25 February 2018


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. 

07 February 2018

A Sketchy Arc

Damn it, Sketchup, why do I have to fight with you so much? I keep trying to give you the benefit of the doubt that you've simply got a learning curve and how you work as a 3D modeling program isn't like those other 3D modeling programs. I write these long, angry diatribes about how making a sphere is like summoning a demon while on the moon and with a bucket over my head, yet I wait. 
Now, today, after revisiting the browser-based version, I swear you're pulling the wool over my eyes. 

I was literally trying to recreate what I saw in this video in another tab and at around the 4:10 mark, I see a sleight of hand. This is the comment I left verbatim and a screenshot of exactly what I was seeing when I tried to follow along.

Okay, I hate to be "this guy" but I feel like we're either missing a step or calling a tool by the wrong name. I'm literally following this to the letter in another tab right now and my arc tool isn't working like this... at all. I didn't even see you click on the arc tool, it was just selected after you made the line.
I make the vertical line, put the circle on top, draw another line from the center of the base to the edge... and then the arc tool acts nothing like what I'm seeing on screen. I click on the arc tool and I get a compass overlay that keeps trying to draw an arc that's convex to the vertical line. After some fiddling to try and at least get the arc to be concave, it doesn't go from the edge of the base to the circle up top. It's only as tall as it is wide and trying to tweak it gets me an error message about too many segments.
I have no clue what I'm doing wrong and I feel like this happens every time I try to do anything in Sketchup.

It may be a little hard to see, but that little green circle near the edge of the base is what I somehow have to place somewhere to make an arc between the edge of the base and the circle atop the line. It's also worth repeating that we saw this tutorial first select the arc tool, then change their minds and select the line tool, draw a line from the center of the base to the edge, and next thing we know we're drawing an arc between those two points. 

Let's be clear: you have to select the tools on the left hand side of the screen. His mouse cursor never ventures close to that and suddenly we go from a line tool to an arc tool. I can't find any keyboard shortcuts that would allow this, and even if I did, the arc tool doesn't work as it's being shown. 

This is why I hate learning any kind of software. There's always something in the tutorial (which I've sometimes PAID for the "opportunity" to sit through) that is not accurate, it's fairly important, and whoever I learn it from gets so embarrassingly tripped up it's like watching someone try to recite the alphabet backwards and start over every time they mess up. Normally, when I've written these, I leave them in the drafts folder until I calm down a little, I read a few more tutorials, wind up feeling stupid because I missed something obvious, and then the post never goes live due to its newfound inaccuracy. Given I've also left a comment on the video, I should probably wait until I get an answer to that before I go pressing the publish button. However, I've wound back this video at least five times and whatever the instructor is doing, it's not working when I try to do exactly as he says. 

Please, whatever I'm doing wrong, tell me. 
I'm not trying to shame anyone. I just want the damn thing to work as advertised. 

UPDATE: Okay, so about an hour after posting this, when I was still too frustrated to sit back down and give it another go, I reasoned that maybe it was the 2-point arc tool being used. This morning it turns out I'm right. So, that half of the mystery is solved, but it doesn't explain how he selected the arc tool, to say nothing of simply not specifying which of the 4 distinct arc tools he was referring to. I mean, that's kind of important. How many shapes are there?

Also, the top of the pawn is hollow now, and that's an improvement over the first time I tried using the "Follow Me" tool in order to make the upper portion.

UPDATE II: It's the mid-afternoon, and Sketchup responded to my YouTube comment, but only about halfway. 
Het Matt! InSketchUp Free, the nested tools show the last tool you clicked on. In this video, Aaron is showing the default tools (the ones that are available by default when you first start Sketchup Free). In the case of the Arc tool, 3 point Arc is the default, but if you clicked on 2-point Arc previously, that will be the tool that activates when you click on the Arc icon. Your best bet is to start a totally new session of Sketchup Free and try again.
Like I said before about the 2-point arc, he selected that particular arc tool, which means that if he ever goes back to it, that's the one that's selected. Fine, except that's not my problem. Not specifying which arc tool is annoying enough, but he seems to select it without using his cursor at all. There's a keyboard shortcut for the Arc tools, which is "A" conveniently enough. What's not convenient is that he doesn't mention this in the video and I don't even think it's mentioned in another video dedicated to explaining all the different arc tools. Exactly how "Step 1" is this chess piece tutorial? Admittedly, that's on me. I'm hardly a stranger to Sketchup, and I haven't touched the software in a while, so forgetting a shortcut or two isn't Trimble's fault. Known issues, though.... 

A quick check on the forums also revealed that if your model is too small, Sketchup will not draw certain faces. In my case, because my pawn is small, it puts a hole in the top. Here's where this software starts to fail at justifying its 800USD full version. If I take my model, before I use the "follow me" command to make a sphere and a pillar, and scale it up, it not only makes the sphere whole, but if I then scale it back down to where it couldn't draw the full sphere, there's still no hole. 
I'm not changing the number of polygons when I scale it, so why does the overall size matter? 

05 February 2018

DIY 3D Printing: A Memoir

Damn, I missed January. I had an entry in my drafts that was scheduled for around the last week, but 2018 has started off rather busy and hectic for me apart from getting two (count 'em, two) types of flu in the same month and about a fortnight apart. Anyway, that entry is still in the works and does need to get done as it's sort of my own State of the Union address, only with at least 90% less bullshit and 150% more diplomacy. Until then, here's a reply to a forum post on Thingiverse about building one's own 3D printer. It got a bit long-winded, I'll admit, but maybe it'll act as a little microcosm of what I do, how I do it, and why I don't take a fire axe to the damn things sometimes besides obvious reasons. 

I would like to 3D print a 3D printer.
Have you lost your damn mi--That sounds like a fun project you won't regret undertaking in any way, shape, or form... Honest.

Do I need any special hand skills?

No. If you've ever assembled a piece of furniture that didn't rely solely on gravity to hold it together, fixed a door hinge or desk drawer, checked the fuses in your car, wired a speaker, upgraded the RAM in your desktop, or have ever done a science project involving batteries and lightbulbs, you have literally all the skills you could possibly need to go ahead with this.

How much will it cost if filament to build it is 5 cents a gram?
This is tricky. As counter-intuitive as it may be to the best part of a 3D printer, I have to agree with an old coworker of mine and say the fewer 3D printed parts you're using to hold your machine together, the better. If they're not printed right, the instability will ruin your prints (and therefore you can't make your spares or replacement parts), plus factor in the time and energy into printing your own spare parts versus, say, waiting a day or two for a box of miscellaneous hardware to be dropped on your doorstep. 

Will it be very challenging?
Yes. You don't build a 3D printer to save time or even money. You build it for the customization and the learning experience, and the former is only the case if you need something very specific, like an extremely large build area or an experimental toolhead/extruder assembly. The market has reached a point to where many mid-range kits cost more than low-end, fully assembled printers (with very generous warranties), and you'll probably get more mileage out of the low-end premade unit than your DIY, if only at the start. 

Is there anything else I should know before undertaking this project?
A wise man once said art is never finished, only abandoned. In our fleet of 3D printers, there's a Prusa i3+ clone my boss built in college during a single wild and crazy night at an engineering conference. After sitting in a box in a basement for 18 months, he brought it in to help with our workflow. Needless to say, it needed a lot of work when he brought it in. Over literally the course of the next year, about a half-dozen of us worked on getting this thing up and running to where it wasn't making tumbleweeds anymore. We replaced at least half of its hardware (including the frame), reflashed the firmware countless times, replaced every electronic component except for 3 of the 5 stepper motors, and rewired it from the ground up at least twice. If this sounds like a waste of time and money, it may have been, but it's surprisingly reliable despite its looks to the contrary, and I can't tell you the volumes of information I learned that no class could ever prepare me for. I'd build more for fun in my spare time if I didn't enjoy drawing and painting more.

Any suggestions on which one to build?
Going back to what I said about building printers for fun, I'd really like to try a Delta printer someday, purely because I find their design fascinating. It's like watching some slinky alien insect build a nest. Otherwise, if I had to recommend a good jumping off point, just go with a Prusa clone; they're beyond commonplace and come from a variety of manufacturers, all of which are to the point where it's harder to find a bad one than a serviceable one. I'm actually working (for work) on a Lulzbot clone, which is basically a Prusa that's built like a tank. 

Don't say I didn't wa--HAVE FUN! SERIOUSLY!