Friday, November 22, 2013

The Search for the Perfect, Magical Transportation App

This article was originally published November 20 at Mobility Lab.

I’m constantly on the look-out for the perfect, magical app that will help me get from place to place.
Biking to work from Maryland to Virginia, as I do almost every day, I used to utilize, which helped me find the least-painful routes up the monster hills out of Takoma Park.

But now, which also featured the safest and quickest routes on easy-to-view OpenStreetMaps, seems to have died a quiet death.
Sometimes I throw my bike on a WMATA bus or the Metro, but that is no longer as fool-proof in the wake of the NextBusDC app’s also-quiet death. At least you can access the same information online in a browser, but that’s not as convenient when jumping from work to restaurant to bar to home and all points in between.
 An exciting contender in my search is RideScout, which had its beta in Austin this summer and launches in Washington D.C. today. The company is showing D.C. some love with a launch party at startup campus 1776 tonight. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton, several members of Congress, and former White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra are all slated to attend.
CEO Joseph Kosper, a Mobility Lab contributor, told me RideScout is a smartphone app that “connects riders with a range of ride-service providers. The RideScout aggregation platform ranks ride-convenience factors such as cost and time to recommend a ‘best ride’ from all ride options available: public buses, transit, subway, taxis via Hailo, limos, shuttles, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, pedicabs, and peer-to-peer ride sharing.”
Kopser began formulating the idea of aggregated ground transportation when he was employed at the Pentagon. He became frustrated with his short commute from North Arlington, and while he had many options to get to work, he had no immediate information or booking capability to take advantage of those options.
The social ridesharing functionality included in the app was born out of his commitment to reducing the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road.
Mayor Gray approves of RideScout’s efforts. “It’s one of my goals as mayor to help the District of Columbia become one of the healthiest, most livable cities in the country,” Mayor Gray said. “I’m happy to be a part of RideScout’s launch because they are working towards a similar goal – helping to make existing and emerging transportation resources more accessible to all our residents.”
Steve Carroll, director of business development and strategy, noted, “Twenty years ago, the mashup of the internet and the PC enabled sites like Expedia™ and Kayak™ to aggregate sufficient information to allow travelers to search for and book airline reservations from the comfort of their own home. Today, the proliferation of GPS and mobile technologies enables RideScout to link its users immediately with multiple ride options as they walk to the curb.
“RideScout is unique because mobile applications usually link riders with only one mode of transportation, with no way to see and compare options in real-time. Frustrated consumers, forced to reference multiple applications and websites, give up and revert to driving their own cars rather than seek alternatives. RideScout solves that problem,” he added.
RideScout officially launches in D.C. today, but the beta apps have been available in iTunes and Google Play for some time. Users can connect to public transportations options, Capital Bikeshare, car2go, Hailo taxis, DC Pedicabs, and more from the app. The company plans to expand to more cities as it adds national-level transportation providers.
Part of this effort includes improving the social-ridesharing function and allowing users to personalize the app in regards to which forms of transportation they see most prominently.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mutant Hillbillies Not Weird Enough to Carry The Hills Have Eyes 2

I enjoyed The Hills Have Eyes because I'm a sucker for any horror movie about mutant hillbilly types.

So I decided to dig into 2007's The Hills Have Eyes 2. It's OK, but it's essentially the exact same story, so it loses quite a few style and originality points.

Instead of a family getting lost in the backwoods, this one features a group of mutants living in mines at a military test base and several soldiers seeking answers to a series of mysterious disappearances in the New Mexico hills that look a lot like Pakistan or Afghanistan. I suppose there's something profound intended based on our never-ending series of Mideast wars.

One hint at the low-rent level of this movie is that one of the stars (spoiler alert!) who survives is Jessica Stroup, now relatively famous as Erin Silver from 90210 (an awful show, which I watched for all of its too-many seasons).

This movie is a far cry from Wes Craven's top work (he is credited as a writer) such as his 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes, Scream, and Swamp Thing.

My biggest beef is that the mutants have no backstory. I would have liked to see a lot more of them.

**1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, November 11, 2013

Judy Blume a Must Read for Pre-Teen Girls (and Boys, For That Matter)

I was never a 12-year-old girl. I also grew up with two older brothers, so I really know nothing about girls. And something about reading Judy Blume's most famous book has always intrigued me.

When we had our baby girl three-and-a-half months ago, I figured I better finally get off the snide and learn a thing or two about what it's like to grow up as a girl. After all, it won't be too long before Zoey will be confronting these issues. I shouldn't be clueless.

Are You There God? It's Me Margaret is essential reading for any pre-teen girl. It should help them recognize that the way they will soon be acting is laughable but serious as well.

Blume explores the trials of young Margaret, who, upon moving from New York City to suburban Jersey, tries to fit in with a group of girls who call themselves the Pre-Teen Sensations. They focus on growing their breasts, the more-developed girl in their class, lists of boys, and getting their periods. Meanwhile, Margaret deals privately with what kind of religion to become, since her father is Jewish and her mother Christian.

This harmless and well-written novel contributes to Blume's status as the "second-most banned" author in American history behind Stephen King. She once said that the book was indeed seen as harmless throughout its first decade after being published in 1970, but that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 began a wave of witch-hunt-like book bannings. (That, incidentally, was also the era of Tipper Gore and her band of mothers who attempted to limit access to some rock music.)

I can't imagine that some parents could actually not encourage their children to read this.

***** out of ***** stars

Sunday, November 3, 2013

2013's Great Gatsby Entertains, But Overshares the Mystery

I may be biased since The Great Gatsby has been my favorite novel for a long time, but it's a really tough one to pull off on film.

The new version tries its best with help from a host of gimmicks - namely rap music in the jazz age and over-the-top Moulin Rouge-like production pieces. (I suppose it's difficult to fault Director Baz Luhrmann for trying this approach.)

It's not that these elements are bad, they just happen to be the sections I probably dislike the most about 2013's Great Gatsby, but I think the part that leaves me most unsettled is how the creators spell out every little detail of the characters, plot, and motivations. The best thing about the book, and why I keep coming back to it every five years or so, is that I'm not entirely quite sure exactly what happens. I can't quite fully grasp all of author F. Scott Fitzgerald's intentions and meanings, and I read into it a little bit different every time.

The mystery of Jay Gatsby is, after all, what the story is all about. And the film actually does very well at withholding the secrets for a very long time. But it can't help itself, as Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway blurts it all out towards the end.

Leo DiCaprio is probably the best Gatsby there may ever be for a film version. (I think this probably falls around DiCaprio's seventh-best movie.) He is dashing, a little bit wacky, and mysterious. Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton are also pretty perfect as the shallow and reckless Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Maguire is alright, but I've always pictured Carraway to be an equal in the looks (if not the money) department to his neighbor Gatsby. He is a little too timid for this role.

The cinematography is beautiful and should be a prime candidate for the Academy Award. Some of the dialogue scenes, when the film almost replicates what a stage production might look like, are also filmed perfectly, especially the scene when Gatsby announces he is taking Daisy from Tom.

The rest isn't quite there, but it's saying quite a bit just to pull off The Great Gatsby without it being a total disaster.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is Only Half Fun

I thought I would love this book, having been authored by Maria Semple of Arrested Development, Saturday Night Live, and Beverly Hills 90210 writing fame.

And indeed I did voraciously suck in the first half, but the second half left me cold with a boredom-inducing adventure through the Antarctic to locate the Bernadette from the title of Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Many pop-culture landmarks are touched upon, with Bernadette Fox having won a Genius Award in her youth before settling in as an unemployed and cynical private-school parent (or more like a friend) to daughter Bee and cold-fish wife to Microsoft fellow-genius Elgie Branch.

Elgie is on the verge of getting Bernadette institutionalized while he is half-heartedly carrying out an affair with his co-worker. But then Bernadette disappears. The novel is a decent study in family dysfunction. And the characters are fairly memorable, but they are also almost roundly unlikable.

Maria Semple
I was kind of bummed I had spent so much time with these kooks. This one is, unfortunately, no I Love You, Beth Cooper.

*** out of ***** stars