Monthly Archives: December 2012

Why the Season 2 Finale of Homeland is both Awesome and a Cop-out


Homeland has been all the craze for the last year or two. For good reason – I loved it despite and because the speed of the story development from episode to episode has been utterly glacial. The very slow development from one episode to another makes this the perfect show for lovers of cliffhangers.

But leaving that aside, I both loved the last season 2 episode and abhorred it. What I loved:

  1. The twist of how the hunter becomes the hunted. It turns the mechanic of the entire show around. Carrie vs Brody (which in season 2 became Carrie and the system vs Brody and then Carrie, the system and Brody vs the terrorists) is now the system vs Carrie and Brody (what about the terrorists?).
  2. How all the open loops were tied up neatly. The main villain is dead. Carrie and Brody live happily ever after in her cabin. The assassin’s hit on Brody is called off (by the assassin no less!). Mike and Brody’s family can move in together at last.

However the big explosion at the CIA is a cop-out. Why? Because it does not fit thematically with the rest of the show… at all. The entire show is built around a cat-and-mouse game of the good guys vs the bad guys. The CIA and Carrie (and on occasion Brody) are always a step behind the terrorists (and on occasion Brody). They never have the full picture, but they have some information. They are always close on the heels of the terrorists.

The explosion at the CIA was never hinted at. They had no information about it. But it was necessary to propel the story onward onto the new track of the Brody-manhunt. Without it, the series could have ended there, and it would have been fine.

In other words…. the attack on the CIA is a use of deus ex machina. (Note that this does not mean literally “A god from the machine” in the sense of intelligent machines or the like. It refers to Greek plays in which, when the protagonist is faced with an unsolvable situation, that situation is resolved with a contrived and somewhat alien intervention from outside the established play universe. In other words, by the use of an act of god. Which in ancient Greek times required a type of machine to make possible.)

The fact that the attack on the CIA was completely unforeseen can of course be chalked up to lacking intelligence efforts. Shit happens, and even the most sophisticated intelligence agency might overlook not just hints but an entire attack. Except… that has not been established in the Homeland universe. In the show that we have been watching, the CIA always has some idea of what has been going on. As the film critic HULK has pointed out, a plot hole is “when there is a crucial gap or inconsistency in a storyline (as presented) that prevents the proper functioning of the plot or central characterization (as presented)”. The “clueless” CIA caught with their pants down is a clear inconsistency with the established normality of the CIA being hot on the terrorists’ toes at all times.


How to have an iPhone 5 Unlimited Data no Contract for $30 / Month


NOTE: This post has been updated to account for the new T-Mobile iPhone 5 plans. See the full discussion here. The general upshot is that the below is still the most cost-effective way to get an iPhone 5 with a fast dataplan.

The iPhone 5 and the Available Data Plans

I have always been a huge Apple aficionado, and the new iPhone 5 was a gadget I had been looking forward for a long time. It is sleek, fast, neat. And just like the iPad mini, you don’t realize how much you need and want it till you’ve held one in your hand.

UPDATE: T-Mobile’s new plan is discussed in the Update here.

However the pricing structure never appealed to me. The providers which Apple has signed on charge (approximately) the same price – $80 per month for a two-year commitment plus a down payment of at least $199 for the cheapest model:

The Apple website:

Screen shot 2012-12-15 at 13.18.41Screen shot 2012-12-15 at 13.18.03

Of course if you do the maths this adds up to a hefty $2,119 (24×80+199) over two years, not accounting for charges, interest, inflation, etc. See for yourself below:

Screen shot 2012-12-15 at 13.35.43

As far as alternatives exist, Apple has been quite insistent to not allow competitors much leeway into the iPhone market. However since the iPhone 5 came out unlocked in the US last month, T-Mobile finally has released a nano-sim of their own. This is awesome. T-Mobile’s network is based on the GSM standard, which is what the iPhone 5 requires.

However the factory-made nano sim for T-Mobile requires a contract which is even more expensive than the one offered by AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. While the sim itself is offered for free, the cheapest data plan comes in at $89.99 – ten dollars more than the other providers also for two years. It is in fact impossible to order the T-mobile nano sim without selecting an expensive data plan.

T-Mobile website:

Screen shot 2012-12-15 at 13.44.04 Screen shot 2012-12-15 at 13.44.37

The Mission

So I set out to find the most bootstrapped data plan version for the market’s most high-end mobile telephone. Step one was to order an unlocked iPhone 5 from Apple’s website. After a number of days, this sleek little gadget arrived:


Now I needed a sim and a data plan that would work with this phone.


T-Mobile’s $30 Unlimited Plan

However T-Mobile does offer an unlimited data plan for a measly $30 per month. The details of this are (sorted by my priorities):

  • 100 minutes per month of talk
  • Unlimited texts
  • Unlimited data, some of it at 4G speeds
  • No contract

However you’ll be hard pressed to find it on T-Mobile’s website – though it is there if you search long enough (UPDATE: This plan no longer exists on the T-Mobile website. However it is still available through Wal-Mart). The plan is web-exclusive, which means you won’t get it in a T-Mobile store. This plan is also sold by Wal-Mart as a downloadable Pay and Go credit. However it turns out that for this operation, you don’t need to purchase this quite yet.


Why T-Mobile?

Because the unlocked iPhone 5 is (at least currently) the Apple version is the model A1428 – it says so in their fine print. This model is GSM-compatible, not CDMA compatible. The only carriers for GSM are AT&T and T-Mobile. In other words, as AT&T has no comparable data plan (its cheapest unlimited data plan comes in at $50 / month and requires the purchase of a phone), it is pretty much the only choice. As regards cellular data, the A1428 model is limited to the 4 (AWS) and 17 (700b MHz) bands. This allows T-Mobile to function at at least 3G capacity.

UPDATE: As of recently, in selected cities, T-Mobile allows for 4G HSPA+ service. The speed of this (it’s fast!) is discussed in the update blog post.

So much for the data plan. Where to get a T-Mobile nano sim from?


T-Mobile Nano Sim DIY

Luckily the blogosphere has been experimenting with sims for the iPhone 5 for quite a bit by now. Hence the way to procure a nano sim was relatively simple (however nerve racking). Sims have long been cut into micro sims as explained online. An exhaustive guide for cutting a sim into a nano sim can be found here. However it is not actually necessary to sand down the thickness of the sim – the iPhone 5 accepts normal and mirco sim thicknesses. The easiest way is to print out a PDF which holds the cut lines for the new sim, tape the old sim on top of it and cut away as detailed here. You can download and print the PDF from here. Another very good guide to cutting your sim can be found here.

Thus armed with a printout, scissors and ruler, I set out to cut a sim. I only needed an actual T-mobile sim. The cheapest version which you can get is found online at Wal-Mart again – T-Mobile walk-in stores do not sell sims without contracts or plans. The T-Mobile website does not offer sims without plans either. However you can get one from Amazon for almost free. This is what you receive:

IMG_3402 IMG_3404

The final ingredient required is an activation kit. This also includes a sim card, hence the above Amazon sim card may not be necessary. I ordered mine from Wal-Mart.

Equipped with scissors and a nail file, I reduced the sim down to nano size:


Aligning the sim to be cut…



The result


There was actually some room on the phone’s sim tray. I had cut away too much on the sides. Luckily that does not seem to matter if it fits snugly top and bottom.


It fits!



To activate the phone, one needs one more item: a T-Mobile activation kit. This can be ordered online at Wal-Mart. T-Mobile usually includes this with their device. It includes a sim card as mentioned above and looks like this:


Before the activation process begins, you should take stock of having everything. You need:

  • The phone with the IMEI number available (it can be found at the bottom of the iPhone box)
  • The sim (cut down to nano size) and its sim number
  • The activation code from the activation kit
  • There is also the option to port your number from your old phone to the new one during the activation phase – so have that number at hand

T-Mobile guides you quite easily through the steps. The link for this is here. It looks something like this:

T-Mobile website

Screen shot 2012-12-11 at 18.32.05

Make sure you have everything at hand

Screen shot 2012-12-11 at 18.36.10

Screen shot 2012-12-11 at 18.39.14

Select the right data plan

Screen shot 2012-12-11 at 18.42.39

Pay. Use your prepaid Wal-mart card or credit card.

I have to admit that I got stuck during this last part and had to call T-Mobile support. They found my new account – apparently I had mistyped the sim card number and had to re-establish that via the phone. Once that was taken care of, I provided the Wal-mart prepay number and the phone was registered that way.



Update: if you live in an area which has T-Mobile’s HSPA+ service, you get 4G LTE service:

Untitled 2


Discussion – Advantages and Disadvantages


1. CELLULAR SPEED – The biggest difference from this iPhone is of course that it has (at the moment at least) no LTE capacity. This is not a big issue for me as I don’t need it as a pocket-browser but as a pocket-computer and phone. Most people also have wifi in their homes and at work, as I do at home (in my TARDIS) and at work (in my TARDIS?). In between I only use it for emails and other small-time data packages like google maps. It is a shame that the phone does not pick up T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network which really is quite fast.

UPDATE: The LTE 4G is live for T-Mobile and is quite fast as discussed in the update blog post.

So if you are looking for a fast online browser phone and you’re on the road a lot, then this phone may not be for you. T-Mobile has also made noises about expanding their cellular data network, I will update this as things move along. It also makes sense to check your coverage.

2. NO VISUAL VOICEMAIL – This kinda sucks. I really liked the visual voicemail feature in the phones.

UPDATE – Visual voicemail now works in this plan.

Apart from these features it very much behaves like a normal iPhone 5, with the added huge advantages listed below:


1. MONEY – This is of course the whole reason behind this – you pay a lot less in the final analysis and month-to-month. I engage in a more thorough discussion on this below.

2. FREEDOM – You are not bound to any contract with any carrier; the phone is yours to do and doctor with (heh) as you like. You can sell it or stop paying the plan for a month if you go abroad. I have also personally boycotted cellphone data contracts ever since the supreme court handed down its atrocious decision on class arbitration in AT&T v Conception. That ruling alone is reason enough not to choose AT&T as a carrier.

Yeah, but is it actually cheaper?

I keep getting this question. Although there are some serious up-front costs, namely the unlocked phone, in the long run you come out streets ahead. After only nine months, you will have spent less than someone on the normal plan and following that, you save fifty dollars per month:

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 19.17.43

In other words, your total savings will be 749 dollars.

But what if I get a free upgrade?

You might get an upgrade, depending on your contract. You might even get a free upgrade, though from what I have experienced, this is rarely the case. But let’s assume that you do get a free upgrade in a year. Since new generation iPhones are released on a yearly basis (iPhone: 9 January 2007, iPhone 2: 9 June 2008, iPhone 3: 8 June 2009, iPhone 4: 7 June 2010, 4S: 4 October 2011, iPhone 5: 12 September 2012) you may get one upgrade.

I may or may not decide to keep up, after all I have no contractual obligations. But if I do, I would sell my phone. Currently an iPhone 4S (the latest model) nets between $235 and $260, so let us assume that I would get $250 for my then one year old iPhone. The new model is likely to cost $650 again, which means that I would have to pay a price of $400. This is still far below my savings.


Was this useful? Buy me a beer

The Avengers – a Failure of Basic Storytelling or Why I Want my Money Back

The Avengers had everything one could have wished for a good movie – great actors, a strong brand name and Joss Whedon as writer, the provider of “Firefly” and other quality products including “Buffy” and “Toy Story” (yes, he was one of the writers). But Whedon’s story writing in this case, which is usually superb, made a complete mess of The Avengers.

While a real effort is felt to make the characters believable, distinct and interesting in the first half of the film, the movie falls flat on some very fundamental errors of storytelling as well as a strongly felt notion that this is just yet another summer action hero movie that was cranked out to make some money by actors and producers who really don’t care about comic books, audiences or, for that matter, good movies. In other words the story lacks vision. And no amount of bombastic music, special effects and even Samuel Jackson did not change that.

Lazy Strory Writing

The problems start with some simple plot holes which are exacerbated by lazy storytelling. Firstly there is Loki, who has some undefined and vague sense of hurt and therefore is a pain in the ass. Rather than having the audience see his side and consider that while misguided, his actions stem from understandable causes (as it happened with Magneto in the “X-Men” movies) we are handed a few flat monologues of him being bitter with Thor. Loki is no more interesting than King Joffrey in “Game of Thrones” and is just as one-dimensional. At the same time, Whedon seems to be undecided whether Loki is supposed to be fearsome and properly evil and villainous (as his monologue with Black Widow suggests) or just a pampered annoying little kid that’s throwing a tantrum (which is suggested all over the movie).

So Loki wants to do… what?

He wants to take our freedom. It’s just that simple. Added to a flat character is a flat and insanely vague intent that is very easily identifiable as bad. You could almost say that he hates us for our freedoms. No interesting discussion about free will or his greater villainous plans or whether there is more to it, because there isn’t.

And we have to fight him because, ya know, freedom. ‘Murica!

Then there are the Chitauri. We know nothing about them, other than that they are evil and ugly, two notions which Hollywood equates. Would it really have been so difficult to have villains who have genuine grievances, as was the case in “Hellboy 2“, where you could not help yourself but to root for the bad guys as well and feel that they too have a just cause from a certain point of view? Apparently so; having an evil guy with depth demands too much from story writers these days. Who are the Chitauri? We don’t know. They’re ugly, they’re evil, they have ugly evil flying armoured wyverns, end of story.

Now our good guys defend some conveniently vague sets of principles against some people with destructive intentions who are unquestionably evil. I hope this hackneyed, one-dimensional and entirely ludicrous setup had the same effect on others as it did on me: an almost jaw-breaking yawn.

Don’t get me wrong, I like fun movies. Movies don’t have to be deep or gritty to be good; “Starship Troopers” is a classic example of a fun movie. But they should at least be logically consistent and make some sense.

No Character Motivations

Given that the enemy is created to be so utterly simplistic, it’s astonishing to see how Whedon then wrecks havoc on the character motivations. Character motivation is important; it gives a story logic and drive, it provides narrative propulsion. Unfortunately, The Avengers lacked those. Instead we were presented with character exhibitions – an exposition of how every protagonist is different and how those characters react on one another.

Whedon does this expertly and the personalities of Stark, Banner, Capt America and Thor are played out well in wonderful little wordplays which make the audience chuckle and gasp – “how do you do it, big bag of weed?” “clench up Legolas”. Whedon played the characters truly wonderfully, especially the Hulk.

This approach however is problematic for two reasons. For one, for it to work it has to be done subtly, and in this cas it isn’t. The movie is far too aware of the character plays and refers to those character freaks too frequently as ‘freaks’. The situations have a manufactured feeling which communicate to the audience very clearly: “This is the character part where the guys work out their teamwork issues. We’ll get to the smashy-smashy later.” It would have been better if they had been a random bunch of people, each with their own quirks which the audience gets to know and appreciate. This is what happened in the ‘Hangover’ movies and it worked there.

The second reason is that a character-driven story usually cannot be an action movie. Character driven movies work by putting the protagonists into different situations and seeing how they react and grow and change as it happened in “Citizen Kane” or quite wonderfully in “Spy Game“. Those movies do not work up to a big, loud finale but to a conclusion which brings the story to a full circle.

Action movies however must have a finale where good conquers evil and for that reason action movies need a lot more causality and motivation. None was available here. Captain America was just drifting along after his thaw; Stark had better things to do than bother with SHIELD; Banner was never actually convinced at any point and Thor was only around because of the one-dimensional Loki. It would have been nice to include Natalie Portman on Thor’s side for added depth and tension but no such luck. Loki had some fun drawing out Black Widow in the interrogation, but that had an annoyingly unfeeling touch to it because we knew all along that she was playing him – as she turned out to have been. Which makes Loki less potent the moment when he is required to be threatening.

Some people have suggested that this lack of narrative propulsion is irrelevant as this is only an action movie. That’s exactly wrong. Action movies absolutely need a sense of cause and effect and reasoned-out villains and heroes. Sitcoms and comedies can do without, which is why Whedon is excellent at writing these. Whdeon should have stuck to his strengths in those departments and left the big screen alone. A sitcom where Stark and Captain America are trading one-liners and funny comments would have worked brilliantly; however an action movie falls flat if it is based on this because action movies require narrative causality as a basis. Smart and funny dialogue is just the icing on the cake for action movies, not the basis.

This is the fundamental weakness of Loki’s character. This is expounded below; but for now I will say that he was neither threatening nor crazy enough to be a proper villain. This leads me directly onwards to an important story element:

No Stakes = No Tension…

The galvanising catalyst for the Avengers’ motivation was supposed to be the death of Phil Coulson. This of course did not work at all; no-one cried after him because he was a glorified government bureaucrat. We’ve never seen him without a tie and suit; nor have we seen him kick ass and he’s never endeared himself to the audience. And now the mega-rich super-smart super-strong alien god heroes are supposed to get up in arms over the death of the most meaningless of characters, a man who looked and acted like a tax collector. Sorry, no. Motivation does not work this way.

Whedon should have looked to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” for character motivation. If you kill the love interest of the Batman, you’ll have your protagonist seriously and believably agitated and the audience will be at the edge of their seats to see what happens next. But of course Whedon could not kill a major character because all the major characters have their own highly lucrative franchises to return to. In other words, the fact that halfway through the movie a minor character gets killed and this is treated it as a major tragedy signaled very clearly to the audience that none of the major characters would ever be in any real danger. This lack of stakes translated directly into a lack of tension for the rest of the movie.

Tension could have been created if Loki had taken some hostages, like Gwynneth Paltrow or Natalie Portman, so that the protagonists, and by extension the audience, are engaged on an emotional level and feel like they have something to lose. But that too did not happen.

Storytelling also functions by working with setup and payoff. That is how causality works and how jokes function. For example Captain America provides the setup by asking Stark: “Take away your suit of armour and what are you?”, Stark provides the payoff: “Billionaire genius playboy philanthropist”. The same applies to actions and the overall story. When Loki clearly had himself captured voluntarily, the audience held its breath. It was a wonderful setup. What was his plan? What was his play? What was the payoff going to be? But that payoff either never arrived or was so badly misconstrued as to make all tension evaporate; it was like watching a condensed version of “Lost”.

Ostensibly, having himself captured was a ploy to set loose the Hulk in airship (incidentally an airborne aircraft carrier is probably the most moronic idea since the inflatable pincushion; moreover it’s not a novel idea on TV either – UNIT had one when fighting the Centaurans) and to set the Avengers against one another. This leaves open questions such as how he knew about the Hulk in the first place, or the other heroes, and most of all how he was going to do it and how he would escape.

None of these were answered and no payoff was delivered. We have no idea how he knew about any of the Avengers and about the Hulk. He did not escape, he was freed. And he did not agitate the Hulk; Hawkeye did that. So why did he get himself captured? Maybe to lead Hawkeye to Banner. But what would make him assume that he would be held in the same place as Banner? Or that Banner would even be near Loki’s sceptre? And most of all, the Hulk’s release did not have nearly the devastating effect we were anticipating from Loki’s plan it would. The story of the movie simply did not make any sense, which is very un-Whedon. This leads me to suspect that someone else had a hand in the writing of the story; maybe George Lucas.

And this again exemplifies the problem of the movie – utter lack of stakes. Not only is the only stake for the heroes a minor character’s death, but also are the stakes for the world unbelievable since they are either nonsensical or undeveloped. Loki is nonsensical, because the movie attempts to connect two contradictory villain archetypes. The first is the evil genius (most frequently seen in James Bond movies); and I have the feeling that this is what the filmmakers were going for. However Loki’s plan was so simplistic, his ideology so one-dimensional and most of all his strategy of having himself being captured so ineffectual and random that he is not a credible threat on that basis. The second archetype they were going for is the power-hungry madman who is driven by intense hatred for society or the world and has a burning desire to destroy; he is the essence of the terrorist. There is something of this in Loki, given his jealousy issues concerning Thor. His monologue with Black Widow also supports this. The problem is that those two archetypes are contradictory. The evil genius is cool, merciless, calculating and unemotional; the terrorist is driven by emotion, passionate and even inspirational in the strength of his conviction. But you cannot be both. This is why Loki as a character and as a threat to the world is unconvincing and deprives the movie of stakes.

…Leading to an Unsatisfying Conclusion

Which leaves the Chitauri invasion. This could provide a credible threat in lieu of Loki. However they are so terribly underdeveloped and pictured as nothing more than evil and ugly that they cause the same threat level as a natural disaster like an asteroid or a tsunami. They are so deprived of personality that it is difficult to ascribe any meaningful responsibility to them. Incidentally, and sadly, the movie deals with them by nuking them, which is precisely the same way Hollywood deals with almost all natural disasters: Asteroids (Armageddon, Deep Impact), the earth’ core slowing down (The Core), the sun going out (Sunshine), etc.

Let’s talk about the battle in New York and the final 60 minutes of the movie. Of course it had to be New York, it’s the classic city for big showdown. The Chitauri arrive and they are fought off in a series of cuts and scenes which have all the tension and expertise of the final hour of “Transformers 3”. Not that the effects and shots are badly done, the craftsmanship is perfectly acceptable, but we’ve seen them all before and by this time the lack of tension, stakes and character motivation provides us not with a tight and gripping ending but simply fireworks. The movie has by that point failed to make the audience connect to and care about any of the protagonists and the ending has a very perfunctory feeling to it; at no point is there any question about how it will end and what will happen next.

The final scenes bear some analysis as well; Stark decides to ride a nuke into the gateway to destroy the evil Chitauri. Since they are evil and ugly and have no depth, there is no moral difficulty about this. We don’t know whether there are children on board of their mother ship, whether without Loki they could be negotiated with and we don’t care. Nor do we know if we should feel any pity for them at all. The destruction of the Chitauri mother ship causes all the Chitauri on Earth to die as well through supposedly some psychic connection or something, and that too was never addressed. Unlike Loki’s ploy on the airborne aircraft carrier, which was setup without payoff, the Chitauri’s death on Earth was payoff without setup and is just as unsatisfying.

Stark’s final act would have had a smidgeon of meaning if he had not made it back to Earth and had perished on the other side of the gate. It would have been an easy plot point to state that his’ remaining there was the only way to close the gate permanently. Even Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” managed this way to carve some meaning into an otherwise quite flat movie. Stark’s subplot with Captain America about honour and dying for a cause could have come to a conclusion here. Sacrifice is an interesting and powerful theme to work through war and action movies and I am willing to bet the laptop on which I am writing this that it will be a major theme in Nolan’s upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” [Update: I won]. But again Whedon misses even this very last straw to give the movie any hint of depth and meaning; Stark’s survival is a cop-out. (For anyone arguing that we needed him for Iron Man 3, firstly, other franchises don’t justify sloppy screenwriting, and secondly, his return could be dealt with in a five-minute plot point in Iron Man 3.)

In short we have been provided with a movie might as well have been titled “Transformers 4: Stuff Happens and Things Go Boom“. Oh well, I want my money back.