Thursday, 31 January 2008

In Which I Pretend That This Is Actually Websnark

There's changes happening over on Questionable Content. For those unfamiliar with QC, it's a webcomic by Jeph Jacques detailing the only slightly unbelievable lives of a number of young people in Massachusetts. Basically it's Friends, but funnier, with more bizarre comedy, and with added swearing. Apart from that, it doesn't really live up to its name. It's also very much character-driven, with the central dynamic between Marten, Faye and Dora providing not only most of the tension and drama, but a significant proportion of the comedy as well.

The main thing that you have to know about Marten is that, in essence, he's a wuss. Eric Burns of Websnark wrote a long and detailed essay on this very subject, although he doesn't touch on why that might be. Personally, I think it's because Marten is constantly surrounded by intimidating women. Dora is self-confident, owns her own business, and makes it into the Goth Window (not goth enough to laugh at her, just goth enough to be a little scary). Faye is definitely scary, life having baked a tough shell around her to the point where anyone who tries to break through that shell is looking at a world of pain. Marten's own mother made a living out of being very definitely intimidating to men, in ways that I am not going to detail in a family-friendly setting. In fact, practically every woman Marten meets is scary in one way or another (with the notable exception of the very vulnerable but still independent and friendly Hannelore - and Marten is always relaxed around her, too).

Marten's reaction to this situation is understandable (it's what I would do, certainly) - he folds in on himself. Whenever he's remotely nervous he goes into the pose you see in panel one here, and frequently avoids eye contact - he's trying to protect himself. In the strip that Burns analyses in the above link, Marten goes one step further by giving in vocally as well, despite Ellen's accusations being complete rubbish. This is a pretty well established character trait by now, and it's been the source of a lot of the storylines over the last few months.

The key to keeping a story fresh is, of course, changing it over time, and we saw some suggestions of that with yesterday's strip. Dora's latent insecurities came to the fore very obviously, and they showed themselves in anger and huffiness. (Not the "silent treatment", though, and thank goodness for that. Short of actual abuse, there's no stupider way of working through problems, and Jacques credits his characters with enough intelligence not to do it.) The big change, though was in Marten. He was in the right, and he knew it, and this time he argued his case succinctly and strongly but without being unnecessarily mean. His body language was significant, too - no defensive poses at any point, and in the final panel we see him protecting Dora, something we've never seen before. For Dora's part, she's nothing but defensive. This from a woman who, let's not forget, is perfectly capable of organising both a mob to defeat the scooter-based vigilante warrior chick (look, I know that makes no sense, just go with it for now, OK?) and a Mad Max-style chair joust.

We're suddenly seeing sides of both these characters that have never been obvious before, but are still entirely plausible. In other words, they're developing and moving on in their lives, and especially in their relationship with each other. It's a definite change in the strip's dynamic, but not one that breaks its ethos or basic setup, which means that there are now many new storylines opening up without alienating the current fanbase. That's a very difficult trick to pull off, in any creative medium, and I'm dead impressed that Jacques is managing it.

Now, let's contrast this with yesterday's XKCD. This particular comic, "Journal 2" is a followup and counterpoint to "Journal". Both feature Black Hat, the as-yet unnamed character who derives all of his enjoyment from screwing with people's minds, resulting in, as they say, hilarious consequences. In "Journal 2", though, his actions backfire spectacularly.

In other circumstances, this would be an effective and satisfying followup, finally giving Black Hat the comeuppance that he so richly deserved. For a few reasons, though, it doesn't work. First, it's too soon. XKCD doesn't often do continuing storylines, but when it does it's either over very short timespans (the 1337 story arc was over in less than a week) or very long ones (I don't think the Red Spiders arc has ended yet, and it's been going for two years). In contrast, suddenly revisiting a situation with only a few intervening comics feels odd and rushed.

Secondly, this is the kind of situation that could quite easily destroy Black Hat as a character. He's lost his hat, anyway, which is going to make him quite difficult to recognise in a stick figure comic. Whereas dropping a bombshell like this on a character would work in Questionable Content, it doesn't have nearly the same impact in XKCD because it's not a story-driven comic. All the humour comes from the situations, the surreal actions, the incredibly geeky references. The audience has no emotional investment in Black Hat, so doing this to him is just going to make us want another character who can keep up the inventive nastiness.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it is very possible that Randall Munroe has drawn this comic as a response to fan reactions. In the official forum thread for "Journal", there were plenty of people going "Yeah! Right on!", but there was also a significant proportion of posters expressing their disappointment with Black Hat. Poster "Chef Brian" summed it up well:

Eh. I really liked the black hat guy, but this one just leaves a foul taste in the mouth.

This isn't a reaction that often appears in XKCD threads. Sometimes people don't find the comic funny - very rarely do they react so unfavourably to the ideas it contains. "Journal 2" looks very much as though Munroe has also realised that Black Hat's actions are reprehensible, and is rushing out a comic to emphasise this point - possibly because, as one of the forum members pointed out, the worst thing about Black Hat's actions in this case is that they are so easily reproducible.

If that's what happened, the idea is laudable, but it takes away from the comic as a whole. Especially in the case of XKCD, a comic that generally makes no allowances whatsoever for the sensibilities of its audience (you won't understand this comic unless you've both watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and played the video game Portal, or at least unless you are very familiar with geek culture), it would be a shame to let the audience dictate what happens, even indirectly. Down that route lies the lowest common denominator. XKCD has coped well with enormous online exposure so far, and I really hope that this is not a sign of things to come.

Two comics, one changing its characters subtly and developing in new directions, the other changing a character hugely, quite possibly for the wrong reasons. Masterclasses in how to to character development and how not to do it, both on the same day. What are the odds, eh?

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

National Treasure 3: The Legend of the Elonex Prosentia is just around the corner

Although I'd consider myself to be at least mostly competent when it comes to software, I'm embarrassingly bad at dealing with the hardware part of IT. This is odd, because I like to take apart practically everything else (see this post for evidence) - I can only assume that I've never had to rummage around in the bowels of computers because I've never bothered upgrading them.

Last night, though, I had to double the number of hardware upgrades I'd ever performed (the first was when I stuck some more RAM in my laptop last year, a process which is not exactly difficult) by installing a new DVD writer in my family's desktop PC. Now, I was fairly well prepared for this operation, as there are loads of instruction sites kicking around online. The one I used was off, and was very helpful - sadly, it failed to cover one of the most basic and yet most fundamental aspects of the whole process. Namely, opening the computer's case.

You might have thought that opening a case was fairly easy, and in most cases it would be. My family, though, saw fit to buy an Elonex Prosentia computer, the designers of which apparently had a profitable sideline building high-security safes. The only obvious screws on the casing were the ones holding the power supply together - I came very close to dropping it onto the motherboard - and the only one that wasn't anywhere near the power supply didn't seem to do anything when unscrewed.

At this point, I looked through the manuals and had no joy. So I had to bite the bullet and do what every self-confessed geek hates, the equivalent of stopping to ask for directions with a sarcastic girl in the car. That's right. I called tech support.

I was prepared for the usual hell of tech support, which usually involves listening to the Four Seasons being played in very poor quality while a saccharine voice informs me that I've reached number 57 in the queue. What I wasn't prepared for was the information that Elonex now existed in name only, having folded back in 2006. It took a while for the tech support people to get this point across to me, along with the fact that no-one now had the faintest idea about any details of their computers, let alone how to get past the labyrinthine security of their desktop cases.

In desperation, I phoned the company that had been used to run Elonex's remaining contracts when it went into administration. The young lady I spoke to there was very eager to help, but didn't seem to have mastered that when you silently put your customers on hold, you're supposed to tell them what you're doing. If you don't, what happens is that the employee and customer embark on an entertaining game of "hello-hello? Can you hear me - hello?" for a few minutes before one or both gives up in disgust and hangs up.

In the end, it took a thorough investigation of the entire case along with my dad before we managed to get the case to slide back and lift off. I'm still not entirely sure what finally got it going, but I suppose I can at least be grateful that I was unsuccessful in ripping the entire front panel off (that was becoming a definite option at one point). I now pass this story on to you - not so much for the benefit of those who are reading my posts regularly, and who at this point are probably thinking "an entire article dedicated to his sheer incompetence and inability to open a computer's case? Really?", but more for those who at some point in the future are going to stumble across this post by entering some combination of "Elonex", "Prosentia", "case" and "I am seriously considering getting a sledgehammer" into Google. To those people I now present the following short list.

How to get into the case of an Elonex Prosentia PC

  1. Unscrew and remove the small screw in the middle of the back panel - the one at the top, just under what looks like a pull-tab. (Hint: it isn't a pull tab, but if you push it hard enough it vanishes inside the case with an interesting little tinkling noise.)
  2. Push the entire case - plastic front panel and all - towards the front of the computer. The back panel is the only bit that stays still.
  3. Push hard enough and the case will slide a couple of inches. You can now lift it off entirely.
  4. Replacing the case is much easier - just make sure the pull-tab-like-thing goes through its slot in the frame, not above it, as the case won't close properly otherwise.

I hope it's a long time before I have to do that again...

Continue Reading...

Monday, 28 January 2008

Public Domain Theatre: Fantasmagorie

What with all the fuss over illegal downloading of music and films, copyright law has been very much in the news recently. It's easy to forget - at least, it is if you happen to be a Hollywood executive - that copyright has two parts to it. It was put in place in order to protect the creative investment that the content creator puts into their work, but it was also time-limited so that everyone could benefit from that investment directly. In other words, it is just as important for copyright protection to end as it is for it to begin.

Copyright law is an absolute mess, inconsistent across countries, types of media and any number of other factors. There is agreement on one thing, though: once a creative work falls out of copyright protection, it is fair game for anyone to use it, share it, remix it and turn it into something better. This is what "public domain" means, and it's a fantastic concept.

(While we're on the subject, Creative Commons licensing offers a halfway house for content creators, so that they can maintain some creative control while giving opportunities to the public to use their work. Definitely worth a look if you're any kind of content provider.)

In the spirit of celebrating public domain work, I'm starting a new feature on this blog, with the startlingly original title of Public Domain Theatre. This is going to be an irregularly-recurring feature, pointing out the best or most interesting public domain stuff out there, and possibly adding to or changing it in an attempt to make it even better.

I'm told that it makes sense to begin at the very beginning, so for the first installment we'll look at what may very well be the first fully animated film ever made, Émile Cohl's Fantasmagorie. Produced entirely by hand in 1908, this film is a milestone in the history of the cinema.

No, there's nothing wrong with your speakers, it's supposed to be completely silent. Fantasmagorie is, as I'm sure you've noticed, one of the oddest little films you're likely to see. It is also surprisingly sophisticated. The early sequence in the cinema is not only funny, it also displays a good knowledge of physics (notice the slight "boing" in the woman's head as the man pulls out each feather). Moreover, it introduces comedy tropes (such as sitting behind someone with a huge hat) that are still used today, and dissolves into a brilliantly surreal section almost worthy (in concept, at least) of Monty Python.

Other elements in this film have been echoed throughout animation history. If we go right up to the other end of the timeline, with Alan Becker's Animator vs Animation (2006), we can see it begin in exactly the same way as Fantasmagorie. The "protagonist trapped in a surreal nightmare" is yet another trope used in later films - the latest example that I can think of is the memory-erasing dream sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which has a very similar feel.

While obviously this film is not brilliant by today's standards, it's easy to forget quite how incredible it must have been to its first viewers. Even taking into account the fact that film itself was in its infancy, this was still the first time that anyone was able to see something on the big screen that they could never have seen in real life. No more was this form of artistic expression limited by what you could get an actor to do - now, anything you could imagine, draw and sculpt could be filmed. Without this step in thinking, there would have been no Harryhausen creatures, no unconvincing elephant attacks in The Return of the King, and definitely no Toy Story. We have an awful lot to thank M. Cohl for.

Continue Reading...

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Don't ask how much time I spent on this. It would just be embarrassing for all concerned.

Some time ago, it came out that Adobe's newest version of Photoshop, like a number of colour photocopiers, contained anti-counterfeiting measures that would recognise a banknote when scanned in. The intention was to prevent people from using Photoshop for home counterfeiting; even assuming that your average home counterfeiter would be slowed down by not being able to use Photoshop (the GIMP isn't exactly difficult to get hold of), the integration of the countermeasures into the software was incredibly poor. Within a very short space of time, people found workarounds that were as simple as scanning into a different program and copying into Photoshop.

Even if the technology wasn't very impressive in execution, I have to admit it's pretty clever to recognise banknotes from so many different countries (it works with recent pound notes, all euros, all dollars, and a bunch of others), and it apparently does it fairly simply. All it has to do (in the case of photocopiers, anyway - apparently the Photoshop algorithm is somewhat more complicated) is recognise a small pattern of yellow circles that currency makers around the world have agreed to insert into their notes.

To see what I mean, take one of the new Adam Smith £20 notes and look just above the reversed £-sign on the Smith side. The circles are on the Queen's side of the note too, parallel with the hologram strip all the way down. It's not difficult to find them on a number of other notes, too (they're in the watermark on a £10, for instance).

This is all well and good (even if it's not very effective) - problems might come, though, because being flagged by Photoshop might be taken as an indication that the note is genuine. And if that's the case, all one needs to do is insert the circles into one's own designs. Now, I don't think that's very likely, but given my tendency to go overboard with these things, I have done precisely that.

Click the image for a big version. I'd be very interested to know whether any of you with Photoshop CS1 or later, or a colour photocopier, are unable to open or print this...

Continue Reading...

Saturday, 19 January 2008

If you're going to sing "We Shall Overcome", you could at least use the Bruce Springsteen version

Last night, I caught a few minutes of Newsnight Review. This isn't something I often do, although that's not because of any fervent dislike of the reviewers - I just happen to like my TV a bit glossier, American and crime-based, that's all. Anyway, the book they were talking about was set in the world of radical student politics in the US, in the Vietnam War era. My knowledge of the student movements was limited - I knew there was considerable opposition, but that's about it - so it was really surprising to learn about the mass marches, the draft-card burnings, and Governmental surveillance and hostility.

It's a shame, really, that this just isn't seen nowadays. I've only just left university, having been there during three years in which we've seen heavy British involvement in an unpopular and shockingly executed war, illegal imprisonment of people without trial, open admissions of torture and extraordinary rendition by the US, extensive prisoner mistreatment in Abu Ghraib, and any number of other things to get angry about. So why have there been practically no student demonstrations?

There were some, I have to admit. There was a regular protest outside the Campsfield immigrant detention centre, a couple of Make Poverty History demonstrations, one or two pro-animal-testing marches, and a few others. I even took part in a couple (a human chain around the Radcliffe Camera for Make Poverty History and a protest against the deportation of a student, if you're interested), but in every case it was something of a fringe activity. There was no mass outrage, no mobilisation of thousands of students...just a few people filling Broad Street for a couple of hours.

This isn't an Oxford thing, either - back in the '70s, there were some serious protests for the right to form a student union in Oxford. Indeed, it was only when the (then not formally-recognised) union approached Parliament to ask them to amend the laws governing Oxford and Cambridge that the university gave in. I cannot possibly imagine that kind of mobilisation these days, especially given how little most students care about the student union. (I think I voted in a grand total of one of their elections during my time there.) It's also not because Oxford students are publicity-shy - witness what happened when Nick Griffin and David Irving were invited to speak at the Oxford Union. (Even though that did produce a demonstration, note that the whole thing could fit in the Town Hall.)

So why has student protest fizzled out so much in recent years? Today's students are better-informed, more resourceful and more organised than ever before; walk down any main road in the city and you'll see people doing things that convince you students have no compunction about making idiots of themselves in public; and talking to any of them in a college bar will show you that they do feel strongly about a whole range of issues. There must be another reason, and I think it's all about fashions. When the Iraq occupation began, there were more protests around the country than had been seen for years; demonstrations were therefore no longer the unique preserve of the angry young student. In the same way that rock and roll became demoted to "golden oldie" status when its original fans grew up, marching on the streets is no longer a statement that The Man can't hold you down. Perhaps, once this jaded generation has grown up, there will be a new group of eager protesters ready to pound the tarmac.

I think it's a shame that protest is no longer an integral part of the student experience. Railing at The Man is what being a student is for - it's the one chance you get to do it before you grow up, get a job and become The Man. More importantly, raising a whole bunch of people who don't want to make their voices heard about the issues that really concern them is a terrible idea. There are terrible things going on today (I listed some of them earlier in this post), and without the people singing unoriginal chants and waving poorly-made banners as they march along the streets, where is everyone going to get the impetus to actually do something about it?

It's too late for me to be a student again, but I think that if society is changing this much anyway, it's worth re-evaluating our roles. Next time something else worth protesting occurs, look for me on the march.

Continue Reading...

Friday, 18 January 2008

The downside is that it takes 20 minutes to render anything remotely complicated. No-one waits that long for anything nowadays.

When browsing around on Wikipedia the other day - it's a terrifyingly addictive thing to do - I came across Terragen, a piece of landscape rendering software. The point of such a program escapes me, to be honest, but the images included in the article are really pretty. So, never one to let an opportunity for idle software testing pass me by, I downloaded it and started playing around with the settings. The results are below.

It's not great, and not photorealistic, but given that I have approximately 24 hours' experience with this program I can't believe quite how good it looks. Considering that graphics like this were the preserve of extremely high-end computing just a few years ago - and that they weren't remotely possible a few years before that - I find it amazing that I can download a 1.6MB program that can produce something this good. I may end up completely addicted to this too...

Continue Reading...

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Badgers are funny, too. So are grizzly bears, but not brown bears. Weird, eh?

Have you ever noticed how some animals just have more comedy potential than others? I'm not entirely certain why this should be, but it's definitely the case. Cows, for example, are automatically funny. Just ask Gary Larson. Monkeys, too, are funny, as are iguanas. So are sloths. Mice are sometimes the cause of comedy in others, but they're not inherently funny in themselves; chinchillas are funny, labradors are not. The list goes on, and I imagine there's a certain amount of personal preference involved.

There are two principles, however, that I want to stand by firmly. These are:

  1. Squirrels are funny;
  2. The world could use more surreality.

With these principles in mind, I embarked on a little adventure into programming. This was the result.

click to expand

If you'd like to perform the same trick yourself (or modify it), you'll need to be running Mozilla Firefox with the Greasemonkey extension. I've included the code behind the cut below. I'm very new to Greasemonkey, so the code's pretty ugly - if you'd like to tidy it up, please feel free. Install at your leisure, and enjoy the weirdness.

UPDATE: Almost forgot to mention that the idea for this is largely based on the CNN Fortune Cookie, created by Ironic Sans, and uses sample code from Dive Into Greasemonkey. Wouldn't want you to entirely blame me...

// ==UserScript==
// @name BBC News Headline Editor
// @namespace
// @description Adds a custom text string to the end of BBC News headlines.
// @include*
// ==/UserScript==
var prefix = ''
var phrase = ' with a squirrel' //change the prefix and phrase to whatever you want
var allA, thisA; //to append to the headlines
allA = document.evaluate(
for (var i = 0; i < allA.snapshotLength; i++) {
thisA = allA.snapshotItem(i);
// do something with thisA
thisA.innerHTML = prefix + thisA.innerHTML + phrase

allA = document.evaluate(
for (var i = 0; i < allA.snapshotLength; i++) {
thisA = allA.snapshotItem(i);
// do something with thisA
thisA.innerHTML = prefix + thisA.innerHTML + phrase

allA = document.evaluate(
for (var i = 0; i < allA.snapshotLength; i++) {
thisA = allA.snapshotItem(i);
// do something with thisA
thisA.innerHTML = prefix + thisA.innerHTML + phrase

var allDiv, thisDiv;

allDiv = document.evaluate(
for (var i = 0; i < allDiv.snapshotLength; i++) {
thisDiv = allDiv.snapshotItem(i);
// do something with thisDiv
var a_list = thisDiv.getElementsByTagName('a')
for (var j = 0; j < a_list.length; j++){
thisA = a_list[j];
thisA.innerHTML = prefix + thisA.innerHTML + phrase

allA = document.evaluate(
for (var i = 0; i < allA.snapshotLength; i++) {
thisA = allA.snapshotItem(i);
// do something with thisDiv
var b_list = thisA.getElementsByTagName('b')
for (var j = 0; j < b_list.length; j++){
thisB = b_list[j];
thisB.innerHTML = prefix + thisB.innerHTML + phrase

var allUL, thisUL, thisLI;

allUL = document.evaluate(
for (var i = 0; i < allUL.snapshotLength; i++) {
thisUL = allUL.snapshotItem(i);
// do something with thisDiv
var li_list = thisUL.getElementsByTagName('li')
for (var j = 0; j < li_list.length; j++){
thisLI = li_list[j]
var a_list = thisLI.getElementsByTagName('a')
for (var k = 0; k < a_list.length; k++){
thisA = a_list[k];
thisA.innerHTML = prefix + thisA.innerHTML + phrase

Continue Reading...

Friday, 11 January 2008

I haven't mentioned The Polar Express or Beowulf, and for a good reason. They are creepy.

The use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in films has come a hugely long way since it was first introduced. Obviously, that was a long time ago - the first use (according to Wikipedia) was in 1973's Westworld. Given the general speed of development in the computing industry, a hypothetical alien who has just landed on our planet might assume that by now, CGI has advanced to being completely perfect and realistic. (Whether such an alien exists, and why he'd be particularly interested in technological advances in film and TV, are questions that are somewhat beyond me right now).

Sadly, our alien friend would be disappointed. Although CGI has been enthusiastically taken up by studios throughout the industry, it can be just as unconvincing as it was back in the day. So why is this? To find out, let's look at some examples of good and bad practice in CGI use.

Jurassic Park (1993) - The T-Rex attack

For my money, this is not only the best scene in the movie, it's one of the best scenes in any film that I've ever seen. Notice how the scene isn't about the T-Rex - it's shot almost entirely from the perspective of Alan (Sam Neill) and the children (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello), meaning that they're the characters we focus on. The scene is also completely unscored, letting the rain and the thunder do all the work that music might otherwise ruin. (The sudden crash of thunder right after the goat's leg hits the jeep is far more effective than the orchestra hit you might expect.)

Understatement of this type is the main reason why this scene works so well, and the same thing is true of the CGI. A lot of the work is done with puppets - despite several shots of the T-Rex being completely synthetic, these shots are short and don't require much in the way of movement. The result is a completely convincing scene that still gives me goosebumps 15 years on.

The Abyss (1989) - Trailer

I couldn't find the relevant scene anywhere online, but you get a couple of fleeting glimpses of the watery alien creature in the trailer (drag the slider to 1:40 and 1:54, for example). The Abyss is quite a good movie in its own right, despite a few horrible clichés (notably Ed Harris's ability to bring his wife back from drowning by screaming "FIIIIIGHT!" at her from about 3 inches away), and given that it was made in the '80s the CGI work is incredible. Again, it's not overused - you see one creature, whose defining feature is that it has no defining features, being made entirely of water. By not overreaching themselves, the special effects unit have created something which, although technically not outstanding, looks convincing and just eerie enough to be accepted as alien.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) - Fleeing through Moria

Watching the first 30 seconds of this clip will be enough for our purposes, but feel free to watch the rest if you like a bit of silly yet epic cinema. Now, if you're going to have your characters run across a gigantic underground hall, the likes of which has never been seen in this world, it might be tempting to spend a lot of time on the hall itself. This is, apparently, what the film makers chose to do. Unfortunately, this means that they were not concentrating on less grand things, such as good motion animation of the main characters. And as all eyes at this point are on the main characters, it becomes really rather obvious that they are waddling at high speed with exaggerated arm movements. Maybe this sequence was actually an extended advert for Lord of the Rings Action Figures.

Constantine (2005) - Demon-slaying

The weird thing about this scene (apologies for the awful quality, by the way) is that it would have been superb as a cut-scene in a videogame of Constantine. For all I know, maybe it was. As it is, the use of a CGI Keanu Reeves almost all the way through, even in little shots where they could easily have used bluescreen, produces an oddly shiny and rubbery look to the scene. Especially at the moment (at about 0:25) where "Reeves" spins the magazine on his shotgun, there's something very wrong about his hands - I think it's that they look too solid and meaty. I saw this movie at the cinema, and I think I was laughing all the way through this scene; even in a film where plot consistency, theology and even basic physics go right out the window, you just can't get away with vastly over-egging the CGI pudding and expect the audience not to notice.

Casino Royale (2006) - Final scene

Don't play this clip unless you've already seen the film! It spoils the ending, and whoever stuck it on Youtube has also inexplicably put the Pirates of the Caribbean music on top of it. If you have seen the film and don't mind inexplicable piratey music, read on.

I wouldn't normally say anything bad about Casino Royale, because not only is it a brilliant film, it's also excellent when it comes to CGI use. When Bond drives a JCB through a fence and his enemy has to run up a wall to evade him? They actually did that. When they jump from crane to crane 200 feet up? They did that too, with safety harnesses but no other tricks.

The CGI in this sequence is fairly subtle, and you may not have noticed it. Watch it again if you didn't. For those too bored or lazy to keep guessing, I'll tell you - the house on the lakeshore is entirely built in CGI. Even though it's not obvious unless you're looking for it, as soon as you realise that it's not real, you start to notice the flaws. The motion of the car is too perfect. The camera movement is too smooth. The lighting is too crisp. All of these little things, hardly noticeable in their own right, add up to an effect that just spoils the scene for me. It's entirely possible to do buildings successfully in CGI, and in fact Batman Begins, another film which generally does everything for real, pulls it off extremely successfully. I'm not sure why Casino Royale doesn't manage it, but for me it's an annoyance that detracts from an otherwise brilliant film.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) - Legolas vs Huge Elephant Thingy

Now, this one is just silly. While it was obviously great fun to script (and would have made a supremely fun addition to Tolkien's original writing, had he been given to writing awesome stunt sequences), it was just too much for the special effects boys to handle. Once again, we're stuck with a sequence that looks like a cut scene from a videogame, complete with unconvincing movement, plastic-like skin tone and a synthetic actor that manages to be even more wooden than Orlando Bloom. I have to admit, it does still look fantastic; there is a definite problem, though, with any sequence that causes you to say "well, for an entirely impossible action it looked good". The whole point of special effects is to make you believe the impossible; this doesn't.

There are several other scenes and films that I could have mentioned here (the unconvincing wolves from The Day After Tomorrow, the unbelievably poorly done Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars Episodes I & II, the excellent motion-captured Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and so on), but I think you get the picture already. So what makes a good CGI scene? I think we can list some ideas...

  • Understated. You want the audience to notice the story, not the effects. If they come out of the cinema going "the effects were AMAZING!" rather than "I loved the scene where...", you're doing it wrong.
  • Plausible. The reason we don't believe that Legolas couldn't take down the elephant-type thingy isn't so much to do with the effects - it's more that we had never seen Legolas do anything as ridiculous throughout the rest of the trilogy. If you build up a character slowly (eg. Spider-Man), you can get away with a whole lot more than if you suddenly give him completely stupid powers that no-one has ever done before. Of course, stunning new effects can work (Bullet-Time in The Matrix, for example), but only if they are done really well.
  • Within the bounds of current technology. Right now, a fully CGI human is just not plausible. The skin, the muscle movement and the way each part interacts with all the others is far too complex to pull off in any kind of sustained fashion - stick to what works.
  • Willingness not to use it. The rooftop chase scene in The Bourne Ultimatum works as well as it does because every shot was done by a stuntman. Yes, CGI probably could have been used - but it looked a whole lot better done for real.

That's a list that could be extended enormously, but I think I'll leave it up to you to do so. In the meantime, I'll leave you with one of the most shockingly brilliant stunts in the history of cinema - Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Copyright notice: All video clips, with the exception of the Steamboat Bill, Jr. clip (which is public domain), are copyright their respective owners. I believe that their use in this context - comment and research - constitutes fair dealing, but in other contexts this might not apply. None of the clips are released under my Creative Commons licence.

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Thursday, 10 January 2008

He really didn't like it when I took up boxing.

OK, I don't really have any explanation for this. Answers on a postcard for what this picture symbolises and why it means I'm seriously screwed up...

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Friday, 4 January 2008

This is not an advertisement. I just get a little enthusiastic.

I mentioned some time back that I'd been searching for a decent free music player and library program, and that I was having some severe problems with this task. In fact, I may even have been so rash as to say that Windows Media Player 10 was the best that I could find.

Not any more.

I may as well state at this point that I have freakishly stringent requirements for music players. This can seem rather ridiculous, given that I'm more than happy to just use a CD player if I have the disc to hand, but then the old factor of "I never knew this product existed and now I must have the best version of it possible" kicks in. Anyway, here are the features that WMP10 had, and why they were important to me...

  • Two-pane flexible library view. This may seem like an odd requirement, but once I'd seen the ability to list and sort all artists and albums in one pane, then bring up all relevant tracks in the other, I couldn't do without it. This, by the way, is why I can't stand WMP11 - keeping in line with the trend in Microsoft's latest products of removing useful and standard functionality, it severely restricts what you can do with the left-hand pane and turns it into a crippled version of iTunes.

    (And makes the menu bar extremely difficult to find. The menu bar. Possibly the most standard feature in computing over the past 15 years, and they try to get rid of it. Complete insanity.)
  • The mini-player. Having all the controls on the taskbar, the one place on the desktop where they will never be in the way and yet always be accessible, was a stroke of genius.
  • Sorting by Album Artist. Sorting tracks only by Artist means that the list of artists gets incredibly cluttered, with separate entries for anyone who contributed to a single track. I'm something of a purist when it comes to listening to whole albums as the artists intended (get behind me, shuffle function!), so I particularly like being able to see only an artist's albums.
  • WMA functionality. I don't like the WMA format much - it's locked and proprietary, and often includes DRM - but because much of my music is from CDs owned by other members of my family, and they ripped it using WMP, the ability to play WMA files was important.

Strange as it may seem, for months I couldn't find anything other than WMP10 that could do all of these things. Winamp can play WMAs, but has a truly bizarre library layout (or it did last time I tried it, anyway); iTunes is just as locked as WMP and lacks the right kind of 2-pane layout; RealPlayer is simply ugly (and who uses RealAudio any more?); and the simpler options like foobar2000 and VLC don't have adequate library functions.

This was unfortunate, as what I was really looking for was something that could also do the following things.
  • Index Ogg Vorbis files. Ogg is a free and open music format, and I've been meaning to re-rip my CDs into that format for a while now. Although WMP can be patched to play Ogg files, it steadfastly refuses to put them in the library.
  • Receive and index podcasts. Especially now that Radio 4 has started offering The Now Show as an unrestricted MP3 podcast, making long train journeys much more pleasant. If only they would use a similar strategy for TV, rather than the heavily restricted iPlayer.

I've been keeping an eye open for players with this functionality for quite a while now, but had almost always been disappointed. So when, fairly recently, I heard about the beta version of MediaMonkey 3, it was almost unreasonably exciting. I tried MediaMonkey back when it was in version 2.something, but didn't like it much. It got many things right, but it was ugly and difficult to use. The mini-player, in particular, took up much of the system tray and constantly got in the way. So when I downloaded the beta and found that not only had they added several functions, they had also overhauled the entire interface and made it much sleeker, it was a good sign.

And then, at the end of December, it came out of beta. I downloaded it a couple of days ago, and have yet to see any major bugs. It's fast, clean, functional and (mostly) free - the functions that you have to pay to unlock aren't those I'd want anyway. I haven't yet tried to rip or burn CDs with it, but WMP was never all that reliable for those functions anyway. The design is good - in particular, nothing on the mini-player takes more than one click. Flexibility is found throughout, letting you resize and reorder practically everything. It's built on much of the same basis as Winamp, so plugins and extensions for Winamp will usually work on MediaMonkey too. I think my quest is at an end.

(Man, I need less geeky quests.)

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Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Today is also Haiti Independence Day. Who knew? (Apart from the Haitians...)

Exactly one year ago, I made this post, and started this blog. Yes, not only is it a new year, it's also The Beautiful Hypothesis's 1st birthday! To be honest, I never really expected it to last this long - posting every week (summer break aside) probably makes this the longest-running regular project that I've ever done. So what's happened since I began? Let us see...

Things That Have Happened Or Changed Since The Beautiful Hypothesis Began
On this blog (before this post went online)

  • I've published 144 posts, making up a total of 67,970 words (including titles but not including any words inside pictures). That's an average of just over 472 words per post; when it's imported into Word in single-spaced 12pt Times New Roman it takes up 104 A4 pages.
  • 52 Pictures of the Week have been posted, most of them created in the correct week. And if you jam them all together into just over 2 and a half minutes, they look like this. (Might take a while to load...I really don't believe Photobucket when they say it's less than 50kb.)

  • The site's been through one major redesign...
  • ...and a bunch of little ones.
  • Since starting visitor logging, I've recorded over 1200 hits.
  • Visitors have seen this blog in the US, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, Romania, India, the Netherlands, Israel, the Philippines, Brazil, Belgium and at least 24 other countries.

In my life
  • I've got one year older.
  • I've ended my university career and made my first steps towards my "career" career.
  • I've attended four weddings and a funeral. (No, not those ones.)
  • I've said goodbye to a lot of friends, caught up with others and met several new ones.

In the world (selected highlights and lowlights, obviously...)
  • The Democrats took office in the US Congress.
  • The Iraq troop surge was announced and took place.
  • 15 British sailors were captured, imprisoned and released by Iran.
  • Windows Vista was released. As of the date of writing, it has entirely fulfilled the description "hilarious disaster".
  • Alan Johnston disappeared in Palestine...and was later released.
  • Al Gore achieved a hitherto unknown Triple Crown of awards by winning an Oscar, a Emmy and a Nobel Prize. He then went on to prove that he is remarkably intelligent by not running for President.
  • 63 countries underwent a change of leader of some sort, including Australia, France, Russia and the UK.
  • Australia took back the Ashes. Whatever that means.
  • Some silly boys failed to kick a ball around a field well enough.
  • Some fine upstanding gentlemen also failed to carry a ball around a field well enough. However, they did it with style.
  • Apparently, the Nordic World Ski Championships took place. Look, I don't write the Wikipedia articles off which all this stuff is unceremoniously nicked!
  • Northern Rock collapsed spectacularly as part of an impending financial doom, news of which was mitigated slightly by the fact that no-one had a clue what the doomsayers were talking about.
  • Zimbabwe continued its own spectacular collapse, leading to golfers in the country buying drinks before they went out on the course - the prices would rise before they got back.
  • Someone in a post office somewhere is having great fun finding out 25 million people's personal data.

Things That Will Change This Year
Variety being the spice of life, I'm altering a few things on this blog for the New Year. The general tone of the blog will not change, and hopefully neither will the overall update schedule. However...
  • The Picture of the Week will no longer be a regular feature. Although I liked having a consistent record of the year, I don't like posting photos for the sake of posting photos. From now on, any time I take a photo I particularly like, I'll simply post it then and there. Same goes for Photoshop jobs. In the same vein, I'll try to include more pictures in otherwise text-heavy posts.
  • Because the PotW slot effectively meant that I was fulfilling my "1 post per week" target without really trying, the post rate is now going up to 2 a week. That's still going to be flexible, obviously - this is not my job and I'm not going to treat it like one.
  • I'm going to start posting fiction here. By that, I don't mean that I'm going to start making up the facts I use (more than I already do, anyway...). Instead, I'm going to try to improve my fiction writing and get into a habit of doing more of it - and putting it up here should help with that.
  • Audio and video posts may begin to make their presence known. This won't be a regular feature or a podcast, but sometimes I have rejected post ideas on the grounds that they would only really work well in audio or video. That's not going to be an excuse any more.
  • Now that quite a lot of my visitors are finding this blog through the pictures - and will probably find it by any other media I put up - I'm slightly tightening up the copyright licensing to a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence. You can see the changes in the "Copyright" box in the sidebar.

It's a new year, and hopefully a new start in a number of ways. I hope you enjoy it - I know I will.

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