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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Science Fiction Movies
I've lamented the lack of quality science fiction movies a couple of times last year. There are a lot of quasi-SF movies out there. Something like I Am Legend could be termed science fiction, but when compared to more rigorous examples of the genre, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Contact, I'm not sure it really qualifies. A lot of big budget SF ends up being like that, so the really good SF movies of today tend to be lower budget.

So what does a SF movie need to do and how can it do it on a lower budget? John Scalzi took a crack at it recently and came up with three ways to cut costs. His first one is dead on:
1. Ditch the Stars
So how much does Will Smith get paid to make a movie these days? Well, $28 million for I, Robot -- or a quarter of that film's $105 million production budget (or $3 million more than all of Cloverfield).
Or approximately $28 million more than it took to make all of Primer (which cost $7,000). Now, I'll grant that Primer isn't the most visually spectacular movie, nor is its complex plotting very clear upon first inspection, but it is still very interesting and engaging (at least as much if not more than I, Robot).

Scalzi's next point is to avoid making it in Hollywood. A pretty good suggestion. It partially amounts to the same thing as his first suggestion (since one of the things a big studio will do is insist on a big name star), but it also means they'll suggest more special effects and cliched plot elements. Why? Because Hollywood has lots of money, and they want to spend it. David Foster Wallace once wrote about this sort of thing in an essay called F/X Porn. In it, he formulates what's call the Inverse Cost and Quality Law:
...it states very simply that the larger a movie's budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be. The case of "T2" shows that much of the ICQL's force derives from simple financial logic. A film that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make is going to get financial backing if and only if its investors can be maximally -- _maximally_ -- sure that at the very least they will get their hundreds of millions of dollars back [11] -- i.e. a megabudget movie must not fail (and "failure" here means anything less than a runaway box-office hit) and must thus adhere to certain reliable formulae that have been shown by precedent to maximally ensure a runaway hit. One of the most reliable of these formulae involves casting a superstar who is "bankable" (i.e. whose recent track record of films shows a high ROI). The studio backing for "T2'''s wildly sophisticated and digital F/X therefore depends on Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to reprise his Terminator role. Now the ironies start to stack, though, because it turns out that Schwarzenegger -- or perhaps more accurately "Schwarzenegger, Inc.," or "Ahnodyne" -- has decided that playing any more malevolent cyborgs would compromise the Leading Man image his elite and bankable record of ROI entails. He will do the film only if "T2"'s script is somehow engineered to make the Terminator the Good Guy. Not only is this vain and stupid and shockingly ungrateful [12], it is also common popular knowledge, duly reported in both the trade and the popular entertainment media before "T2" even goes into production. There's consequently a weird postmodern tension to the way we watch the film; we're aware of what the bankable star's demands were, and we're also aware of how much the movie cost and how important bankable stars are to a big-budget movie; and so one of the few things that keeps us on the edge of our seats during the movie is our suspense about whether James Cameron can possibly weave a plausible, non-cheesy narrative that meets Schwarzenegger's career needs without betraying "T1"'s precedent.

... Cameron's premise also permits the emotional center of "T2" to consist of the child and the Terminator "bonding," which in turn allows for all manner of familiar and reliable devices. Thus it is that "T2" offers us cliche explorations of stuff like the conflicts between Emotion and Logic (territory already mined to exhaustion by "Star Trek") and between Human and Machine (turf that's been worked in everything from "Lost in Space" to "Blade Runner" to "Robocop"), as well as exploiting the good old Alien - or - Robot - Learns - About - Human - Customs - and - Psychology - From - Sarcastic - and/or - Precocious - but - Basically - Goodhearted - Human - with - Whom - It - Bonds formula (q.q.v. here "My Favorite Martian" and "E.T." and "Starman" and "The Brother From Another Planet" and "Harry and the Hendersons" and "Alf" and ad almost infinitum).
So I think Scalzi's second point holds pretty well, even though he didn't quite ram it home by savaging a popular but not so great film like Wallace does with T2 (his essay is worth reading in its entirety)

And Scalzi's final point is also probably his most controversial and I'm not sure I buy it:
3. Hire the Screenwriter to Direct
The screenwriter is used to having his work brutally slaughtered by other filmmakers, so when he gets a chance to step up to the director's chair, he's going to do everything he can to make it work, no matter what.
I certainly buy his reasoning, but I'm not sure that's going to matter. Being good at putting together a script says nothing of your abilities behind the camera. If you're going to spend your money on something, it might as well be the director. Directors typically make 5-7% of a film's budget, and since we're talking about a low budget movie, that won't account for all that much. Plus, a good director generally has more of a tangible outcome on the success of a film than a popular, A-List actor (note that I didn't say "good" actor, though I think a director probably still wields more influence even in that case). Scalzi doesn't really expand on this one that much, but he does give an interesting caveat and example:
Warning, however: This is highly contingent on the two other factors. Case in point: David Twohy. When all Twohy had was $23 million, no big stars and a distribution deal with mini-studio USA Films, he made Pitch Black. When he had $120 million, big stars and Universal Studios backing him, he made The Chronicles of Riddick. Lesson: There's something to be said about keeping your screenwriter/director pinching pennies.
Indeed there is, and that's a point Wallace drives home in his essay with a corollary to his Inverse Cost and Quality Law:
(ICQL (b)) There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources.
Of course, despite focusing on T2 (a science fiction movie), Wallace isn't specifically talking about SF movies, and a lot of the advice in this post could probably stand for most movies.

I guess the good news is that low budget SF movies are getting made. The previously mentioned Cloverfield is an interesting example of a movie that looks great, but was made for only $25 million dollars. It's not a great film, but it does something interesting and new to the moster movie genre (though I guess it's only marginally SF). Another great example I saw this year was at the Philly Film Festival - a Spanish time-travel thriller called Timecrimes. It's a fantastic example of how a SF movie can look great and entertain, even on a small budget (though I'm sure significantly higher than Primer). A few more like this and we'll be in decent shape.
Posted by Mark on May 28, 2008 at 08:08 PM .: link :.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Anime Laws
These are very old, but new to me and I'm travelling this weekend, so time is short. So over at Everything2, someone put together a list of Anime Laws of Physics. Some of my favorites:
#4 - Law of Constant Thrust, First Law of Anime Motion
In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.
#11 - Law of Inherent Combustibility
Everything explodes. Everything.
#12 - Law of Phlogistatic Emission
Nearly all things emit light from fatal wounds.
#31 - Law of Follicular Chromatic Variability
Any color in the visible spectrum is considered a natural hair color. This color can change without warning or explanation.
Good stuff, and funny even if you don't watch anime.

Apologies for the lateness of this post. I was travelling this weekend, so I wrote it on Friday (inasmuch as it required "writing") with the understanding that I would be able to use my phone to publish it yesterday. Anyway, I lost my phone, hence no entry yesterday. Sorry...
Posted by Mark on May 26, 2008 at 12:42 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nazi Parody
As a fan of referential humor, I'm surprised I never caught on to this before. Indeed, I've even praised Rob Zombie's fake trailer in Grindhouse (for Werewolf Women of the S.S.) on several occassions without even realizing how closely he was parodying the genre. Then, while perusing some random list (on lists of bests), I found out about Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Wow. Talk about your similarities. Of course, Ilsa is not actually a werewolf (the "She Wolf" of the title appears to be metaphorical), but still. I guess I had a vague idea that Nazi exploitation films existed and that that is what Zombie was parodying, I just didn't realize that there were some that were so closely related to Zombie's trailer (which is still great, by the way - all the trailers in Grindhouse owe a great debt to the films they parody). I've added Ilsa to my Netflix queue, but I doubt I'll ever get to it. Some things are perhaps best left unexplored. (In typical Kaedrin fashion, now that I've said I won't, I'll probably run a series of Nazi Exploitation posts next month detailing my descent into grindhouse glory.)
Posted by Mark on May 21, 2008 at 10:35 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Firefox versus Opera
I use Opera to do most of my web browsing and have done so for quite a while. Is it time to switch to another browser? Or does Opera still meet my needs? After some consideration, the only realistic challenger is Firefox. What follows is not meant to be an objective comparison, though I will try to maintain impartiality and some of the criteria will be more fact based than others. Still, I'm not claiming this to be a definitive guide or anything. There are many features of both browsers that appeal to me, and many that I find irrelevant. Your experience will probably be different. Anyway, to start things off, a little history:

I first became aware of Opera in the late 1990s and I tried out version 3.5 and 4, but neither really made much of an impression. Plus, at the time, Opera was trialware... there was a free trial, but after that ended you needed to purchase the software if you wanted to keep using it. Starting with version 5, Opera became free, but it was ad-supported, and there was this big, honking banner ad built into the browser. On the other hand, Opera 5 was also the first browser to implement mouse gestures, the most addicting browser feature I've encountered (more on this later). As time went on and other browsers emerged, Opera finally relented and released a completely free browser in 2005. I've used Opera as much as possible since then, though I've occasionally used other browsers for various reasons. The biggest complaint I've had about Opera is that some websites don't render or operate correctly in Opera, thus forcing me to fire up IE or FF. This complaint has lessened with each successive release though, and Opera 9.x seems to be compatible with most websites. The only time I find myself opening another browser is to watch Netflix online movies, which only work in IE (more on this later). Opera is certainly not a perfect browser, but each release seems to contain new and innovative features, and it has always served me well.

The only browser that has really compared with Opera is Firefox. It's based on the open source Mozilla project, which began in 1998 as a replacement for the Netscape 4.x browser (which was badly in need of an overhaul). Unfortunately, development of the open source browser was slow going, allowing Microsoft to completely dominate the market. However, version 1.0 of the Mozilla Application Suite (which included more than just a browser) was launched in 2002. It was bloated and slow, but the underlying code (particularly the rendering engine, named gecko) was used as the base for several new projects, including Firefox. Firefox 1.0 was released in late 2004, and has been picking up steam ever since. It's the first browser to challenge IE's dominance of the market, and it's also far superior to IE. The current version of Firefox is mature and stable, and a new version (3.0) is on its way that will supposedly address many of the current complaints about FF.

Of course, these are not the only two browsers out there. Internet Explorer is notable for it's widespread adoption (during Q2 of 2004, IE had an asounding 95% share of the market). IE isn't very good compared to the competition, but its one virtue is that most websites will load and render properly in IE (and some websites will only work in IE). As a web developer, I have an intense dislike for IE, as it has poor standards support and is generally a pain to work with (especially IE6). IE7, while an improvement in many ways, also features some bizarre interface changes that make the browser less usable.

Also of note is Safari, Apple's default browser in OS X. Based on the open source KHTML engine (which runs KDE's Konqueror, the primary open source competitor to Mozilla/Firefox), it implements many of the same features of Opera and FF, but in a simple, lightweight way. I've never been much of a fan of Safari, though it should be noted as a valid competitor. It's a solid browser, fast and clean, but ultimately nothing really special (perhaps with more use, I would be won over). Finally, there are a number of other smaller scale or specialized browsers like Flock (which has many features tailored around integrating with social networking sites), but nothing there really fits me.

So the most realistic options for me are Opera and Firefox. Both have new browsers in Beta (or higher), but I'll be primarily using the current releases (Opera 9.27 and Firefox I've played around with Opera 9.5 and Firefox 3 RC1 and will keep them in mind. For reference, I'm running a PC with Intel Core 2 Duo (2.4 GHz), 2 GB RAM, and Windows XP SP2.
  • Default/Native Features: These first two criteria are tricky because they reflect the underlying philosophy of the two companies. Opera cleary has the better feature set out-of-the-box. Firefox is no slouch, of course, but it can't compete with the quality and quantity of Opera's default feature set. Both browsers have strong standards support, tabbed browsing, popup blocking, integrated web search, and other standard browser features. Now here's the tricky part. Opera has several features that FF doesn't. However, FF has one big feature that Opera doesn't, and that's their Extensions and Add-Ons (more on that in a moment). Opera does have a few major pieces of native functionality, like Mouse Gestures and Speed Dial, as well as other, smaller touches, like paste-and-go and the Trash Can. Now, the inclusion of all these features by default has its disadvantages as well. Especially when you consider all the features that aren't very useful. Opera includes an email client (which is decent except that I don't use it anymore), integrated BitTorrent support (which is awful and should be disabled), and the particularly weird Widgets (which are near useless, more on this below). This leads to the frequent claim by Firefox supporters that Opera is "bloated" with extra features. I suppose that's technically true, but then, Opera is also a smaller download (Opera 9.5b2 is 5,117 KB versus Firefox 3RC1's 7,317 KB), takes up less space on the HD (Opera at 6.02 MB versus Firefox at 22.6 MB, though FF also has Add-Ons), and has a lower memory footprint. Call it bloated if you like, but that doesn't mean that FF isn't bloated too (honestly though, this is a quibble - both are way, way better than IE).

    Winner: Opera

  • Add-Ons/Extensions/Plugins: While Firefox does not have many features installed by default, it does have support for Add-Ons, and there is a huge community of developers and a large number of useful Add-Ons available for download. Many of the things Opera does natively can be replicated using a FF Add-On (in my experience, the Add-On is not as good as the native support, but passable). In effect, Firefox actually has more features available than Opera because of these Add-Ons. Now, this philosophy also has its drawbacks. First, you have to seek out and install each Add-On, and second, some Add-Ons are poorly written and cause performance problems within FF. In the end, though, the usefulness of the Add-Ons outweigh the negatives. Opera remains stalwart in its refusal to implement any sort of plugin system (beyond the rudimentary, circa 1995 Netscape-like system they have now), though they did launch something called Widgets, which are pretty much worthless. Opera's reasoning for not supporting extensions is sound, but also limiting:
    Opera does not support third party extensions. Opera has rather incorporated the most useful and popular features in its browser and holds itself accountable for the functionality of these features. With integrated features rather than extensions, users are not subjected to the vulnerabilities of extensions created by third parties, which may or may not go through a verification or testing process. With the largest Web browser development lab in the world, Opera ensures that all of its features are smoothly integrated, tested and ready for the user.
    This is certainly one way to approach the situation, and it's also probably the reason why Opera's native functionality works better than Firefox's Add-Ons, but again, it's quite limiting. More than anything else, Extensions are what would make me switch from Opera to FF. Opera is very innovative and they were the first to implement many features into their browser (for instance, tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, and more recently, speed dial), but even when Opera does manage to implement a brand new feature not in FF, it doesn't take long for someone to put together an Add-On to duplicate the functionality. I'll talk a little more about my favorite extensions as we go. Again, the positives of having an open system for third-party extensions far outweigh the negatives.

    Winner: Firefox

  • Other Customization: Both browsers are highly customizeable and powerful. The interface customization abilities are more extensive in Opera and their Theme manager is easier to use, but Firefox can generally follow along, though sometimes they need to rely on an Extension to allow customization. I don't do a whole lot of advanced configuration in either browser, but both browsers have a way to configure various preferences (beyond the basic options in the menu), etc...

    Winner: Tie

  • General Web Browsing: There are a lot of elements to this that will be separated out (i.e., Mouse Gestures, speed, performance, etc...), so what this amounts to is how well each browser loads pages. Since Opera has never commanded more than a few percent of the browser share, most web development doesn't take Opera into account. In the past, this meant that many pages did not look right or operate correctly in Opera. As time has gone on and web standards have become more prevalent, Opera has improved considerably in this respect (well, technically, Opera has always been relatively standards compliant, it's just that the standards are being used more these days) to the point now where I very rarely need to open a different browser. However, there are still pages that render poorly and would look better in other browsers and a page I use frequently, the Netflix streaming video functionality, won't work in Opera. Of course, it won't work in Firefox either, but Firefox has one of those crazy Add-Ons called IE Tab which loads an instance of IE inside Firefox's tabs (meaning that you don't have to exit out of Firefox or fire up a separate IE window). Firefox has captured around 15% of the market and is a favorite of the web development community (see next bullet for more), so it has much better support amongst websites. Opera still lags behind because of its small market share, to the point where even Internet software giants like Google don't launch applications with strong Opera support (for instance, every time Google Reader upgrades their interface, it stops working in Opera for a few days while the Google developers scramble to issue a fix).

    Winner: Firefox

  • Mouse Gestures: This is probably the most important piece of functionality a browser must have for me. Browsing the internet is a mouse intensive activity, and Opera realized early on that providing this functionality would drastically improve the browsing experience. Opera has native Mouse Gestures support, while Firefox has an Add-On (actually, it has several, but only one of them is worth its salt) that provides similar functionality. However, Opera's functionality has always felt smoother and easier to use. The FF Add-On is a little buggy, the browsing experience is a little rougher, and it seems to be easier to screw up a gesture. I think part of this is that Opera has more caching enabled by default than Firefox, which leads to a more seamless experience when browsing. I'm sure there are ways to make FF more responsive, but I haven't played around with it (and Opera is fantastic by default). I might not be representative of the general internet population, but I think this is one of the most useful and important features a browser can have, and Opera's implementation is just plain better.

    Winner: Opera

  • Web Development Tools: Part of my job requires frontend web development, and Firefox unquestionably has the better web development tools. The Web Developer Toolbar and Firebug tandem is difficult to beat. Opera's latest revision of their developer tools, called Dragonfly, is an impressive leap forward and requires some more inspection, but my initial impression is that they still have a ways to go before they catch up with Firefox's Add Ons.

    Winner: Firefox

  • Speed: Opera is often the winner in various benchmark tests, including this relatively old but thorough comparison of browser speeds (it's been updated a few times and has Opera 9 and FF 2, but is now retired and does not contain stats for the latest releases). Similarly, spot-checking various other benchmarks seems to further indicate Opera's speed. Then again, some initial reports of FF3 seem to indicate an improvement. As always, you have to take these sorts of benchmarks and reports with a grain of salt. My subjective perception of speed is that Opera is faster, but I haven't used FF3 very much, and I'm also not sure how much of that speed is due to caching settings.

    Winner: Opera

  • Performance: This one seems to be more tricky. In my admittedly arbitrary and unscientific test, I opened 10 tabs of commonly visited websites in both browsers. Opera was using ~99 MB, while FF was using ~150 MB. (Sites used include Kaedrin Weblog, CBS Sportsline's Fantasy Baseball LiveScoring page, GMail, Google Reader, Wikipedia, IMDB, and a few others) It's worth noting that Firefox has always had complaints about memory usage, especially when you have a lot of tabs open. In some cases, memory issues were traced to malfunctioning Add-Ons or plugins. I've seen other benchmark tests that have closer results and apparently FF 3 has made massive improvements in this area. In my own subjective experience, FF tends to bog down, especially when I have many tabs open, so I'm going to give this to Opera, but if FF 3 works out the way everyone thinks, this may be up for grabs. I'd like to do some more detailed and formal tests on this one though (perhaps later this week).

    Winner: Opera

  • Intangibles: As I've already mentioned, I primarily use Opera to browse, so I am obviously biased towards Opera. I suppose there's also something to be said for rooting for the underdog, though when it comes to usability and performance, that shouldn't matter (and really, it doesn't - Opera is a genuinely great browser). And finally, Opera is more innovative than any other browser. They had tabbed browsing years and years before anyone else, their implementation of Mouse Gestures was revolutionary (for me, at least), and more recently, Speed Dial has become a favorite of mine. Their advances small interface issues (like the Trash Can or Paste-and-Go) are rarely noted, but are very useful (enough so that FF has had Add-Ons created to replicate the interfaces). The fact that Firefox can do all of these things doesn't mean they would have come up with them first, and I suppose that's worth mentioning. On the other hand, Firefox is an open source project (there is some controversy about that, but it's still better than Opera) and their philosophy of Add-Ons allows for a much broader range of browser capabilities and customization. In general, I prefer openness to closed systems, so there's another point for Firefox. It's also worth noting that Firefox's market share has been steadily increasing while Opera's has been decreasing (and when your high point is around 2.5%, that's not saying much). Opera has made a name for themselves in the embedded market (i.e. it's on lots of cell phones and other hardware (like the Wii)), so they won't be going away anytime soon, but it seems like Firefox is moving faster now. This is a really close one, but I'll lean towards Firefox because it seems to have a brighter future.

    Winner: Firefox
Well look at that, we've got a tie. Both Opera and Firefox have won 4 of the 8 above categories, which means I'll have to come up with some sort of tie-breaker or weighting. I think I'm going to end up staying with Opera for now, with the caveat that Firefox seems to have a brighter future. Opera does the right things really well, while Firefox is more flexible and open. I also tend to use Firefox as my primary browser for web development efforts (but that's a strange one, as I use all browsers in web development, though the FF web developer's toolbar and Firebug are really indispensible). However, for day to day activity, Opera is still good for me.

So what does the future hold? If Opera continues to lose market share and doesn't find a way to account for the extensions of Firefox, it's going to be in real trouble (they seem to think their Widgets system will do this, but it really won't). Honestly, if FF 3 really does solve their memory problems, I might even be switching over that soon.
Posted by Mark on May 18, 2008 at 08:22 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Creative Balance and DRM in Video Games
There's an interesting interview in The Escapist with Cliff Bleszinski (who worked on the Unreal games and the Gears of War games). As Ars Technica notes, one of the strange things about the interview is that Bleszinski seems to be saying that the less gaming he does, the better he becomes at his job.
I'm at the point now where I want to make sure I have a good work/life balance. I'll play Call of Duty 4, but I might not necessarily get all the achievements; I might not get to the next level as far as leveling up in the online experience. I might not beat Army of Two. I'll give it a good five or six hours and be like, "OK, I get the experience. Now I want to check out the latest movie." Or I want to be outside taking my dog out or just experiencing life in general and meeting new people.

One thing I've learned throughout my life ... being tasked with creating new characters and new IP is, you have to have that pool in your head of experience in life to draw from. ...

I love this medium; I think it's the most compelling medium to ever exist in the history of entertainment. To be a good creative, you need to be a well-rounded person. You need to have life experience. You need to have your heart broken. You need to experience loss. You need to raise puppies and have a family eventually and know what it's like to put the top down and drive 120 mph on a beautiful day with the leaves kicking up behind you, with the music playing. Because if you don't know what that's like, how are you going to have a real-life frame of reference to compare it to when you try to bring that level of excitement into your games? I think it's definitely good to live life and be a well-rounded designer.
Interesting stuff. Of course there's nothing particularly new about this. When you limit your creative influences, your creativity is sure to become limited as well. The fact that most game designers get into the industry because they love gaming is a good thing, but when they continue to eat, breath, and sleep gaming, a few things happen.

As Bleszinski mentions, creativity tends to suffer in such situations, and thus the industry ends up doing the same old thing over and over again. As a casual gamer, this part isn't as noticeable to me... however, I do tend to notice that games have gotten harder to pick up and more difficult to complete (not all games, of course). I don't mind a challenge, but I think there are some games out there that really attempt to push the boundries of difficulty, and this is done because hardcore gamers demand this sort of thing, especially if the game is a simple rehash of old concepts. But casual gamers get burnt out on this type of thing pretty quickly. Many of these games are very rich and detailed... so much so that I simply don't have the time to parse all the details and get to a point where I'm actually doing well.

None of which is to suggest that game designers shouldn't play games. In the computer industry, using one's own product is known as eating your own dog food, and it's an important part of software development. Of course, similar to with games, this can also lead to incredibly powerful and flexible software that is overly complicated for a casual user (i.e. linux).

This made me wonder about DRM. Pretty much any gamer who legitimately purchases their games hates DRM. It can be incredibly frustrating; even the simple systems that only require the CD to be in the drive to play the game can get annoying. I look at some of the draconian systems being put in place on high profile games today, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think it's a good idea to implement something like this. I guarantee that the people who are pushing for these systems are not eating their own dog food.

Interestingly, there is one small but successful gaming company that doesn't use any form of DRM at all. The company is called Stardock, and I think part of the reason they don't use DRM is because the founder and head of Stardock, Brad Wardell, is a gamer himself. He's often written about his dislike for copy protection, so it shouldn't be that surprising that he knows his dogfood. He also has a keen business mind in that he doesn't believe in inconveniencing his best customers and treating them like criminals. Go figure. That's why I'll gladly shell out money for the latest Stardock game, even if it kicks my ass.
Posted by Mark on May 14, 2008 at 07:33 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Link Dump: Space!
Time is short, so just a few space themed links for you:
  • Space Station Movie Night: A while back, NASA released the International Space Station's daily logs. Most of the entries are rather dry and technical, but the astronauts sometimes logged what movies they were watching, and Scott David Herman decided to collect all of them in a post. Some highlights:
    24 NOV 2000: Watched disk 1 of "Apocalypse Now". Shep tried to explain why Robert Duvall is always wearing the black cavalry hat, but being a Navy guy, he's not sure he understands it either.

    29 DEC 2000: Let the real "Space Odyssey 2001" proceed.

    5 JAN 2001: Finished the 2nd disk of "2010". Something strange about watching a movie about a space expedition when you're actually on a space expedition.

    26 JAN 2001: We eat dinner and watch "GI Jane". Lots of SEAL questions, and Shep explains why this is not exactly like the real SEAL training.

    6 FEB 2001: We ate some dinner and watched the last part of "City of Angels". Shep did his best to explain to Yuri and Sergei what the phrase "chick flick" means.
    Interestingly, they seem to be watching movies on CDs and dont get a DVD player until 2001 or so. Anyway, lots more there. Interesting stuff.
  • Amazing Photos of the NASA Space Shuttle: A series of photos showing how the Space Shuttle and its rocket boosters are assembled in preparation for a launch.
  • Cities at Night: The View from Space: Amazing photos of cities taken from the ISS on the dark side of the planet. You get an interesting view of each city, and the overall density of human development by looking at these photos. I remember seeing something like this world map a while back, and there are many telling observations you could make about human development (observe the difference between North and South Korea, for instance), but you don't get much detail from that. These photos are great. See also this video detailing how the shots were taken and taking a tour around the world... [video via K-Squared Ramblings]
  • The Earth and the Moon as seen from Mars: An interesting perspective. Ever notice in TV shows or movies that whenever you see a planet, you're almost always seeing the full planet in direct view of the sun (i.e. the "light side" of the planet, with none of the dark side visible). [via Kottke]
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on May 11, 2008 at 09:57 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Via Steven's post on site tracking, I found out that Sitemeter was tracking rather more than it really should (use of spyware cookies and all that). This is a shame, as I really loved some things about Sitemeter, and none of the alternatives were able to approach the simple and useful reporting Sitemeter provided. I was particularly fond of their Visitor Detail page (note, that's a link to a screenshot, not Sitemeter), which contains a good summary of a visitor, where they came from, where they went on my site, and other standard info (OS, browser, location, etc...). They only tracked the last 100 visitors, but that was plenty good enough for me, and the service served me well for the past 9 years or so.

Still, they had frequent downtimes, and they've done very little to improve the service over the past 9 years, so I've always kept an eye open for alternatives. None of the popular services have ever really satisfied me though. Now comes this news of spyware, which is just a crappy situation, and so I've decided to remove all instances of Sitemeter from my site. This is most frustrating and I'm not happy with the situation. I've removed it from all blog pages as well as my main page. The rest of the site will have to wait a bit while I breath some life into my crappy, antiquated XSLT content management scheme (hopefully this will be completed by this weekend).

I've been playing around with Google Analytics for a bit, but they don't provide the kind of detail that I want for individual visits (though they're great for collecting general stats). I just installed StatCounter, which kinda, sorta has a page similar to the visit detail page from Sitemeter. But we'll have to see how that works out. I've heard good things about Mint, and I've heard that they have a plugin/extension/whatever-they-call-it that approximates Sitemeter's visit detail page. However, Mint actually costs money (imagine that!) and I don't want to pay for something that I'm not even sure will work for me.

Anyone know of another good stat package? Anyone actually use Mint? Again, what I'm really looking for is something that will provide details like this screenshot (perhaps with more details on what pages were actually visited (rather than just entry and exit pages)). [thanks to Robert for the link to details on the spyware cookies]

Update: StatCounter's visit detail page is pretty good, though you have to click through too many pages to get there.
Posted by Mark on May 07, 2008 at 11:38 PM .: link :.

According to Technorati, there are 112.8 million weblogs (as we'll see, this is probably a highly dubious number). I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the grand majority of them aren't very active. Even among active ones, I'm betting that most don't have much of a readership. Like this blog! Part of this is that blogs fall into a power law distribution, with a small set of bloggers getting the majority of the traffic. The rest of us are in the long tail, and it can be hard to find each other.

Enter Technorati, a service that seeks to track weblogs in numerous ways. You can go there and search on a subject to see what other blogs are saying about that subject. And if you're a blogger, you can see what other blogs are linking to you. They give each blog an "Authority" score which is based on how many people have linked to you (I think there's more to it than that, but I don't care enough to look into it that much), and then they rank all blogs by authority. To give you an idea of how this works, Kaedrin has an authority of 20. The top 10 blogs on Technorati have an authority of somewhere around 10,000 to 25,000.

Here's the problem: Technorati sucks. It definitely doesn't track all the blogs out there (not that big a deal, such a task is probably pretty tough), but it's definitely sure to pick up every new bottom-feeding spammer blog. In other words, every time I write a new post, it gets linked by two freshly minted spam blogs. Those show up fine. Meanwhile, a real blogger (who is listed on Technorati) links me, and Technorati doesn't pick that up (I find out by looking at my referrers). And the same thing happens when I link to other people. For some reason, Technorati decides some of my posts are not worthy of tracking. For instance, my last post isn't showing up in Technorati.

This happens every once in a while, and I think I've figured out why. It seems to happen when I post out of order. I generally post twice a week, but sometimes I start an entry early. Last week, I started writing my review of GitS:SAC on Tuesday. I hadn't finished by Wednesday, so I wrote and posted another entry while I finished off my review. On Sunday, I finished my review and posted it, but Technorati didn't pick it up (despite repeated pings and other attempts to allow the post to show up). Now, none of this shouldn't matter, but apparently Technorati thinks it does, because this exact situation has happened several times. Maybe it's because Movable Type numbers my posts, and if I post entries out of order, perhaps it confuses Technorati. For example, last week, I posted entry 1421 after I posted entry 1422. If this is why Technorati can't figure out that I posted something on Sunday, it's pretty damn stupid. It can't be that hard to fix this. Technorati claims that they track posts by scraping the page and also by using RSS feeds, but if that's the case, they must be doing something really dumb to get tripped up by postings showing up out of order.

So basically, Technorati doesn't track all the good weblogs, but it keeps up with all the spammers' weblogs. For some reason, it doesn't register a post that was written out of order either. So what's the point? I guess it works ok for bloggers who get lots of links. If you get a lot of links, the signal drowns out the noise of the spammers, and you don't miss the posts that Technorati doesn't pick up because you've got plenty of other links to go through. But for those of us on the long tail, it's nearly useless. It doesn't hurt anything, I suppose, so I'll continue to check every once in a while, but I'm not getting my hopes up. I don't think I've discovered any new blogs through Technorati that I hadn't discovered first from my referrers.
Posted by Mark on May 07, 2008 at 09:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is an anime series that is based on the same Manga that inspired two films (both reviewed on Kaedrin previously). For the most part, it deals with similar subjects and themes, though it does so in a less somber and more prosaic manner, sometimes even finding room for humor and the occasional smile. Despite some flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the series and if you enjoyed the movies, I don't see why you wouldn't enjoy the series.

The series is comprised of a mixture stand alone and continuity (or as they call it, "complex") episodes. There is a good balance between the two types of episodes, though I do think that some of the stand alone episodes felt a little rushed and could have benefited from having more time to flesh out the stories (whether that be longer episodes or splitting the story up into two episodes). That said, the stand alone episodes are still entertaining and often contribute towards the larger series (i.e. they're not completely stand alone). The continuity episodes tell the story of The Laughing Man, a masterful hacker and terrorist who has been blackmailing major corporations for six years.

Thematically, this series touches on many of the same issues as the films, but in a less direct fashion. The movies could be mind-numbingly dense at times, often directly confronting the philosophical implications of the technology in their universe (a subject I find interesting and discussed in my reviews of those movies). There are occasional info-dumps or philosophical discussions in the series, but nothing on par with the films. However, many of these technological issues come to light as a part of the plot, which tends to move forward as a result of action rather than conversations. This works well after having seen the two movies, though I'm not sure how well it would work if you haven't seen either of them. If I had to guess, I'd say this series still raises all the fascinating questions the films does, just in a less direct fashion. What makes me what I am? Am I really who I think I am? If I could copy my brain into a computer network, would that still be me? If I could swap "shells" (bodies) or project my "ghost" (i.e. soul) into another shell, is that me? Again, the series doesn't confront these issues directly, but it does use such technology in service of the story, which begs the questions. What would the subjective experience of transferring your consciousness from one body to another be like? Can a machine develop or have a ghost? What's the difference between an artificial body (like the Major has) and an avatar (like the Major uses in episode 9)? And so on.

Another interesting thing about the series is external memory, or memories that are not stored in your brain (but on some other media, like a hard drive). These devices are referenced much more frequently in this series than in the movies, and I found it interesting because that is the direction we're heading. The internet has created this phenomenon wherby you think you know something, but you really don't... you just know where to look up the information on the internet. Obviously, this isn't new (or unique to the internet), but it is accelerating. It reminded me of Charles Stross' book Accelerando, a book I didn't particularly love and never actually finished, but which had some interesting technological musings. At one point in the book, a character who stayed in constant communication with the net via a pair of glasses has them stolen. Without the glasses (i.e. without access to his external memory), he feels profoundly lost and unable to cope with reality. Obviously, we haven't reached that point yet, but GitS:SAC shows several examples of this sort of thing.

There are some new themes as well, namely the titular Stand Alone Complex, which refers to a phenomenon where you see emergent copycat behavior without an original. For example, let's say that someone dies in suspicous circumstances. The death could very well be attributed to natural causes, but some people might be tempted to call it a murder or conspiracy, and even others might take the opportunity to commit a copycat murder. The situation could escalate into a series of murders, all by different copycat killers. This is a stand alone complex, and it's distinct from normal copycat behavior in that the original death was not actually a murder. As Chief Aramaki notes, they're "Nothing but copies without an original." It's something of an odd concept, and it's a little difficult to understand during the series, but it does touch on many concepts I find fascinating, such as emergent, self-organizing behavior. It also appears in several forms throughout the series, with direct references, but also in more subtle ways. For example, the Laughing Man's logo is basically a second-order simulacra, which is a symbol without a referant. The symbol contains a quote from Catcher in the Rye and the name Laughing Man is a reference to another Salinger story, but the symbol doesn't really represent either, nor does it actually represent what became known as "The Laughing Man."

Public Security Section 9
Public Security Section 9

The main characters of the series are the members of a special operations task-force called Public Security Section 9. This is a small team of around 8 well trained and competent members whose main charter is to perform search and rescue operations, but this ends up leading to counter-terrorism and more general anti-crime tasks. You get a much better idea of what this organization is during the series, and you also get to know its members a little better (though perhaps not as much as I liked, more on this later). Many of the members who only have fleeting appearances in the movies take on a more solid role in the series. The team seems to be highly autonomous and independent, picking and choosing their targets carefully, but often without interference from the rest of the government. This is probably due to the political leader of the group, Chief Aramaki. Members of the team also share this autonomous and independent attitude and are often trusted to carry out tasks without any intrusion from others. Aside from the Chief and Major Kusanagi (who seems to have emerged as the team's combat leader), there don't appear to be any ranks or jobs, though it's obvious that some members of the team have certain specialties (for instance Ishikawa is almost always at a computer terminal, crunching numbers or tracking down the "ditigal paper trail" of whoever Section 9 is hunting, and he almost never enters battle. On the other hand, Batou is clearly a brute force combat specialist who almost never messes around with information warfare.)


Again, the movies tend to be more philosophically inclined than the series, which seems content to let the philosophical implications of their universe simmer beneath the surface of a straightforward police procedural (albeit one that is spiced up with hackers, an addition that actuall works well). There are occasions when the philosophy comes to the foreground though, such as episodes 12 and 15, both of which deal with Section 9's AI-equipped mini-tanks, the Tachikomas. In a previous post on Gits:SAC, Author wondered if I was liking the Tachikomas, which gave me the impression that they're dislikd in the Anime world (not sure about that though). To be sure, the Tachikomas do seem to have a child-like demeanor (they're voiced in high pitched, young sounding female voices, for instance) and often make naive statements. These "cute" characteristics are odd when considering that they are combat vehicles. Conceptually, however, they do provide fodder for one of the interesting themes of the GitS universe, namely the question of whether or not a machine can acquire a ghost (aka a soul). In the series, Tachikomas have artificial intelligence... however, they are synchronized every night so they have identical memories. This leads to some confusion later on, as memories experienced by a specific Tachikoma become shared amongst all the other Tachikomas... which begs the question of which one of them actually experienced the event (they can't figure it out). It is interesting that despite the synchronization process, the Tachikomas somehow manage to develop individual and distinct personalities. So even though they "wake up" every morning with the same memories, they still exhibit differing personalities and opinions (for example, one of the Tachikomas spends all its time reading paper books... every night, the memory of reading these books is synchronized with the other Tachikomas, but this one Tachikoma is the only one that continues to read).


In Isaac Asimov's robot novels, one of the main characters, a humanoid robot named R. Daneel Olivaw, mentions that while he cannot experience emotions, his positronic circuitry seems to run more smoothly when he's around Elijah Baily (his human parter). When thinking about the potential paradoxes created by the synchronization process, I thought of Olivaw. The engineer in me also thought of tolerances and chaos theory, meaning that even though each Tachikoma has it's memories and consciousness synchronized every night, minor defects in the manufacturing process (which are within tolerance) could account for differences in personality (inasmuch as a machine can have a personality). Batou seems to have the most affection for the Tachikomas, and has indeed picked one particular Tachikoma as his own (and he pampers it with natural oil instead of the synthetic oil used for the others - this leads to interesting consequences later on in the series). Ultimately, the Tachikomas are a relatively small part of the series, but I think they are an important part of the series, and I guess given the above, I did really like their storyline and would welcome more.

Despite the lighter tone of the show, it does still tackle mature themes and the setting is somewhat "grim and gritty" (like the movies) and so I can see why someone like Steven Den Beste wouldn't be that interested in the series (though I think he would find the existential questions interesting, I can see how he wouldn't love the universe that brings them up). I have less of a read on what Author likes, though I gather he didn't care much for this series. However, I do think that Fledge would enjoy the show, if only he could get Netflix Watch Instantly running...

One of the big complaints of the series is that the animation is poor, and that is indeed true. This is a huge step down from the two films. The conceptual design is actually quite good, and there are some striking compositions throughout the series, but the biggest issues are that the backgrounds are less textured and the movements are less fluid. There is also an inconsistency in the way certain characters are drawn that gets annoying (see below the fold for an egregious example). The screenshots I'm posting actually look decent, but again, it's the movement of the characters that is really lacking. I'm hoping that the 2nd Gig series will be an improvement (I'm pretty sure it's not), but in any case, though the animation was inferior, it also didn't distract me too much from the story or themes (which I consider more important, and they are indeed very well done).


The music of the series is different than the films, but holds it's own. This shouldn't be a surprise, as the music is mostly done by Yoko Kanno (the composer behind Cowboy Bebop's awesome music). Though perhaps not as distinctive as her work on Cowboy Bebop, Kanno's music is quite good and better than most anime series I've seen. Also on the sound front, I'll note that the dubbing for this series is much, much better than it is for the first movie (I don't think there is a dub for the second movie). I was using Netflix's online-streaming service, so I didn't have the choice to watch a sub, so I can't comment on that (or on any differences in translation), but again, the dubbing is pretty well done here.

So I really enjoyed the series and have added Gits:SAC 2nd Gig to my queue. It's got its flaws, but its positives outweight the negatives handily.

More comments and screenshots below the fold... As mentioned above, the animation in the series is not as detailed or textured as the movies. It can also be quite inconsistent, such as this case in which it looks like Batou put on a hundred pounds between episodes.

Batous fat face
Batou's fat face

Normal batou
Normal Batou

Most members of Section 9 are cyberized to some degree, but Togusa is almost completely human (he has cyberbrain implants, but that's it). Interestingly, Togusa is one of the most valuable members of the team, and he's constantly putting pieces of the puzzle together before his cyberized partners. Here's the Major and Togusa debating the Laughing Man Case.

Togusa and the Major
Togusa and the Major

The OP for the series features a completely different kind of CG animation. It's a much smoother, shinier CG render. It seems to be more detailed as well, and the shading is definitely better. The movement is still a little jerky and the look begins to approach the uncanny valley for characters, so I guess I'm glad that the actual episodes don't rely on this too heavily. Still, it is a little strange that the OP features this different animation...

CG Rendered Major
CG Rendered Major

And the ED for the series takes on yet another style. The art is similar to that used in the series, but instead of being animated, all you see are still shots of various characters. Like the OP, it features a bunch of scenes not in the series, which wouldn't be that big of a deal, except that I think a lot of these still shots depict things I kinda wanted to see in the series. I mentioned above that you got to know the members of Section 9 a little better, but you do so mostly through their work. In some of the stills of the ED, you see several members just kinda hanging out, playing cards, or shooting some pool. I would have liked to have seen that sort of thing in the series a little more often. In several cases, stuff like this is hinted at, but nothing much comes of it. For instance, the Major seems to have several female friends (roommates?), but she rarely sees them. (This made me wonder if full replacement cyborgs ever sleep or if they're pretty much constantly working. There are some references to hobbies and whatnot - Batou lifts weights, the Major mentions watching movies, etc... but we never see much of this in the show. Somwhere along the way, I got the implication that being a full replacement cyborg was hugely expensive and that they are basically obliged to work long hours to pay off their maintenance...)

Togusa and Ishkawa watch Saito play cards
Togusa and Ishkawa watch Saito play cards

Boma and Pazu shoot some pool
Boma and Pazu shoot some pool

In a previous post, I mentioned that Major Kusanagi tends to wear... suggestive... outfits. I found it a little odd. Steven Den Beste noted that it could be a character trait:
As to why Kusanagi wears lingerie a lot of the time, that might well be explainable in character terms. Remember that she's a full-replacement cyborg. The only "original equipment" left is her brain. All the rest is mechanism.

At least based on the movie, it's apparent that some full-replacement cyborgs have doubts about just how human they really are. The body is arbitrary; it can easily be changed. Kusanagi's brain could have been put into a male-form body, or into something that didn't look human at all.

Having a sexy form (e.g. with entirely cosmetic breasts) and emphasizing that sexiness with skimpy clothing might be part of her psychological need to reassure herself that she's still a woman, and not just a machine with a human brain inside it.
I don't know if I fully buy that, but it's certainly an interesting conjecture. The Major does get "dressed up" for formal occasions, and she actually manages to wear pants for a good portion of the episodes. Still, I found it a little odd. At one point, while wearing an especially skimpy outfit, Chief Aramaki actually calls it out as being strange, which I thought was kinda funny. In any case, the psychological implications of being a full replacement cyborg certainly play a role in the series. As full replacement cyborgs, they often cling to objects that have sentimental meaning to them - the Major has a watch. This is basically a way of reminding herself that she's still human (or that she was human). As these things go, the Major is actually not that sentimental, but Batou certainly is. He lifts weights (but since he's a cyborg, he has no muscle tissue, so the act has no real meaning other than to connect with his humanity), he has a favorite Tachikoma, and in the movies he has a basset hound. Anyway, here are some pics of the Major:

The Major
The Major, in uniform

The Major again

The Major has a nice ass

And just for good measure, here are some of the vehicle designs in the series. The creators seem to have a thing for propellers.



Armored Combat Suits

And that about wraps things up. Up next is Banner of the Stars. I actually have the DVDs in hand this time, so it should be a relatively quick watch...
Posted by Mark on May 04, 2008 at 02:47 PM .: link :.

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