Saturday, March 28, 2009

3-D Follow-up

A couple posts ago I said I was going to take the first opportunity I had to see a movie presented using RealD Cinema 3D. Tonight I went with a couple of friends to see Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D.

RealD's take on 3D technology uses, instead of differently colored lenses, circular polarized lenses, one polarized clockwise and the other polarized counter-clockwise. Alternating differently-polarized frames are then projected onto a reflective screen specially designed to preserve the polarization. The point of using circular polarization instead of linear polarization is so that the 3D illusion is preserved when the viewer's head is tilted.

Based on this first impression, I have to say the 3D presentation worked surprisingly well; it's certainly a great improvement over other 3D technologies I have seen. First and foremost is the lack of eye strain. I watched the 3D episode of Chuck this past January, which used Intel's ColorCode technology (brown and blue glasses), and at the end of the hour-long episode I was glad to take the glasses off. One of the two people I went with tonight experienced a little bit of eye fatigue, but I myself experienced none. The second major improvement is in the representation of finer detail. ColorCode's use of layered colors in a single image to make the 3D effect has the limitation of being unable to effectively display differences in depth of small objects and texture — the result being that the larger objects in the scene (buildings, people, furniture) are rendered much like cardboard cutouts in a diorama, even on an HDTV. RealD Cinema's use of two completely separate images was much more effective in presenting finer details like facial features, surface contours, and even clouds of individual dust particles or grass clippings as naturally 3-dimensional, with the surprising result that surfaces one would expect to have texture but didn't (for instance, the Missing Link's scaly skin) stood out like a sore thumb. As a display technology, RealD Cinema lives up to its promise very well.

As with any new technology in the film industry, good implementation is key. There are still some quirks to the 3D effect that cinematographers are going to have to learn to work with. Objects that intersect the left and right sides of the screen still exhibit a flickering effect, and fast horizontal movement produces an unintelligible image much like looking in a vibrating mirror. Extreme variations in depth or objects placed very "close" to the viewer also lose the 3D effect, and objects flatly perpendicular to the camera's line of sight still exhibit the cardboard-cutout effect. I have a feeling that further refinements to how scenes are laid out (and perhaps further refinements in the technology itself) will overcome these issues.

Overall, the movie itself was a surprisingly natural-seeming 3D experience, with few exceptions. The experience was so natural, in fact, that I find myself struggling to imagine what the movie would be like had I seen it in 2D. I found it easy to forget that I was wearing 3D glasses, and I thought the movie made fairly good use of the technology as an experience rather than a gimmick (although there was a somewhat amusing incident with a paddle ball that, I admit, made me blink). On the other hand, I think the movie probably would not have been as entertaining without the additional fascination of 3D, and probably wouldn't hold up under multiple viewings — certainly not multiple 2D viewings.

So, overall it was a very positive experience. The RealD Cinema technology gets a 9 out of 10, the implementation of it in this movie gets a 7.5 out of 10, and the movie itself gets a 7 out of 10. I'm looking forward to seeing how the technology progresses, and especially interested in seeing it used on live action. There are currently 34 more movies scheduled to be released in RealD Cinema between now and 2013, but as best I can tell, all but two are either computer animation or stop-motion animation; the other two are horror movies I won't be seeing under any circumstances.

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Friday, March 27, 2009


I was sent a story this week about a professor who tries to demonstrate to his students that the idea of a perfectly good, all-powerful God is a logical impossibility. I'm not sure where the story originated (or even if it depicts an actual event), but it was interesting and it raised some thoughts I wanted to present here.

In the story, the professor argues that since evil exists, then if God created everything, God must necessarily be evil. The story ends with a student's response. The student proposes that cold does not exist: thermal energy (heat) exists and, theoretically, has no upper bound; if cold exists as the opposite of heat, it must have no lower bound; since there is an absolute zero, "cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it." The student argues similarly for a definition of darkness as being the absence of light (not its opposite), and then extends his argument to evil:
"Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God's love present in his heart. It's like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light."
The problem I see with the student's argument is that it mistakes the quantifiable phenomenon "heat" (measured against the standard of absolute zero) for the subjective description "hot," and the quantifiable phenomenon "light" (presumably based on the presence of photons in the visible spectrum) for the subjective description "brightness," and then applies the same misconception to the problem of evil.

Evil is not a subjective description. There are no varying degrees of evil, nor is evil simply the absence of God's love — evil is opposition to God himself. Both the professor and the student made the same mistake: they judged good and evil based on their own human perception rather than on the true standard, God himself. The professor thinks, "these things exist and are evil, so if God created everything, therefore God must be evil," an argument which places God's actions, plans and motives under man's judgment instead of the other way around. The student's argument ignores the fact that evil originated in a choice — our choice not to serve and obey God but instead to turn against him and serve ourselves — and that as a result of that choice, we are incapable of true goodness until the enmity is erased completely.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lost, but not lost...

Four and a half years ago, almost to the day, I and about eight of my college friends crowded into the 5 foot by 7 foot living room/office of my apartment behind the South 14th Street Discount Market to watch the premiere of a little show called Lost. It was a memorable episode that launched a two hour long discussion of the many weighty philosophical questions raised, including: "Where did the polar bear come from?", "What was Kate's crime?", "What's in Sawyer's letter?", "What is the monster?", and "Who is the French woman?" 93 episodes later, have these questions been answered? Yes, yes, yes, sort of, and yes, respectively, but dozens more have been raised in their place — and that's just the way we like it.

Lost is now in its fifth season, and has mastered and then reinvented the art of answering questions with questions. Far too many shows attempt this; Lost achieves it in a way that fascinates and so completely defies prediction that I have long since stopped trying. What other show could lead four grown men to spend four conversations in a single day pondering the revelations produced by a ten year old boy bringing a sandwich to a prisoner in a jail cell?

Lost's other great skill is its ability to deliver on the promises it makes to the audience and the questions it makes them ask (thus inspiring confidence that the questions that haven't been answered yet will be answered eventually). Last night's episode, the ninth of the fifth season, is a perfect example. The previously mentioned sandwich delivery shed more light on several questions, some from as far back as the middle of season 2, while ominously foreshadowing other events that we saw happen in season 3. The rest of the episode tied in perfectly to briefly mentioned events from seasons ago, added yet more insight into the histories of long-running minor but pivotal characters, deftly juggled two plot lines separated by decades and, of course, raised yet more questions. The best part? Even if you didn't catch on to any of these connections, it was still great TV.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Survey of Film History, Parts XX-XL

I realized today that I haven't done one of these in over four months. This time the movies range from 1936 to 1956, and include everything from film noir to romantic comedies to musicals. There are far to many for me to do a thorough review of each and every one, but I'll add comments where I can, and hopefully will keep up with this better in the future. I am pretty much officially out of the 1940's now; after Adam's Rib, which I have not yet watched, there are seven movies still in my queue from prior to 1955, but they are all listed as "unavailable" or "very long wait".

The Very Good:
  • Midnight (1939) - I found this movie thoroughly entertaining; great characters and very funny.

  • Suspicion (1941) - My queue (in addition to today's post) features a disproportionate number of Hitchcock movies, because I haven't seen very many before. This movie should probably be in the next category down, and would be except for what I learned from the DVD special features about the plot of the original novel. Consider this movie to be in the "Very Good" category for what might have been, rather than for what is.

  • To Catch a Thief (1955) - This Hitchcock film is an example of a mystery done right. It features interesting characters, sufficiently surprising twists, and is overall very satisfying.

The Good:
  • Sabotage (1936) - This Hitchcock film had some pretty tense scenes, but very little in the way of compelling characters.

  • All About Eve (1950) - well acted and, consequently, a captivating story; however, not the kind of story I'd like to watch over and over again.

  • Pat and Mike (1952) - a charming romantic comedy, entertaining as most of Kathryn Hepburn's movies are. It simply lacks the spark that made Midnight such a standout.

  • Dial M for Murder (1954) - another Hitchcock film; great tension, but with a somewhat anticlimactic ending, and told with a sense of detachment that made it hard to relate to the characters. (See below for further, semi-related discussion.)

  • Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - James Dean knew melodrama. It's a fairly unremarkable storyline made compelling by the storytelling.

The Merely Bland:
  • The Awful Truth (1937)

  • Road to Morocco (1942)

  • Lifeboat (1944) - yet another Hitchcock film. Too homogeneous in its pessimism to be interesting.

  • Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

  • State of the Union (1948)

  • The Third Man (1949)

  • Stage Fright (1950) - Hitchcock again; a compelling story brought down by a disappointing ending.

  • Singin' in the Rain (1952) - I prefer the kind of musical where the music is organic to the story. This movie is an approximation of that kind of musical, being that it is about Hollywood stars making a musical movie, but the songs are trite and the storyline is weak. One extremely bright spot is Jean Hagen's hilarious portrayal of Lina Lamont.

  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) - Here's an example of the wrong kind of musical: the kind where people pause and burst into song and dance for no apparent reason (except perhaps to cover up a weak plot). Howard Keel's vocal performance is a pain point for me too.

  • Moby Dick (1956)

The Bad:
  • Spellbound (1945) - one last Hitchcock movie. As much as I like Gregory Peck, I couldn't stand his performance in this movie. An overdone performance in a movie that offered little else of interest.

  • Harvey (1950) - I can't figure out if this movie is portraying a serious psychological condition as a heartwarming farce, or doing a very poor job of telling the story of a magical creature mistaken for insanity. Whatever the case, I could not wait for this movie to end, mostly because of Jimmy Stewart's clumsily earnest performance.

    The most interesting thing about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart's invisible friend Harvey was the inspiration for the naming of the neural clone of Scorpius that existed in John Crichton's head in Farscape, a name that was first used by fans in online message boards and later adopted by the show's producer's and written into the script.

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) - The worst kind of story reveals its awful ending at the beginning, and then forces you to sit through two hours of unredeeming story. This is a prime example.

An interesting fact about Dial M for Murder (1954) is that it was originally filmed in 3D. What makes that notable is that the film is in no way a "spectacle" or gimmick film, as were most movies that were being filmed in color, widescreen or 3D. I only saw the 2D version of the movie; I'd be interested to see the 3D version to see how it came out. This was the time of the rise of in-home television, and color, widescreen formats and 3D were the features that still made the movie theater distinctive from free television. Color and widescreen eventually became commonplace and are now artistic decisions rather than economic ones, but 3D all but disappeared due to the limitations of the technology. A format couldn't be produced at the time that was comfortable for extended viewing without headaches and eye strain.

A 3D image requires some technique of delivering different input to each eye. The most common technique is the well-known red and blue glasses, or the more recent brown and blue variation (Intel's in-home ColorCode variation of their InTru 3D technology; go to the link and click the "3D HP Showroom" link on the right). This technique, used recently in a Superbowl commercial as well as an episode of Chuck (reported to be the first ever full-length TV series presentation in 3D), is basically unchanged since the 1950's and is the only method of 3D presentation that can be used on standard in-home equipment. Other new techniques involve using electronic glasses with lenses that flicker in sync with a high-speed projector that displays a frame first to one eye and then the corresponding frame for the other eye, or RealD Cinema, the similar but reportedly more natural-seeming technique of using glasses with differently polarized lenses to view two differently polarized images projected by a high-speed projector (this display technology is utilized by InTru 3D and claims to eliminate the eye strain caused by previous techniques). Neither of these techniques can be implemented in the standard household, which means that movie theaters once again have the advantage of being able to present an experience that cannot be found for free at home. This advantage, combined with the relative ease of converting computer animated films to any available 3D format and the widespread availability of in-home high definition large screen content, may explain the recent increase of 3D movie theater presentations. According to the InTru 3D web site, "DreamWorks Animation has committed to producing all of its feature films using InTru 3D technology beginning in 2009."

At this point however, 3D is still little more than a gimmick. It provides to the viewer a unique viewing experience, but that in itself is not enough to give the technology from eye-candy to valuable tool. This has been seen before with film technology innovations like the bullet-time effect created for The Matrix, and computer-animated movies in general. Much like the flurry of 3D movies in the 50's, both of these technologies had an innovator, followed by innumerable followers who used the technology simply because it was the next cool thing. However, if the movies that used these technologies were memorable, it was not because they used those technologies — it was because there was something distinctive about the story, the characters, the filmmaking or, for the best, all three. If the popularity of 3D continues to grow, as it looks like it will thanks to easily implemented comfortable technology, masses of filmmakers will jump on the money-making bandwagon (there are currently 37 movies scheduled to be released using the RealD technology in 2009-2013). What the technology is truly waiting for, however, is for a filmmaker to use the technology to do something other than throw objects at the audience.

I'm going to take the first opportunity I get to see an InTru 3D movie to see if the technology is as groundbreaking as they claim. However, the first truly great 3D movie will be the movie where the filmmaker uses 3D technology as a medium and as a true component of the cinematography rather than as a gimmick; the movie where the audience forgets that they are watching a 3D movie, and is simply captivated by a story told in a way that was never possible before. That movie is the one I am truly looking forward to.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fun, In Quotation Marks

This week has been full of interesting quotes, some of which I am compelled to share here. Prepare to be surprised, perplexed and maybe even a little bit befuddled. First up is a quote from a sign I saw tonight in an AT&T store while I was pondering my bi-yearly upgrade options. The sign, formatted as seen below, advertised a $70 "accessories bundle" which includes:
"...a bluetooth headset, a car charger and your choice of carry case.*  *($30 value or less)"
Also tonight I stopped by the vet to pick up some flea medication. Because I bought two packages, I got an extra dose free. All three items received an instructional sticker (to justify the price), and all three items had the following instructions:
Don't think about it too hard; that wasn't the interesting part. I can only assume there is something extra super special about the free extra dose, because it and it alone had these additional, extra super special instructions:
OK, hold on a second, let me figure this one out. I have to bathe my cats, then wait two days, then apply the medicine, right? No, that's not right, I have to wait two days first, and then bathe them, then wait one day and then apply the medicine. Why can't I bathe them now? That can't be right. Maybe I should bathe them now, then apply the medicine, then wait two days. For what? I'm confused. What if I don't want to bathe them? Is it required? Forget it. I'm just going to wait a week, slap it on, and hope their hair doesn't fall out. This is what I get for accepting free medications.

Next up is a quote from the same .NET certification study guide I complained about before. It's actually the very last review question in the book, and it topped the entire reading experience off with a resounding "huh??" I suppose I should thank someone. See if you can figure it out:
  1. Which tool can you use to create performance counters? (Choose all that apply.)
    1. An HTTP header
    2. A file
    3. A time span
    4. A registry key
    5. Another object in the Cache
Believe it or not, the correct answer is actually: "F. None of those things. What's wrong with you?"

The following is a quote from the lease for my current (and soon to be former) apartment. I stumbled across it just now while taking a break from writing this post and, looking back on my previous experiences with apartment management, I find it utterly sublime, particularly the first sentence of the second paragraph:
  1. RELEASE OF RESIDENT. Unless you're entitled to terminate this Lease Contract under paragraphs 10, 16, 23, 31 or 37, you won't be released from this Lease Contract for any reason--including but not limited to voluntary or involuntary school withdrawal or transfer, voluntary or involuntary job transfer, marriage, separation, divorce, reconciliation, loss of co-residents, loss of employment, bad health, death, or property purchase.

    Death of Sole Resident. If you are the sole resident, upon your death you may terminate the Lease Contract without penalty with at least 30 days written notice. You will be liable for payment of rent until the latter of: (1) the termination date, or (2) until all possessions in the apartment are removed. You will be liable for all rent, charges, and damages to the apartment until it is vacated, and any removal and storage costs.
If you're wondering why I stopped in the middle of this post to read my apartment lease, it's because I received a voice-mail today from my apartment management saying, "I am just calling to let you know that we will be showing your apartment tomorrow at noon," and I was reading my lease to determine if they had a reasonable expectation of actually doing so (as it turns out, they do; it's right there on the 18th line of paragraph 28.2).

In contrast, this last quote is the conversation (paraphrased) I had this week with the "Leasing Consultant" at the apartment complex I am moving to:
LC: "I needed to call and let you know that the resident that is currently in the apartment you reserved needs to extend, and so we won't be able to lease you that apartment."

Me: "Oh. Well, OK."

LC: "So would you mind if we put you in an identical apartment for $55 less per month?"


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Winds of Change

Hope everyone likes the new design; I've been wanting one for a long time now. In case you hate it, here's a taste of what used to be:

Old and Busted:
New hotness: