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A24’s Problemista is a surreal fairy tale about finding the people who truly see you

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A24’s Problemista is a surreal fairy tale about finding the people who truly see you

Each of comedian Julio Torres’ projects has spoken to his ability to tell stories that are shaped by both his distinct imagination and a deep understanding of the hyperspecific idiosyncrasies that make odd people interesting. In SNL sketches like “Wells For Boys,” and his short-lived HBO series Los Espookys, Torres created windows into absurdist worlds meant to seem like places you might only visit in your dreams. But with A24’s Problemista which he wrote, directed, and stars in — Torres uses his creative powers to paint a picture whose beauty is rooted in how real and emotionally honest it feels.

Inspired by Torres’ own experience immigrating to the US, Problemista tells the story of Alejandro, an aspiring toymaker from El Salvador who travels to America in hopes of fulfilling his dreams of working for Hasbro. As the only child born to artist Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), Alejandro grows up experiencing their small pocket of the world as a magical, vibrant place that nourishes his unique imagination. When a young Alejandro (Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel) wishes for a life-size, castle-like playhouse where he can contemplate his feelings, Dolores uses her talents to make his dream real — not just because she can but also because she wants him to understand that he, too, is capable of transforming ideas into reality. 

Dolores also wants Alejandro to know that she’ll always love him and support his choices, which her dreams tell her will one day lead him to great things. But when the time finally comes for Alejandro to set out on his own, Dolores cannot help but feel like she’s sending him off into a world that isn’t good enough for a soul as sensitive as his.

Through both Katie Byron’s impeccably offbeat production design and voiceover narration from Isabella Rossellini, Problemista clues you into how, more than being a simple chronicle of Alejandro’s journey to America, it’s really a kind of fairy tale about a profoundly sensitive and sheltered man discovering what it means to chase one’s passions.

Getting to New York City and finding a place to stay are important steps on Alejandro’s path to Hasbro, where he hopes his ideas for social-media-obsessed Cabbage Patch Kids and psychologically manipulative Barbies might land him an entry-level gig. Hopes don’t exactly pay the bills, though. And as an immigrant, Alejandro’s ability to stay in the US is contingent upon finding a job willing to sponsor him before his time runs out. It’s necessity more than anything else that leads to Alejandro working at a cryogenics startup specializing in deep-freezing artists like Bobby (RZA) who want to wake up centuries into the future. But it seems to be fate that introduces Alejandro to Bobby’s ferociously belligerent art critic wife Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) the very same afternoon he’s fired.

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While the whimsical atmosphere of playfulness that Problemista leads with never really fades away, it becomes much more unhinged once Elizabeth enters the picture with a proposal for Alejandro to become her newest in a seemingly long line of overworked assistants. In Elizabeth — a living reality distortion field whose fuse is as short as her outfits are loud — Alejando can see a woman in mourning who ultimately wants to be seen and heard more than she actually wants to fight. But shouting is Elizabeth’s default mode, and while most people experience her rageful outbursts as ordinary temper tantrums, Alejandro visualizes them as a series of battles between a bloodthirsty monster and her helpless victims.

Though Problemista’s flights of fancy bring a levity to the film, their strength lies in how powerfully they illustrate the more complex, serious ideas Torres is exploring with his script, like the ways in which the US’s visa system makes it extraordinarily difficult for immigrants to build new lives and thrive in the country. Dealing with Elizabeth and her quest to track down a series of Bobby’s egg-focused paintings is its own kind of hell that would make anyone want to dissociate. But it pales in comparison to the anxiety Alejandro lives with knowing that he’s just days away from being deported.

Even with sympathetic case workers like Khalil (Laith Nakli) rooting for him, without money, there’s no way for Alejandro to escape from the immigration system’s never-ending fees or the overdraft charges that plague his bank account. And the more time Alejandro spends trying to navigate the unfairly designed maze of near-poverty, the more he finds himself turning to the embodiment of Craigslist (Larry Owen) to find extra low-paying side hustles.

Problemista quietly weaves many of its narrative threads together in clever ways — Elizabeth is the cave-dwelling monster who haunts Dolores’ dreams, for example, and the critic’s power to will things into existence (by bullying people) reminds Alejandro of his mother’s knack for translating rough sketches into three-dimensional works of art. 

But the film sometimes feels more like an ensemble of complementary stories rather than a singular narrative (which isn’t necessarily a knock against) because of how much time the film spends with side characters, pulling the focus away from Alejandro. Together, Swinton and Torres are a storm of delightful eccentricities that belie their characters’ shared yet distinct emotional vulnerabilities. As Alejandro and Elizabeth grow closer, Problemista’s forays into the absurd become even more intense and fantastical to emphasize how they represent the truth of what something is. 

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Those truths are often so terrifying that people don’t want to see them. But Problemista emphasizes how healing it can be to confront them through art and by trying to build meaningful connections with others even when the task seems impossible.

Problemista also stars Greta Lee, Spike Einbinder, Kelly McCormack, Megan Stalter, Charlene Incarnate, Martine Gutierrez, and Carlos E. Navedo. The film hits theaters nationwide on March 22nd.

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Microsoft makes it easier to install Windows store apps from the web

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Microsoft makes it easier to install Windows store apps from the web

Microsoft is starting to improve the experience of downloading Windows store apps from the web. The software giant has built what it calls an “undocked version of the [Microsoft] Store” that works like a typical executable to install apps from the Microsoft Store. It should cut down on the complexity involved in finding Windows store apps on the web and installing them.

Instead of launching the Microsoft Store and a mini window, now when you download apps from the web version of the Microsoft Store it will download a standalone installer instead. This means you don’t have to click install on the web, then allow Chrome or Edge to open the Microsoft Store, and finally hit install to actually install the app. A lightweight installer will be downloaded instead, which you can launch and install the Microsoft Store app you were looking for.

Microsoft Store developer Rudy Huyn claims this reduces the entire process down to just two clicks, but from my own testing it’s still three clicks to download and install Microsoft Store apps from the web. You click to download, you then click to open this new lightweight installer, and you still have to click install in the prompt that appears. Microsoft appears to have just simplified the process here by removing the prompt to approve the Microsoft Store being opened through Chrome or Edge.

Not all Microsoft Store apps seem to support this new lightweight installer, though. While I was able to download packaged versions of GroupMe and Snapchat, trying to download Discord this way still pushed me into the Microsoft Store instead. The standalone installers also don’t include the full app installer, as this is downloaded during the install process.

Microsoft has tested this new method over the past five months and it claims it has led, on average, to a 12 percent increase in installations and a 54 percent increase in the number of apps launched after install. That’s obviously good news for developers eager for Windows users to install and use their apps, so Microsoft is now expanding this experiment to “more products and markets,” according to Huyn.

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The troubling truth about our country's recycling programs

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The troubling truth about our country's recycling programs

Imagine diligently separating your recyclables, placing them into the green bin as instructed, and then discovering it’s all for naught. That’s the frustrating reality a Redditor faced, sparking a conversation on r/Apartmentliving about the disheartening state of recycling in their complex. The green dumpster was just a facade, and the company didn’t even offer residential recycling. It begs the question: Is anyone else’s complex out there lying about something so obvious?

CLICK TO GET KURT’S FREE CYBERGUY NEWSLETTER WITH SECURITY ALERTS, QUICK VIDEO TIPS, TECH REVIEWS AND EASY HOW-TO’S TO MAKE YOU SMARTER

Green garbage bins (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

The struggle for eco-friendly practices in rented spaces

This isn’t an isolated incident. Across the nation, renters find themselves handcuffed by landlords who block eco-friendly practices like gardening or air-drying laundry. Yet, there’s hope. In the U.S., 74 million people live under homeowners associations where there’s room to navigate or even alter the rules for the betterment of the community.

The discourse on Reddit resonates with many who share similar struggles. One user lamented their building’s failed recycling attempt due to contamination, and another mentioned the absence of recycling services altogether, leaving the responsibility on individuals to transport recyclables to centers.

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The troubling truth about our country's recycling programs

Blue recycling bins (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

MORE: IS THIS TECHNOLOGY THE ANSWER TO CLEANING UP OUR OCEAN’S PLASTIC PROBLEM?

A report rings the alarm on recycling

In Washington, D.C., a report by The Recycling Partnership sheds light on the dire state of U.S. residential recycling. A mere 21% of recyclables actually get recycled. The report, “State of Recycling: Present and Future of Residential Recycling in the U.S.,” reveals the gap between current practices and the five pillars of an efficient recycling system. It’s a call to action for policymakers, companies and communities to bridge these gaps.

The troubling truth about our country's recycling programs

Green recycling bin (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

MORE: HOW A FORMULA E RACE CAR WAS BUILT ENTIRELY FROM RECYCLED ELECTRONIC WASTE

The stark divide in America’s waste management

Under-recycled materials: A staggering 76% of recyclables end up in the trash at home. Only 73% of households have recycling access, with a significant disparity between single-family (85%) and multifamily homes (37%). Participation is low, with only 43% of households recycling, and even then not to full potential.

State-by-state disparities: Some states like Alabama and Mississippi recycle less than 10%, while others like California and New York exceed 30%. The report suggests that extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies could elevate recycling rates significantly.

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The million-ton loss: Eleven states, including some with high recycling rates, lose over a million tons of recyclables each year. Local investment solutions are crucial for revamping the recycling infrastructure.

The troubling truth about our country's recycling programs

Recycling bins (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

MORE: THIS AI ROBOT GARBAGE PICKER CAN SORT OVER 500 TYPES OF TRASH IN SECONDS

A call to action for policymakers, companies and community leaders

The Recycling Partnership’s Chief System Optimization Officer, Cody Marshall, emphasizes the need for comprehensive action. Investing in access to recycling services and improving communication can lead to substantial progress. The report urges:

Policymakers: Adopt EPR to fund recycling improvements.

Companies: Design recyclable packaging and invest in closing the system’s gaps.

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Community leaders: Use the report’s data to enhance recycling efforts through education and engagement.

The troubling truth about our country's recycling programs

Plastic bottles to be recycled (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

The time to act is now

The report is an urgent call for action. Systemic change is a slow process, but the road map is clear. It’s time for concerted efforts to ensure recycling fulfills its role in waste reduction and resource conservation.

Kurt’s key takeaways

The stories shared by individuals on platforms like Reddit aren’t just tales of frustration; they’re a rallying cry for change. From the deceptive green dumpsters to the stark disparities in recycling access, the issues are as real as they are widespread. But there’s a silver lining – the collective voice of communities and the actionable insights from reports like The Recycling Partnership’s are powerful catalysts for change. It’s a reminder that every effort counts, and together, we can turn the tide on the recycling conundrum we find ourselves in.

What changes do you think are necessary to make a real impact as far as recycling in this country? Let us know by writing us at Cyberguy.com/Contact.

For more of my tech tips & security alerts, subscribe to my free CyberGuy Report Newsletter by heading to Cyberguy.com/Newsletter.

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The future of AI gadgets is just phones

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The future of AI gadgets is just phones

At any given time, there are between five and eight phones on my desk. And by “my desk,” I mean any combination of tables and countertops throughout my house. So when I watched the Humane AI Pin reviews start pouring in last week, I did what any logical person would do: grab the closest phone and try to turn it into my own AI wearable.

Humane would like you to believe that its AI Pin represents consumer tech at its most cutting edge. The reviews and the guts of the pin say otherwise: it uses a Snapdragon processor from four years ago and seems to run a custom version of Android 12.

“It’s a midrange Android phone!” I declared at our next team meeting, waving around a midrange Android phone for effect. “You could just download Gemini and stick this to your shirt!” Simple. Trivial. Give me 10 minutes, and I’ll have a more powerful AI gadget whipped up, I said.

Hardware is hard, y’all.

Ideally, I wanted an outward-facing camera and a decent voice assistant I could use hands-free. An iPhone in a shirt pocket was an intriguing solution but a nonstarter because a) none of my shirts have pockets, and b) Siri is just not that smart. Thus, my earliest prototype was a Motorola Razr Plus clamped to the neckline of my shirt. This, unsurprisingly, did not work but for reasons I did not anticipate. 

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First off, you can’t download Gemini from the Play Store on a folding phone. That was news to me. But even once I’d sideloaded it and set it as the default assistant, I ran into another barrier: it’s really hard to use a voice assistant from the cover screen of a flip phone. The Razr wants you to flip the phone open before you can do anything aside from get its attention with “Hey Google.” 

The things we do for content.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

Running Gemini in Chrome on the cover screen actually got me closer to what I was looking for. But trying to tap buttons on the screen to trigger the assistant wasn’t working very well, and neither was operating Google Lens out of the corner of my eye. Also, Gemini misread “recycle” on a tube of toothpaste as “becicle,” which it confidently told me was an old-timey word for eyeglasses. It is not!

Prototype two was the same Razr flip phone running ChatGPT in conversation mode on the cover screen. This meant the app was constantly running and always listening, so it wasn’t practical. But I gave it a shot anyway, and it was a strange experience talking to an AI chatbot that I couldn’t see. 

I want an AI that can do things for me, not just brainstorm stir-fry ingredients

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ChatGPT is a decent conversationalist, but we ran out of things to talk about pretty quickly once I’d exhausted my chatbot go-to’s: dinner recipes and plant care tips. I want an AI that can do things for me, not just brainstorm stir-fry ingredients.

I ditched the foldable concept and picked up a Pixel 8 and a Pixel Watch 2 instead. I set up Gemini as the default assistant on the phone and figured that would somehow apply to the watch, too. Wrong. I had one more card to play, though: a good old pair of wireless earbuds. Life on the cutting edge of technology, baby.

Honestly, earbuds might be the AI wearable of the future.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

You know what, though? It kind of worked. I had to leave Gemini open and running on my phone since Google doesn’t fully support Gemini Assistant on headphones. But I took a picture of a Blue Apron recipe I was making for dinner, told Gemini to remember it, and left my phone on the counter. As I moved around the kitchen, I asked Gemini questions I’d normally have to peek back at the recipe to answer like “How long do I roast the vegetables for?” and “How do I prep the fish?” It gave me the right answers every time.

What was more impressive is that I could ask it tangential questions. It helped me use pantry ingredients to recreate a seasoning mix I didn’t have on hand. I asked why the recipe might have me divide the sauce into two portions, and it gave me a plausible answer. And it did something the Humane pin can’t do yet: set a timer.

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It wasn’t perfect. First, I had to unplug the Google Home puck sitting on the counter because it kept trying to butt in. Gemini also told me that it couldn’t play an album on Spotify, something that that Google Home speaker has been doing for the better part of a decade. The watch came in handy for that, at least.

What started as a goofy stunt has convinced me of two things: I really do think we’re going to use AI to get more things done in the future, and also, the future of AI gadgets is just phones. It’s phones! 

I love a gadget, but guys, I lived through the era of camera companies trying to convince us that we all needed to carry a compact camera and our phones everywhere. Phones won. Phones already come with powerful processors, decent heat dissipation, and sophisticated wireless connectivity. An AI gadget that operates independently from your phone has to figure all of that out.

And you know what looks a lot less doofy than a pin with a laser on your chest? Earbuds. People willingly wear them throughout the day right now. And the doofy factor definitely matters when it comes to wearables. I’m having a hard time seeing how a separate gadget can beat the humble phone plus a pair of earbuds or something like the Meta Ray Bans. Maybe there’s room in our lives and our pockets for dedicated AI hardware — the gadget lover in me is all for it. But I think it’s more likely that we have all of the ingredients we need to make good AI hardware right in front of us.

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