05 January 2019

2019

I don't like New Year's Resolutions, not because they're unrealistic and onerous, but because they're laid out on an arbitrary and unnecessary timeline. It's like the so-called Holiday Spirit. It's disappointing that we push all these charity drives and giving sprees to the end of the year, as if to say, "You've all been such good little needy folk this year, here's your reward. We wanted to make sure it's what you truly needed. Now run along, you little scamps." 

Yes, that's very cynical and hyperbolic, and I don't pretend it's the norm or the reality, more a kind of mental distillation of behaviors observed in others through a lens as myopic as it is mortal. It's as much a nagging voice in the back of my head as it is a patronizing condescension to everyone else I'm repeating it too. We're all in this together, and that's precisely my point.

It's never too late to do the right thing, and it's also never too early. If there's something you want to improve about yourself, especially in regards to how you treat others (all the good thoughts in existence will never have one-tenth the impact of a single good deed), then don't wait for some calendar to roll over a digit or two. 

09 December 2018

BrightBurn Trailer Analysis

Brightburn looks like something I may have stumbled across on Netflix or seen as a demo reel on IndyMogul. I'm not saying that to knock it, but I can't help but feel if James Gunn's name wasn't plastered all over this trailer in light of his unfair and widely-publicized dismissal by Disney from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this might be regarded as a novelty, a mostly good idea that may or may not be enough to sustain a 90-minute runtime. 



I've got not problem with superhero movies that aren't directly adapting any existing material, and plenty of superheroes share origins along with powers that anybody yelling "rip-off" is a bit late to the party. Superman is a little bit of an odd duck because the "alien orphan" origin has only even been repeated for the sake of parody (Megamind). On that note, to anyone who thinks, "What if Superman were evil?" is in any way edgy or compelling or unsettling as a concept, I lean in and whisper in response, "That's what General Zod is for." Look, the Man of Steel has been around for over 70 years. The lore around him has become a multiverse unto itself, with every possible scenario regarding his morality played out in some way, shape, or form. He's been cloned/weaponized, brainwashed, hypnotized, driven insane, and that's not even putting the General Zod issue in perspective by bringing up all the other extraordinarily powerful adversaries Supes has had to fight off. The Evil Kryptonian is a weak enough proposition on its own merits that even stripping away the other superhero trappings to use as framework for a monster movie isn't blazing any trails. 

That said, on the subject of superhero horror: I'm there. I am so there. It's the only part of that Fant4stic Four reboot which really worked for the narrative and delivered on some genuine tension, even if it had to come at the expense of some pretty egregious character assassination. Seriously, why do villains in these movies have to become so cookie-cutter compared to their source material? We might as well give them all top hats and handlebar mustaches. 

Speaking of motivation (or lack thereof), the trailer implies a revenge angle (a la Carrie), the downtrodden kid getting back at the bullies who mocked him. However, we don't see anything like that. We see him scrawling an emblem over and over again in a notebook along with some voiceover exposition from Elizabeth Banks' character about general life hardships, but we don't have any obvious setup for a motivation. I could call this a flaw, but I actually think it might be a kind of subtle genius; there is no motivation for our menace. In fact, trying to force us to view a movie monster through the lens of a comic book superhero is humbly disarming, the terror bordering on existential. 

I can't find any exact figures on the budget, but horror doesn't lend itself to outlandish production values as their appeal and lasting qualities often have more to do with what you don't see than what you do. They also work best when they're as down-to-earth as possible, at least as a setup before all the terror sets in and disrupts your idyllic Americana-infused backdrop. Much of the psychology of horror is taking something mundane and ordinary to the point of inconsequential and making it into something that can hurt or kill you... or worse. On that front, this is hitting all the right notes: a quiet kid in an anonymous midwestern town is suddenly an uncontrollable force of nature bent on destruction and no one is equipped to handle the situation. 

Speaking of handling the situation, even if this is what could called a "medium budget" horror film with an emphasis on spectacle, it does limit the narrative in terms of resolution. Kevin Smith (in)famously scaled back the original, apocalyptic ending for Red State as it would have quadrupled the budget. Chronicle, another early example of superheroes played up as monsters, had a similarly more grandiose ending scrapped in favor of something more nuanced and ambiguous. Based on that, as well as this trailer, I'm going to throw down a spoiler warning and speculate on how Brightburn may end. Place your bets, cats and kittens; we can't let sports have all the fun. 

Much of the tension in the trailer not concerned with him discovering his powers comes from a scene of him being uncontrollably drawn to the spaceship that brought him to earth (kept a secret from him by Ma and Pa Not The Kents From Smallville). If I were asked to write a superhero horror movie but keep it simple (read: cheap) I could foresee two possible endings, the first of which involves that spaceship. If we're using it as some kind of narrative Macguffin for the plot to hinge upon, the obvious ending would be for his cradle to be his grave, so to speak. There's a writer's device known as Chekov's Gun, named for the playwright. It goes: If there's a gun on the mantle in the first act, someone had better be dead from it by the third. The inherent advice offered in this quip is to remove any unnecessary detail from your script. The other side of the coin spins it into a workaround for Deus Ex Machina, an ending that comes out of left field with no precedent set. As an example, I'm going to bring up Event Horizon, as I'm often wont to do in any discussion of horror movies. In that film, it's mentioned early on that the midsection of the ship is lined with explosive charges, meant as a last resort safety measure to separate the front of the ship from its engine. It is mentioned in the alpha, thus it becomes our omega. That's an oversimplification, but the point remains that it doesn't come out of left field because we pointed in its direction and said, "Hey, left field's that way and it packs a wallop." If Brightburn is Superman, then maybe his ship was powered by Kryptonite, or is lined with the stuff, or has a manual for how to make it, or what have you. If it is what gives him his powers, maybe it holds what may also take them away. It waxes a tad myopic, but for my money I would call them solid enough nuts and bolts to hold a narrative together. I wouldn't love it, but I would appreciate what it had to do given its circumstances. 

The cast list reveals two names for our super, one labeled as "young" and the other as "adult." Barring any accelerated aging (say, as part of his powers developing), this mostly throws a wrench in the works as to the Chekov's Gun idea for a resolution. This leads me to the ending I would personally prefer, one that ends with the start of a reign of terror. Something people often don't realize about the Alien franchise is that across all of them, the alien always wins. No, really, the alien always wins. Even when it's defeated, it's not only temporary, but such a costly defeat that our survivors end up in worse situations than when they started. Some argue what kind of narrative that is, to have their investment in our heroes overcoming impossible odds not pan out. It's a fair point, but I would ask then where it's written that horror movies need happy endings with all the toys put back in the box? I mean, does anyone watch an adaptation of a Shakespearean tragedy thinking maybe this time no one has to die? 

Going back to Chekov's Kryptonite, there is a third possible outcome, one presented by our voiceover from Not Ma Kent, about there being good in our Little Orphan Anarchy. He may well see the light, recognize he can use his powers for good, and shed his villain persona. Maybe they'll even cheekily end it on the arrival of a true and proper adversary, complete with a "THE END?" card before the credits roll. 

I would hate such an ending. That is the bar I would set for betrayal, a desperate attempt to unring the bell and make some point about redemption to go along with our messiah tropes. That kind of character psychology and pondering is wasted on spine-tingling chills and thrills, however effectively those sensations are delivered. 

I want the superhero horror sub-genre to persist, and I certainly don't want The New Mutants to bear that burden all by itself, but I wonder if Brightburn will deliver the super strength needed to make that happen. 

25 November 2018

Flickr: The Candle In The Wind

Flickr announced recently that they're changing free accounts from having up to a full terabyte of data (along with some upload restrictions on file size and frequency) to a total limit of 1,000 photos. I've barely used Flickr in years and have 937 photos, which I could easily cull down to 900 if I felt especially picky. Maybe if I did more photography, I could justify the 50 per year for Pro. As subscriptions to web services go, I consider 50/year set-and-forget. That said, I have enough sets and forgets as is between Patreon and Playstation Plus, much less the handful of streaming services and storage apps I pay upkeep to. Flickr would just be one more on top of that pile. While the changes to Pro and Free accounts are essentially not going to affect me, I am a tad bummed that maybe some of my Favs will get axed. 
Typically when these kinds of throttles get rolled out for sites, there's a kind of grandfathering system. Your total number of uploads stays the same, but you can't add more until you get below the threshold. A free account could have 2,000 photos, and they will all stay up, but if one gets deleted, it's not going back in the photostream. 

While starting with the oldest makes sense (why would you cut new uploads?) I have to wonder how many people are going to go through their 1,000-plus and leave the first handful of uploads untouched. I also wonder how many people are going to be too late and find their early stuff gone. Hopefully they have it backed up somewhere. You can never have too many backups. As we all know, there's two kinds of backups: those that fail, and those that haven't failed yet. 

24 November 2018

Inktober 2018 recap

Boy, this one post a month no matter what model is slipping through my fingers like the finest sand that's ever been sanded. My Wordpress page is a little better, but not by much. It's not for a lack of trying; there's no shortage of drafts and notes for entries. It's also not any sort of vanity issue; my perfectionism is firmly in check, along with any self doubt. It's simply been a matter of, "Eh, why bother?" combined with, "I don't really miss it." 

Anyway, Inktober was a runaway success compared to last year, though I think I misjudged the best platform. Last year, Instagram seemed to be the hoppin' and happenin' place to be in terms of where all the coolest stuff was going up. Instead, my favourites gallery on DeviantART got nice and full along with my watchlist. As for my Instagram posts, which got a fair response on par with last year, I'm happy to report I did not miss a single post. I was far more efficient about it than last year on top of doing two prompt lists at once. In fact, I made more than the 62 total drawings, though that's because the prompts "prick and prickly" which fell on the same day are essentially four panels of a comic. 

On the whole, the biggest hiccup or obstacle to overcome was my 53 Pencil sort of giving up the ghost and refusing to work with Paper. The tip finally wore out, and all of the replacements were so stiff I had to basically trick the tablet into connecting, and that was just so I could use the smudge tool. In the end, I decided to give in to the Apple ecosystem and buy their Pencil. I'm a little grumpy, but not compared to when a stylus I back on Kickstarter finally arrived and demonstrated to me in no uncertain terms that product designers should not do their own technical support. At least now I can say I have a crowdfunding horror story with my name on it; the other didn't reach its goal and the first worked out like gangbusters. 

In the grand scheme of things, whatever stylus works for you is the one that works for you. Thus far, I'll admit the Pencil has grown on me, but I am going to recommend getting a sleeve for it, namely one from Griffin. It's got a cap that effectively turns the butt of your Pencil into an eraser depending on how you set up the various drawing apps. 

Per last year, every Inktober post was uploaded to Artstation in a portfolio. 

Has kind of a nice "The New Yorker" vibe to it. Oh, but I can dream.

20 September 2018

Countdown To Inktober 2018

I've officially become that guy, that guy who uses spreadsheets for almost everything imaginable. I tried setting this up as a checklist in Evernote, but it wasn't particularly convenient. 

It's currently the 20th of September, which makes it exactly ten days until the start of this years Inktober. This will be my third outing, I'm very excited for it, and maybe I'll get some of you to join in if you haven't already by talking about it here. 
For those who arrived late, Inktober was started back in 2009 by an illustrator named Jake Parker. It's grown significantly in that time, and while there are many takes on it, but the original goes something like this: the official Inktober site publishes a list of 31 single-word drawing prompts, a slew of adjectives, nouns, and verbs. You've then got 31 days to bring each individual prompt to life through the traditional medium of ink. That's the barest of the bare bones about it, and as I said, there's no one approach as all artists are of varying technical skills, comfort zones, and work ethics. 
Obviously, the important thing is to have fun, but of equal importance is to challenge yourself, push your skills, get out of your comfort zones, and try a new work ethic. Artists have a reputation for being rather persnickety and temperamental, working in a kind of ad hoc sort of flow. While I'm firmly of the opinion that creativity is not like a faucet or light switch that can simply be flipped on or off, I don't buy into the pretentious rhetoric that it's so elusive and nebulous that forcing it in even the most passive way would vaporize it on the spot. I think that's selling yourself short. Too many people see it like the Golden Goose; finding out what makes the fowl tick will stop its ticker dead, on account of being dissected. In reality, it's more like a muscle. You can injure it, of course, and there's certainly limits to what it can do, but you won't know it until you try, but it's best to take it slow, stretch it a bit, and pace yourself. 

I like to follow the official prompt list because it's the most well-known and it creates a nice common ground to see what everyone else is doing and how everyone approaches the same challenge, often in wildly different ways. 

For this year, the challenge I've set for myself is that I'm actually doing 2 prompt lists, the official and a new one I found on Instagram through a stationery company called MosseryCo. They're the pink column of the spreadsheet, with Jake Parker's being the gray. These lists are published in the early days of September to give participants some prep time, and I'm taking full advantage of it. I mean, I've got double the workload this year, so it's for the best. Yeah, this means quantity over quality (or at least some repetition), but like NaNoWriMo (in November) it's more about the process than the results. It's about getting rid of old and bad habits while trying to get used to new and good ones. 

In terms of medium, I'm probably playing faster and looser than ever. My first year was fairly strict, I made proper, traditional ink drawings in my sketchbooks, and the only digital work involved was some color correction and lighting adjustments in post. My second year I tried a hybrid approach of using an Iskn Slate tablet to "record" my traditional drawings and then digitally paint over them. What both of these years had in common was that there was more than one occasion I made an exception to my own rules. This year, I had an idea that if there was ever a day when I couldn't come up with anything, I would look to the corresponding day on the other list and combine the two. As I've been going through the pre-planning stage, though, I haven't felt much desire to do that. While there are some common/recurring themes between the lists, they are ultimately separate entities that will be resulting in at least 62 full-fledged drawings. As for bringing those drawings to life, I'm keeping that open depending on what's best suited to the idea, but the majority of drawings will be made using Paper by 53. It's hardly the most robust drawing app. In fact, the fine folks at 53 will insist up, down, left, and right that Paper is not a drawing app, but a notetaking app geared towards more visual thinkers. It's meant for making flowcharts and Venn diagrams rather than full, proper illustrations. Of course, that never stops anyone from using it as a drawing app, hence their own hashtag #madewithpaper, but it's overall not the strength of the app. It's got limitations and even, dare I say it, some shortcomings, but that's what I love about it. 

However you decide to participate in Inktober, I'd like you to keep something in mind. To crib a phrase from Stan Lee, every year is someone's first. If this is your first, I bid you welcome, hope you meet a lot of interesting people, and overall hope you have a lot of fun. 

03 September 2018

Elegoo Arduino Uno R3 Super Starter Kit (promoted)



This review is long overdue as I'd received this in the early weeks of July. I hadn't done anything with Arduino microcontrollers for nearly a year, the last big project being a few versions of Peter Knight's Auduino granular synthesizer. Fun as that was, I think I'll stick with some of my iPad apps when I need a backing track for a video. As for similar microcontrollers or single board computers, more recently I'd done a few projects with the BBC Micro:Bit, including an electronic die (1D6). Beyond that, there simply wasn't a lot that interested me to keep me invested in the scene. On the whole, the only serious electronics project I've had on my mind is a robot arm, but I'm in no real hurry to get that under way. As such, when Elegoo contacted me to review one of their Arduino Uno starter kits, I initially ignored it. When they contacted me again, I decided to reply to tell them I was only interested in a robot arm, which their kit would not really have been able to aid me with. Their representative mentioned Elegoo's intention to expand their product line to include more robotics kits, so I'll admit I will be looking forward to see what they can offer. 
In the meantime, the more I thought about it, I realized taking on a robot arm would be a little outside my area of expertise. Synthesizers are fairly straightforward, as are guitar pedals, and while I'm still currently building a 3D printer for my job, it's only busy work and fine-tuning at this point. That's when I thought of a tilt and pan head for a smartphone. It was a good, simple project that seemed the perfect gateway drug for making a robot arm. Arrangements were made, and I received my kit within the next week. 


I've gotten Arduino kits before, which I'll often advise over buying them on their own, as even if you use only half of the included components in the starter kit, it's often a far better value than sourcing your components later (better to have and not need, etc.). Still, as a rule, these kits tend to be fairly sparse, even in the higher end of the price range. You'll get the UNO, a few jumpers, resistors, and LEDs, with the rest being an assortment of odds and ends very strongly geared more towards instructional purposes than anything practical. If you're using these in a classroom setting, you'll be lucky if the stepper motor lasts the full semester, while the box it all came in will live on as a pencil case passed down through the generations. With this Elegoo kit, however, albeit I didn't pay for it, I can say it feels like its typical asking price. Nothing feels like an afterthought, though I am going to say some of the inclusions feel a little half-hearted. 

One accessory that really surprised me in terms of its practicality is the DC power converter. It's meant to plug into the included breadboard, supplying your choice of 5V or 3.3V to the power and ground rails. This turned out to be a very efficient solution for supplying power to the Arduino itself as well as the two servo motors. The converter itself can be powered via USB, but it also includes a barrel jack for a 12V power supply. Instead of providing this, however (likely due to international considerations), we get a 9V battery and a simple wire adapter. 
Again, this isn't a knock against it, but it wouldn't have been missed were it not included. If anything, one would probably get more use out of it if they cut off the barrel connector and used the battery with some other arrangement, maybe a wearable or something like that. 

As for the included CD-ROM: 
At this point in time, I just about refuse to believe it's any way economical to print a bulk order of CD-ROMs. I can't even tell you the last time I installed anything anywhere from a disc (my Playstation doesn't count). Going back to the school setting, between Chromebooks and tablets, it would only make sense for a teacher to get a copy of the disc on the off-chance they're not able to download the contents directly from Elegoo's site on that particular day. Speaking of downloads, I do wish it was possible to download a single language or individual lessons rather than the entire package at once. Sure, 110MB is small and the information is as useful as it is extensive, but it's not especially convenient for quick reference. As for the disc, I'd rather see a flash drive included containing the files. It would be more readily accessible on modern devices and being writable would make it handy for students to modify and share Arduino sketches with each other, among any other practical uses one may have for a flash drive.

Anyway, back to practical applications. The following is my best effort at getting the most crucial components of a tilt-and-pan head underway: 
This is where I had problems. I didn't program any kind of delay into the action, and with how responsive those servos are, my rapid movements may have stalled them. It's a minor problem that's easy enough to fix, but even if I managed to fry these little guys, they're as inexpensive as they are commonplace. That's not a knock against the quality, just a reminder these kits are for education, experimentation, and prototyping. Once you've ironed out your bugs and kinks and whatever, these parts are all, as we've said, fairly commonplace and easy enough to source. As such, Elegoo has managed to provide a rather robust sampler dish for the DIY crowd. 

24 July 2018

Dropped a Pin in my Coffee on Twitter

OR:
The Painful Sting of Spam


When I posted my Ko-Fi link to Twitter and pinned it to the top, I was very surprised by the response it got. It got a number of likes, and even a few retweets. I was very appreciative of this. Unfortunately, it also got replies in the form of spam. A self-proclaimed artist who steals most of his assets and then slaps his own name on them has a habit of posting spam links on forums on Thingiverse. He's been banned from Thingiverse at least twice by now, and had some of his models taken down on other sites for violating the Creative Commons agreements on his stolen assets. I've written about him several times and talked with many of the artists he's ripped off. I've openly mocked him, for which I make no apology, and he's done absolutely nothing to prove me wrong. 

There was retribution, however. It's extremely petty retribution, but annoying in its toxicity nonetheless. 

The way many sites handle spam is not to delete the comment so much as obfuscate it. The first time I saw this was on DeviantART, when I was dealing with an art thief and all-around bully who didn't quite understand how comments worked. What would normally have gone in a private message or even the main comment thread on my profile page went straight onto my most recent upload. I didn't want to outright delete the comment because that would leave a "comment deleted by artist" label, which looks really tacky and potentially makes it look like I'm censoring criticism rather than cleaning up spam. The matter's academic by now since DeviantART handles comments a little differently since then, and this particular individual had been banned before for similar behavior, so now those comments have their own special sort of "There Once Was a Hole Here" label. In short, he's gone and I get to save face. 

Bringing it all back to the semi-current situation (I did this circa October of last year and kind of forgot about it until today while rearranging my Wordpress page), this spammer replied to my pinned tweet about my Ko-Fi page with his own damn site. Now, you would think I could simply delete a tweet that is a reply to my own post, but Twitter isn't set up that way; every reply is a comment unto itself, so to speak. This isn't necessarily a problem, except that when it comes to spam, what I would hope should be an obvious thing to spot, Twitter likes to give the benefit of the doubt a little too much. It's funny to me how much people complain about Twitter being trigger-happy with suspending accounts and deleting tweets that are barely offensive, while I can't seem to get spam off my own pinned tweet. 

If I pin a tweet linking my own Ko-Fi page, how does a reply that's nothing more than a URL to someone else's website not qualify as spam? Better question, when he replies two or three times with the same URL to his own site, how is that not spam? Why does that report need to be queued? Harassment and bullying can have a lot of reasonable doubt to it when it isn't outright racist or life-threatening, but a URL with no context posted multiple times not only to me, but to several others virtually picked at random should be as open and shut a case as it gets. 

It may seem that the obvious solution would be to block the user in question. Sure, but blocks aren't retroactive. Yeah, my page would effectively be invisible to him, as he would also be to me, but everything he's already posted as replies to my tweets are still there, and still visible to anyone else. It's literally the same problem as reporting his replies as spam. The only difference is that the spam may eventually be dealt with, whereas if I block, the best I can hope for is he gets banned and all his tweets receive the unperson treatment. 

Sadly, it seems Twitter is holding onto a very archaic idea of what spam is. They're more than welcome to prove me wrong, but it's based on whether or not they think there's a real person behind it or simply a bot programmed by someone and left to run. I don't know if these are really a thing anymore (I haven't seen them on Twitter in years, and they only cropped up on Instagram for about a month before disappearing), but there used to be these "promotional service" accounts that would temporarily take control of your account and tweet a self-promotion on your behalf. It would seek out relevant hashtags and then add your message as a reply. For example, if you were trying to push your 3D printing services, your stock reply would show up attached to any tweet that used the hashtag "3DPrinting" or whatever. If this sounds like a bot, that's exactly what it is, but here is where things get a bit Kafkaesque. The bot works at a speed that is only about equal to a human being. That is, there's enough of a delay between posts that it could just as easily be done by someone casually browsing the hashtags and typing up the reply themselves. The idea is twofold, that this tricks any automatic algorithms searching for hummingbird levels of communication, and that it doesn't violate Twitter's terms of service anyway because it's self-throttling. 

I've heard some sects of the Amish have a similar attitude about technology, that there's nothing wrong with them using a machine to do a job, so long as it only works as well as a person or an animal. That's fine for them, but Twitter isn't trying to maintain a lifestyle consistent with a particular era of history. Spam in 1998 is no different than the spam of 2018, and every bit as irritating and unwelcome. The only difference is that I am fundamentally lord and master of my e-mail's inbox, while my social media page is a little more democratic by comparison. The former is a letter SLIPPED UNDER my door while the latter is a wheat-pasted flyer SLAPPED ON my door. 

My point is Twitter may be more aggressive with spam than I am giving them credit for, but my experience has not given me any reason to rethink my position to the contrary. When I flag something as spam, and it only hides it from my view until the report is deemed worthy of action at a later point in time (possibly never), that is not even addressing half the problem. I don't want my front door used as someone else's billboard, and the fact that I can't see it from inside my house is not peace of mind. 

Basically, I wanted to use a paint scraper, but had to get a new front door. I deleted the pinned tweet (which I hated doing), reposted it (likely to the annoyance of followers), and repinned it (effectively erasing all the likes and retweets along with the spam). Twitter, we need a better solution than this. 

04 July 2018

They're All Coming Out Of The Network

Preface: I'm currently juggling a few different drafts I've left alone for far too long, but this is still based on all currently available information regarding the implementation of new privacy policies in the wake of Facebook's recent troubles. It is being released on the fourth of July as it relates to freedoms and liberties. 

On the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a quote from John Stossel comes to mind, "I want to say, 'give me a break' but I don't know who to say it to." People were placing a lot of blame on Mark Zuckerberg while also feeling for him when he had to explain Social Media basics to legislators. It's virtually the entire situation in a nutshell, getting mad at someone over something everyone openly resolved to take for granted. Facebook costs you literally nothing to use, as do most social media services, the unspoken contract being that you're there on their terms, renting space for the cost of some number crunching and putting up with a few ads that are minimal compared to what you'd get on network television or print media. In 2018, playing dumb over this exchange is beyond naive. 
Speaking of naive, what I'm about to say probably qualifies as such and maybe will put my stance on this issue in perspective. For starters and in regards to campaign interference, I can't think of a time when I ever changed my vote based on an advertisement. If you're inclined to that approach to electing our leaders, you may as well not vote at all. Furthermore, I don't know what most people's advertising experience on Facebook or elsewhere is like, but if gathering my information means that all the banner ads I see on sites are for products and services I already partake in (Amazon, B&H, RedBubble...), then I call that a victory. I only wish ads on television were as relevant to me. I stopped watching television because I was sick of 3-5 minute commercial breaks every 10-15 minutes, and mostly for crap I wasn't the least bit interested in. To be fair, it irks me a little when I see the same movie trailer about a dozen times in a typical night of watching YouTube, but four years of film school have given me the critical mind needed to spot all the little tricks and tropes that make some trailers effective and others misleading or downright bad. I make a game of it, is my point. I may not seek it out, but should it rear its head and roar like a mighty beast, I hold aloft my magic sword and say, "BY THE POWER OF THE GRAY MATTER IN MY SKULL, BRING IT ON!" 
Speaking of wielding weapons, let me be clear that none of this in any way exonerates Cambridge Analytica for what they've done. Regardless of what users did or didn't know they were opting into, this is a breach of trust and privacy. They took more information than they were allowed to and misrepresented their own intentions to Facebook. The double-edged sword of having heaps of information about you out there in the ethereal web of clouds is you're not alone, and you're nowhere near as special as you think you are. It's like that "What Happens in Vegas" campaign; it's true that if you're just some desk jockeying yahoo from the mundane midwest, you can briefly lead a double life while cruising The Strip and, barring any serious criminal activity, no one's going to call you on it. Then again, if you're already famous, the city that needs sunglasses at night has no shortage of spotlights to shine up your skirt as you get out of your car. This data breach tried to make everyone famous. 
The silver lining to this shitstorm is that nothing is being left unsaid when it comes to what sites ask of you when you partake in their services, putting the terms of use on more equal footing. People are now more inclined to look into what they're signing up for and the sites now can't simply toss out a wall of legalese and hope nobody digs any deeper than that. It's also caused a very interesting phenomenon in my email's inbox. Sites and social media services I signed up for years ago and virtually forgot about are now reaching out to me to tell me they're going to play nice with my data. It's probably sending them some mixed signals for me to close my account and/or unsubscribe from their mailing lists, like I broke up with someone but didn't say as much until years later when everyone stopped caring and I was already walking down the aisle for the third time. 
"Oh, hey! Yeah, I remember you. Bye now. I'll send for my stuff later." 

16 June 2018

Driving Miss Daily

Once upon a time, Douglas Adams had a radio show with a totally uninspired name he couldn't tell enough people wasn't his idea called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Future. It only had a few episodes and has only aired every few years, but it's easily-available on the Radio 4 site... wait, what in Hel's Realm is RealPlayer? Anyway, their last episode was about the idea of convergence, what we today may refer to as the Internet of Things. IoT is a common name in the hacker/maker/modder community and refers to a networking of several specialized devices. Probably the best, most common example of IoT if you're still lost on the concept would be any sort of peripheral you can control with your smartphone, like a bluetooth speaker or a lighting system. Instead of one gadget that does everything, it's several gadgets that do a few things. Almost 20 years earlier, for this radio program(me), one of its speakers painted a scenario in which the technology to make connected devices would be so streamlined and inexpensive you'd literally pick up a gizmo off the street, post something, and then drop it back on the ground before carrying on with your day. Hyperbole aside, while we're nowhere near using our tablets the way some countries use bicycles, there's probably a drawer somewhere in all of our homes that would make anyone from back then think we'd made it. 
Unless you're crazy diligent about trading in your smartphones or you've got some wicked protection plan for your tablets, you've likely held onto more than a few. Those that aren't taking up real estate in your junk drawers are probably lucky enough to be dedicated music players, alarm clocks, cameras, gaming devices, and maybe even digital sketchbooks. Such was the case for my Xperia Z Ultra, a very early entry into the "phablet" market, and still impressive in terms of size and resolution. It was my gateway to a fully-digital workflow. I'd done digital art before when I had my laptop, but I was still scanning drawings and bringing them into GIMP as layers to rearrange and edit. I'd long since given away my little Bamboo tablet because I never got used to the hand-eye disconnect, and I didn't have a mouse to get around the hassle of using a trackpad or trackball. My first Android phone was so small and the drawing apps available were so rudimentary I never bothered with that either. When I got that Sony, however, it was a whole new world, especially when I came across Zenbrush. Between that and Pixlr, it became my daily driver. I ended up giving away my laptop because I stopped using it. I still don't have a proper home computer apart from the old Chromebook I mentioned in my last journal entry. Over the next few years of having the Xperia, I started to move away from the single device setup into a multi-gadget workflow again when I decided I wanted Zenbrush 2, which wasn't going to be available for Android. That was when I resolved to get my first iPad, the mini 3. As you might imagine, I started using the Xperia less and less for drawing. Later on and totally out of the blue, I had to send my Xperia in to Sony to fix a bricking issue. This was going to take some time, so because I'd bought the phone unlocked, I had a golden ticket with my cell carrier to get just about any phone I wanted. I'd been seeing some YouTube videos about shooting videos using only an iPhone, so I thought I'd give that a go. I got my iPhone 5C, used it for a few weeks and fell in love with the camera so much that when I got my Xperia back, I kept the 5C as a dedicated camera. Following Inktober 2017, I upgraded my iPad to the Pro, and sent off the mini 3 with the 5C to an Alzheimer's charity to be repurposed as music players for the elderly. I was also eligible again for an upgrade with my carrier, so I got the SE to use as a backup in case I needed to send in my Xperia again. January rolled around and for my trip to Albuquerque to see family, I decided I didn't want to bother with two chargers (as my iPad goes with me everywhere), so migrated to the SE and simply never bothered going back to the Xperia
This created kind of a goofy situation that probably shows off how persnickety I can be more than anything about convergence. As I only use my iPad for drawing, and the SE's smaller screen isn't always desirable, I used the Xperia around the house for music, Twitter, Comixology, and occasionally drawing. Unfortunately, it's developed a fatal flaw. 
I'd looked into sending it in to Sony again a few months ago because its USB cover had broken off. It turned out whatever protection plan I had in place that let me get it fixed the first time wasn't available anymore and I never realized how long I'd had it. They literally told me to find a third party to fix it because they couldn't even give me an Out Of Warranty repair quote. This had happened before I migrated to the SE, so maybe I unconsciously saw the move as inevitable. It was also reaching a point where apps like Facebook and Instagram stopped working because its version of Android was so old. 
Fast forward to about a week ago, when I set it to charge up overnight and awoke to find that it couldn't get past about 74% battery life and was hot to the touch. I didn't think much of the heat because it's got a big battery with a charger that pumps a lot of amps through it, so hand-warmer was also on its list of duties. I figured something got jostled loose or maybe the wall adapter was going, so when it drained down to critical, I plugged it in again and left it plugged in all day. When I turned it back on, it was still stuck around 74%. I discovered that the instant I plugged it in, my app that monitors my CPU temp would immediately warn me of overheating. Using a different wall adapter with a lower amperage made no difference. Either the charging circuitry inside the phone was going out, or the battery itself has finally lost its full capacitance. My money's on the former, but in either case the only way I get more than a few hours of use from it is to turn on its Ultra Stamina mode, which only lets me access a handful of applications (mostly phone and camera related), reducing it to an alarm clock that is literally on its last day unless I decide to tempt fate and charge it up again. 
The app that took up the most space was Autodesk Sketchbook, and while I had backed up PSD files of most of my stuff some time ago, I realized how long it had been, so I spent about an hour one night when it was plugged in backing up everything to Google Drive.
Let that be a lesson to you digital artists out there. Even if you've already heard it, here it is again. There are two types of backups, those that fail and those that haven't failed yet. 

BACK... UP... YOUR... STUFF  

How long ago did you do that? Too long. Do it now. How many storage solutions have you got? Not enough. Get one more. 

Anyway, it's not like I stood to lose anything super precious; even when I drew on the Xperia, they were often silly little comics or cartoons for blog posts or Twitter. Still, it's an important habit to keep up, and I only wish it was this convenient and streamlined back in the day of using Zip Disks on my iMac

This marks the end of an era, with Hanging Lanterns as the last painting on my Xperia Z Ultra. Thanks for everything, big guy. 

I think 4 years is a pretty good lifespan for a smartphone. 

20 May 2018

Deadpool's Gong Show ft. Michael Jackson

In preparation for the long-awaited sequel (out in theaters as of the time of this writing) my roommate and I rewatched the original Deadpool film. To its credit, it holds up far better than it has any right to, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead is still the coolest superhero name ever. I can't say I enjoyed it more the second time around, but I certainly enjoyed it as much and did notice something interesting that I hadn't before, and that's an odd string of notes in the score. It's something of a leitmotif for DP, so I had plenty of opportunities to listen for it and try picking it apart in my head. It was a synthetic sound, very bassy, and made me think of a gong, like the transition effect used all over Law & Order, but with more of a sting to it. 

It finally hit me toward the end of the film that it sounded almost exactly like the opening notes for Michael Jackson's Beat It. Wikipedia wound up having a surprisingly in-depth look at the score, noting that since all of Pool's musical references were from the 1980's, especially WHAM!, it was decided to use instrumentation from that period. It mentioned two synthesizers, an Oberheim, and a Synclavier. The Oberheim link only showed me the entire range of equipment, so I focused on the latter. Sure enough, buried in a lengthy list of notable users was the King of Pop, with Beat It specifically cited for its notable "gong" sound. 




That should be where this story ends, but there's a twist to it. This "gong" sound isn't actually from Beat It. At least, it's not originally from Beat It. A full year before Thriller was released, Sycnlavier released a demo disc of their new Sycnlavier II model. It's about 24 minutes of small samples. It's at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds, following some jaunty xylophone-like sounds, we hear the gong.




But we don't simply hear the gong, we don't simply hear it in all its ominous glory; we hear it verbatim, all 7 notes. 

For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, all synthesizer sounds on Thriller were a team effort consisting of Steve Porcaro, Brian Banks, and Anthony Marinelli. The demo disc was effectively a promotional item from Synclavier, with Discogs crediting Denny Jaeger with that particular track.

Liner notes for Thriller do mention Jaeger, who went onto work for Jackson on BAD, but only after reaching out to Jackson upon spotting the match. This is not meant to be some call for justice or a knock against the King of Pop. If anyone was concerned about plagiarism or infringement, they've made peace with it by now. After all, Jaeger is credited with programming and performing the track for the demo, all under the hire of New England Digital, who intended the effect to be a built-in patch for their new synthesizer. Songwriter Tom Bahler, who wrote She's Out of My Life originally for Frank Sinatra before Michael Jackson made it famous, was actually the one who first played the effect for Jackson while writing Thriller. The rest of the programming team was anxious about using it, since it was so distinct (and a stock sound that literally worked right out of the box) and they'd have preferred to work more with the synth to produce original sounds. Michael, however, was insistent on using it. 

Okay, that explains the sound itself being featured, but it isn't just the sound, it's the full set of notes. This is an important distinction to make for legal reasons. Without getting into the exact economics of it, it is far less expensive to license a song to be covered (buying the sheet music, so to speak) than it is to sample even one second of a song's original recording. So, are the Synclavier II's gong sounds as they appear on its demo disc being sampled or covered in Beat It

The short answer is nobody really knows, it's in all likelihood a recreation using the original instrument in question, but the matter is almost academic. It does make me wonder if someone were to use those same 7 notes from the demo disc if they'd be getting a legal notice from the estate of Michael Jackson, New England Digital, or anybody at all. Then again, who would they be fooling? Sure, seven notes doesn't seem like anything special, but think of the first two notes of Elvis "The King of Rock" Presley's Jailhouse Rock, courtesy of his guitarist Scotty Moore



How often can you identify a song by the first two notes? Most people can probably identify Beat It by the first one. Suddenly all the red tape of legal ownership becomes a moot point because the two are linked by an almost unbreakable cultural consensus. 

Most of the information for the latter half of this entry is sourced from an article by Gino Sorcinelli for Medium.