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.

22 April 2018

The Good Advice You Just Didn't Take

I get a lot of questions on Quora about YouTube, namely the annoying ones about how to get more subscribers (and/or how much money will I make off this very small subscriber statistic). As much as I'm annoyed by these questions, I think they're still valid as it's often easy to overlook what exactly attracts you to a YouTube channel in the first place. One of the best litmus tests I ever heard came from the now-infamous Nostalgia Critic, Doug Walker, "What are YOU looking for?" This advice is hardly exclusive to the Shouting and Remembering Guy, but it's the most direct take on it and gives the best jumping off point for moving forward with your own YouTube endeavors. While many of these Quora questions are just thinly-disguised spam, every now and again someone is looking for legitimate feedback on why their fledgling channel is struggling to leave the nest. I took one of these on at great, unapologetic length, as is often my way on these things. In my defense, however harsh, blunt, tactless, condescending, or even outright mean you think I come across as, the entertainment consuming audience as a whole is far, far worse. Think about it, they don't have to give you feedback. They can give you the silent treatment and walk out the door at any time to leave you wondering what you did wrong. Now tell me who's harsh and mean and all that jazz. I'm not asking for a parade or a medal, only that you trust the purity of my intentions when I tell someone bad at what they do that they're bad at what they do. 

The question in... well, question, read:
Why is my YouTube video getting low views and very low subscribers? What am I doing wrong?
This was followed by a link to a YouTube channel with maybe about 30 or so subscribers and a handful of views and dis/likes on some videos. What follows is my answer, near as makes no difference to verbatim: 


Shortest, simplest answer: because whenever you’re not being boring, you’re being annoying.

Still reading? Good, that means you’re either a glutton for punishment or legitimately willing to gracefully accept criticism. Either way, we’ll get into what I mean by annoying and boring. I’ll be focusing on your Ghost Rider/Mad Titan video primarily; a little bit goes a long way.

Visuals. There’s nothing wrong with using a slide program to make your videos. It’s actually very efficient… if you know how to do it right. There is a problem with using a slide program to make your videos when you do it poorly. Firstly and most obviously, don’t show us that it’s a slideshow. Trim the part of the video that shows the slide program before you go full screen.
I don’t show my iMovie timeline at the start of every video, and even the most budget-conscious smartphone can trim the starts and ends of video clips (so we don’t have to see you reach to and from the phone to start and stop recording). You want your videos to look like polished, finished products, not tech demos for “tech” that gives cave paintings a run for their money in terms of antiquity and obsolescence in the telecommunications field. Second, let’s talk aesthetics:
What am I looking at, highlighter on typing paper? Why don’t you just use Comic Sans and have done with it? I mean, you’re already talking about comic books, why hold back now? A plain white background? Watch almost any movie ever and tell me if the end credits are black text on a white background or white text on a black background. The eye, being lazy, is drawn to white space, so by framing your comic panels with nothing but bright white space, you’re actually distracting from what you want to be the focus. White absorbs colors, and I can promise you your panels will look more colorful and striking against black (why do you think some sites and devices have “night modes”?).

The sound. Good grief, the sound. Did you build your microphone yourself in the dark, with your eyes closed, wearing oven mitts, and with little to no understanding of how a microphone works? How many tin cans went into its construction? Are you using wet strings instead of wires? Now, before you go telling me about what you can or can’t afford, how you’re just a poor boy from a poor family and that I should spare you your life from this monstrosity known as open market capitalism, take a moment to look at the walls of your room, and then look in your closet.

My point is unless your microphone is welded onto your 1998 Compaq Presario’s CRT monitor, you need to take that recording operation into your closet and use the clothes on hangers as baffles.

Baffled? Compare the hanging clothes to "professional-grade" sound dampening acoustic foam. See the similarities? 

Closet too small and/or packed with crap? Have only the clothes on your back to be baffles? Two words: Blanket fort. I’m not even joking. You’d be surprised how well towels work for sound dampening. 

Now comes the hardest part to change: you. I can talk your ear off about acoustics and mixing, blind you with details on lighting and editing, and even direct you through scripting and writing, but I can’t make you a more charismatic, engaging, and insightful person. You’ve got to do that on your own. Let’s start with delivery: I counted about a dozen “ums” and “uhs” in a span of about 30 seconds in your video, your video that you yourself wrote on a subject you yourself decided to elaborate on.

IT’S YOUR SCRIPT! IT’S YOUR WORDS! IT’S YOUR SUBJECT OF CHOICE! WHY DO YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO SAY WHEN YOU’VE ALREADY WRITTEN IT, REVISED IT, REREAD IT, REWROTE IT, AND ALL OTHER MANNER OF REVIEWED IT? IT’S WRITE IN FRONT OF YOU… RIGHT… right in front of you.

Your script is right in front of you, isn’t it? Better question, you did write a script, didn’t you? Bear in mind, by script, I’m talking about something as minimal as bullet points, an itemized list of talking points to help keep you on track and from going off on unnecessary tangents. Hell, draw a picture if it helps you.
See how I can use black text on a plain white background if there’s more to the composition than black text on a plain white background?

I said I would only talk about your Ghost Rider vs. Thanos video, but I checked your “iPhone screen recording” that was your earlier Thanos video, and you’ve got many of the same problems with opening that video as you do with Ghost Rider:

“okayimuhmakingthisvideonowpleasermemebertolikesharesubscribecommentumtoyourumfamilyumanduhfriendspleasewatchmyvideos…”

If you’re in that much of a hurry to get through your own videos, what’s to stop someone from taking it a step further and not watching them at all? If you’re just going to read some Wiki pages while fumbling through some screenshots, why should anyone stick around for that instead of looking up the information themselves? If the presentation is boring, the quality of the content doesn’t matter.

If you care more about your metrics than your content, you’re doing it wrong.

That's the end of the answer proper. It was followed up by a comment from the aspiring YouTuber thanking me for the feedback and providing me a link to a new video (on a new channel of his) to ask if this improved on the previous videos. 

The sound was even worse. (turn your volume down before clicking the link). 

I asked, along with why a new channel would be necessary, if he was being annoying and irritating on purpose. The comment has since been deleted. 

I can't help you if you're going to make the same mistakes over and over again. 

09 April 2018

Spoiled On Legos

For all the ranting and raving and raging I've done about Sketchup, some may wonder why I keep going back and trying again at it. Is it pure stubbornness? Maybe. Is it because more often than not it actually does work and produce usable results? Yes. In fact, at least two of my most popular and liked models on Thingiverse were made in Sketchup. There's a fine line between valid criticism and outright negativity, and I realize I tend to feed into that negativity feedback loop when I complain about how almost every other step in every other Sketchup tutorial is a workaround for something the program can't do, how what's streamlined in one application is almost abstract in this one. For that skewed view which I'll elaborate on in a moment, I owe Trimble my sincerest apologies, for whatever they're worth. 
Speaking of fine lines, my overall issue with Sketchup is that it walks a very fine line between having a learning curve and being badly-designed. As for that latter point, I'm here to give Trimble a great big pass wrapped up in my apology like a pig in a blanket because even if we all agree their software is badly-designed in some key areas, it's not entirely their fault. Without getting into a long, drawn-out history of how Sketchup came to be as it is, the fact of the matter is Sketchup is not a 3D modeling tool. At least, it's not a 3D modeling tool out of the box. 
Sketchup was made to be a visualization tool for architects, landscapers, and interior designers. All of these jobs have one common thread that Sketchup uses as its foundation, and that's... a foundation. Before you can make any sort of structure or even arrange existing elements within a structure, you need to know how much real estate/floor space you've got to work with. Barring any low ceilings or overhead lighting or air traffic considerations, this is fundamentally a two-dimensional exercise. 
That's "Josh" by the way. He's the default height reference for every new document. 
Think about it. If you didn't have the benefit of modern CAD technology, you'd be using a straight-edge, a pencil, and a piece of paper, not to mention a tape measure and maybe some masking tape to mark out spaces on the floor. 
You certainly wouldn't be stacking cardboard boxes in the middle of the room unless you've got some enormous on-hand supply of moving boxes of various sizes depending upon your needs. My point is that Tinkercad, one of the programs I use for my 3D printing work, is absolutely horrible in this capacity.
Not pictured: Josh.
Ignoring the fact that Tinkercad was never meant to be an architectural tool (and therefore all your default dimensions are in millimeters), there's also the matter of exporting the model into a usable format. Tinkercad exports to the STL and OBJ formats, which are 3D. There is a 2D format it can export to, but it's a simple vector image (SVG) meant for laser-cutting, and not very useful if you're trying to show a client how a location is going to be arranged. Sketchup, meanwhile, allows me to export my current view of the scene as a PNG file (that's in the free browser-based version) as well as having an entire host of 2D tools for sharing one's work as architectural blueprints (that's in the full-size version). 
Sharing one's work aside, this comparison is meant to demonstrate the fundamental difference between the mindset of someone who would need Sketchup and someone who would need Tinkercad. The best analogy is that Sketchup is like cutting posterboard and foamcore to build your structures while Tinkercad is like playing with Legos
Not pictured: Emmet.
This is not meant to put down either program. Both are perfectly valid solutions to their respective problems, just as foamcore is a perfectly valid material for making architectural models and dioramas while Legos are a perfectly valid material for making mockups of physical objects or scenes (even practical protoypes if we want to get Technic...al). 
We can work on the decor.
Going back to what I was saying before, Sketchup was originally a visualization tool for people more concerned with open floorspace than tight tolerances. After Google picked up the project to make it some sort of plug-in for Google Earth, it seems the need for 3D functionality increased and suddenly all these new features need to be shoehorned into a program not intended for them. Even on their own forums, many users often joke about making circles and spheres in Sketchup. I built up a small archive of screenshots demonstrating the results of early attempts at mastering the delicate and subtle art of making spheres, but I won't put them here. It wouldn't be fair. Rather, I would encourage you, even if you've only a passing interest in the subject, to give the free, browser-based version of Sketchup a try, maybe sit through a few tutorials first to get an idea of what you're in for, and see if it's something you want to invest in. I even used its visualization/layout aspect for a recent DIY project of a computer monitor stand that used a combination of scrap wood and metal, as well as some 3D printed parts (which were modeled in Tinkercad). 

17 March 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time was far, far better than I thought it would be. Between a literal life-changing stage play I saw as a kid to an almost painfully humdrum TV movie, I went in thinking this could go either direction (awesome or boring) if not disappoint and simply be bad. It's another case of the trailers not quite doing the film its justice. They tend to focus on the bigger names in the cast (Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling), who aren't even the leads. I can understand that from a marketing perspective, but it's a double-edged sword; most moviegoers these days can sniff out a film that plays it safe from a mile off. There's a saying in cooking that the first bite is with the eye, and trailers are the first bite of a movie. It doesn't help that as much as I like the book, A Wrinkle in Time is better known for its off-beat approach to sci-fi and quirky-yet-relatable characters than its actual plot. Taken on its own rather than part of a larger series of cosmic-fantasy reality-benders, it's a fairly straightforward Fish-Out-of-Water/Who Am I/Hero's Journey sort of affair. Again, that's not a bad thing, not as a starting point and certainly not if you've got a good cast to make you invested. That's the real strength of this movie; the main cast is awesome. This is probably the best ensemble of child actors I've seen since Ender's Game. You are genuinely invested in their plights, which are further hit home by the visuals. The book didn't dwell too much on its visuals, as it shouldn't, so it didn't garner a lot of expectations on this front, and by this point we're so saturated in fantastic imagery it's hard to stand out. Somehow, though, this film achieves it. It's not so out there that it's distracting, like its trying to buoy the rest of the movie, but it's still very inventive.

Only two things truly bug me about this movie, one's a nitpick that's in no way a dealbreaker, and the other's more of a question. Firstly, Aunt Beast is mentioned once and seen for all of 3 seconds. It's a somewhat creative look, but easily the weakest piece of art direction in the film. The stage play had furry starfish the actors could shift around inside to operate different limbs, emphasizing their non-humanoid form. Here, we have mammoths with spider-legs, seen way off in the distance... in a haze... before swiftly moving on to the next scene. Like I said, not a dealbreaker, and if the Ixchell had simply been omitted, I wouldn't have even cared. Speaking of omissions, notably absent are the twins. The Murry family is only Meg and Charles-Wallace. Granted, they didn't have a big role in the book, but they were important later in Many Waters. What I'm wondering now is if Disney is going to go ahead and make the other Time Quartet books (Quintet? An Acceptable Time is canon...ish? I'm spoiled on numbered spines, what's wrong with me?) are they just going to have the current collection of kids carry on and rewrite the plot to them, or are they somehow going to find a way to introduce the twins later, maybe as visiting cousins? The Time Quartet In Five Parts (?) was essentially Young Adult fiction before the great Hunger-Potter Explosion, when publishers didn't market these much outside of school book fairs, and the authors tended to play pretty fast and loose with overarching structures and deadlines. My point is the cynic in me fully expects Disney to try and do for the Time Quintaret as a franchise, but it doesn't look like they're taking any steps to do that, and while part of me is okay with that, it's a very odd strategy for The House Walt Built between Marvel and Star Wars. It's like I want more but I'm afraid to ask, if that makes sense.

07 March 2018

If You Love TinkerCAD So Much....

UPDATE 13-MARCH-2018: After much e-mail correspondence with the CEO and founder of SelfCAD, along with concerted efforts between him and his staff, some issues described below have been resolved. Still, more remain as of the time of this update. My final assessment as of now is that this program is not in a state of viability that makes it worth my time and effort to invest in. I've formally requested a refund of my annual license which I am assured will go through in a few business days. 
I have no intention of retracting or editing this entry beyond this update, as at best I could simply replace it with an at least equally-lengthy exploration of the new issues I was able to demonstrate for the SelfCAD team earlier today. Rather, I'm going to leave that new information between us for them to use as they see fit moving forward. Although I'm no longer using SelfCAD, I want to make something clear to anyone whose interest in the program led them here. 

Go ahead and try it. 

No, I'm serious. For all I've said and all the more I would have to say, I don't begrudge SelfCAD or anyone involved in the project for the state of the app. I have the fullest confidence they will sort out the issues and get to a state that will hold its own against the likes of Fusion360 and Sketchup, and certainly run circles around TinkerCAD and OpenSCAD
There's also the notable possibility that you could use the app and never have any of the problems I had with it. A fellow engineer mentioned giving it a try and falling in love with the sculpting features (which I barely bothered with at all), and was shocked at the screenshots I posted. He never encountered these errors, but he used the app differently than I did. To put it another way, your mileage may vary. You've got 30 days, use them.

I'm honestly still looking forward to an iPad version. I'll be there day one to try it out. 

END OF UPDATE.

TinkerCAD is a very simple 3D modeling program meant for 3D printing. Many scoff at its simplicity, calling it a kid's toy. What's ironic is that many of the scoffing remarks seem to come from people who use OpenSCAD. OpenSCAD is a needlessly complicated and obtuse graphics modeler the use of which is best described as attempting to teach a graphing calculator to play chess. To be fair, at least their dismissal has nothing to do with the price tag. That distinction gets left to the other scoffers who swear by the likes of Autodesk Inventor
As far as 3D printing goes, Inventor is overpowered. More than half of its features are completely useless, and I don't like paying full price for something I can only use half of, I don't care if it's somehow nice to have the option for more. There's no denying its usefulness and versatility, I simply have no need for it. That said, I'm always looking for an alternative to TinkerCAD, since there are times when I find myself using far too many workarounds for its limitations. Tragically, there used to be a middle ground to this paradigm in the form of 123D (also from Autodesk), which has since been discontinued. To fill this gap, Autodesk overhauled Tinkercad to have a few more features than previous versions, and the rest of their focus has gone to a CAD program called Fusion360. I've used Fusion360 and while I don't hate it, any time I tried importing a model to modify or edit, it never, ever got the scale right. No matter what I set the original model to, meters became feet, feet became inches, and millimeters became yards. It seems as if I have to start completely from scratch within its borders and never venture outside its ecosystem. I looked into the issue to see if I was doing something wrong. It turned out this was a known issue and Autodesk had not yet fixed it. The forum post that outlined this was dated 2015, and I was first trying this program in 2017. 2 full years and no progress on a simple matter of making the program understand scale, the most basic principle in technical drawing and engineering. It'd be laughable were it not so infuriating. 
I've talked before about how tech support is often so reluctant to admit when their program can't do something, reasons being 1) It's their product/paycheck, of course they're not going to talk trash about it, however valid the criticism, and 2) there's always the possibility of a feature being added or a known issue finally being resolved. Here's why this outlook needs to be shut down. To address the first point, if your program cannot work as it has advertised itself and/or is simply not suitable for a given application, it's less suspicious to spell out what exactly your product can and cannot do so you can focus on what works and get it in the hands of the right people who can make the most of it. Secondly, if I'm paying for an annual license, every day I'm made to wait on getting an issue resolved is time I can't actually use the program. I can't wait on a possibility. I'm going to find something else, and I'm either not going to renew my license, or I'm going to fight to get it refunded, and with the issue I'm having now with SelfCAD, I have a strong leg to stand on. 
SelfCAD is a browser-based 3D modeling program just like TinkerCAD, but with an interface somewhat closer to Fusion360. It doesn't have the scaling issue of the latter, but it is going to take you some time to work out exactly what scale the program is working in. To be fair, the only reason this is a problem is that not only is SelfCAD create 3D models, but it can also prepare them for 3D printing by having its own slicer. Scales can ultimately be adjusted when moving from program to program, of if the model is only going to be viewed on a screen, but when printing a physical object, it's important to get the scale right. While I have had some issues with the slicer, they don't compare to the issues I've had with making a simple model, not being able to make it, and then being given two pieces of advice from their technical support team that simply do not pan out as insisted. 

All I'm doing is taking a simple shape, like a cube or a hexagonal prism, 
twisting it, 
and then putting a cylindrical hole in the middle of it. 
Setting aside the practical use of this model, this shouldn't be a great challenge for a program meant for producing three-dimensional solid objects for 3D printing or other means of fabrication. However, when the time comes to subtract the cylinder from the twisted block:
It's a little hard to tell what's going on from this angle, but removing the cylinder has hollowed out the entire interior of the twisted block. 
This should not be a difficult task to perform. I inform SelfCAD of this issue through their site and get an acknowledgment in my email inbox:
"we have received your message and are currently investigating the issue."
Along with this, the following video from their YouTube channel is included: 

Seems simple enough, except I followed this tutorial exactly and got a different result. At least, it seems I got a different result; we don't see whether or not the bat symbol got the same sort of hollowing out or if it had a proper rectangular hole. I bring this up in my reply to that first e-mail. Roughly 5 whole days pass before I get the next reply:
"If you apply the Add Thickness tool with thickness set to 1 to cube after the hole was made, you should get your desired result."
No. No, I do not get the desired result. I literally get a worse result. Not only is the shape still hollowed out where it shouldn't be, but thickening the walls have thrown off all the external dimensions. 
Adding thickness does not fill in the volume around the space left by the subtracted cylinder. Instead, it adds thickness to the entirety of the hollowed shell, expanding its overall size. 
I mean, this is almost insulting. Who would call this a viable solution to the problem of making a cylindrical hole in a given shape. I honestly wonder if they tried this themselves before passing the info off to me. Also, on the off-chance I'd gotten the wrong information, I tried applying the thickness to the shape before subtracting the cylinder.
I don't even know how to approach that situation, especially when the "undo" shortcut simply stops working for no good reason. I shared these updates with SelfCAD, and I have yet to receive a response. Given the 5-day turnaround on the last interaction, I'm not optimistic about receiving this update in a timely manner. The only reason I'm even concerned about the turnaround time is that I've purchased an annual license to use this software. If it can't handle what should be the simplest task possible, and everyday I can't use it effectively goes against that annual license, I'm wasting money on something that doesn't work, and can't even get a straight answer on whether or not that's supposed to work to begin with. 

To give an idea of how simple this process should be, here's the same exact process done in TinkerCAD:
SelfCAD, I am legitimately regretting my contribution to your cause. Not only does this not make me want to buy another annual license, but I'm going to lobby for compensation on what I've already paid. This is absurd. OpenSCAD doesn't even have this problem. 

I kid you not, the day I wrote this, I got an email from SelfCAD inviting me to their ambassador program. How can I represent something that it seems no one at the company knows how to operate? 

25 February 2018

Annihilation

Got back from Annihilation earlier this evening. It was about what I expected, definitely on the brainier side of the sci-fi spectrum, not quite as cerebral as Arrival or Contact, but no roller coaster. Still, for as densely complex as the film could be, it being on the same level as the likes of Solaris or Under the Skin does give you a fairly strong sense of what you're in for . That is, there are so few examples of this particular type of harder (dare I say "challenging"?) sci-over-fi-fare out there and almost fewer sources to draw upon that its niche feels like its digging itself deeper rather than branching out. What's worse is that following this very narrow pattern of "Thinking Man's Sci-fi" through mainstream Hollywood makes any deviation from the other entries stick out like a sore thumb and almost appear as clumsy juxtapositions or afterthoughts. 
Arrival dealt with issues of communication, language, philosophy, and cultural bias to tell a reality-bending yarn about cause and effect. Annihilation tackles issues of identity by exploring a somewhat obscure region of the uncanny valley. I mentioned Solaris, in which an alien consciousness tries to answer the messages its picking up from a space station by creating these "approximations" or "estimates" of what it thinks would be good answers to these questions, often with unintentionally violent results. Annihilation looks at the same dynamic through what amounts to full-fledged body horror. Most of the time, it's subtle, even artful in places. Other times, the existential terror of questioning what we do or don't consider familiar gives way to an outright shock and awe gorefest. These scenes are few and far between, with only one that had me looking away from the screen, but they overall felt hollow and superficial, even juvenile on some levels. I'm no prude, mind, but with the way these scenes were framed by the rest, I have all suspicions that this movie could have gotten away with a solid PG-13 rating than trying to reach for R by the skin of its teeth and reaching for the low-hanging fruit of sensationalism. 
For the purposes of review, this is overall my strongest criticism, and I'll never pretend it's at all elevated above nitpicking. I only bring it up because it did so well to make my skin crawl that when it changed gears to merely making me sick to my stomach, I felt insulted on what I can only describe as an intellectually masochistic level (I'M HERE TO LOSE MY MIND, NOT MY LUNCH, DAMMIT!). 
If I had to stretch for a bigger issue with the film, it's got more to do with the aforementioned sub-genre serving as the source than anything that unfolds on screen, and that's the characterization. I've found with the more cerebral sci-fi is that their writers are definitely more deeply in love with their plots than their players. Arthur C. Clarke suffers from this immensely. As much as I love 2001 and Childhood's End for their unforgettable plots, his characters are barely memorable, borderline inconsequential (which you could argue is part of the point, challenging our inflated sense of significance and all that), or even tacky in places. The cast is all fine, it's their characters who are a bit flat and one-note. I suppose it's to help make them easier to project onto or identify with or at least not overshadow or distract from the plot, but I feel like this prioritizing of events over individuals works better for a novel than a movie, since the craft of acting itself is meant to engage your empathy rather than your intellect (it is, after all, the oldest special effect). What even calls this relationship of players and plots into sharp question is when those occasional spots of pure carnage for carnage's sake turns our "audience avatars" into cannon fodder. Annihilation gives you so little to invest in when it comes to characters that when it takes them away, you wonder why it bothered. It makes what should have been a big reveal or harrowing conflict or moral dilemma lose just enough impact to feel like a missed opportunity. You love it for challenging you, and hate it when it pulls punches. 
To its credit, there's more hard knocks than soft blows. There are times when the movie is frighteningly beautiful. Last Jedi and Black Panther celebrated color, Annihilation makes it something to fear. Most movies overuse lens flare, Annihilation makes it matter. That's brilliant. 

17 February 2018

Black Panther

Fish swim in water, 
birds lay eggs, 
and Marvel movies are good whenever they're not great. 

(tosses napkin on the plate and excuses self from the table)

I swear I'm not trying to be a grouch about this, and none of my critiques are meant to put the movie down. This is one of the better ones, maybe not Thor or the 1st and 3rd Captain America movies, but definitely better than Iron Man 2, possibly the only Marvel movie I actively dislike (if only because I haven't seen The Incredible Hulk, which is only because I can't stand Edward Norton). As for Panther, the extent of my knowledge of the character begins and ends with a miniseries written by Reginald Hudlin and artwork by John Romita Jr., and as far as that goes they nailed the character and lore, delivering on all my expectations. I'm glad they kept the outside references to the other films at a minimum save some cameos and flashbacks, keeping it self-contained (like Doctor Strange) while firmly nested in the overall timeline. I'm certainly glad it didn't pull an Iron Man 2 and grind its own plot to a screeching halt to tell me how great Infinity War is going to be. On the whole, my only true criticism of the film is that while it's self-contained in terms of story, it is all still a bit familiar, and beyond some awesome art direction (What The Last Jedi did for red, Black Panther does for purple), there's not a lot it brings to the table we haven't seen before. There's a little Cap here in the car chases, a little Stark there in the gadgetry department, and a dusting of Thor (or even Guardians) for some of the battle scenes. Again, this isn't bad, but I think sometime after the end of Iron Man 3 and just before the halfway mark of Guardians 2, I may have hit my point of saturation. We had no idea what to expect from Thor or Captain America, certainly not their second installments, and those pre-Disney Marvel adaptations like Daredevil or Ang Lee's Hulk had their issues, but at least their flaws were interesting, even experimental on some levels. Now, we've clearly found a rhythm and a rhyme you can marry to any melody and it won't not produce a chart-climber. I hate saying that given how close to the brink of death the superhero genre has been from time to time, but on the whole the nicest thing I can say about this movie is that if you've loved all the past Marvel films, this one won't disappoint, but if you're maybe growing a little tired of filling out the MCU Bingo card, this isn't going to shake up the game. 
Then again, as I've implied, I am one of those weirdos who likes Eric Bana's Hulk and Ben Affleck's Daredevil, so don't let my damning with faint praise deter you from giving it a shot. 

09 February 2018

Frankly, Clover, I Don't Care-a-Toss

I liked Cloverfield. It was a legitimately novel approach to the kaiju genre that more or less delivered on what it promised: a giant monster's city-wide rampage caught on a camcorder. 
10 Cloverfield Lane is a serviceable little thriller that tries too hard to create tension and banks even more heavily on a "twist" so predictable that painting itself into a corner is a charitable description. It's that episode of the Twilight Zone you've never actually seen but know the premise and ending to because it's been referenced to death by everything else. Again, it's serviceable. 
The Cloverfield Paradox is... a mess. It's a mess from the start. If there's an underlying issue that plagues all of the films in this series, it's that they try wearing too many hats. It worked better for Cloverfield because the genres it tries to mesh have enough elbow room to gel with one another. 10 Cloverfield Lane tries to be a psychological thriller playing off paranoia and speculation about the unknown, but forgoes the character psychology/social commentary in favor of a flashy action set piece of payoff that's almost insulting. Its attempt at genre mixing fails because the parts are incompatible. 
The Cloverfield Paradox has this problem and then some. I could almost demonstrate this mathematically, but let's talk about what it means for something to be derivative. There's nothing inherently wrong with a movie being derivative or familiar or even formulaic. Everything borrows from something that came before, sometimes mixing and matching from other somethings along the way. Being derivative does become a bad thing when you miss the all important second step of referring to the past, and that's learning from it. Borrowing works best when you build on what you borrow, shoulders of giants and all that general wisdom. Not only does Paradox borrow from a number of sources without adding its own flavor to the mix, but it handles them so clumsily and ineptly that I wouldn't even call it experimental if I was desperately trying to be nice. If there were more jokes beyond token banter among the characters, I'd think it was a parody. 
Going back to what I said about building on what you borrow, one of my favorite horror movies is Event Horizon. If you've never seen it, it's about a ghost ship in space and the salvage crew sent to find out why it mysteriously vanished only to reappear with the crew's innards painting the walls. Needless to say, something's gone horribly wrong, and it's about to get worse. Granted, this isn't an especially great film (it's certainly aged quite a bit) as its premise loses steam around the halfway point and even gets a bit goofy towards the start of the third act. However, the reason it works is that albeit it's not exactly a surprise when we learn just what we're dealing with, it builds up to it. It creates an oppressive atmosphere with just enough plausibility that your suspension of disbelief can boot up slowly enough to ease you into the sillier bits of the narrative unfolding before you. 
Now, nearly 20 years later (I was a sophomore in High School when Event Horizon came out), I'm watching this ParaCloverDox mashup and in the first ten minutes, a talking head on a news program the characters are watching warns that this super-science power plant in orbit could not only rip open the fabric of space-time, but actually summon monsters and demons. He uses those exact words and even gets called on them by the interviewer. Why should I care about anything that happens in a movie if the movie itself practically tells me to my face that there's nothing to care about? 

Seriously, I think this movie decided to go to Netflix instead of theaters to save itself the embarrassment of trying and failing to stand alongside the likes of Interstellar, The Europa Report, Alien, Solaris, Event Horizon, 2010, Total Recall, and even The Black Hole (which also knew how to build up an atmosphere and get people invested enough to ignore the goofy parts, and did so about 20 years before Event Horizon). 

If you want me to say one good thing about it, it's Elizabeth Debicki. She played an alien queen in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and brings a commanding presence to this CloverLaneSlusho nonsense that does not deserve her.