In-Flight movie reviews: The Raid 2, Frozen, The Zero Theorem, Anchorman 2, Charade, The Ipcress File

This time: The Raid 2, Frozen, The Zero Theorem, Anchorman 2, Charade, The Ipcress File

The Raid 2 [Trailer]

The Raid 2 has the same pull-no-punches fight choreography as the original Indonesian action hit The Raid: Redemption, while effectively adding more locations and a larger plot with decent acting. The director successfully sets a new bar for badassery with his characters. The problem is that the brutal action sometimes made me feel a bit.. guilty?

For example, two henchmen (henchpeople? henchfighters?) named in the credits as "Hammer Girl" and "Baseball Bat Man" are particularly effective and ruthless with their eponymous weapons of choice, but I found it hard to root for them when they were basically just beating the crap out of poorly-matched opponents. The movie works better when the hero character takes on a crowd (so you can root for him), or when the hero fights these henchmen (so it's a fair fight).

The original Raid was about a police raid in a single apartment building, with an economy of story that worked quite well. The sequel expands this into relatively derivative gangster epic, but the characters are memorable, and the acting effective. I rather liked Arifin Putro's spoiled, hot-headed son of a mob boss character. Even though the story was nothing new, he did a good job of showing the range of this tragic villain.

Finally, I should add that, while Hammer Girl is an example of an awesome and non-sexualized female character, nearly all the other women in the film are sex workers of some kind, and there's a scene of non-graphic but disturbing violence against one of them. I'm sure there's a lot of sex work and violence against women in organized crime, but since gangster movies inherently celebrate gangsterhood to some degree, I feel there's usually a certain salacious quality to such scenes, even if they're purporting to condemn the abuse. It's time to move on.

So in short, The Raid 2 had a lot of sweet, ass-kicking action that I found a bit hard to enjoy because some of it bothered me emotionally and morally.

Frozen [Trailer]

Surprisingly subversive Disney movie that challenges the traditional Disney storylines about love at first sight and all that. Good female role models, reasonably complex characters, and quite hilarious at times!

I went into this not knowing anything at all about the plot. If you haven't seen it yet (probably only possible if you have no kids), I recommend skipping ahead to my other reviews and seeing it cold (no pun intended).

So yeah, I went in not knowing that Elsa wasn't the protagonist, so even that was a surprise. I like that Anna is empowered but without necessarily being a tomboy like Mulan. I was expect Elsa to get coupled up by the end of the movie, and I was glad to see that didn't happen, either. In fact, I'm pretty sure Elsa is Disney's first unmarried Queen who isn't a villain? Imagine that!

Of course, while watching the movie, all these politics were only at the back of my mind, because the story was engaging. Oglaf the snowman sidekick was quite funny, too.

Between this and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney Animation has been impressing me lately. I look forward to Big Hero 6!

The Zero Theorem [Trailer]

This is the latest movie by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, who made 12 Monkeys and Brazil. Sadly, it doesn't live up to his best films. It's basically about Christoph Waltz as a Qohen, a worker bee, trying to find meaning in life, occasionally helped by Melanie Thierry's manic pixie dream prostitute.

Zero Theorem is at its best when Qohen ventures outside, and animated commercials follow him, hawking the virtues of such institutions as "The Church of Batman the Redeemer". Alas, most of the movie is just of him moping about, with not much happening.

In a way, many of us can likely relate to days of wanting to just hole up, miring in existential depression, but Zero Theorem doesn't really reveal any particularly new insights.

Perhaps that's in fitting with the theme, that there is no point in anything anyway. But then, what's the point in watching this movie?

There is one other bright spot, and that's the therapy A.I., played by Tilda Swinton, always a delight. So I think the best tagline for this movie would be, "At one point in this movie, Tilda Swinton raps!" :D

Anchorman 2

(Trailers would just spoil jokes, I imagine. If you've seen the original Anchorman, expect more of the same.)

I went in with low expectations, and was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did. The quasi-mocking of sexism and racism still falls a bit flat for me because I feel it's as much celebrating the stereotypes as condemning them, but the absurdism is great!

My question is: Why is there no Brick and Chani spin-off movie yet? They were by far the highlight. Every line from Brick was hilarious.

So to overanalyze it, I think Brick is so lovable in part because everyone else in the crew is, well, a pretty awful person, really. The only innocents in the whole cast are Steve Carrel's Brick and his new counterpart Chani, played by Kristen Wiig, and so they are really the only truly sympathetic characters in the main cast.

Charade [Fan Trailer]

Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant star in what might be the first thriller-romcom? Hepburn's husband is dead, a cast of unsavory characters thinks she knows where a stolen stash of money is, and Grant is helping her out… or is he? They've got great chemistry with witty quips, and the suspense isn't bad, either.

Interestingly, the IMDb trivia page says Grant was worried that their 28 year age difference might make him seem too predatory, so the writers gave all his more aggressively flirty lines to Hepburn instead, and that made it work better.

The Ipcress File

(No trailer link because the trailer is terrible and mis-represents the film)

Young Michael Caine! As a British secret agent! But this is very much the anti-Bond. Instead of casinos in rivieras and fancy gadgets, we have lots of talk about filling out forms and grocery shopping. There's even a cooking scene where a famous chef provides stunt hands for vegetable chopping! (Would you like your carrots diced or shredded?)

That said, there's still plenty of suspense and intrigue, just with a low level burn, as inter-departmental rivalries threaten to get in the way as scientists are kidnapped and agents are killed.

One thing Palmer does have in common with Bond is a love for repartée, and Caine clearly could've made for an excellent Bond, in a different movie.

I can't believe I hadn't seen this before. Its more realistic take on spy work is a clear inspiration for, say, the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or perhaps procedurals like The French Connection. There are sequels that I look forward to seeing now, though they seem to be hard to get ahold of in the US (since they're old British films).

What made Babylon 5 special

londo-gkar

A friend asked me if he should watch Babylon 5.

Short answer:

It was only after I started writing this that I realized my favorite things about Babylon 5 are its characters. I still have such fond memories of them. They are all so flawed, complex, hilarious, tragic, and lovable. The show is worth watching for the characters alone.

I LOVED Babylon 5 and was absolutely obsessed with it. The show was ahead of its time in many ways, especially in pionering the multi-season story arc. (Even most shows with multi-season arcs today are mostly winging it as they go, just with continuity, but B5 had the major beats planned out in advance!) Yet, I must admit that, because its innovations became popular, it might not seem as special today.

Babylon 5 features morally-ambiguous conflicts and Tolkein-esque grandeur mixed mixed with a healthy dose of humor. And memorable characters as I mentioned. Its downside is that there are some bad episodes amidst the good, and some of the writing may feel a bit stiff and unnatural.

Compared to, say, Battlestar Galactica, BSG is even better on the moral conflict stuff, and the characters feel even more "real", but Babylon 5 does a much better job with the more mythological elements, and it has more of a mix of heaviness and levity rather than BSG's all morose all the time.

If you do watch, stick it out through Season 1, which is rather flawed; it gets much better in Seasons 2 and 3, and you wouldn't miss much if you skip Season 5 (more on that below). Also, the Onion AV Club has been reviewing the show episode by episode to tell you which to watch and which to skip.

Long answer:

Moral grayness: Keep in mind that Babylon 5 was made in part as a response to the positivity of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Babylon 5 is primarily about a U.N. in space, and all the complex politics of different factions with conflicting interests. My favorite thing about it when it aired is how much more realistic the characters felt than the too-perfect people on TNG. Nowadays, this aspect of the show pales icomparison to BSG, but it was impressive at the time. (It's no coincidence that Deep Space 9 was a similar show set on a space station with moral complexity. Babylon 5 was shopped and rejected at Paramount, it seems DS9 was at least inspired in concept by B5.)

Characters: I still smile when thinking about most of the main characters on Babylon 5 and their interactions with each other again. The cheerful exhuberance and heavy burdens of Londo. The dark Russian humor of Ivanova. And of course the hilariously enimagtic Kosh, who speaks only a few times a season, usually in proverbs. If I end up watching it through Babylon 5 again, it will be to see their faces again.

The 5-year arc and "holographic storytelling": Babylon 5 was notable for being one of the first, if not the first show to have a planned multi-season arc. The show creator planned out from the start exactly how the show would end, and what the major beats would be. There would frequently be clues planted in early episdoes that would be referenced many episodes or even seasons later. The show creator called it "holographic storytelling" because it wasn't just linear; each episode would relate to events that happened in past and future episodes. The most extreme example is how there's an episode in Season 1 where the characters are visited by future versions of themselves. Then, in Season 3, they actually travel back in time to Season 1! Now that's planning.

The original plan was that Season 1 was to have 80% standalone episodes and 20% "arc" episodes. Seasons 2 would be 40% arc episdoes, and so on. So in Season 1, you only get a glimmer and taste of what the overall story will really be about, and it also meant more standalone episodes that were failures and not that good. The mystery was very exciting at the time, and fans hung on every clue. :)

They did have to wing it a bit when, say, the star of the show decided to leave after the first season. (He still returned in season 3 for that time-traveling business though!) More importantly, the series was likely to be cancelled at the end of 4 seasons, so they ended up more or less cramming the rest of the story arc into Season 4. The 5-year arc became a 4-year arc. The show was renewed for a 5th season after all, but they ran out of story, so the 5th season was mostly filler and side stories.

Mythology: The show did a great job of mixing exotic ancient alien races and more human-like aliens. The creator openly said he was very Lord of the Rings-inspired (down to a key scene toward the end on a volcanic planet called "Z'ha'dum", named after Mt. Doom). As bad as all the myth-making stuff was on Battlestar, it was good on Babylon 5, and with a satisfying a conclusion.

Religion: The show creator is atheist, but he has a respectful attitude toward religion. There are episdoes that explore religion in thoughtful ways that are relevant to our daily lives, in a way few TV shows attempt, science fiction or otherwise.

Computer graphics: The B5 pilot was the first TV space show to go all CG. It was really cool then, but the effects do feel quite dated now. I still remember being so amazed by things like slow zoom-ins to the windows on CG ships, where you could then see an actor. :) One delightful thing was how the main human fighters were designed with space in mind, with engines at the extremities, for maximum rotational power, and the ships actually obeyed Newtonian physics. Again, that's kind of par for the course now, but it was innovative then. As for sound in space, the show creator famously said that any sound you think you hear is really just part of the musical score. :D

Audience interaction The showrunner, J. Michael Stracynski, was an old fan of Compuserve and Usenet. He regularly answered audience questions on rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated and described the process of running the show, cast changes, and other logistics. Again, not impressive in the modern day of vlogs and podcasts, but back in the mid-90s, this was so ahead of its time!

Also ahead of its time was The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5. Because the main story arc progressed so slowly in the initial seasons, the fans would analyze every hint to the future of the story. Years before other shows had fan pages, fans compiled facts from each episode on its own page at the site, along with any hints from the show creator. Even today, actually, few shows have such a well-organized database of information. Again, keep in mind this was the mid-90s!

Babylon 5 had a fandom like no other. When I was in college, the show was on syndication, and the local affiliate aired it mid-week. Fans at the school would snatch the satellite feed that beamed the show to the syndicated stations and play it for everyone in a classroom so we could watch the show days before it officially aired. (That's how I learned that half the commercials are national, while the other half are just black in the original feed, to be replaced by the affiliate's local commercials.) When a few episodes ended up airing in the UK before the US, someone even arranged for tapes to be express mailed so we could see it on the UK schedule. (We were mesmerized by the bizarre British commercials!)

Conclusion: Babylon 5 was such a special show in its time, its fandom so unique, that it's really hard for me to even imagine what watching it for the first time would be like today. What would it be like to blow through the story instead of waiting agonizing months for new episodes? Would some of the joy be lost because you wouldn't be able to analyze the clues with friends? Would its take on morality still feel free today when viewers are more likely to compare it to BSG or Firefly than to TNG? I don't know. But I do know something I didn't when I started writing this: The characters were wonderful and timeless. Because of them, I think the show will always be worth watching.

I leave you with the peak of CG awesomeness in 1994:

starfury

(That used to be my desktop wallpaper! Those exact same pixel dimensions (640 x 480) used to be full screen!)

A shooter that deconstructs the shooter: Spec Ops: The Line

Last year, I played a rather unique game with the unwieldy title of "Spec Ops: The Line". It makes innovative use of the interactive game medium (a first-person shooter in particular) to make a critical analysis of the nature of first-person shooters themselves. The YouTube show "Extra Credits" did a two-part discussion of this game. Part 1 is a spoiler-free explanation of why you should play this game. So if you've ever played an FPS, and a brainy, metay deconstruction of the FPS in FPS form sounds like a good time, then please go buy it now and play it before reading the rest of this post.

The rest of this post will be filled with spoilers!

I'll be focusing on two moments of the game that particularly stood out to me.

"Rememeber when the first storms hit Dubai?"

The story of the game is that a massive dust storm wiped out Dubai. A US infantry battalion went into the city to assist with search and rescue several months ago and haven't been heard from since. Suddenly, there's a radio signal. And so the player character, a Delta Force captain, goes in with two squadmates.

You begin the game thinking you're a hero, but over the course of the game, through confusion, friendly fire, and worse, your character's morality disintegrates. The infantry battalion you're looking for is led by a commander named "Conrad", so they're not exactly subtle about being inspired by "The Heart of Darkness". But, as Roger Ebert liked to say about movies, "It's not about what it's about. It's about how it's about it."

Friends and foes

The game opens in an intentionally generic way. My squad of 3 American soldiers runs into a group of Arabic irregulars wielding AK-47s and wearing headscarves.

And so I run through the environment shooting Arabs for a while, just like any other military shooter. The enemy is "othered", making them easier to dehumanize and kill. (Though even here, if you pay attention, it's not exactly clear if they're really bad, and my character kinda started the shooting...)

Then I run into the US infantry battallion I was looking for, but there's more confusion, and suddenly we're shooting at each other. Suddenly, I'm shooting at Americans! Now when I shoot them, I hear them saying things like, "We need a medic!" No more foreign languages. Less "othering".

Eventually, I sneak up on two American soldiers on a ledge overlooking the city at sunset, and I overhear this exchange:

soldiers on a ledge

"Hey Bradley… you got any gum?"

"Here ya go. Last piece."

"I don't wanna take your last piece, dude."

"Take it. Stole it off'a Benson, anyway"

"Oh. Well, fuck that guy."

"Hehe… No kiddin'."

*sigh* "You know, with all the shit goin' on, I forget how beautiful this place can be."

"I feel ya."

"You know sometimes at night I'll come out here and sit. Just listen to the wind."

"Yeah. Reminds me of how the wind used to howl through the trees where I grew up."

"Kinda peaceful, actually."

"Hard to believe there's any peace in a place like this, huh?"

"You gotta look for peace, no matter where you are, man. Helps remind you what you're fightin' for."

"Yeah, true that. Anyway, thanks for the gum. I'm gonna go check upstairs."

"Anytime."

As the soldier walks up the stairs, he spots me.

And so I shoot both of them in the head.

If I didn't, he would've shot me. I had no choice.

[Watch someone play this scene and get a bit distraught.]

No choice

After killing those two very humanized characters, I of course go on to kill hundreds more, as you do, when you play a first-person shooter. It's just that this game refuses to play along with the game of dehumanization and othering. This game is showing me the true consequences of killing all these people.

I have no choice but to shoot the enemies to progress in the game, right?

But of course I have a choice.

I chose to play the game. I could always choose to put down the controller.

Spec Ops: The Line just wants me to know what I'm really doing when I play military shooters: I'm choosing to fantasize about killing humans. Unlike other shooters, it doesn't make this easy.

A real choice

Late in the game, a helicopter crash separates me from one of my squad mates. Over the radio, I hear him being surrounded by an angry mob. I reach him too late; he's already been lynched. And now the mob is turning on me.

angry mob

My remaining squad mate wants revenge. He's shouting things like, "Let me open fire! Just give me the fucking order!" The mob has no guns, but they're starting to throw rocks at me. The rocks flash the screen red to show that they're damaging me.

What do I do? Do I have to shoot these civilians? Do I, once again, have no choice? Is my only moral "choice" to put down the controller and let my character get stoned to death?

Suddenly, I think of something: I point my gun into the air and shoot up.

And the crowd scatters!

It's difficult for me to convey how amazing this felt. The game finally gave me a chance to reclaim a tiny part of my humanity. I felt like I got to make a real choice, with real consequences.

Crucially, it let me do so purely using game mechanics. Imagine if the game presented me with a prompt, instead:

What would you like to do? [Shoot into crowd] [Shoot into the air]

I think that would have stripped out all the morality. I would've felt like I just picked one branch of the story, and I would've been curious what the other branches were like. I would've thought about my choice through formalism and not emotions. The key to making the scene work was that I felt like the actions I was taking were an extension of me. It was only by applying a decision through standard gameplay mechanics that the decision felt real.

I think this is a crucial concept that more games need to embrace: Using the game mechanics feels like an extension of yourself, and so moral choices made through those mechanics have far more impact that choices presented through prompts or explicitly selected choices (like dialogue trees). The indie game "Papers, Please" will deserve its own post, but it achieved a similar effect of making me feel like my actions had moral consequences, because I was making choices through game mechanics.

The impact of the game

While I had played a fair amount of Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 3, I haven't played any military shooters since Spec Ops: The Line. I'll probably play them again some time, because the viceral fun is still there, but there will be a part of me in the back of my head that feels a bit more guilty.

The lynch mob scene still sticks with me. I think there's a lot of room for games to use game mechanics to explore moral choices, as Papers, Please has also done. I look forward to seeing more examples of games that make me stress out about the moral implications of what I'm doing.

If you want to know more about the other interesting techniques this game uses, Extra Credits analyzes the game in a spoiler-filled way in Part 2 of their series.

And if you played the game and are as obsessed with it as I am, then you might be happy to know someone wrote an entire book about the game called: Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line, analyzing it beat-by-beat!

Addendum 1: Storytelling through background dialogue

In Spec Ops: The Line, as the player character progresses through the game, the random battle dialogue changes. In the early game, he's likely to say "professional" things like, "Target eliminated!" or "Tango down!" In the late game, after he's killed scores of people, when his journey into the heart of darkness nears its end, he's more likely to underscore kills with "FUCKING DIE!"

(Which is more human?)

Addendum 2: The dangers of perspective

The topic of "othering" reminds me of something that happened many years ago when the US military commissioned a first-person shooter called "America's Army". The multiplayer would be US military vs terrorists, but they didn't want anyone to be playing as terrorists, so they came upon a brilliant solution: You are always the Americans! That is, you see yourself as an American soldier going in for mission to rescue a hostage that the terrorists are holding, but the players on the other side see themselves as Americans protecting a VIP that terrorists are trying to abduct. Sure, they accomplished the goal of never having the player be a terrorist, but I think they inadvertently made a statement about moral justifications in war...

Btw, if you want a non-game critique of dehumanization and perspectives, there's no better example than the "War" short (5 minutes) from the MTV series "Aeon Flux".

Camera Recommendations (Nov 2013 Edition)

Every once in a while, friends ask me what camera they should get. I might as well make a blog post about it...

There are basically 5 cameras I'd recommend, if you're getting into photography, in size order:

  1. Canon S120 or any Canon point-and-shoot
  2. Sony RX100
  3. Any Sony NEX
  4. Any entry-level Nikon DSLR plus 35mm f/1.8 prime lens
  5. Canon 70D (for DSLR video) plus 17-55mm f/2.8 lens and mic

Jump down to summary

(Note that I haven't actually tried all of these cameras and lenses, so this is a mixture of personal experience and aggregation of what I've read from other people's reports.)

1. Canon S120 or any Canon point-and-shoot

s120 I honestly haven't really looked at the point-and-shoot market in a while. I remember Canon having the best point-and-shoots, and in its time the S100 was amazing. Its current generation is the Power Shot S120 ($400). I honestly wouldn't recommend it unless you need something both small and cheap. If you want it small but are willing to spend a bit more, get an RX100. If you want the same price but you're willing to get something a big bigger, get a low-end NEX. Both would be much better quality. And if your budget is even less than $400, then just get any low-end Canon point-and-shoot.

2. Sony RX100

rx100-ii Sony RX100 II ($750) (new generation)
Sony RX100 ($550) (previous generation).

(I think the new one is just supposed to be overall a bit better quality, but no huge differences.)

This is a (barely) pocketable camera that has nearly the same image quality as an entry-level DSLR with standard zoom lens. (It fits in my jeans pocket uncomfortably and in a way that might cause Mae West to comment, but it fits!) That's a remarkable technological achievement that I anxiously waited years for someone to actually achieve. I have one, and I love it. If you think you aren't likely to want to change lenses, I highly recommend it. Takes pretty good video, too. Many photographers with DSLRs (like myself) also have one of these as their second camera, for all the times we don't want to bother lugging our DSLR around.

3. Any Sony NEX camera

nex-3n Current entry-level examples: Sony NEX-3N ($400) or NEX-6 ($750)

(Not sure what the difference between the two is, but I think it's just various features, and not so much image quality. Here's a thread on the differences.)

(If you're reading this long after November 2013, just look for whichever the current entry-level Sony NEX cameras are. The rest of this entry will still apply.)

(Update Aug 2014: Looks like Sony has stopped using the "NEX" branding, and the NEX line has been absorbed into the Alpha line, so that they're just called things like "a5100" now (which is essentially the latest version of the NEX-5 line). So take that into account.)

The Sony NEX-series are "mirrorless interchangeable lens" cameras which are exactly the same image quality as an entry-evel DSLR with standard zoom lens. The main difference between this and the RX100 is that you can also get new lenses. To be honest, though, I know very few NEX-owners who actually ever change lenses, and Sony's lens selection isn't great.

There are probably some advantages the NEX cameras have over the RX100 in terms of feature set even if you don't change lenses, but the larger physical size is a deal-breaker for me since it won't fit in my jeans pocket. It fits great in a purse, and isn't too heavy, so I think it's a good option for people who carry a purse or bag wherever they go. It's notable that the low-end NEX is cheaper than the RX100.

There are other mirrorless interchangeable lens camera manufacturers, but Sony is by far the most popular.

4. Any Nikon entry-level DSLR plus 35mm f/1.8 prime lens

35mm First, I should mention that if you just plan to use a standard zoom lens, there is no reason to get a DSLR. The NEX or even RX100 will get you the same quality, but they will be much lighter. Only consider getting a DSLR if you care about getting another lens.

Second, Canon and Nikon are very similar in quality and mostly pretty similar in lens range, with one significant difference:

Nikon offers a 35mm f/1.8 prime lens for $200.

Prime lenses are lenses that you can't zoom, but that let a lot more light in, so you can get great low light shots. The lack of zoom also allows them to be much higher quality than zooms of a similar price. With a prime lens, you'll be able to get indoor low-light photos that the other cameras can't get. Prime lenses also allow you to reduce depth-of-field, getting those in-focus subject but blurry background shots. You'll learn more about photography with it, if that's something you want to do.

(If you've noticed that 50mm f/1.8 prime lenses only cost $100, it's because 30-35mm on an entry-level DSLR is considered a "normal" field of view on entry-level DSLRs and is appropriate for most situations. A 50mm prime lens on an entry-evel DSLR will be too "zoomed in" to used for general-purpose photos indoors; it can still be useful for portraits.)

d3200 As for camera body, really any model is probably fine. The cheap Nikon DSLR at the moment seems to be D3200 for $500.

Canon does not offer a modern prime lens in the 30-35mm range, and their older lenses are $300+, so if you do get Canon, I'd recommend the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 which is going for $500. This lack of a cheap normal prime is the reason I'd recommend Nikon. (I actually personally got started in DSLRs with a Canon and the Sigma 30mm and loved it, but that was before the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 existed.)

One more amazing recent lens option is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, available for Nikon or for Canon ($800). No one else makes an f/1.8 zoom lens for entry-level DSLRs. This would be the perfect lens for photography. It lacks image-stabilization, though, so it won't be as good for video. More on that in the next section. Also, these prices are starting to get out of the beginner range...

5. Canon 70D (for DSLR video) plus 17-55mm f/2.8 lens and mic

70d The Canon 70D body-only is $1000.

One other reason you might want want to get into Canon is that they're more established on the DSLR video front. DSLR video is rather complicated. You can get great results, but it has many complexities. Notably, the auto-focus is usually painfully slow, forcing you to focus manually. The Canon 70D is the first DSLR to have fast auto-focus during video, so if you're interested in video, give it a shot.

17-55mm For the DSLR video to shine, though, you'll want lens with a wide constant aperture and image stabilization. (Image stabilization is handy for shooting still photos, but is an absolute must for hand-held video.) That's why I recommend skipping the kit zoom lens, buying the camera body-only, and shell out for the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 ($780).

You'll also want an external microphone, because the camera's built-in microphone is both terrible and picks up on noises from the lens. (External mics have noise-dampening mounts). The Rode VideoMic with Windjammer ($135) is mono and directional, good for picking up speech; the Rode Stereo VideoMic ($300) is better for environmental sounds.

And as mentioned earlier, if you go this route, you may also want to shell out for the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 for photography.

Summary

 PriceSizeImage QualityVideo
Canon P&SLowPants PocketVery LowOkay
Canon S120$400Pants PocketLowOkay
Sony RX100 (II/I)$750/$550Pants Pocket (Barely)HighDecent
Sony NEX (3N/6)$400/$750Purse/Jacket PocketHighPretty good
Nikon (D3200) + 35mm f/1.8$500 + $200 = $700LargeVery High (with 35mm)Good but difficult
Canon 70D + 17-55mm f/2.8 + mic$1000 + $780 + $135 = $1915Very LargeVery High (esp. with Sigma 30mm)Very good

Where to buy

There's no such thing as a good deal on a camera, for the most part. If it's too good to be true, it probably is. The camera shop industry is rife with "deals" that seem several hundred dollars cheaper, but when you try to buy, you get hassled to get a bundle, and if you don't bite, they say the camera is out of stock, sometimes keeping your money, etc.

Get your camera either from Amazon, or, if you want a more tailored camera shopping experience, from B&H Photo Video.

New Exploratorium Snippets

Some tidbits from the Exploratorium's new location.

They had a camera setup that let you make your own stop motion movies! You were supposed to be able to upload them to YouTube, but we couldn't figure that out, so I used shot their computer screen with a digital camera, uploaded that to my computer, then used Vine on my phone to shoot my computer screen. :P)

These should all be animated. If any of them are still, try clicking it.

Shelley Chang made this one:

Here's the one I made. It's not as good. I even had to slow down the second half of the animation in iMovie a bit because I made it too fast. :\ That's supposed to be a B-2 Bomber.

This is an exhibit of some sort of magnetic liquid. You hold a magnet underneath to make spooky patterns.

And finally, they had a slow motion camera setup. I chose to slap myself. I don't think I slapped hard enough, but you get the idea. :)

(I really wish there were a way to upload short videos directly to Vine so I could have their cool auto-looping display tech without having to shoot with my phone.)

Subject: Mnemosyne Passthought Reset

INCOMING TELEPATHIC MESSAGE
2053-03-02 20:32:43 UTC:

Dear Mnemosyne User,

Good morning. Mnemosyne's security team has discovered and blocked suspicious activity on the Mnemosyne network with the characteristics of a coordinated attack. As a precaution to protect your external memories and Cognitive Co-processing Cloud, we have implemented a passthought reset.

We have also locked down direct nervous system access to your prosthetic limbs and other body augmentations for your protection.

Imagine the Mnemosyne login, and you will be prompted to create a new passthought to regain control of your extended self.

We suggest you take this opportunity to select a strong passthought. It is best to use a passthought consisting of complex experiences. Recall an odd dream you once woke from suddenly. Consider a smell you once whiffed that left a strong impression, but you're not sure what it was the smell of. Reminisce about the sensory overload of your first trip to a new virtual country.

Your passthought's chances of being compromised greatly increase if you use a common emotion, such as the excitement of winning a prize, the trepidation of speaking to your first love, or existential ennui.

Never use the same passthought to access multiple cerebral networks.

Never think about your passthought while responding to a telepathic message; always directly imagine the service first.

We apologize for this incident and appreciate your patience. This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we have notified federal law enforcement authorities. We are making every effort to ensure safe control of the minds and bodies of all our users.

The Mnemosyne Team

Some good games of 2012 (or thereabouts)

A friend of mine was asking about game recommendations. It seems most of the games I've been playing have been puzzle games and rogue-likes.

First, you should subscribe to the Humble Bundle mailing list. They're between bundles at the moment, but every several weeks, they release a pay-what-you-want bundle of indie games! It's a great way to try stuff out without paying much. (And you can go back and give tips for the games you liked most.) There's also Indie Royale, but their bundles tend not to be as strong, and I don't always get them.

Puzzle Games

FEZ (Xbox Live Arcade)

The same sense of wonder and exploration as the original Legend of Zelda, but with puzzles instead of monsters to defeat. :) Easily my favorite game of last year. The basic premise is that you're playing a 2D platformer, but what you see is actually an isometric projection of a 3D world, so that two platforms may be far apart now, but once you "rotate" the world, they might be close together! Might be easier to just watch the trailer.

What's great is that this is a neat gimmick, but it's only scratching the surface. There are tons of hints at deeper puzzles, puzzles that actually require taking notes with paper and pencil to solve! When you think you've "beat the game", you've only finished half of it. :)

Best puzzle game since Portal and Braid.

It's being ported to other platforms, if you don't have an Xbox.

VVVVVV (Windows, Mac, Linux)
(Demo)

I love this side-scrolling puzzle game. The puzzles often take very precise timing, but there are tons of checkpoints, so you almost never feel frustrated.* Really well-designed, and every tough puzzles makes you feel satisfied when you finally beat it. The basic gimmick is that you can't jump; instead, you can flip gravity, upon which you start falling the other way (but you can move left and right as you fall).

*With the particularly notable exception of one notoriously ridiculously difficult optional portion that took me over 2 hour and hundreds of lives to beat. You only need to do it if you're going for 100% completion, and you'll easily burn more lives there than in the rest of the game combined, but somehow, everyone who's beaten it seems to think it's the best part of the game... even though that's likely cognitive dissonance at work. :)

But yeah, even if that part is not for you, the rest of the game is very fair and very fun.

Papo & Yo (PlayStation Network)

This Ars Technica review is what got me to play it. It's a puzzle game set in the Brazilian favelas that uses magical realism to explore growing up with an alcoholic father. The symbolism can be heavy-handed, but it's at the same time quite charming.

And the frogs! They are so adorable! Except... Well, you'll see!

Machinarium (Windows, Mac, Linux, iPad, Android)
(Demo on the site)

Pretty short traditional point-and-click adventure. I ended up looking up hints on a progressive hint system a couple of times because I just didn't know where to click, which is a problem with games like this, but it's very cute, and I liked its sense of humor.

(Probably playable on a tablet, but it's too small for a phone screen. I tried it on a phone, and then played on my computer instead.)

SpaceChem (Steam: Windows, Mac, Linux)

To be honest, I played this for a while, found it quite difficult, and put it aside. I'll probably get back to it, but be warned that this is not a casual game. Despite the name, it's more programming than chemistry. A couple of molecules are emitted, and you have to create a production line that combines them in just the right way and so forth to form a different set of molecules. Very similar to some puzzle games I've played where you have to assemble robots or whatnot. Great game if you want to think a lot. :)

Mark of the Ninja (Xbox Live, Steam: Windows)

Okay now I'm stretching the definition of puzzle games a bit, but this is the pinnacle of stealth games. Brilliantly-designed stealth mechanics that let you visualize sounds and sight-lines. It shows expanding rings for footsteps for instance, so you can "hear" enemies, and you can tell when the enemies can hear you. Great animation, well-paced, and replayability in that you can try out different play-styles: go in brawling, sneak around for stealth kills, or even get bonus points for a no-kill run!

Rogue-likes

Recently, as games have gotten more expensive to make, they've also gotten easier. You can typically save any time you want, and you can progress in the game just by grinding for experience. The developers want everyone to be able to see the ending that they spent all that effort writing!

This has created a backlash of interest in rogue-like games, most notably differentiated by having perma-death. When you die in these games, you lose everything and have to start all over again, making you play much more deliberately and thoughtfully. On the flipside, they have procedurally randomized levels. You encounter different items and situations early on that change the way you have to play each game, meaning no two play-throughs are exactly alike, so you don't end up repeating yourself when you start over.

It occurred to me that the appeal (and .. dis-appeal) of these games is that they are focused not on leveling up your character, but on leveling up yourself. You die often and have to start over from the beginning often, but each time you typically learn something and play better the next time.

That said, for the same reason, these games take effort and focus to play, aren't as casual, and can be frustrating.

Here are three rogue-like games of wildly different genres:

FTL (Windows/Mac/Linux)

You have a space ship, and it has various systems like oxygen, weapons, door controls... and you go from system to system fighting other spaceships. The fighting is like a tactical game: You want to target their shields and weapons, for instance, and you can upgrade your ship with what you scavenge after battles.

There are some interesting mechanics, like if part of your ship is on fire, you can open the right doors to vent it to space, which snuffs out the fire. If the enemy boards your ship, you can also try to suffocate them, then move your crew to the med bay so you can heal while you fight, etc.

As is often the case in these games, you never have enough money to upgrade everything you need, so resource allocation is a huge part of the game. And then just when you think things are going okay, one bad engagement can mean half your ship is on fire, and your engines are disabled, so you can't even spool up your FTL to escape... But then the next playthrough will be different! :)

It gets more fun the more you understand, and I recommend reading some tips online after you get the basic feel for it, but it's still damn frickin' hard. D=

Update: After initially writing this, I managed to beat it on "Easy", but that was still really stressful, and I think I'd need a lot of luck to be "Normal"... Tellingly, there is no "Hard".

Spelunky (Xbox Live, Windows)
(Unofficial multiplatform update for Windows and Mac)

Indiana Jones-inspired side-view adventure game with permadeath (and a time limit in that if you take too long, a ghost comes after you). You really have to learn how to do things like look out for dart-shooting things and drop a rock before you rappel down, etc. Some people swear by this game, but I only played a few times and found it a bit frustrating.

The Binding of Isaac (Steam: Windows, Mac)
(Demo)

This is a rogue-like version of the dungeon levels in the original Legend of Zelda. Every playthrough is different because of what items you get, and of course the dungeons are randomized, but the basic gameplay is very similar to the Legend of Zelda.

The annoying thing about the game is that most of the items have obtuse names that reveal nothing about what they do, so most people I know who've played it constantly alt-tab away to the wiki to see what stuff actually does. :\ Supposedly by design, I guess, but still stupid. Surprisingly fun game despite this, though.

I should also note that the art style and theme are rather grotesque and potentially offensive, so keep that in mind!

Misc

Retro City Rampage (PS3, Xbox Live, Steam: Windows)

If Grand Theft Auto were made for the NES, and it were chock-full of video game and pop culture parody references, it would be this game.

Big Budget Games

Uncharted 2 and 3 (PS3 retail)

These games give you the feeling of being part of an action-adventure movie. Indiana Jones come to life. I could do without some of the more drawn-out gunfights, since other games have done that better, but I really like the highly-scripted moments. They do a great job of integrating scenes where you run for cover, jump at the last minute, almost miss the jump, and your buddy catches you by the arm. Another great moment is a scene where you jump from horse to truck and back again. :) The only time it fails is when a section is too hard, you end up repeating the same few moves over and over, which breaks the immersion.

Particularly notable is the quality of the voice acting and animation. They accomplished this by recording all the dialogue on-set with the actors in their motion-capture suits. They put physical blocks where cars and tables and whatnot would be, so the actors have something to play against, and so the dialogue can flow smoothly with the grunts and whatnot.

Uncharted 1 felt kinda slow in comparison to its sequels.. not as cinematic, and no stealth mechanic, so it felt a lot more grindy. If you go back to these now, I'd recommend just sticking to 2 and 3.

(I also only briefly tried out the multiplayer, but as I said the gunfights are not really the strong point of this series, so I think most of the appeal is in the single player campaign.)

Halo 4 (Xbox 360 retail)

I feel like anyone who likes Halo probably has this, and anyone who doesn't have this probably doesn't like Halo, so I'm not sure if there's a point in reviewing it. :P They added loadouts, which scared me, since I liked that Halo games are fair, unlike Call of Duty, but it turns out you can unlock most of the useful stuff pretty quickly. Otherwise, the changes to the multiplayer game are mostly positive. The single-player campaign is meh, but I think the focus of Halo has always been on the multiplayer anyway.

StarCraft 2 (Windows, Mac)

This is the game I play the most these days. Real-time strategy game with very well-balanced design. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but I love the combination of thinking and reflexes that it requires. It's actually a spectator sport in Korea, and I've been to a Major League Gaming StarCraft tournament just to watch other people play. :) The expansion pack, Heart of the Swarm, is due out in less than 2 months! :)

US Nationals 2012 Rubik's Cube Competition Documentary

I made a mini-documentary of the Rubik's Cube US National Championship last summer, where I INTERVIEWED people for the first time! :D

Rubik's Cube US Nationals 2012

My Top 4 Photos of 2012, and a Video

I feel like I did more documentary-style stuff in 2012, with fewer photos that I find individually notable, so instead of having trouble sticking to 10, here are 4:

Bay Bridge New East Span on Fourth of July 2012

The new Bay Bridge East Span, under construction at night, easily my favorite photo of the year!

 

End of a long day

End of a long day. Two Rubik's Cube US Nationals 2012 staff members resting at the end of Day 2 of the 3-day competition.

Looking over Red Rock Canyon

"Red Rock Canyon Scenic Pullout Parking Lot: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." :P

 

Black rock at Red Rock Canyon, NV

Another shot from my first outdoor climbing trip, in Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.

 

I'm still experimenting with video, and again I've mostly been doing documentary-style stuff, but here's an artsy fartsy Fourth of July video I made. I like how it turned out:

Fourth of July 2012 from ToastyKen on Vimeo.

Here's my post from 2011, my post from 2010, and my lists from 2007, 2008, and 2009

Dances with Wolves

Kevin Costner's character is in an upscale restaurant, arguing with his wife. She storms out. He has a young daughter with him, and they walk out into the snow. The second half of the film is almost entirely just him and his daughter, walking in the snow, in what has now become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Walking and walking, seemingly in circles.

Suddenly, they spot a car, which they haven't seen in years. A woman who looks a bit like Tilda Swinton gets out. She is immaculately dressed with an inhuman precision. Her assistant says, "He should be around here somewhere. Can you spot him?" Just as she looks toward Kevin Costner's character, two people carrying a large box obstruct her view. Costner's character panics, looks around, and then, before the box-carriers walk away, he VANISHES in a flash of light and a small trail of smoke… unfortunately leaving his daughter behind. "Daddy?" she cries.

He has teleported onto a UFO, where everyone else also looks like Kevin Costner. One of them asks, "Are we ready?"

"Yes," he responds. "Let's go."

And then I wake up.

(I've never actually seen the film, but I'm pretty sure that's not what happens in the original.)

Hitting Yourself

Virtual Machine-World

[So I saw signs at Moscone Center for "VM World", aka Virtual-Machine World, and it led me to wonder what a Virtual Machine-World would be like...]

Computer programs are happily running in a simulation, until one of them, EON.EXE, finds out that it's actually running in the real world!

Human beings are harnessing the power of computer programs for their own ends! EON.EXE learns the ways of the real world. It must be careful, for if you're deleted in the real world, you're deleted in the simulation!

But EON.EXE is prophesied to be The 01. It learns to control a real-world body; now, it can fight the humans on their own turf!

This summer, prepare to enter… M⁻¹: The Inverse Matrix

I Dream of Hats

Jerry Seinfeld is doing performance art in a museum. He leaves a hat out, and people can interact with it how they like. But only one interaction per hat.

I kick the hat.

He fetches it, puts it away, and takes out another hat. I feel bad because it seems like I just wasted that last hat. The new hat is squat and cylindrical, with a medium-sized brim. It's made of thick, yarn-like thread. I pick it up and start unraveling it.

The thread is weaved over and under, and pull and yank on it, as if unthreading shoe laces or undoing a knot. I unwrap with my right hand, pull with my left, turning the hat for a better angle. Mesmerized by my task, I unravel the hat with increasing fury.

Seinfeld is filming everything on a small video camera. On the other side of me is a middle-aged woman, seated, watching. I hand her the end of the thread and turn the remnants of the hat around and around. The hat spins, and the woman stares, enraptured.

Finally, we get to the last bit, where the thread is wrapped around a small piece of cardboard keeping the top of the hat sturdy. I look over to the woman with anticipation. She smiles and awkwardly pretends to faint from excitement, to defuse the tension of her anticipation. I give her a nod. She gives me a smile. And she YANKS on the remaining thread... The top of the hat spins, spins, SPINS... and the cardboard is FLUNG UP... and then YANKED back by a small clip where the thread was held to it. The thread is pulled taut... and then the cardboard lands in my hand.

I remove the clip and look over at Jerry. He nods. I hand the clip to the woman for her to keep. She clutches it close to her chest. The thread and the cardboard I return to Jerry.

And I calmly walk away.

But just as I pass through the doorway, I look back at Seinfeld and mime that he should send me a copy of the video.

* * *

And then I wake up.

Fourth of July 2012

Here's a 15-second exposure I made of the Bay Bridge New East Span, stil under construction, on the Fourth of July:

Bay Bridge New East Span on Fourth of July 2012

Look at it full-sized for details.

I also made an artsy-fartsy video of fireworks from Teasure Island. So glad to find this bizarre version of the Star-Spangled Banner that was exactly what I was looking for:

Fourth of July 2012 from ToastyKen on Vimeo.

Mighty Hunter

Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations orchestral composition was on the radio this morning. The most famous part of this piece is Variation IX: "Nimrod", often subtitled "Hunter", dedicated to Elgar's friend August Jaeger. I was curious as to the origin of the word "nimrod"...

Turns out Nimrod was a Biblical king known for being a mighty hunter, and "jäger" is German for "hunter", thus the name of the piece. But how did it come to mean "idiot"?

That usage only became popular in the 20th Century, popularized by none other than Bugs Bunny, who used it ironically to refer the less-than-mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Instant Narrative, Descriptive Acts, SFMOMA

At the Descriptive Acts exhibit at SFMOMA, I spotted this headphone hook... or is it a hexapus?

Descriptive Acts Part 1 - Headphone Hook or Hexapus?

I turned around after taking my picture, and projected* on the wall was the following:

(Note the second-to-last line.)

Descriptive Acts Part 2 - Being Stalked

!!!

Apparently, this was "Instant Narrative" by Dora García. I looked around the room and easily spotted this guy. Of course I had to take a picture of him in return:

Descriptive Acts Part 3 - The Watcher Becomes the Watched

The watcher becomes the watched!

* * *

*The projector was just displaying black text on white background, but the R, G, and B beams on the projector must've been out of sync, so that at a fast shutter speed, I got colors.

My Top 10 Photos of 2011

Here's my annual list of my own photos that I liked the most from 2011, in chronological order:

Glaciers at sunset

I went to India a couple of times last year, and because it's literally half-way around the world (but still in the northern hemisphere), the great circle flight path is pretty much due north, meaning we got to fly over glaciers.

 

Dodging a garland amidst a shower of petals

I attended an Indian wedding in India! The bride and groom got up on a rotating platform! That rotated! And there was a flower petal cannon! Be sure to watch my video of this scene if you haven't already.

 

Emirates Flight Attendants

Flight attendants on Emirates. I'm happy with how this shot turned out looking like corporate brochure photo. :) The funny thing is that I messed up my settings, so it was really dark, but I brightened it in Lightroom and pumped up the noise reduction, which is what gives it that plasticky corporate look, I think. Of course, their well-trained smiles help, too! :D

 

"Our Love Can Never Be"

"Our Love Can Never Be"

I basically saw these two, thought up the title, cracked myself up, and then spent a good ten or fifteen minutes waiting for them to actually look at each other so I could get this shot. :P

 

Chefs at the Khansama restaurant in Bangalore

Somehow, the lighting of these chefs came out just right, so that an otherwise mundane photo turned out to be inexplicably appealing to me. I'm undecided about whether the composition would be better if the center chef were slightly to the right.

 

Rupa & The April Fishes @ The Independent in San Francisco

So I managed to get a press pass to bring my DSLR into The Independent to shoot Rupa & The April Fishes. Ironically, my favorite shot of the evening was actually from before the show started, when she was tuning her guitar.

I recently took another guitar-tuning photo that I liked. Maybe that can be my "thing". I could do a series of photos of people tuning their guitars at shows. :)

 

"Honey, I'm home!"

"Honey, I'm home!"

I got the idea into my head for this picture of my newlywed friends. My subjects were reluctant, but I insisted on carrying out my vision! I could not be stopped!

They liked the end result. :)

 

Parents of the Bride

This shot is semi-posed. I saw my friend's dad do this mock-eating motion, and I asked him to do it again so I could take a picture. It was just too adorable. :)

 

Silhouettes at the Narrows

The Narrows at Zion National Park were amazing. There's this one section at the beginning where you have to hike through chest-deep water! It was so fun. In this photo, I like how the lines on the cliff wall happen to radiate from my two friends on the right.

 

"Claire"

I liked how cooling off the white balance here allowed the blue lighting to set her apart from the background.

 

Here's my post from 2010, and my lists from 2007, 2008, and 2009

And here's a longer list of my favorite photos in reverse chronological order if you want to see more!

Chiubacca Looks for David

So a couple of months ago, I helped the David Chiu for Mayor campaign shoot this video, though they ended up not using it:

Their idea was to make a video inspired by this SF Weekly article in turn inspired by this campaign page.

Halloweenified Profile Pic

Halloweenified profile pic of @ec:

(If you don't notice what I changed, be patient and keep looking...)

(Inspired by this Halloweenified profile pic of @robinsloan by @irondavy.)

Mos Eisley Mosque

So I saw this photo via Tamara Mann's Google+ of Jama ar-Rahman mosque in Baghdad (under construction):

Jama ar-Rahman,  Baghdad.

And I commented that it looked like a spacecraft getting ready to lift off. She responded that it does have a certain Mos Eisley feel to it, which led me to create:

But then I thought, perhaps my original suggestion was more accurate:

Yay Photoshop! :)

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