Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Obligatory Commentary

The new Star Wars movie is really great, but it’s by no means a perfect movie. It strikes a relatively good balance between capitalizing on nostalgia or “fan service,” and delivering fresh, new characters. I’m also thankful that it makes zero references to the prequel trilogy (Episodes I through III). In fact, I firmly believe that one of the planets destroyed by the new Starkiller Base is Coruscant, in a symbolic gesture of destroying any remaining evidence of the prequels. In this way, this movie fully redeems the entire franchise from the sins of the prequels.

But, now that the initial excitement and giddiness have worn off, I’ve crystallized some thoughts on what exactly my issues with this movie are, and I’ll focus on just one:   by far, my biggest complaint is that our lead character, Rey, is implausibly too good at what she does, for the mere convenience of the plot.

This seems to be a recurring theme in J.J. Abrams’ movies. If we look at Star Trek (2009), we see that all the characters are super-geniuses: James Kirk graduates from the Academy in three years, and gets promoted to Captain on his first mission. Uhura speaks a hundred languages, and can learn a new one by listening to it for a few minutes. You get the idea. To me, this suggests that Abrams is more interested in jumping as quickly as possible to the action by endowing his characters with super-human abilities, rather than taking the time to develop his characters in a richer way, by allowing them to be vulnerable human beings with weaknesses.

The Force Awakens obviously invites us to draw comparisons between Rey and Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy, so let’s examine these comparisons:

When we first meet Luke Skywalker, we learn that he’s a good pilot, but that’s about all he is. When it came to most other things, he was pretty much clueless. He had no knowledge of the Force, he was useless in a fight, and had to be rescued multiple times by supporting characters. This made us care about Luke in a much deeper way, because there were times when he was in real danger.

In fact, we can even make the argument that when Luke destroyed the first Death Star, he did it by being a good pilot and a good shot (and being very lucky that Han Solo joined the battle in the end). The Force may have helped him a little, but he certainly didn’t use the Force in the kind of “direct” way that a Jedi would use after sufficient training. Indeed, it wasn’t until Luke’s training with Yoda that he learned to harness the Force directly to manipulate physical objects, as well as to manipulate the actions of weak-minded fools.

Compare this with Rey, who goes from being a lowly scrap scavenger struggling to put food on the table, to doing all of the following in the course of a single movie:

  • Pilots and repairs the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo ever could, having never touched it before.
  • Resists Kylo Ren’s mind probing, despite Kylo Ren having been trained by Snoke and presumably by Luke Skywalker.
  • Performs a Jedi mind trick on a stormtrooper without ever having heard that Jedi mind tricks are even a thing.
  • Wins against Kylo Ren in a tug-of-war to pull the lightsaber out of the snow, without ever learning that that’s possible.
  • Nearly defeats Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel, having never used a lightsaber before. (Sure, admittedly Kylo Ren was weakened, but still: he’s a dark-side Force user, trained by Snoke and by Luke Skywalker!)

Because of all of these implausible outcomes, and a ton of other coincidences, we never get a sense that Rey is in any actual danger, which distances us from being able to relate to her. I compare all this to using cheat codes in a video game: “Just get to the boss fight! I don’t have time to go through the rest of this storyline…”

Anyway, once again, The Force Awakens is a great movie overall, and I look forward to watching it again many times. The shortcuts that J.J. Abrams took with the Rey character are certainly not enough to ruin the whole thing.  I just hope that the next installment (Episode VIII) feels more like a true sequel, rather than a sequel-reboot hybrid. I also hope that we get to delve much deeper into the stories and vulnerabilities of the new characters that we’ve met. I want to fall in love with them — but I haven’t yet.

P.S.
On a completely different subject, one other nitpick I’ll mention is a “scientific” one:
When the Starkiller Base fires its weapon, it destroys five planets at once, and we see all five planets in a single frame! If five planets were that close together, they would gravitate towards each other, and eventually combine violently into a single larger planet. Speaking of which, are all the planets in the Star Wars universe inside a single solar system now? The Starkiller Base weapon took less than a minute to reach its targets, meaning either that the weapon travels faster than light, or that Starkiller Base is very close to the other planets. Did the citizens of Coruscant fail to notice the Starkiller Base being built next door?

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DiskDigger for Android no longer requires rooting! (with caveats)

Huge news! The DiskDigger app for Android no longer requires the device to be rooted. To be more precise, the app will still work better on rooted devices (it will scan more thoroughly, and rooting is still recommended), but it now has basic functionality to recover photos even on regular non-rooted devices!

If your device is not rooted, DiskDigger will now perform an exhaustive scan of the various caches that your device maintains. These caches often contain lower-resolution versions of the photos on your device. When one of the original photos is deleted, the cached version does not get deleted, allowing DiskDigger to find and recover it for you. This means that, on non-rooted devices, DiskDigger will generally recover lower-resolution versions of your deleted photos. This is a limitation that cannot be overcome at this time (or without rooting).

Of course, if your device is rooted, DiskDigger will continue to perform as it has been, scanning the entirety of your device’s memory for all traces of photos and other types of files.

The app has also been updated to fully support Android Marshmallow (6.0). So, what are you waiting for? Install DiskDigger on your Android device, and see what it can recover!

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A shot of nostalgia

I’m an avid appreciator of old (antique?) (vintage?) computers, and there’s nothing like the nostalgia that I get from occasionally stumbling upon an ancient computer (say, somebody’s old Commodore 64), and remembering a 10-year-old me learning to program in BASIC. That’s why, whenever I come across a really old computer, I’m compelled to tinker with it, and even try to turn in on, and see if it still functions.

So, you can imagine my excitement when a friend of mine presented me with something that was lying around in his attic: an original Compaq Portable Plus!

Now I know how Jean-Luc Picard must have felt when he was presented with a Kurlan Naiskos. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I flipped the power switch after dusting it off: the computer booted up successfully without any hiccups, and landed me at the MS-DOS (2.0) prompt, in all its green-screen glory.

Let me mention just a few of the features that make this computer a must-have companion for the modern business professional (of 1983):

  • At an unbeatable price of $3,600, it’s affordable for any tech-savvy business pro, and will easily pay for itself in terms of the productivity boost you’ll get from using it.
  • Weighing in at just under 30 pounds, it’s perfect for all your on-the-go computing needs.
  • The generous built-in 9-inch monochrome CRT display keeps you focused on the task at hand, and the integrated CGA adapter allows you to connect to an external display, with an astounding resolution of 640×200, with 16 colors!
  • Powered by an Intel 8088 processor, at a whopping 4.77 MHz, this beast will blaze through any modern game or office application, making you the envy of all your friends and colleagues.
  • With 256KB of RAM (expandable to 640KB), it will handle all your most memory-intensive applications, and should be enough for anybody.
  • The built-in Parallel and Serial ports, as well as the versatile ISA expansion bus, allow you to connect your computer to all your essential peripherals. Why not splurge on a 1200-baud modem for calling up your favorite BBS while you’re on the go?
  • It goes without saying that the computer comes with a 5-1/4” floppy drive, compatible with single- and double-sided disks.
  • Best of all, the computer comes with a built-in 10MB hard drive, giving you an unprecedented amount of storage for all your files, without the fuss of floppy disks!

The verdict: an all-around winner!

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A big update to DiskDigger for Android

I’ve just published some long-awaited updates for the DiskDigger app for Android! A lot of its low-level recovery logic has been updated, allowing it to provide you with all of this new functionality:

  • Recovered files can now be saved directly to Google Drive, Dropbox, and other cloud storage apps installed on your Android device.
  • Recovering files via email (Gmail, Yahoo mail, etc.) has been improved, with each file being a separate attachment in the email.
  • Lots of minor cosmetic enhancements for better compliance with Material Design guidelines.
  • Improved recovery of .MP4 videos and .ZIP files.
  • Added support for recovering .RAR archives.

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So, wait no longer: get DiskDigger or DiskDigger Pro from the Google Play Store today! And don't forget — DiskDigger for Windows remains an excellent choice for your recovery needs on your desktop PC, with more updates coming soon.

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Mandelbrot in Android and C#

Recently I uploaded some old-ish code to GitHub for displaying the Mandelbrot set in Android and in C#. Creating an interactive Mandelbrot explorer application (with pan and zoom) is one of my favorite ways of learning to develop for an unfamiliar platform, since it exercises many of the facets that are common between all platforms, such as rudimentary GUI design (with touch gestures, if possible), basic graphics programming, and optimizing for performance. Although I’m no longer a novice in either Android or C#, this code might still be relevant today. I’ve also gone through and modernized some of it, so that it doesn’t look too embarrassing. Here’s the source code for the Android app, and the source code for the C# application for Windows Forms (.NET). Feel free to check it out and fork!

In the Android code, some emphasis is placed on using JNI, so that the Mandelbrot fractal is rendered in native code to maximize speed, and also uses the native Bitmap API to directly manipulate the bitmap pixels. The C# code, on the other hand, renders the fractal in pure C# (not native code), but it does also manipulate the bitmap pixels directly by marshalling the bitmap to an integer array. Both versions of the code make use of multiple threads.

The C# application also allows you to select the way that the Mandelbrot is calculated. By default it uses simple double-precision floating point, which allows the fastest calculation and therefore lets you maximize the number of iterations for your exploration of the fractal. However, you may also set the calculation to use GMP arbitrary-precision numbers which, while being much slower than double-precision, allow you to zoom into the fractal by any amount (although the calculation will become slower and slower as you zoom in).

(Note: the Android code is now available as an app on the Google Play Store!)


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