gipp's proclamation in Git up Git out that "Crooked... Jackson (later changed to Campbell), got the whole country, thinking that my city is the big lick for 96." Allegations of being corrupt aside, it's a tiny bit jarring because Mayor Reed is every bit a part of the machine that Jackson built and Campbell maintained.

- In other music news, Deltron 3030 Event II is due out on October 1. Deltron 3030s eponymous 2000 debut album is my favorite Hip Hop album of all time and the follow up has been teased and continually delayed for at least 10 years. Looks like it's for real this time. The tracks I've heard (an three-track sampler EP was recently released) are solid though nothing approaching the high points of the first effort. That's okay, I don't need anything epic, a solid effort is fine.

- Google recently dropped the price of their Nexus 4 phone to $199/$249 for the 8 and 16 GB versions respectively. That's a pretty good deal for a carrier unlocked phone and since I needed an Android handset for development purposes I picked one up. I hadn't really spent a lot of time with Android on a phone lately so after receiving it I decided to give it a whirl as my "daily driver" phone for a week, letting my beloved Lumia 920 hang back as a music player. The experience is worth a post of its own but I'll just say the Nexus 4 is a wonderful device for the money and I didn't miss LTE connectivity at all. After the time was up I did go back to the Lumia with new appreciation for Windows Phone. I hope to write more about my observations soon.

- I am 36 years old. Wow. Time flies right?

- I recently watched David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis three times and just couldn't feel it. I watched Harmony Komine's Spring Breakers three times and it blew my mind. That's not supposed to happen. Cronenberg is a master film maker and the aesthetic of Cosmopolis is first rate, I just don't like the story. At all. Or maybe it's just the main character. Spring Breakers' story is pretty disposable but what makes the movie tick for me is its technical merit. Komine executes a number of set pieces with remarkable panache and uses interesting chronological exposition methods that remind me a little of the "Wachowski Jump" (my term) used in Bound and The Matrix Reloaded but just a tad bit more mind bending.

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Albums - Summer 2013

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 21. July 2013 19:42

Music I've been digging over the last few months. Some old, some new.

Random Access Memories - Daft Punk

Some Nights - Fun

Mosquito - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album - Lupe Fiasco

Genetic World: Telepopmusik

good kid m.A.A.d city: Kendrick Lamar

A Love Supreme: John Coltrane

The Tel Aviv Session - The Toure-Raichel Collective

White People - Handsome Boy Modeling School

Kid A - Radiohead

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File Rummaging - 7/21

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 21. July 2013 15:57

I was going through some old backups and found a fun logo I made for this site when I was writing version 5:

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TV Notes

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 19. July 2013 18:34

When 24 and LOST went off the air in fall 2010, I was forced on a search for new hour-long dramas to keep up with during the television season. I felt compelled to do this not just because I enjoy watching television shows more and more these days - a big change from my more film-centric 20s - but I've also found that following shows on television opens up amazing opportunities to bond and socialize with people. I've gotten more great conversations out of the highly-controversial lost finale than I can count and I think my life is better for it.

So in the 2010 season I thought I had two winners in The Event and Human Target. The shows were very different but satisfied my desires for action and intrigue stretched out across a long high-concept narrative. The Event was hugely hyped and started out strong but, unfortunately, got off track during the middle third of the season and probably bored the few viewers trying to give it a chance into submission before ramping up into what was a truly amazing season finale that went for naught. Human Target's first season was outstanding but apparently not watched enough so the producers decided to shake things up and made a mess of the original concept that was unsurprisingly even less watched and cancelled as well.

In 2011 I was feeling a little burned over my previous two choices being cancelled, but decided to soldier on. At the beginning of the season I was on hulu.com browsing the new shows and came across a stunning image of a woman in a spiked dress promoting a show called Revenge.

I read the summary, gave the show a whirl and was hooked. The funny thing about Revenge is that it's fundamentally a prime time soap opera - not the type of show that would normally appeal to me. What makes it work for me is that it's modeled in a super-pulpy style, very reminiscent of Quentin Tarrantino's Kill Bill. Our heroine is not only out to deliver sadistic justice but she is also prone to voice overs and scratching things off lists like the unforgettable Beatrix Kiddo. Throw in a little corporate intrigue, kung fu, plus high technology and you've got a winner in my book. Fortunately others agree and Revenge looks like it will be a fixture for the next few years as the story has more legs than it initially appears.

Later in 2011 I got hooked on the Starz show Boss about the Mayor of Chicago trying to hold together his empire in the face of a debilitating neurological disorder, but this too went down after two seasons. I can't emphasize enough how great this show - and Kelsey Grammar in particular - was and think it's worth a stream or DVD purchase if you get the chance.

While I was getting into Boss, my girlfriend at the time introduced me to a few shows. One was Scandal, a very slickly produced show about a DC political fixer with deep White House connections - which appears to be the official pastime for the overwhemling majority of black women I know. It took me a minute but I eventually purchased the two seasons and I think I may have found my second show. It's every bit as ridiculous as Revenge but takes itself more seriously - something I might normally carp on but is perfect in this case given that the show is about politics and politicians.

So now that I'm set with my hour long dramas, I still have to replace my long time standby The Office on the half hour side, but I watch so many of those - Parks and Recreation, Community, New Girl - that I think I'll be fine in the short run. 

In other words, TV life is good. And it got immeasurably better when I got word that in Summer of 2014 24 is back on the air!

Ohhhhhhh yeeeahhhhhh!!!

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Television

Music Pass

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 28. April 2013 16:51

You might remember back in the late 90s there was a bit of a kerfuffle between the major record labels (Recording Industry Association of America) and a group of upstart software companies that allowed users of their wares to share music files in a peer to peer manner. This situation got nasty when the industries legal options against the companies releasing the software didn't stem the tide of change and they decided to sue the actual users of these services which resulted in situations where housewives and their kids were being sued for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To me at the time, the whole thing seemed pretty stupid. Even though I was still in my hyper-leftist socialist sympathizer phase, what annoyed me was that there was a clear market opportunity that the record companies were missing out on. The fact was that file sharing networks were terrible places for people who bought a lot of music to get the product. First off, it was biased toward really popular music so if you weren't listening to top 40 stuff, you'd have to wait for somebody with more nuanced taste to log in - which was frequently not when you were logged in. Next, it was very singles oriented as you were much more likely to find a particular song than an entire album. Finally, there was a huge variance in the quality of the files with most people ripping music at relatively low fidelity bit rates.

These were all problems that the record companies could have addressed by launching their own service and making their entire catalogs available. Instead, they chose to sue. I understand why they did it, the fact that the entertainment industry is notoriously bad at adapting to disruptive change - look no further than Jack Valenti's notorious comment before Congress in 1981 about the VCR:

Now, the question comes, well, all right, what is wrong with the VCR. One of the Japanese lobbyists, Mr. Ferris, has said that the VCR... is the greatest friend that the American film producer ever had.

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

Even still, the bigger problem was that customer demand was changing too fast and instead of responding to the change, they alienated customers who were simply telling them what they wanted. This was too much for me and I, the kid who as a high schooler spent his entire allowance on music for years, decided to boycott the RIAA. Not only would I not buy anything from them, I wouldn't even illegally download it. This boycott lasted from roughly 2000 to 2011. What happened in 2011 to cause me to lift my embargo?

The Zune Pass.

When I got my Windows Phone, it came with a service that I found interesting. For 15 bucks a month, you could download or stream all of the music you wanted to be played on your phone or PC for as long as you had an active subscription. In addition to that, you could also download 10 high quality MP3s per month to keep forever. The math to me was pretty simple, if I assumed a song cost 1 dollar, then I was paying 5 bucks per month to listen to all the music I wanted and only buy what I liked. I thought it was a great deal and represented exactly what the industry should have done when the likes of Napster and Kazaa and GNUtella were popping up.

I signed up and haven't looked back.

Today the service has been modified (it is now known as the XBOX Music Pass) and what really differentiated it from a Pandora or Spotify - the 10 downloads - is no longer included, but the idea is that there are now lots of different services that allow you to legally consume tons of music on demand. That is progress. And not only that, every Tuesday I can listen to every new album released as much as I want without paying an additional dime so the costs of my music addiction are predictable. My iPod touch is passe compared to my Lumia 920.

Here are some albums I have enjoyed this year:

Devendra Banhart - Mala: Very quirky lighthearted and enjoyable. You have to hear it for yourself as I'm not capable of doing it justice in words. Favorite song: Your Fine Petting Duck.

Lupe Fiasco - Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album: I'm not 100% on board with his politics, but the fact that a rapper even has politics in his music - much less, articulated in an extremely thoughtful manner - these days gives him cred in my book. Very good all around album. Favorite song: Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito: Their electro-rock sound reminds me a lot of Garbage, and I really dug Garbage. However, what really got me going on this album was a completely out of the blue appearance from the one and only Dr. Octagon. Favorite song: Buried Alive

Snoop Lion - Reincarnated: Honestly, I still don't know what to make of this record. Snoop is a pretty mediocre reggae vocalist, but it takes guts to do something like Reincarnated and I feel like those guts are what make it work... on some levels. Favorite song: I'll get back to you.

Dropkick Murphys - Signed and Sealed in Blood: I dare you to not get amped up while listening to this group chant away. It's like Irish Crunk Music. Favorite song: They are all awesome but I'll go with Rose Tattoo (Prisoner's Song seems like a cheap pick)

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Technology | Music

Random Apple Thoughts

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 14. March 2013 22:51

Lately I have been getting into mobile app development and, as a result, I have purchased an Mac (iMac) since it is impossible to write iOS applications without one. This is the third Mac I've personally owned and the first since the big x86 move a few years back. The Mac and its OS haven't changed much and neither has my opinion of it as a good but highly overrated platform. Still, my return to Appleland has gotten me thinking about a few things...

- I hate Apple's abbreviated wireless keyboard. I don't think the average person would have much of a problem with it but, for a coder and probably a writer, it is horrible with no home end or delete keys (the keyboard has a key called "delete" but it is actually analogous to backspace). Apple sells a full sized keyboard with the caveat that it is wired but jeez, it's hard to not feel nickle-and-dimed being charged 50 bucks to get such basic typing features.

- The Mac has come a long way app-wise. My guess is that the popularity of iOS has gotten a lot of developers familiar with Objective-C and therefore increased the number and quality of Mac developers. The gaming selection is still a little weak but I was able to download Civilization V from Steam so 90% of my personal gaming is covered. It is very cool that a Steam license can cover PC and Mac.

- Once you get used to it, Xcode is pretty cool. I think Visual Studio is a superior IDE in many ways but, like many things Apple, there are small touches that I appreciate. The profiler in particular is very robust (I'm guessing that is a byproduct of Objective-C's lack of garbage collection) and I appreciate having a good one built in as for many years I had to buy RedGate profiler to get decent analytics developing in NET. I also like the little animations that clearly illustrate the positions of code braces and parenthesis.

- I find Objective-C to be a very interesting language. Its elegance kind of sneaks up on you, probably because that NextStep (NS*) prefix on so many classes can make it unsightly at first glance coming from the cleaner naming used in Java and C#. Once I got past that, I have grown to find idiomatic Objective-C to be a nice change of pace. The self-documenting method naming is really cool. Also, I've been learning without Automatic Reference Counting turned on and I have to say that my return to pointer city hasn't been so bad.

- iTunes is as bad on the Mac as it is on the PC. It's just as well because I find that the Zune desktop app and XBOX music / video make iTunes pretty much obsolete anyway for anything other than managing your iOS devices - a practice that is fundamentally obsolete as well.

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Code | Technology

About the author

Rashid Z. Muhammad lives in Atlanta and likes to read.

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