Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Airing of Grievances

Forget Life Day--in a galaxy far, far away, it's Festivus.

WARNING: The following column contains not just SPOILERS, but also COMPLAINTS about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Proceed at your own risk.

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The long, long awaited Star Wars: Episode VII finally arrived in theaters last week, well over a generation after Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and friends took their last bows on the big screen. And it’s pretty good.

The new movie unleashed a slew of new characters to take the baton—er, lightsaber—from the sixty- and seventy-something original cast, and almost all of them are well-written, and blessedly, well-acted. The movie has all the full-throttle momentum of the original films, and none of the deadly-dull-when-not-remarkably-silly aura of the failed prequels.

Again: The Force Awakens is a pretty good movie, and a far better Star Wars movie than anything we’ve seen since 1983. But it’s not great.

A great many Star Wars fans felt a disturbance in the Force when Hollywood journeyman J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Episode VII. The most commonly-seen reaction online was, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Abrams’ history with the frustrating TV series “Lost” and disappointing movies like “Super 8” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” gave good reason for the fan cautiousness.

But with The Force Awakens soaring to record-shattering box office in its first few days of release, we ought to give Abrams his due: his chops as a visual artist are first-rate, and while the same could be said about his predecessor George Lucas, Abrams by contrast knows a good line of dialogue from a bad one. Episode VII sparkles with (at least by Star Wars standards) clever repartee between heroes and villains old and new.

All of which is a long way of saying that what Abrams does well is characterization and action. What he does badly, here and elsewhere, is coherent plotting.

Like a lot of modern directors, Abrams is a sucker for, “Oh, that will look cool, let’s do it!” without regard for whether “that” makes any sense or not.

The most glaring example in The Force Awakens is the Starkiller Base. You can almost hear the story meeting: “So we kind of need a Death Star. But bigger. Hmm… what’s bigger than a machine that can blow up a planet? Hey—how about a planet that can blow up stars! Star Wars! Cool!”

The base is goofy on so many levels. Even stipulating that the laws of physics in the Star Wars galaxy are considerably more flexible than our own, the Sunsucker Base (c’mon, that’s what it is) makes no sense at all.

Start here: unless it can move around the galaxy--something the movie doesn’t hint at one way or the other--you’re only going to get one shot out of it. After it sucks in the nearest star (which, by the way, is depicted as being so close to the base that at a minimum, all that snow on the planet’s surface would have been vaporized), it’s useless. Not only will the weapon not have any fuel for another shot and be a sitting duck for enemy ships, the planet’s atmosphere is going to freeze solid around all those First Order troops because, whoops—no sun.

So the Sunsucker is epically dumb, even in a universe with near-instantaneous faster-than-light drives and solid laser swords and people with mumbo-jumbo mystical powers. It’s every bit as dumb as the doubletalk “red matter” and “nova that threatens the galaxy” in Abrams’ pretty but vapid first “Star Trek” movie.

Also in the “looks cool, makes no sense” category: the Adamantium Falcon. Han Solo’s marvelous old spaceship is continually crashing into buildings, trees, and the surfaces of various planets in this movie, but bounces off all of them without so much as dented fender. Meanwhile the First Order’s TIE Fighters, like their Imperial predecessors (or any self-respecting flying craft), crumble into fiery junk on contact with any solid surface.

While Solo himself is well-written with a nice final arc in The Force Awakens (anyone surprised at Solo’s death ought to have noticed Harrison Ford’s open, decades-long contempt for the movies that made him a superstar), the same can’t be said for the old smuggler’s estranged wife.

The now-General Leia Organa gets the closest to any character of reciting Prequel-level wooden dialogue. What’s worse, Leia gives such short shrift to the bereft Chewbacca at the movie’s end, one suspects that she never let the big guy sit on the couch when he was visiting Han.

I could go on, if I really wanted to: the Lost-worthy “I know but I’m not telling” bit regarding how Luke’s old lightsaber was retrieved from Cloud City (here’s a not-very wild guess: Abrams and Co. have no idea, and just threw it in there).

Then there’s the way characters are continually running into each other by absurd coincidence, or how people in different star systems can all look up and see the Sunsucker Base’s attack with the naked eye--again, a reminder of the bad writing in Abrams’ Star Trek movies.

This kind of script nonsense is why I recommended that Disney hand the keys for its new Empire to writer/director Brad Bird instead of Abrams (which they actually tried to do; Bird declined so he could finish “Tomorrowland”), and why I’m very happy to know that Episode VIII will be scripted and helmed by the much more grounded Rian Johnson.

There’s no denying (and I’m happy to not have to try) that The Force Awakens is a terrific ride. Given the compressed production time and ridiculous expectations, both positive (“Look at that trailer—this’ll be awesome!”) and negative (“Ugh, haven’t we suffered enough?”), it’s probably about as good a movie as we have any business getting.

But enough already with the flat-out nonsense, and with the retreading of old stories. That old galaxy has a whole lot of other interesting worlds and people and creatures to go play with for any more Episodes to be calling back to the original movies.

Disney, Rian: next time, go exploring, and please, don’t leave elementary logic in the airlock. We’ll all thank you for it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Flaming Computer Follow-up

So, it's been a couple of months since the morning my computer caught fire. After all that drama I owed you guys/gals an explanation of how things played out. It's overdue, my apologies for not posting this sooner.

Short version: while the drive manufacturer did not admit fault on their part, they quite graciously replaced my hardware, and the store I bought the drive from covered my (minimal) other damage and cleanup costs. I was very happy with the way both companies handled the situation.

Longer version: a couple of days after the fire, I got a call from a Global Support Manager at HGST, who was at least as shocked by the incident as anybody else. We eventually agreed that I'd ship the remains of the computer out to California for analysis. The Microcenter store where I'd bought the drive (every single person I dealt with at that store was wonderful, you should shop there if you're ever in Marietta, Georgia) facilitated the shipping for me.

We had to ship the whole box because the drive was completely encased in melted plastic. HGST finally carved the mechanism out of the case and did their analysis. HGST did not admit any fault on the part of their drive, but they were also very careful to not point any fingers in any other directions.

After they'd sent me the analysis slides and we went through a couple of rounds of questions, HGST offered to replace the computer via the Microcenter store, and I was fine with that. Like I told their representative, if I'd wanted to sue my way to a "lottery ticket judgement," I never would have called them in the first place. I was happy to be made whole here and leave it at that. The Microcenter manager followed up by offering to pay the cleanup costs (which amounted to fixing two vacuum cleaners that had been wrecked cleaning up the fire extinguisher dust) and their techs even built up the box for me (which I'd have been happy to do myself).

Best of all, nobody involved ever asked me to sign an NDA, or so much as mentioned the subject. That would have been a deal-killer for me, and I was very pleased by the fact that it never even came up.

The new box works fine, and while the experience was one of the bigger scares I've ever had (as incredibly unlikely as a recurrence would be, I still make sure to power down every morning before I go to work now), I'm impressed with how both HGST and Microcenter stepped up their customer service in a very unusual and not-a-little-stressful situation. Both companies deserve a "thank you, and well done." I'm intentionally not identifying by name the two main people who helped me, but Mr. HGST and Ms. Microcenter, if you'd like for me to do so, please let me know, I'll be happy to make an edit.

Thanks to all of you as well, for all the kind words while I was freaking out in the immediate aftermath.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Day My Computer Caught Fire

I never intended for this blog to become "Will's Occasional Rants About Bad Customer Service." Honest. But in this case, I think the story is worth telling in detail. Tweeting it 140 characters at a time and/or a couple of technical message board posts aren't going to cover it.

Yesterday, my house nearly burned down. The fact that it didn't was due to nothing more than time. If two or three more hours had passed, our home would be a smoking cinder burying the remains of Maggie the bullmastiff.

Here's what happened. Around 4:30 on Tuesday morning, my wife and I both woke up to an acrid odor. It initially smelled like somebody had just struck several matches.

We got up and had a look around. There was no smoke in the air, and our first thought was that something was wrong with the furnace. We turned it off, and the odor seemed to fade (we realized later we'd just stopped it from being recirculated through the HVAC system after the fan was turned off).

I checked my office, across the hall from our bedroom, and noticed my computer had rebooted, which was odd, but nowhere near an indication of anything dangerous. It was stuck on the BIOS boot screen, which didn't surprise me; I'd never bothered to fix the boot drive settings, and it always did that on startup unless I held down the F12 key and told it which hard drive to boot from. Not noticing anything else unusual, I turned it off from the main switch on the front of the box and left the room.

By now it was too late to go back to sleep. My wife had started to get ready to go to work when, simultaneously, the smoke alarm and main house fire alarm both went off.

We still couldn't see any smoke yet, but the alarms were enough. My wife grabbed Maggie by her collar and hustled her out to one of our cars. I picked up the phone and dialed 911.

While I was waiting for the operator to pick up, I walked back into my office. Now the combustion smell was overwhelming, and I could see light coming from under my desk. When I walked around it, I saw flames shooting out of the case of my desktop computer, which was on the floor under the desk.

I dropped the phone and ran downstairs for a fire extinguisher. I'm pretty sure the only thing the operator ever heard me say was something unprintable. Fortunately our Ooma phone service had sent our address along with the call.

I grabbed the extinguisher from under the sink and pulled its safety tab out as I hurtled back up the stairs. Did you know the thing that looks like a trigger on some fire extinguishers is not actually a trigger? I didn't.

Turns out to make the thing work, you're supposed to mash on the lever on top top, not yank on what looks like a trigger. It felt like it took half an hour for me to figure that out, but it must have just been a few seconds. The extinguisher finally belched out its powder. A couple of blasts were enough to put out the fire. The room was now nearly filled with billowing smoke; maybe a minute or more of that and I wouldn't have been able to get back in to put out the fire. I opened a window and backed out the door.

The Cobb Fire Department arrived a few minutes later, checked out the scene, and confirmed the only damage was to the computer, the front of which was melted into plastic slag. They carried the computer out to the driveway, made another sweep of the house, declared all-clear and went back to the station.

Once the computer cooled off, I got my first good look at the damage.

From top to bottom, what you see there are the bay where the computer's data drive used to live (I pulled it out before this picture was taken; the bay was destroyed but I have some hopes the drive itself survived), two optical drives (both ruined), and below them, right at the point of the most intense destruction, the bay that had held a pair of sleds for 2.5" boot drives.

Now, here's what's unusual about that bottom bay: If you look closely, you can see the remains of a 2.5" hard drive, buried in the melted plastic just above the vestigial floppy drive. It's a Western Digital HGST Travelstar, model H2IK500852SP (HGST is the former Hitachi hard drive business that was bought out by Western Digital a few years ago). I bought that drive on Sunday, and installed it roughly twelve hours before the fire. On closer inspection of the sides and surrounding damage, it's clear that the fire started in that bottom bay, which at the time only held the new HGST drive. The motherboard and CPU (normally the hottest component in any computer) and power supply all appear to be undamaged.

How exactly the fire started, I couldn't tell you, not least because that hard drive is now solidly encased in post-fire slag. But based on the fact that the drive was installed on a removable sled similar to the one in the picture below, we know that the cable from the power supply was neither moved nor ever plugged directly into the hard drive itself.

That boot drive was, by far, the newest component in the computer. I hadn't opened the box up in months, and I feel safe in saying the power and data connectors to that drive bay hadn't been touched in years.

While manufacturers will tell you that it's impossible for a hard drive to start a fire (and indeed, the young guy I spoke to at HGST yesterday said just this) a quick search indicates that such fires, while certainly rare, are far from unheard-of. In a few minutes on Google, I found multiple user reports of fires starting from Western Digital drives: here, here, here and here.

Again, this kind of failure is extremely rare. Hundreds of millions of hard drives operate 24/7 for years on end without getting so much as overly hot to the touch, much less catching fire. Google's massive data centers, using thousands of drives at a time, operate day in and day out at well above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Google wouldn't do that if they were worried about hard drive fires. I've owned dozens of drives personally and probably handled thousands of them during my career as an engineer, and this was (lucky me) the first time I'd ever heard of--much less nearly been scorched by--a flaming hard drive.

But in this case, that's what appears to have happened.

I'm sorry (but not terribly surprised) to say that neither Western Digital nor their HGST subsidiary were quick to express concern when I contacted them yesterday. As noted above, a young HGST support rep (not meaning to be ageist here, but I'm pretty sure I have t-shirts older than the kid who answered my call) read off what I assume is the lawyer-crafted script that's to be used in case of any call reporting physical damage ("our drives are built to a specification to meet a requirement. The problem had to be in the environment"). I was reminded briefly of this guy from "Titanic":

I get it: no company is going to admit any kind of liability based on a phone call and/or a few Tweets. But honestly, I'm not all that concerned about my loss here, and least of all any warranty issues with that HGST drive. A $50 hard drive is close to the smallest of my worries, and the few hundred bucks worth of trashed hardware won't break me.

What concerns me is the thought of what would have happened if my wife and I hadn't woken up thanks to a bad smell. What worries me is what would have happened if I hadn't ambled into my office just in time to see the fire before the smoke became unbearable.

What kept me up for most of the last night was thinking about how lucky we were that this happened at 4:30 instead of a couple of hours later, when we'd have been on the road to work, and Maggie would have been locked inside an inferno.

That, my friends at Western Digital and HGST, is why I am not letting this drop, and why you ought to be taking this situation a lot more seriously today.

UPDATE (21 Feb, Thursday): Just got off the phone with a Global Service Operations Manager from HGST, who I'm happy to say was far more concerned about the incident than anybody else from either HGST or Western Digital proper that I've talked to so far. He'd seen the blog post and pictures, and seems to be at least as gobsmacked as anyone else at the level of the damage. They want to get the remains of the drive for analysis, and as that's exactly what I want to happen as well, I take this as a good sign.

He offered to replace the drive... I had to decline. "Don't take this personally, but at this point I really don't want another one of your hard drives in my house." Granted, not the most rational decision in the world given how unlikely it is this would happen once, much less twice, but at this point I think I'm going to stick with it.