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  • Posts Tagged ‘my soapbox’

    Games I Like: No Man’s Sky

    2016 - 09.20

    My third ship in No Man's Sky, the Green Meanie

    I like No Man’s Sky. That’s right, I said it. I’ll go a step further too: I like No Man’s Sky right now, one month after the PC release. This is not a popular viewpoint so let’s unpack it.

    Expectations can make or break the perception of music, movies, or videogames. From the very start this game had colossal expectations placed upon it, and I think that’s reason #1 behind the largely negative perception of the game right now. As documented previously I definitely rode the hype train hard on this title, but having put in well above 70 hours over the last month, right now I’m feeling like I actually got what I came for.  (Note that all screenshots in this post are captures that I took during my playthrough.  All were taken in 4k resolution although some are cropped; click to view them full size)

    red mountains and blue seas in No Man's Sky

    Solar eclipse (and moon!) over distant mountains in No Man's SkyReason #2 behind the negative perception of the game is that there’s a lot of things which were shown in trailers and talked about by the developers that were simply not in the game at all. You could call that a lot of different words. Mine would be strange and disappointing. Disingenuous might be another. But before we get too bogged down in the name-calling which inevitably results from dwelling on this for long, let me just back way, way up, and look at this whole thing from a top-level, macro perspective:

    No Man’s Sky has delivered a universe-sized universe and it’s magnificent. The thing I want to focus on more than anything else is the aesthetic, because that’s what drew me in long ago when I first heard about the game, and that’s what held my interest when lots of other space games started coming out but I refused to play them, intentionally waiting and keeping my outlook fresh. The look and the feel of No Man’s Sky is what keeps me playing now and it’s what blew me away when I picked up the mouse and keyboard for the first time. None of the other space games that compete in this same genre have this stunning artistic style to them. Right off the bat when you start playing the game it’s magical. Most players agree with that. And importantly, in regard to the overall aesthetic, the final game we have now is exactly what was shown in the trailers.

    Sunset on some ruins in a lush jungle world in No Man's Sky

    One of my favorite friendly dinosaurs I've encountered in No Man's SkySo my individual perception is admittedly slanted. One, it was mainly the look, the feel, the style I saw in the trailers that I wanted to get, and I got that. And two, I haven’t been playing other space games or really that many games in general. Witcher 3 was the only other game I’ve been putting serious time into during 2016. Ironically the contrast could hardly be stronger between these two games. Witcher is story-driven with huge set-pieces, has a lengthy list of characters, and is hand-crafted in practically all aspects. On the other end of the spectrum No Man’s Sky has only two reoccurring characters and turns you loose in a randomly generated universe that essentially has no objective at all! Sure, there are things you can do, but really when you boil it down, those objectives are not what you’re playing this game for. (“Wait a minute… we’re not playing the game to try to beat the objectives…???”) And that right there is what I think totally throws 95% of people off about this game!!

    I’m going to come back to that idea in a minute but first let me say this: I do think the main criticism being leveled at the game (boredom) would be there no matter what. If they added randomly generated fetch quests for NPCs, if they made the overall upgrade grind thirty times longer and more complex than it is now, if they made the periodic table eight times bigger, if they populated space with twenty times more bounties/battles/traders/cruisers—if they did all that and more, people will always get bored at some point.

    The "Wild Spineyback" forages in the dense tall forests of Big Things 50% modded No Man's Sky

    Just another amazing vista in No Man's SkyLook at a game like Skyrim. It’s packed to the gills with scripted quests, books to read, skill trees to expand, or just broadly speaking, stuff to do that some other human being took hours and hours to create for you. And still people say they’re bored with Skyrim because they exhausted all that or did enough of it that they felt the underlying repetition even though new tasks remained. So people start a new character and “roleplay” within the world of Skyrim, imagining boundaries of what their character will or won’t do, what their personal goals might be, and charting their own specific path through the world. In my own playing, this mentality is how I’ve had the most fun in No Man’s Sky.

    I would say this Skyrim roleplaying behavior, especially when taken to the extreme, is somewhat of an anomaly in the entertainment medium of videogames. Almost always, a game is telling you where to go and what to do. Sure you have choices and probably many other diversions but these ten quests and these five ways to build your character, these are what you’re supposed to be doing. Games constantly remind us, condition us to expect this framework. Broadly speaking, “task-completion” and “character-building” are the very foundation of practically all video games. And we expect that games will acknowledge this progression with a constant stream of trophies and points and pats on the back. This is the nearly universal “gaming mindset”. I do activities x, y, or z and the game tells me good job. Sitting on the couch and inventing some other activity for yourself that’s not an actual part of the game’s checklist—that’s not a normal game-playing behavior.

    For instance, visiting the inn and staying five nights there, talking to every NPC and inventing lines of dialogue or jokes that your own character may have said to each of them, that’s not something Skyrim tells you to do. Sure, you can do it, but the game doesn’t interact back with you when you do that. It doesn’t give you an achievement, it doesn’t unlock any new items, and moreover the game isn’t even aware that’s what you were doing. But those kinds of behaviors are what keep Skyrim fresh to many players out there, the kinds of activities that demand input from the players own imagination and a willingness to accept there will be no positive reinforcement for playing that way.

    Nothing like the feeling of blasting through space and landing on an unknown planet in No Man's Sky

    No Man’s Sky is a roleplayers game straight out of the gate. In this game it’s the opposite of what we normally expect. All main quests are all optional. Developing your character is optional. Both of these things, things which are usually the pillars on which nearly every game stands, are only excuses to drive the true “goal” in No Man’s Sky, which is simply wandering and finding something you personally think is weird, cool, or beautiful.

    The game doesn’t acknowledge when you succeed at that. There’s no points rewarded for seeing something cool. And I kind of love that. It’s true to life and it’s true to great art as well. When Wee Bay throws the soda can in The Wire, there’s no musical cue or camera zoom to blatantly telegraph “hey pay attention to this, this was the special moment that’s more important than all those other inconsequential moments! We’re going to bludgeon you in the face with obviousness right here because otherwise we’re afraid you might be too dumb to follow along!” When you succeed in real life it’s often just quiet moments in solitude where you did something right, possibly not realizing how important it was until later. And when you succeed at finding something really neat in NMS, there’s not much, if any, reward built into that from a game mechanics or player feedback standpoint. Seeing something cool IS the reward.

    The Majestic "Struttin Werewulf" in his natural habitat in No Man's Sky

    Chock full of life and giant green sunflowers on this arid planet in No Man's SkyAnd the universe is huge. So huge. It’s so indescribably huge. And you’re so tiny and mostly alone. The universe does not care at all about what insignificant resources you’re trying to scrap together to fix some broken thing you’re stuck on today. To the universe it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail in your small little goals, and when you succeed and raise your hands to the sky in triumph there’s just silence. You have to find your own meaning in things. You have to decide what matters to you personally and set your own goals. Then find your own motivation for completing them, and develop the ability to enjoy the good moments when they happen. The cosmos simply will not spell everything out for you. All that’s true to life.

    To me, the point of No Man’s Sky is to find beauty or majesty and capture that. With a screenshot or with your eye or with your sense of wonder. That’s my goal when I play. It’s an exquisite universe full of things worth seeing, no other game looks quite like it, and whatever you see is uniquely yours. Sure lots of other people will see very similar things but never ever will someone see precisely what you saw, in the context you saw it. It’s impossible! And that, like life, is what makes it special and worth experiencing.

    The No Man's Sky spaceship design aesthetic is just off the charts

    MASSIVE dogfights in modded No Man's Sky! 171 fighters in this battle!

    Would it be a better game if it had rogue planets in deep space, working portals, orbital mechanics, desert planets, binary stars, and all that other stuff people are clamoring for? Hell yeah it would be! But would those things change the overall feeling I get while playing, or drastically alter the moment-to-moment of what I’m doing in the game? Well, no, probably not. They’d expand the replay and immersion yes, but their absence doesn’t kill the feeling I have when I crest a ridge and see a forest of blue trees with dragon-like creatures flying above the canopy. Whoa. It’s that feeling that we’re here for to begin with. And I think it’s amazing how many people have glossed over this. We all want more replay, yes, but stop and appreciate this feeling that’s being created right now, as-is. It’s fantastic.

    At this moment in time the fan community is enraged, fixated on what’s absent rather than what exists. I understand the reasons why and I even agree with those reasons but obsessing over a hypothetical future and ignoring the present moment is the life-trap that Buddhists struggle to overcome. The present moment is sublime, if you can pause and truly see it. It’s like what astronaut Edgar Mitchell said about how our political squabbles seem so trite when you view the universe from a bigger lens, and how he wanted to take the political squabblers, “by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch!’” Look at it! The grandeur of the cosmos. Every time I hear some infant crying about lies or refunds or after 60 hours why they’ve given up on the game and it was only worth $20 I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck, show them the incredible screenshots and the wonder I have felt on my journey and tell them Look At That You Son Of A Bitch! They built a whole universe for you–a good one–and all you do is complain. It’s possibly the coolest-looking Sci-Fi random world generator ever made. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction, “What we saw was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge that!!”

    Spaceship #2, my favorite so far, "The Creamsicle" in No Man's Sky

    Starry skies on a "dark-space" system in No Man's SkyIt’s human nature to want more and to constantly be thinking of ways to make things better. It’s a strength that drives improvement but also need to be balanced against the knowledge that these tendencies are also handicaps that prevent us from enjoying what IS. By this point I’ve easily read 20 peoples different lists of what they wish MNS had in it or ways it could be better or features that they are hoping for. And I could make my own but I’m resisting that urge because let’s face it, Hello Games is 15 people, this is an indie game, and there will always be another list of “ten great features that could save No Man’s Sky”. Forget all that.

    So back to what I was talking about with expectations and the “gaming mindset”. People expect a firm list of goals, a questline, and a character expansion tree all of which will score points which are the end-all-be-all of playing every game ever. Before the game came out everyone kept asking the question “but what do you do in No Man’s Sky?” Many times the creators answered that question it was followed with the statement “Or you could NOT do that”, the subtext of which was that those proposed activities were not the real point of the game. Which turned out to be the underlying truth I think. The point is to be in the universe and to see it. To enjoy that.

    No Man’s Sky is sort of like the videogame equivalent of the movie Koyaanisqatsi; an ambitious, beautiful art piece that ditches all the usual tropes that bring people in.  No real dialogue, no real plot, no characters, none of that stuff.  It’s all up to you to find something for yourself within it.  Can a film be considered a great film if it’s purely incredible photography and practically nothing else?  Absolutely it can.  But if you walked into the theater to see Koyaanisqatsi and you were expecting a rom com instead, you’d almost surely hate it.  One it’s expectations and two, I think to even appreciate a film like Koyaanisqatsi you sort of have to know a little bit about what it’s trying to do and maybe even have someone else explain what you’re supposed to be getting out of it first.

    Dinosaurs surround my ship on a toxic mushroom world in No Man's Sky

    The underwater scenes in No Man's Sky can be quite striking tooPersonally, I predict that this game will be seen as a landmark title once the dust has settled and the years have passed. Right now there’s a ton of confusion over what it actually is, and that’s muddying the water. I think it’s going to be a lot like Mirror’s Edge. When that game came out it got lots of bad reviews in the game journalism world and negative attention in general, centered around how the combat was awful. But this was an intentional choice by the designers! In most games containing combat you’re supposed to do that, but in Mirror’s Edge combat is the quicksand that drags you down, something to be avoided unless it’s a last resort. So people took a long time to wrap their heads around that! People hated on it and hated on it until enough time went by that the haters just moved on to something else and the voices singing its praise won out. Maybe it’s a niche audience, maybe it was never meant to be grouped in with so many other AAA titles out there, maybe it’s just a little different and you need to go in expecting that to properly enjoy it… Sound familiar?

    Me, I’ve been loving my time in the Euclid Galaxy. I’ve seen more badass, sleek looking spaceships than I can remember, more strange dinosaurs, creepy insects, and peaceful forest animals than I can think of names for. The plant life is often times cooler than the animal life: vast meadows that flow in the breeze, space cacti, weird neon things that grow on toxic planets, giant 200 foot tall mushrooms, and all manner of trees from familiar to exotic. Then there’s the stuff that strikes you as you look around: the huge planet that hangs in the sky when you’ve landed on a moon, the sunset over a sea filled with schools of what look like banana-peels, the two spaceships which sail overhead as you walk out of a bioluminescence-filled cave, the feeling of sudden alarm as you jetpack over a deep ravine you didn’t realize was there. The visuals of No Man’s Sky are spectacular, end of story, full-stop.

    That feeling of safety inside a cave, and the cool view when you step outside it in No Man's Sky

    The wonder is real, and the Red-Dead-esque moments of captivation at the vistas are there. But if you’re pillaging through without slowing down to look around and smile at these little bits as you go along, too obsessed with 48 slots, too possessed by the grind, too hung up on all those video-gamey mechanics that prevent you from actually seeing what’s right in front of your face–you’re gonna miss the magic. That’s a fact, jack. First and foremost No Man’s Sky is a world generator, second an arcade-style space shooter, third a survival game, and lastly a resource-management trader/crafter/upgrader game. Sure, each of those categories could be more fleshed-out with deeper choices and consequences, but as it is today, it hasn’t stopped me from having fun.

    I just might be part of some specially-geared sub-set of players who always relished the exploration more than the explosions in GTA, or in the minority who felt “the map” was the true main character in so many plot-driven open-world adventures (yes, even Red Dead), but c’mon, the firehose of gorgeous scenery this game engine is delivering cannot be denied and that’s not nothing. If Hello Games can put their resources into polishing what’s here and expanding the busywork for players in this universe over the next year, I think history will still be kind to this intergalactic trip through endless book-cover scenes.

    On a verdant planet, goodbye from No Man's Sky

    Everything Matters

    2016 - 09.16

    A rousing bout of discussion among friends prompted me to search out a drawing I’d seen on the web sometime back concerning the “sad state of modern recording”. Basically it’s mocking the signal chain of recording artist to listener and I’ve created (ironically?) a more high fidelity version of this graphic for your enjoyment here:

    Modern Recording

    What is this saying from a musician’s perspective?  I guess that ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide what time/research/money they want to invest into music.  If a listener wants to be low-effort, they are free to do that although it really doesn’t demand that much money to get decently-good sound.  The image is mostly just for laughs but it does implicitly say something philosophical about the effort that recording engineers put into their craft of capturing something in exquisite quality.  I mean people don’t go tremendously out of their way to acquire just the right tools without knowing they’ll be rewarded for using them.  There is absolutely a major implication in the ingredients you choose when making food.  And a colossal difference between a carefully grilled steak versus McDonald’s.

    What touched all this off was the recent news that the iPhone 7 will have no headphone jack. I reacted to this news with laughter because it seemed so farcical, like a running joke that never stopped being funny for so long that it actually took wind and became a twisted reality. There was a time not long ago when I was interested enough in gadgets that I might have weighed in on this development with vociferous indignation but maybe I’ve stopped caring that much? It still does fascinate me that people will bend over backwards to rationalize this brazenly anti-user, anti-battery-life, anti-fidelity design choice. I mean I’ve got a few different sets of headphones which are each valuable listening tools for my own mixing/mastering projects and all of them would be incompatible with this “fancy” new phone without the use of a dongle. That’s just… bizarre.

    Apple’s had a long, rich history of incomprehensible design choices like the hockey-puck mouse, the elimination of optical drives, the elimination of USB ports, and the recessed headphone jack on the iPhone 1 which now seems like a strange foreshadowing. My friends were riffing that Apple had also done away with Bluetooth and replaced it with their own proprietary wireless format called “Courage” and it wasn’t until I searched the web that I could figure out if they were serious or joking. Turns out they were making a clever joke but I think Apple should do it. How far can they go? For the iPhone 8 they should eliminate the screen I think. Too many clashing colors and confusing aesthetics for the modern consumer. The next phone will be a chrome-plated egg shape to literally mirror the skeuomorphic designs of nature. It’ll have a single LED that communicates to the user via a system of colors and flashing patterns about Donald Drumpf’s latest assertion that kale is part of Obamacare and needs to be banished. Accessories will include a $37.95 polish iCloth to keep the chrome egg plating fingerprint-free (please stop touching it), and an optional dongle which connects the egg to an external iScreen, if you really are that old fashioned that you still need a screen, you curmudgeonly technophobe. People would be just frothing at the opportunity to defend those choices, I know it! I also do genuinely wonder if Apple has actually made their billions by trading the stocks of accessory manufacturers and releasing strings of products to manipulate the stock prices in their favor up or down.

    So that’s all pretty amusing but why do I care? I guess I don’t really. I’ve been content with Android for long enough now that whatever Apple does or doesn’t do has no effect on me so this rambling is all just for fun. And possibly part of my internal debate to answer the question, which is more stupid: continually voicing your unsolicited opinions on inane matters like what you’re cooking for supper, or continually saying nothing and maybe because of that having nothing to say? Of course the right place to land is somewhere in-between those two extremes but I feel I’ve been erring on the latter side too long so here’s a dishing in favor of the former:

    As the above graphic implies, there is a difference made with hardware choice. And everything matters. In my own music that I’ve been recording and mastering, I’ve been continually changing, tweaking, and improving my artistry, small step by small step. From stylistic choices about the philosophy of mixing (should all instruments be clearly audible or should a single instrument be firmly holding the “lead”), to technical choices about the mastering (how much compression on the overheads is too much on the mid-band) to hardware decisions (which mic should I use on trumpet or snare, what placement is best for upper Leslie horn), to the musical choices which happen during the moment itself—all of that plays a role in what comes out at the end.

    When I create music I am trying to get better at that for my own inner critic and my own inner enjoyment-listener. I do it to my own standard, or maybe more accurately I do it for the inherent accomplishment of having done it well. Never once does the sentiment “no one will ever notice” enter into my mind in this process because let’s be brutally honest here: hardly ever does anyone else even listen to begin with!! Besides my fellow musicians and maybe a random YouTuber now and then. And that’s ok. If I was creating music to please some hypothetical judge I’d be doing it for the wrong reason anyway. But my point here is that if the Sennheiser e609 sounds better than the Shure SM57 microphone when it comes to recording my friend Vince’s guitar, then I’m going to pick the better one because that’s what artistry is about: getting better at making your thing. A million different musicians all make choices like that every day and it all matters to them as individuals and to the overall quality level of the medium as a whole. If everyone gave up and said right we’re all using Fisher Price microphones going forward because why bother since the new iPhone wireless audio restricts the bitrate to 2800 baud or whatever, that’d be dumb as hell. And so it IS dumb as hell that Apple wants to get rid of cables which is indisputably a step backwards in terms of signal integrity, interference, and so on. Quality matters, end of story.

    I hope people vote with their wallets on this one because love em or hate em, Apple is a trendsetter. Maybe at worst this is the beginning of the end for the cult of Jobs, or at the least maybe a few die-hard loyalists might blink and realize that the world’s 2nd most valuable corporation isn’t a hip buddy who just wants to jam out with them over some cool tunes, they’re more of a malicious middle-man of sorts, who wants to water-down what’s great about music and take your money in exchange for the illusion of coolness that comes with this club that really just takes anyone’s $700 who’s dumb enough to hand it over. That’s right, iSaid it. Audio cables for life, people. Because music’s richness is in the fine details and as we firmly established, everything matters when it comes to that.

    Beginners Mind again, for this: The Hubble Extreme Deep Field

    2012 - 10.21

    One of the first cosmological images which really and truly blew my mind as a young adult was the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. Basically the idea was “Hey, what happens if we take our most powerful telescope and point it somewhere that’s pretty much empty and just stare at that spot for a really long time. What would we see?” The answer to that question was “We see somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 very distant galaxies.” Pause and let that marinate for a moment.

    Here is a closeup on one small area of the image, a random part that I thought looked cool:

    For a long time I left that as the wallpaper for my computer at work and I’d come in every morning and stare at the image while my slow computer took forever to finish loading windows. What was cool about having it as the wallpaper I had to look at while I waited for the machine to become usable was just how much there is to look at in there. As long as I stared at it, I’m certain there’s oodles of things I still didn’t notice. Looking at it first thing in the morning too, when the mind is raw and still gradually awakening surely added some awe to the effect as well. It’s staring into an abyss. Staring into infinity. And knowing that it stares back at you too…

    As a humorous aside, I’ll note that the “Hubble Ultra-Deep Field” is actually the sucessor to the “Hubble Deep Field” which showed a different region in space. And this new image, the “Hubble Extreme-Deep Field” is a closeup of a smaller section within the Ultra-Deep Field image, adding around 5,500 galaxies to the original 10,000+. When the James Webb Space Telescope goes online, they have plans to image the same area with it’s mighty Infrared sensing capability. What will that image be called? The Ultra-Extreme Uber-Deep Field Tournament Edition Plus. Director’s cut. Enhanced, expanded edition. Two. Strikes Back. Reloaded. Chopped and Screwed. Remix. Turbo.

    Whatever, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just, everyone, do me a favor: full rez this new baby and spend at least two minutes staring, thinking about what it shows:

    Everything on the internet, everything in a book, everything you’ve ever heard, learned, imagined, or even dreamed, in the most remote recess of your subconscious, is all within the realm of the ‘Earth’ experience. And Earth is a single, small terrestrial planet out in some sleepy backwater arm of the Milky Way, a perfectly average spiral galaxy with about 300 billion stars, and about as many planets, with maybe 10 billion of these being in the goldilocks “habitable” zone. Or at least habitable to “life as we know it”. Nevermind moons, nevermind thermally-supported life, nevermind ‘Steppenwolf’ planets that were flung from their parent stars. If the entire breadth of human knowledge, emotion, and experience resides within our differential-unit-small grain of sand that’s floating in the Milky Way swimming pool, then try to concieve of the vast diversity of lifeforms, cultures, natural wonders, and sub-realities residing within the oceanic field of view of this image, depicting thousands upon thousands of distant galaxies. Try to imagine traveling there, surveying them. Imagine exploring just a handful of those galaxies and chronicling the habits of their residents.

    How could we explore it? First we’d need to aggressively master interplanetary voyages, remote communication and colonization. Fly probes and listening devices to the Kuiper Belt. Mount them to passing comets for a long voyage back out to the Oort cloud. Use those to learn about the radiation and galactic wind in interstellar space. Develop shielding, life prolonging and hybernation capabilities for deep space travel. Contact alien cultures within our own galaxy and master inter-species diplomacy. Develop non-invasive, non-destructive ways to study primitive life still early in its evolutionary tree. Catch the best bacteria to help us live longer, retain more knowledge. Authoritively chronicle the Milky Way with billion-year data storage capability. Pool resources with other intelligences to build intergalactic ships or probes. Scatter them in all directions to search for points of interest. Then, finally, research ways to reach the most distant of galactic neighborhoods like the ones we see in these pictures. My point: The actual exploration of these places is not something that’s a few ‘ages’ away in terms of a civilization. Exploring these places is an act for intelligences unthinkably more sophisticated than our own… But we can dream of it.

    When I look at this, I like to focus in on individual places and try to imagine what might be there. I like to find a pretty looking galaxy and think about what planets might be inside of it. Or sometimes find a teeny sub-pixel dot and wonder if that less-than-a-pixel point is a whole giant supergalaxy, burgeoning with life forms, interstellar commerce & conflict, culture & craftsmanship. Maybe these two galaxies colliding are locked in an interspecies war millions of years long. Maybe they’ve evolved organic-electronic synthetic intelligences that can instantly teleport between host bodies, allowing them to be anywhere their race has ever traveled instantaneously. I wonder what their music sounds like. I wonder what senses they have. Can they “see” radio waves? Does their culture have money, or government? I wonder what “pleasure” or “sex” means to them? Or consciousness? I wonder what THEIR telescopes have discovered about the formation of the cosmos. Does it look “the same in all directions” from the far-far edge of what we humans can see?

    It’s fun to try envisioning all these things. And then humorous, in a zen sort of way, genuinely humorous, knowing that it’s impossible. You can’t. You’re looking at something so much bigger, ancient, and wilder than the capability of the feeble human brain to comprehend. The are not human words in any language to meaningfully describe what any of these Hubble Fields show. These images, obscured by the thick, nearly-opaque veil of distance, give the most fuzzy, teasing glimpse of something beyond us. Something beyond even what our most distant descendant will ever become. I find that deeply exciting. This picture shows, unquestionably, indisputably, that the universe has more to explore than is possible to explore. What better reason to be alive in this cosmos?

    A Red Letter Day: Black Mesa Source, playable for free

    2012 - 09.30

    Of all the games out there, the original Half-Life remains one of my all-time favorites.  Iconic.  A landmark in video gaming.  Seminal.  Just this last week, the fan-made complete 100% remake called “Black Mesa Source” was released, for free.  If you have a PC and you’re not playing this, I honestly don’t know what you’re doing with your life.  I really don’t.

    I’ve been waiting for this thing for years on end and it has been delightful, nostalgic, thrilling, and a pitch-perfect re-imagining of the world of Black Mesa.  Playing the intro-sequence was so sweet.  These guys have hit it out of the park.  Absolute must-play.

    “There waiting for you Gordon.  In the Test.  Chamberrrrr.”

    Oh man, two new Hubble Space Teless–heyyyyyy wait a minute!

    2012 - 06.14

    I dig space telescopes. The images they produce are moving on an emotional level and alter the way I see the world around me on an intellectual level. I like talking about them, thinking about the things they are telling us about that giant universe that’s out there, lurking above the thin blue haze which protects us from vacuum. In the news last week I see that NASA has recently been given not one, but TWO spare telescopes from one of the sixteen different US spy agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office. In fact, the mirrors on these things are the same size as Hubble’s mirror (7.9ft). NASA isn’t sure yet how they’ll use these super sweet mirrors. The ‘scopes will need to be kitted out with cameras, spectroscopes, electronics, etc and applied to a specific mission before they see any use, which they’re saying will probably happen in the 2020s.

    But hold the phone here–these things were sitting in a warehouse collecting dust for who knows how long before some record keeper at the NRO said, gee, maybe someone could, like, use these? I recently donated some items to the local goodwill and all of it was stuff that had been sitting around forever; things I hadn’t interacted with in years and were essentially useless to me. The discoveries Hubble has made, the pictures it’s been taking, the realizations about the universe it’s spurred–you could argue that it’s the most important single instrument on the NASA inventory.

    And yet, at just one of our 16 spy agencies, they’ve got TWO of these things, mothballed. The optics on these, still considered “state of the art” to NASA, are ostensibly so old and outdated to the spy crowd that they’re literally giving them away. This raises so many questions… It makes you wonder what else your tax dollars have bought, sitting unused in a giant warehouse somewhere. It makes you wonder what the heck the NRO is using now that is so much better, to the point that a Hubble-equivalent is considered worthless. It makes you wonder how much THAT cost (and when they’re giving one to NASA). It makes you wonder why publicly-funded NASA has to struggle and languish and put a hundred other amazing missions on the chopping block in order to make their James Webb Space Telescope happen, while the also-publicly-funded spy agencies probably get a blank check in a blacked-out portion of the budget with carte blanche to build the best ‘scopes concievable… something far ahead of what NASA can do. It makes you wonder about the ability of democratic governments, of which we are made to believe the Unites States is supposedly the pinnacle, to allocate their collective resources into meaningful and worthwhile pursuits. It makes you wonder about our priorities as a society… which I suppose are decided on our behalves by a tiny elite, as they always have been throughout history.

    In the end, someone devoted to discovery, understanding, and endless research (aka science as a whole, science as a lifestyle) needs to calibrate their expectations. That’s a despicable euphemism but it’s a fact of life. In the world of academia, you will be hard pressed to find places where the engineering department funding and facilities outstrip that of the athletic department. Those rare enclaves exist as exceptions to the rule. Will governments continue to squander their cut of the GDP on self-indulgent machinations? Until the end of time. There is a constant battle going on inside of me, between cynicism and optimism. Which side of that battle rules the day comes down to what I focus on. For today, I want to force myself into focusing on the part of this tale where NASA gets two new Hubble mirrors for free. And remind myself that Kepler is still scoring more points every day while James Webb inches ahead here on the ground. All those facts are something worth toasting to. Here, here.


    2012 - 06.05

    Post #250.  Sestercentennial, baby.  Time for some introspection…

    I’m not sure what to feel about the crescendoing success of SpaceX. On one hand, it’s awesome that we’ve arrived at a point in time when space travel is within reach of a smart company. SpaceX did a nice job broadcasting their launch/ISS docking, including lots of cheering and even a tear-wipe or two. You’d never get that from NASA (and that’s not a bad thing). It is cool to see them get emotional about it–as well they should. I hope they do more live-broadcasts and behind the scenes TV work. I hope they’re not all secretive about the awesome work they’re doing, like say, Apple would be. Or China.

    And on that other hand, I worry that this event signals the beginning of the end for NASA. One thing that makes the work NASA does so incredible is that they do what they do because… someone should. Someone should walk on the moon, someone should evaluate the cosmic microwave background, someone should build the most badass space telescope ever and use it to learn the infinite secrets of the universe. Someone very seriously should do all those things–and much more–in space. Part of me worries that transferring the routine spacefaring work over to a private company is the first step of congress gradually scaling back and eventually pulling the plug on the whole thing. One amazingly great thing about public funding is that it goes to the PUBLIC good. One agonizingly bad thing about public funding is that it’s controlled by utterly short-sighted, duplicitous, and/or clueless plutocrats. AKA congressmen!

    I see headlines about NASA planning a manned mission to Mars–in 2033–and I just sigh. Those kind of timelines are just pure talk. There’s no responsibility for something that’s supposed to happen 20 years from now, no accountability for the people who make those claims. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I sort of feel like it’s never going to happen unless we have another JFK moment where the man in charge says, “your objections are nice and all, but too bad, we’re going to Mars because I say we’re going to Mars, and there is nothing you can do to stop this.” That’s basically what JFK did. I read an interesting article that gave stats on the public approval ratings on the worth of the Apollo program and even right AFTER the moon landing, they maxed out at around 43% I think it said. Even in their moment of glory, less than half of Americans thought it was a worthwhile exercise. I do wonder, if they asked those same people today, with the context of history now putting it into perspective, what the percentages would be.

    There’s a billboard I used to pass on my way home that’s advertising for an Alzheimer’s association. It shows a picture of an Apollo astronaut on the moon and asks “Do You Remember?” I think it’s poignant that out of every world event in the last century they could have picked, and even right over the top of personal events like your daughter’s wedding, or your favorite dog, or (insert personal joy of choice here), they picked the moon landing. THAT is the one thing that blew everyone’s collective mind and stands out brighter than anything. That is the one piece of history you simply cannot forget.

    I saw a late night comedian once, lampooning the USA by comparing us to Michael Jackson, saying “It’s kind of sad when your greatest achievement is a moon walk that happened three decades ago.” OUCH! As someone who grew up watching the space shuttle take routine flights, it feels wrong that NASA has no manned launch vehicle now. I’ll enthusiastically say that it feels great to see an American company take up that mantle (or at least getting closer and closer now). But I worry that as private enterprise takes the lead, and we transfer over to a system that ruthlessly asks the question “what is the short term profit?” that human spaceflight could miss out on true glory while grubbing for coins.

    If I can live to see one piece of history unfold, a man landing on mars would be far-and-away the thing I’d love to witness. When I look at that billboard with the astronaut, that’s what I think about. When will come THE moment for my generation, that piece of history you can never forget? Not a disaster or a scandal or a sporting event–but a true triumph of humankind. Those are rare. And accordingly meaningful. In 2033 I’ll be 53 years old. Will boots touch martian soil by the time I break 60 years of age?  Will I live to see it at all?

    I Want a New Phone: The State of Tech in Early 2012

    2012 - 03.22

    I usually don’t write about phones on here because I think they’re an ultra-transitive subject. In one year’s time, it’s likely that all phone discussion will be completely irrelevant and not worth reading, or even skimming. That’s the paradox of a cellphone; it’s the essential piece of technology that you can’t leave the house without, and which you interact with constantly, many times throughout the day. It’s extremely important–and yet it has no permanence–in a few years time it wears out and you need a new one. So this will be a phone discussion wrapped in a State of the Technological World discussion. Let’s hit it!

    I think the lifecycles of tech companies generally goes like this: Up-and-coming Company X introduces a new product which is not perfect but is pretty great. Everyone wants it. Pretty soon, everyone has it. As their market share goes up, innovation dies, bloatware multiplies, and they stop listening to anyone about the flaws in their product. Wicked and annoying quicks become enshrined under the banner of “Whaddya gonna do, chumps?! Leave us?! We’re the only game in town, so you’ll take our crap and you’ll LOVE IT! You got no other option, suckerrrrrrs!”

    In the 80s and 90s, Apple Computer was a niche market, catering to those who wanted to “think different” or those bored with the endless phalanxes of Microsoft beige-box machines. Apple was a scrappy underdog, fighting to differentiate themselves and carve out a small following against the near-monopoly of MS. Oh, the dripping irony of how time has reversed those roles! Today Apple is the most valuable American corporation. They’ve come full circle from fighting ‘the man’ to becoming ‘the man’ themselves, complete with gargantuan Asian sweatshop factories that struggle to quash suicide controversies. The iPhone is getting long in the tooth, with a dated UI design that they can’t change or abandon now, and Microsoft, of all people, are the ones with the hip’n’with-it fresh ideas! What world do we live in?!

    I had the original, first-generation iPhone shortly after it came out. And I will give it to them; it was far ahead of its time. It took a long time for Google to catch them. But eventually they did, maybe in 2009 or 2010. I’ve always hated iTunes with a passion; its slowness, the ridiculous refusal to play nice with FLAC files (which continues even several years later! Seriously, What.–TheF#%K.), lack of cool visualizers (hello Milkdrop!), lack of support for 3rd party plugins (Compressors. They make every song better. Ever. Times eight), but most of all the syncing. Oohhh boy, the syncing. You can’t share mp3s onto your friend’s iPod (like that’s going to stop anyone from burning them a CD). You can’t put songs from other computers in your own house onto your own iPod. And anytime you download a new track, you have to manually import it into iTunes, make sure it’s tagged (Apple: “What are these ‘file-names’ you speak of?”) and then wait fooorrrrrrreeeeevvvvvvveeeeerrrrrrrrr if you’re putting music onto an iPhone because it needs to do some DRM-BS with every single ‘app’ you ever downloaded. This syncing induced blood-boiling rage on many a night when I had just found some slamming new track that I knew I’d be dying to hear tomorrow. Try syncing before bedtime. You’ll be awake at least an hour longer than you intended.

    Eventually iTunes broke me. Two years ago I made the jump to Android. This netted me turn by turn GPS, better cell reception on Verizon, voice recognition long before Siri, and most importantly, access to SD card storage. Having my phone be able to function as a flash drive is the most under-appreciated part of Android. I use it constantly, every day to move files around, freely transfering them between computers and accessing them on the phone itself. And if I get a hot new track I want to listen to, it’s copied over with windows explorer in a mere seconds. No importing, no syncing, no tagging. Done. This is how it should be.

    I’ve been rocking a Motorola Droid X for nearly two years. When I first got it, it was a mean machine. One time a waiter even asked me, “hey is that the new Droid??” As a photo-nut I also love the idea of a physical, dedicated shutter release button. But lately it’s been doing some very unfortunate things which it definitely should not be doing. Like rebooting at random, and just generally getting really slow. Having owned the phone for almost two years, I know that it should not be feeling this sluggish. Something is wrong. Once, (and thankfully only once) it even committed the cardinal sin of rebooting in the middle of a phone call. That’s grounds for dismissal right there. In its defense, I have used the utter bejeezus out of this thing, even far more than I ever used my iPhone. I’m getting antsy to replace the Droid X, but honestly all the phones Verizon is offering at the moment are boring, outdated, and unimpressive.

    New phones are a dime a dozen, and even with my near-daily reading of Gizmodo and Engadget, I always skip the phone coverage. So I’ve been educating myself lately on what’s out there. I definitely don’t want to go back to Apple. I’d sooner choke myself with a 32-pin connector than suffer through another round of iTunes slogging/slavery. Plus, a bigger screen is quite nice. You get used to that. And the turn by turn GPS is majorly helpful, especially driving stickshift. But do I want an Android? What else is there?

    Google, particularly in the last several months, has been more and more annoying. They’ve come out with a unified privacy policy, which I’ve had to click ‘okay’ for, like, 50 times now. And I know what it really means. It means, ‘all this time, we’ve been collecting every single thing you do online, and now we’re gonna totally sell that shiz and get like a bajillion dollars richer for it. And you can’t opt out. Whaddya gonna do, chumps?! Use Altavista?! We’re the only game in town, so you’ll take our crap and you’ll LOVE IT! You got no other option, suckerrrrrrs!

    Actually, there is a new game in town. Microsoft has been steadily working out their “metro” UI, which was pioneered on the Zune (remember that?!), refined on the xbox, and now reached its logical zenith on Windows Phone. “Skeuomorphism” is the guiding principle behind a lot of Apple’s interface design, where the notes application looks like a yellow-page notepad, the calendar has fake leather, all the icons look like digitally recreated glass, etc–it’s feeling, idunno, tired. Metro is a clean slate, literally. It’s solid blocks of color that feel fresher and cleaner than a cluttered iOS homescreen with fake water droplets under fake glass icons (or for that matter, the me-too design aesthetics of Android).

    I really dig what Microsoft has done there, and the fact that Nokia, a very experienced hand when it comes to mobile hardware, is leading the charge on Windows phone–that interests me. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve got Carl Zeiss printed around the lenses on those phones, even if they are plastic lenses. Searching through the MS app store, I see they’ve got all the essential apps I use; pulse, shazaam, wordpress, and the obligatory facebook (another company we’ve all become slaves to). Hmm. This is all looking pretty appealing. And I could break out from the pervasive we-know-everything-you-do-and-are-totally-getting-rich-off-it ethos of el Goog.

    Only thing is that none of these phones are available yet in the US. The Lumia 900 is totally sweet. I’d be over at the Verizon store today pickin that up if they sold it. In white. Hmm. Same story on the Lumia 610, which also looks nice. So what else is there of the “what else”?

    The biggest strength of Android would probably be choice (in many senses). Accordingly, there’s an Android phone for anyone. As I wrote about on here long, long ago, I totally went bananas for the Microsoft Courier concept videos. Sadly and stupidly the project ended up being abandoned, and MS lost one of their biggest design gurus in the fallout. Rightly so. One of the big appeals Courier held for me was the premise of using a stylus to allow digital sketching; visualizing ideas, handwriting recognition, doodling over photos or screencaps, and also for just trying to get artistic and sketch something! I still feel very drawn to that idea. Enter the Samsung Galaxy Note. (aka the Galaxy Journal on Verizon, release date…. soon??)

    It’s way oversized for a phone. The display is 1280×800, which makes 285ppi on the 5.3″ screen (wowzers). That’s monsterously, perhaps even irritatingly huge… yet that real estate is purposeful; it allows you room to draw, which is a central feature to the device. I actually went over to the local AT&T store to try this sucker out. The handwriting recognition requires careful penmanship. The stylus isn’t perfect. But it does have a wacon-designed 128 levels of pressure sensitivity, and you can certainly make drawings with it, faster, easier, and better than with a plodding fingertip, beyond question. That a pretty unique feature for something that will always be in your pocket. One that I think could potentially challenge me to sketch more, be more artistic, and maybe even pay dividends here on the website, in the form of amusing drawings to accompany blogposts, or even new hand-drawn artwork for headers and various other pages throughout the site.

    Hmph. That’s definitely food for thought. Being able to sketch might be worth flying the Android flag for a while longer. Although I do envy that sleek new Metro UI. I guess we’ll just wait and see which phone becomes available first! Expect a sequel to this post…..

    Last thing I’ll mention on the State of Tech 2012 is the disturbing trend toward “appification” in the newest crop of OSes. I don’t want “apps,” I want “programs!” The first preview version of Windows 8 dropped last week and it continues Microsoft’s unification of all platforms under the Metro UI language. As stated, I love the concept of Metro, but what I don’t like is the idea that eventually all programs will be run full screen, and frozen while not in the foreground. This is not, at all, how I use my computer now. I sometimes render timelapse video in Premiere while making beats in Reason, which has multiple windows. Multitasking and multi-window programs, which inherently improve productivity with user-customization. I hope the desktop paradigm never shifts away from that. Because if it does, I’m staying on Win 7. Call me a technophobe. ;P

    Megapixels have officially jumped the shark

    2012 - 03.01

    Okay, there’s a few interesting new bits of technology in the news that I’d like to riff on. The brand new Nokia 808 PureView, the Nikon D800, and the Canon C300. People love to focus on numbers, stats, specifications. Especially in the world of cameras, how things look ‘on paper’ is important. For many years, megapixels were kind of the end-all-be-all number that told you how good a camera was. Those days are over. In fact, they’ve been over for several years now but that won’t stop people from beating a dead horse.


    Nikon’s new flagship DSLR is the D800 and it’s got a whopping 36 megapixels (that makes a dastardly 7360×4912 image). This guy gets a free pass because okay, maybe some professionals are using it to shoot images which might be printed onto billboards or something. But this new Nokia 808 PureView phone (seriously, a PHONE!) has… are you ready for this? 41 megapixels. That’s just absurd. And yeah, in the end, that number is nothing more than a headline-grabber, marketing mumbo-jumbo garbage, as the final image max size which gets saved is… 8MP. Hah. But my point here is that dudes, we need a new number to focus on. Megapixels are the new gigahertz (as in computer CPUs)… they are a distraction from what’s actually relevant.

    The Canon C300 sprints boldly in the opposite direction. To be clear, the “C” stands for “Cinema” and this camera costs 16 large. However, its max still image megapixel count is a modest 8MP. And video maxes out with 1080p at 24fps (not counting interlaced modes, because f–k interlacing). However… It’s a light-eating monster. Canon should have some standardized number they could point to, which compares it to other cameras and shows how much drastically better the C300 is, in terms of real-world shooting.  Like a light sensitivity index or something.  Maybe the square micron area of the individual pixel size?

     As an aside, check out this video below, in which they compare footage from the C300 versus the Canon 550D, aka the Rebel T3i, which happens to be the camera I own!  For a camera that costs $500ish stacked up against something that costs 32 times that amount, I think the scrappy little Rebel holds up well!

    When it comes to lenses, aperture is an excellent number to compare lenses by. But try to explain what aperture actually means to someone who isn’t intimately familiar with photography: F-number, it’s the ratio of the pupil diameter of the lens (which is proportional but NOT equal to the aperture diameter) divided by the effective focal length, which is the distance from the optical center of your lens to the film plane. That distance changes as you zoom, and so does the physical size of the aperture even when set to the same f-number. The aperture diameter at 50mm f/8 is actually not the same at 100mm f/8. Oh, and it matters where the aperture is inside of your lens too. Confused yet? Good! But you can look through say, the Canon lens lineup, and instantly tell which lenses are better ones, simply by saying hey this f/2.8 lens is a lot nicer than that f/4.5 one. (I know for the heady-est of heads, that isn’t WHAT makes a lens great or sharp, but painting with a broad brush, the statement “bigger aperture=better lens” generally holds true, in the same sense that bigger magnets generally equal better loudspeakers. A giant magnet isn’t the end-all be-all of WHY a speaker is good, but hey, you don’t slap a mammoth, expensive magnet on an otherwise crap speaker.)

    What I’m saying is that we already have a standardized number, the f-stop, which rolls in a lot of really hard to discuss ideas into a nice, neat two-digit quantification. We should have something like that for light sensitivity.

    And also, it kinda seems like we’ve hit a wall with 1080p/30fps video. Why are more cameras not featuring 1080p/60fps? That sure would be nice. And for that matter, why do we not have modes like 720p/120fps? If resolutions aren’t increasing anymore (and they won’t for a long time to come because you can’t buy a consumer-grade LCD with high enough resolution to actually display anything much higher than that!), then why aren’t our framerates skyrocketing? Everyone loves slo-mo, right? I have a prediction to make: we’re going to see high-speed video modes on a friggin phone before any (consumer) interchangable lens camera gets it. It’s so backwards, but that seems to be how the industry works.

    Camera Lust: the Pentax K-01 and the Fuji X-Pro1

    2012 - 02.04

    Pentax is blowing up the interwebs this week with news of their newest sweet photo machine, the K-01. New sweet photo machines are a dime-a-dozen, but what makes this one interesting is that it’s the first mirrorless interchangable lens camera (we’re going to stick with the acronym MILC here) that actually shares a lens mount with their normal SLRs, meaning you can attach any of your existing K-mount lenses right on to this baby. Now that’s progress! No need to repurchase thousands of dollars in precious glass to be totally outfitted.

    You’ll also notice it’s offered with a shockingly thin (read: skimpy?) 40 f/2.8 prime. That’s an odd novelty, but with glass that tiny, does it actually take decent images? Anyway, I don’t care much about that, back to the body–It’s cool to finally see someone make a mirrorless camera that doesn’t demand a whole new army of lenses. It’s about time!

    And still no MILC from Canon… I’m waiting fellas!

    Runner up for interesting new camera in the mirrorless world would be that Fujifilm X-Pro1. It’s predecessor, the X100, was featured on here a while back and remains on the short list of extreeeemely lust-worthy photo gear that I would totally buy if it were only a little more affordable. The X-Pro1 would probably get a whole post devoted solely to it as well, if it weren’t even further into the netherworld of unaffordability. At $1700 for the BODY ONLY, I wonder how many units of this thing Fuji is going to be pushing. For that price, you could get a rock solid Canon or Nikon DSLR AND a lot of great glass too. Unfortunate. But it does have enough unique features that I want to blab about it for a minute. Let’s start with some choice blurbs from the official press release:

    blurb #1:
    The new color filter array paves the way for an ideal sensor that does not need an optical low-pass filter. While the optical low-pass filter is indispensable for the reduction of moiré and false color generated by conventional sensors, it also degrades resolution. Fujifilm has developed a new color filter array that is inspired by the random arrangement of fine film grain, removing the need for an optical low-pass filter to solve moiré and false color issues. In the array, RGB pixels are arranged in 6×6 pixel sets with high aperiodicity (randomness). Increasing the degree of randomness eliminates the fundamental cause of moiré and false colors – a problem that occurs in conventional arrays when shooting stripes and other repeating patterns. The presence of an R, G and B pixel in every vertical and horizontal pixel series minimizes the generation of false colors and delivers higher color reproduction.
    blurb #2:
    Extending Fujifilm’s photo film legacy
    In film cameras, capturing multiple exposures is the unique photographic technique of superimposing one image on another by double exposing a single frame of film. Through advanced digital processing the X-Pro1 can simulate this technique by simply selecting the Multiple Exposure mode and taking the first shot. By viewing the image via the Hybrid Multi Viewfinder or on the LCD screen, you can see how the finished multiple exposure will look and then precisely frame the second shot.  
    Further enhancements have been made to the Film Simulation modes with the new Professional Color Negative Film Modes (Pro Neg. Std and Pro Neg. Hi) designed for X-Pro1 users working in the studio. The X-Pro1 also offers Film Simulation bracketing, along with AE, Dynamic and ISO bracketing; plus the ability to capture the colors and tonal qualities of popular FUJIFILM emulsions through the vibrant colors of Velvia, the softer skin tones of ASTIA and the natural look of PROVIA.

    That multiple exposure thing is pretty rad. Every camera should have that, using preview on the LCD. That’s science. The coolest thing about this camera is definitely the color filter array though. Okay kids, put on your nerd caps, cuz shiz is about to get hardcore up in here:

    Every digital camera uses an image sensor to collect the photons (light) that make up the picture. Since the sensor itself cannot discriminate colors, filters are used to split the light into RGB (red, blue, & green) components. By combining RGB in different combinations, you can then spell out any color imaginable. Old school photographic color film accomplished the same idea by having (at least) 3 seperate layers of silver halide salts which were dyed differently. Since film was a chemical/analog process, those salt crystals weren’t arranged in any sort of perfectly aligned matrix, they were just scattered all over, however they happened to fall. The characteristics of any given film (contrast, sensitivity, resolution) were determined by the crystal sizes and the amounts of the silver halide for each different color layer. Fancier films had up to 12 different layers used to reproduce colors! So it wasn’t just RGB, it was a whole lot of different colors being combined, and each “pixel” in the film was of variable size.  Click the image of those Kodak T-grain silver halide crystals to see more Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images of different films.

    To obtain digital color images, almost all sensors use the standard 2×2 “bayer” color filter, named after a clever Kodak engineer who came up with the scheme during the 70s. (If you’re wondering, Bryce Bayer chose to use an extra green pixel to emulate the human eye’s sensitivity to green light, which is kinda neat!) So nearly every digital camera uses this method of light collection, and even those rare cameras which deviate from the standard color filter configuration still have some kind of repeating, contant pattern. Although it’s not completely clear from the Fuji PR-speak, if their color filters really are randomized across the whole sensor area, woah, that is a major difference in the way light is gathered… and a pretty ingenius mimicry of analog. As a giant in the tradition of film and therefore owner of masterful knowledge upon the characteristics of it, seeing Fuji bring the lessons learned over decades of experience in color reproduction using silver halide emulsions to bear in the new digital era is… way cool. If anyone can do it, it’s them (or Kodak?).

    The story of the transition between the analog epoch and the digital epoch is a tale chock full of “back to the future”-isms. In the sense that as digital technology gets better and better, the goal seems to be emulating the way analog things used to be. We see this is audio mastering (see TRacks-tube/tape emulation mastering software), audio reproduction (vacuum tube pre-amp stereos, and progressively higher sample rates to recreate a more ‘analog’ waveform), musical instruments (amps and effects pedals that strive to recreate the analog ‘warmth’, synthesizers that model their vintage predecessors), and even video games with roms and emulators built to resurrect the early days of gaming. To me, it makes perfect sense that photography, when the technology gets good enough, will undergo this same trend of digital modeling to recreate an analog era gone by.

    Right along those lines, Fuji’s film simulation modes are an ultra-sweet concept that I have seriously been wishing someone would do for many years now. I wonder how those work, exactly… searching for information doesn’t turn up any explanation; I’d be willing to bet that the only difference between the three film simulation modes are simple tweaks to contrast and saturation. The example images shown on this excellent webpage would seem to support that theory. Although it’s complex to compare film ‘resolution’ to an equivalent digital resolution, analog film has somewhere between 15-25 megapixels of ‘resolution’ depending on who you ask. My 18MP Canon t3i starts to inch into this territory. As sensor design pushes even further into the higher megapixels, it’d be really cool to see the characteristics of old school film emulsions replicated not just at the post-processing (software) stage, but at the light-acquisition (sensor/color-filter) stage. Software enhancements are never going to beat photoshop at its own game… but hardware that captures color in a new way? That would be an innovation.

    What would it take to truly create an honest digital carbon-copy of film emulsion? You’d need a variable color filter and as many megapixels as you could throw at it. As in, a color filter where you could actively switch which pixels recieve which color, and do it on the fly. We’d be aiming to mimic the salt crystals as you see in the SEM image, with variable sizes and variable locations for each individual exposure. You’d have some kind of randomization that would rearrange the configuration every time a new photo is taken, within a given set of parameters for each different film emulsion. To really nail it, you’d also want to not just use RGB in your color filter, but a larger variety of color shades to mimic the dyes from many-layered emulsions.

    I lazily mocked up the idea here with a grid over an SEM image of Kodak Portra 160VC  Professional portrait negative film. Average grain size: 1μm.  I only colored in some film grains because it would take forever to do the whole thing and I got tired of clicking.  I did RGB and CYM(K) with a lot of K, I guess.  But you could use many combinations of colors in your color filter, both echoing classic film emulsions, or even getting creative with more funky configurations.

    That kind of light capturing would offer something you could never do in photoshop, due to the fact that it would change the way the actual sensor is classifying colors of photons which make an image *as they come in*. I have no idea how one could create a variable or “active” color-filter, but man, if you could do that, it would open up incredible possibilities in the way light is captured. Think ultraviolet and infrared too. It’s all conjecture, but I find this stuff awesome to daydream about.


    The Perfect Camera is the One You Have With You

    2012 - 01.15

    For a long time now, smartphone cameras have been eating up the camera market for pocketable cameras. It’s easy to see why; smartphone cameras are ‘good enough’ for most people, and why carry around a possibly redundant second thing in your pocket? This week in gadget nerd news, I see that Polaroid will soon be introducing an android-powered camera. This is flirting with a dream object of mine: the awesome compact camera that so happens to have a phone built into it.

    For a long time now we’ve seen thousands of high-quality smartphones… that happen to have a decent camera on them. But there still does not yet exist a high-quality camera… that also happens to have a decent smartphone in it! It’s so obvious. Why has no one does this? For serious guys. It’s a photo nuts dream machine. Slam. Dunk.

    There’s even companies who already make excellent smartphones AND excellent cameras, like Samsung or Sony. Man. How hard can it be to combine these things? Apparently, impossible.

    There have been a few halfhearted attempts, like the Samsung sch-w880 (Asia only, and not Android), or the Panasonic Lumix Phone 101P (shown above) which is Japan only, but it IS Android. That lumix comes the closest to what I’m wishing for. You could probably import one, for like a thousand dollars. That’s so sad. This new Polaroid SC1630 is actually nothing more than a rebrand of a phone that’s been on the market in Asia for a long time now, called the Altek Leo. I was kind of excited by the Polaroid phone until I figured that out.

    While all these phones are interesting, I would still posit that none of them are doing it RIGHT. All of them are still trying to compete with phones on slimness and not offering the features that would make the photo geeks salivate. By that I mean no product exists that offers a serious high quality lens with a phone… in a fat body which barely fits in a tight jeans pocket, one that is brazenly and unapologetically a still a camera first and foremost.

    And so, just for fun, I’ve decided to make a fake advertisement for cameraphone of my dreams that would cater to the hardcore photo niche. If you know what “Av” stands for, and have level 10 Photoshop skillz, this is for you. Since Kodak has been in the news lately for their almost-bankruptcy, I’m imagining it as a comeback product for them: a sexy vintage rangefinder that could steal people away from the Fuji x100 AND the ‘Droid-of-the-week in one fell swoop!  And one that relied heavily on advanced knowledge of what made film so beautiful.  (If this website is slow, the same file is also hosted at Flickr here)

    Maybe I’ll clarify a couple things: I envision the camera and the Android section as essentially independent entities. They both use the same SD card, and they both use the same Android set of buttons, but with different functions depending on the position of the camera/android switch. Also observe that there is an AUTO setting on the ISO dial… this means you could set it to Av, pick your aperture, and have the camera autoselect your shutter speed AND your ISO. That would be super duper nice, to help avoid camera shake. When distracted, I get caught by slow shutter speeds in Av mode all the time, it happens easily.

    A few final thoughts: the body isn’t exactly what I wish it could be, as I was limited by my ability to find a rangefinder camera that had high resolution photos taken of it from the front, top, and back. Given the boring backsides of many film cameras, finding the back image was surprisingly tough. It would definitely be two-tone though. No question there. Another limitation was my own Photoshop ability and how much time I wanted to invest getting an idea across. If I were sketching this thing from scratch, I would’ve probably laid out the controls slightly different, but this conveys all the features I wanted, maybe just not in the exact right positions. I thought a edited photo would be a lot more enticing than a sketch though, so I went that route.

    For anyone who’s curious, what’s here is a touched up version of a Zorki-4, an old Soviet rangefinder. I also used the spun dials from my old Marantz amp, a photo of the screen on my Droid X, and the camera/play switch from my old Canon A60 (that switch always felt so sure and right under my finger, with a satisfying click into each position). There’s a few things that did get left out; I would’ve liked to add a neat looking lens cap that tethered to the body with a small cord to stop it from getting lost. Also I would’ve liked to mock up pictures of the accessories, but it would’ve taken a lot of time. It’s hard to translate something in your mind to something visual.

    Last thing I’ll add is that it’s sort of wild that Kodak is even in the position it is… I learned on Wikipedia that in 1976 Kodak had a 90% market share of photographic film sales in the United States.  That’s a lot.  Maybe they should draw on that colossal expertise and build a camera like this one, instead of inkjet printers and digital picture frames.  It’d be cool to see them turn it around and make incredible gear.