Ethereality News & Weblog

December 23, 2009

I’m the destroyer of electrical appliances

WEBLOG:
It’s been a pleasure using Camtasia Studio to record and edit the videos for my upcoming workshop. It’s got just enough features to be useful, and does not allow very deep editing, which is fine because for video tutorials and demonstrations, too many features will just make it harder to use. I’ve searched around for other commercial and freeware alternatives just to see what’s out there, but none can match the features or the intuitive design of Camtasia Studio.

While making the videos, it struck me how often I see people making videos for tutorials or demonstrations that really should not be in the video format, and should instead be simple text and images. I know some people prefer watching videos to reading, but to me, the only time videos should be made is if the instruction/demonstration must be captured by video in order to be understood clearly (such as demonstrating drawing/painting technique, or how to play a musical instrument). I guess as a society we’ve become too lazy, and prefer to have information spoon-fed to us. Well, not me, and that’s why I will not make unnecessary videos for my workshop–only contents that really should be in the video format.

Amazon.com now operates in China, and Elena just bought a whole box of books–mostly on philosophers and classic literature–all western books translated into simplified Chinese. Books in China cost a lot less than in the States, so she’s getting a great deal on those nice hardback books. I have a hard time reading simplified Chinese since it’s quite different from traditional Chinese, so I usually don’t venture into her book collection, except for those printed in traditional Chinese (published in Taiwan or Hong Kong). She can’t read my books since her English is not good enough, and the few Chinese books I have she’s already read them by now. Maybe I should force myself to get more used to reading simplified Chinese so I can raid her collection (we have about six large bookshelves in our home, and her books take up one shelf while mine take up five shelves).

Elena’s books are more on the academic, lifestyle, and fiction side, covering philosophy, history, science, the arts, classic literature, modern fiction, health, gardening, cooking, travel, beauty, and learning English. My collection is more on the creative side, covering fine art, illustration, graphic novels, music, fiction (classic literature, modern fiction, sci-fi/fantasy/horror/mystery), photography, film, architecture, interior design, instructional books on various creative endeavors (drawing/painting, anatomy/figure, sequential art, animation, 3D, screenwriting, fiction writing and editing, music theory, music composition and orchestration, recording/mixing/mastering, drums/percussion, guitar, bass, piano/keyboard, harmonica, voice, synthesis, music sheets/scores, film scoring, photography and lighting). My non-fiction books are mostly on war history/special forces, science, psychology and social issues.

The sad thing about China is that most people we know around us don’t read and don’t keep books at home. The average person in China seems to feel that once a person is no longer in school, reading is unnecessary, and buying books is a waste of money and a waste of space. When acquaintances come over, they usually think it’s very odd that we have so many books. Not that there aren’t book lovers here–just that they are a tiny minority compared to the States, where we have large bookstores everywhere and most people have a book collection of some sort at home. It’s ironic that one of the countries with the oldest cultures on the planet is now one of the least cultured. (But this is only in China–Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore…etc are very different).

I’ve been using the Victor SU-DH1 Dolby Headphone device for a while now, and I have to say, although I was skeptical at first, after getting used to its unique interpretation of surround sound as two-channel stereo via headphones, I feel it really does work very well for gaming. You have to take a little bit of time to learn its sonic signature for the simulation of rear speakers, and once you do, you can reliably tell when something is behind you. I think it makes sense that we should be able to simulate true surround sound with just two channels–after all, human beings only have two ears, right? So if the digital processing can replicate the sonic signature of how a pair of rear speakers sound to our ears, then why can’t we hear true surround with just a pair of headphones and two channels?

One of the worst things about living in China is that your neighbors are always doing construction all year long, and probably for your entire life. You might get lucky if the building/house you live in has no new neighbors moving in or no one is selling their home for a long stretch of time, but as soon as there is, you’ll have to live with construction noises. There is no law governing this problem like there is in the States, where you’d have to get approval of your local government and neighbors before doing any kind of construction. In China, “reconstructing” a home when buying old or new is extremely common because labor is cheap, and most people like to feel they are “renewing” an older home or changing what they don’t like about the real estate development company’s design of interior structure. I don’t even know why real estate development companies even bother with constructing the interior of their buildings anyway, since 90% of the buyers will just knock it all down and reconstruct according to their own preference anyway (and of course, the fact there’s no law governing this is part of the problem. If there were strict laws about it, then we’d see a lot less frivolous reconstruction of building interior).

The side-effect of this rampant problem is I have to wear earplugs in the morning in order to get enough sleep (the constructions start at 8:00AM), and I can’t do any serious recording or mixing or monitoring from 8:00AM to noon, and from 2:00pm to 6:30pm. It’s absolutely ridiculous that there is not law governing this problem, because it’s actually possible you could be listening to construction noises for your entire life when living in China. For example, you buy a unit in a newly constructed apartment building, and your neighbors don’t all just move in at once–they slowly trickle in over the years. Let’s say there are 12 floors in the building, and four units per floor–that’s 48 units of neighbors. Typically, 90% of them will want to redo the interior construction to their own preference, and each reconstruction can take anywhere from two to six months or more (some people run out of money and rest for a stretch of time before continuing). So let’s say four months is the average construction time for each unit, at Approximately 43 units, you’re looking at about 14 years of construction time. Even though in reality, they won’t all trickle in precisely one after another and would very likely trickle in by waves, this isn’t any comfort because that’s just your building–the surrounding buildings also have 43 units that will be doing construction throughout the years, and some of them will be selling their units during those years. When Chinese people buy a used home, they almost always tear down the interior to reconstruct. So, adding up hundreds of units in all the buildings within earshot of yours, you could very possibly be living among construction noise for all of your life, until you die or go insane. I don’t know why this isn’t talked about as much as it should be, but it’s one of the worst things about living in China.

Since I mentioned earplugs, I want to share some information here about them. I have been using the disposal foams for a while now, but they aren’t meant to be reused for a long time, so they lose their effectiveness after a while. I started to shop around for reusable ones, but apparently their noise reduction capabilities pale next to the disposable foam ones. I thought I had found the ultimate solution when I saw the SilentEar, especially when the store selling them hyped them up so much. After ordering them and trying them out (I got the sample package which contains all three sizes), I was disappointed that they did not match the performance of the disposable foam ones. I had some free ones from an airline and also a brand called Flents I got at Safeway, and they both were much more effective. I emailed Earplugstore and they told me some people have ear canals that aren’t as round in shape so the seal is not ideal using the reusable pre-molded earplugs. I was told to stick with the disposable foams since they conform to unique ear canal shapes much better, and offer the best noise reduction performance anyway. I don’t mind the foam ones too much, except it’s a bit annoying that you have to roll them up first before inserting, and you have to hold them in place until they have fully expanded–not exactly convenient when one’s barely awake and trying to go back to sleep.

One of my Samson C-Control monitor controllers kicked the bucket recently, and I decided to replace it with the cheaper Behringer Mini Mon800 Monitor Matrix Mixer. I’m not one of those people who automatically assume that all cheap gears are inherently bad, especially when some well-known cheap gears have proven to be every bit as reliable as their high-end counterparts, and often even sounding as good–this includes even some Behringer products. While the Mini Mon800 is definitely cheap plastic, so far the signal’s been clean with no sign of degradation. I use it to patch in gear I rarely use, so I almost never turn it on anyway, but it’s one of those things where if I needed to patch something in, it’s super-convenient.

I’ve had my TC Electronic Konnekt Live firewire audio interface for a few months now, but I ever had a chance to really put the mic preamps on it through their paces. Since I’ve been recording videos for my upcoming workshop, I’ve compared the Konnekt Live’s mic pre’s to the Line 6 Toneport UX2‘s, and there’s just no contest–the Konnekt Live’s preamps are definitely better–less noise when maxed out, better clarity, and a cleaner sound overall (and at double the price, the Konnekt Live better kick the Tonport UX2’s ass). I’ve been recording the sound with the Shure SM7A, and being one of the harder to drive dynamic mics out there, the UX2 could barely supply enough juice to get a decent signal (turning the preamp all the way up generates too much noise), and the Konnekt Live’s much quieter maxed out setting makes it possible to drive the SM7A’s with a low enough level of noise I could actually live with. I do like Podfarm’s mic pre models though, so perhaps I’ll use konnekt Live’s mic pre, route the audio to the Toneport’s line inputs, and then through Podfarm’s mic pre models. I’ll try that one of these days and report back on whether it worked.

I have managed to destroy two Fantom external hard drives this year–one was a 2TB model that got fried when I plugged it into a USB hub (which wasn’t my fault, and I’d send it back for repairs except shipping from China back to the States is not worth it), and the other one was a 1TB model that I accidentally pulled off my desk and crashed onto the hard wood floor. The 2TB model’s USB interface shouldn’t have gotten fried from plugging into a USB hub, and wonder if it’s the hub that’s the problem. The drives in the casing are fine, so I plugged them into a Kingwin EZ-Dock 2 (so convenient–I love that thing), and they still work fine. The drives in the 1TB model are both completely dead, as both are making loud and strange noises when I try to power them up for testing. I even tried the freezer trick but it didn’t work (although I know the trick works because it’s worked before on a dead laptop drive). I have a few spare 200GB drives, so I thought maybe I should get a multi-drive external enclosure for them and turn them into a 1TB drive, but considering the cost of such an external enclosure, I might as well buy a new external 1TB drive (or internal drive and an external enclosure). Thinking back, the amount of money I’ve spent on hard drives in the last 10 years is just mind-boggling (I’d estimate about $5,000), and I look forward to the day when massive storage has become smaller in physical size, tough and durable, extremely reliable, with very long lifespan, and cheap. We’ve got the price down at this point for hard disk drives, and now we just need to get the capacity of solid state drives up and the price down.

I finally finished playing Bioshock. I had first played it up to the Arcadia level a couple of years ago, and then gave up on it when it just didn’t compel to me go any further. Recently I decided to give it another shot, and restarted it all the way from the beginning. Now that I have finished it, its clear to me why I didn’t bother finishing it the first time around–I’ll get back to this later. First, what I liked about the game:

-Original and interesting premise
-Great atmosphere
-Fun gameplay
-Took the System Shock 2 mechanics and made it more accessible to a wider audience

Now, what I didn’t like about the game:

-The facial animation was horrible on the Little Sisters. This was especially glaring when you are taken to where they lived. There wasn’t even any eye blink animation! The characters just stared vacantly in front of them like soulless puppets. Considering how far game animation has come, this is unacceptable, especially when we’re supposed to emotionally connect with the little sisters.

-The skin shaders were terrible. Everyone’s skin looked like shiny plastic, and looked nothing like flesh. This is also unacceptable by today’s standards.

-The ending was too rushed and the pacing of the editing was terrible. This was especially annoying at the very end of the final cinematic–it cuts off abruptly and jumps right back to the start screen, jolting you out of the narrative clumsily. Why couldn’t then have faded out the final shot to black slowly, and then roll the credits? Why such a clumsy jolt? Also, they should have elaborated more on what happens to Tenenbaum, and what’s to become of Rapture and its insane population. It doesn’t matter what they plan to do for the sequel–they should have given some explanation or least convey some form of closure.

-There should have been more motivation designed into the first third of the game, so that we actually want to continue on. I stopped playing the game the first time because I saw no reason to continue. I didn’t care what happened to Atlas, because I didn’t know him, and he sure the hell didn’t seem like he cared about me. I had no reason to continue because it felt like I was doing the same thing over and over–killing the Big Daddies and dealing with Little Sisters, while fending off a bunch of insane splicers. There was no sense of the gravity of the situation and what my stake was in it all–I wasn’t even under the impression that I had to somehow escape from that insane place. I think they could’ve maybe woven some sane survivors who weren’t spliced up into the premise so that you meet some sympathetic and likable characters that you can actually relate to and care about. Maybe they’re barricaded somewhere and you go and try to help them escape Rapture, and you have to try to protect them from all the splicers. They could’ve also moved the part about becoming a Big Daddy and protecting the Little Sisters to much earilier, because that actually had real emotional resonance–to protect these little girls from the crazy splicers. When they got killed, I actually felt really bad. To make it even more emotionally involving, they could’ve injected more individuality into the Little Sisters–for example, when you meet them at their living quarters, Tenenbaum could introduce you to them one by one, telling you their names and tell some stories about them, and throughout the game earlier, the Little Sisters could also display distinctly different personalities so they seemed a lot more real. For example, one could be really shy, one could be really feisty, one could be bubbly and enthusiastic, one could be very witty…etc.

My general feeling about Bioshock is that it’s a great premise but the creator/writer did not do enough to make sure the actual game narrative lived up to the potential the premise provided. For all the talk about how games should be more emotional, I don’t think the creator/writer (Kevin Levine) did enough to push the medium in that direction–or maybe he tried but simply didn’t have it in him to do any better. Or, maybe what makes him tick is simply different from what makes me tick.

Quickie film/TV reviews:

Friday Night Lights (Season Two & three) – I enjoyed season two and three almost as much as the first season, except that I the writers could’ve indulged in a bit of a John Hughes moment with Landry and Tyra, where Landry gets to bask in the glory of scoring one of the hottest girls in the entire school. I mean, let’s face it–guys who look like Landry would never get a girl like Tyra in real life, and it should have been a huge deal at Dillon High. Julie’s juvenile rebellious streak got a bit tiresome each time she butted heads with her mom, and it felt a bit out of character since she was portrayed as an intelligent and mature teenager in the first season. I liked the Smash storyline much more this time around since he finally did some maturing after facing defeat. It was nice to see Tim turning into a reliable guy too, especially when in real life, guys like that typically don’t really start to mature until they are much older. I have a feeling season four will be starting a lot of new storylines and introduce new characters to replace the ones that have graduated and moved on.

Prison Break (season four + The Final Break) – Season might be a bit better than season three, but still not nearly as good as the first two seasons. This is because the series was supposed to end in two seasons, and anything that came after was only because of popular demand. I think the creators should have refused to continue the series and instead pitched something new to the studio.

Entourage (season six) – I don’t think I could ever get tired of this show. It’s just such a feel-good show, with fast pacing, lighthearted fun, hot women, likable guys, and a hilarious parody of the entertainment industry. The fact that it’s also just half hour long also keeps the energy going so there’s never a dull moment.

Inglourious Basterds – The plot felt a bit too simple and doesn’t sell the excitement of the premise as well as it should, while the ending was anti-climatic as well. It’s almost as if Tarantino wrote the screenplay up to the point where the fire had started, and then ran of ideas. Up to that point the film was fairly enjoyable, although some scenes were more drawn out than necessary, and the plot progression felt too compartmentalized (breaking up the film into chapters didn’t help that either). There could’ve been multiple ways to make the ending a lot more exciting, but what we got was predictable and vanilla, which is odd coming from Tarantino. I always said that Pulp Fiction was a fluke, and with every single film he’s done since, I’ve remained correct, and that makes me sad. Being a huge fan of Pulp Fiction, I would love to see Tarantino pull off that magic again.

Moon – One of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long time, and I might even say one of the best sci-fi films ever made. A cerebral and quiet sci-fi film with a philosophical core like Moon is such a rare gem in today’s world of entertainment, where the audience seems to be getting progressively more shallow and with shortening attention span. We need more films like this instead of moronic films from Michael Bay and his clones.

Paranormal Activity – Some moments are genuinely scary, but it drags on a little in the middle. Part of me wanted to see the paranormal aspect escalate to another level, but when I really think about it, they made the right choice to not take things too far (for example, very concrete and visceral visual effects), as keeping everything vague worked for the vibe of the film, and that vagueness also matches what most of us have experienced when we thought something weird was going on in our homes. I do think the last day in the film was a bit idiotic though, since any rational and sane person would’ve dragged the girlfriend out of the house regardless of the pleading, and stayed with family or friends. But then again, it would’ve dragged more people into the mess, maybe even end up killing more people.

Annie Hall – I finally watched Annie Hall after hearing about it all these years. I actually have seen plenty of Woody Allen films in the past and enjoyed them all (some more than others), but for some reason I never got around to watching his most famous film. Now that I did, I could see why it was a big deal back then, and the influence it’s had on later films. I can’t say that I really liked it though, since I think Woody Allen has perfected that formula in later films, and when compared, Annie Hall is not as polished in terms of pacing and structure as his later films (which makes sense, as he had learned and improved more as a filmmaker later).

Planet B-Boy – I’m not really a fan of hip-hop (though I do listen to the more intelligent and socio-political rap sometimes), but I’ve always been fascinated by Battle of the Year. There’s something very intriguing about a bunch of street dancers coming together to compete as teams and representing their countries. It’s a very grassroots kind of a vibe, blown up onto the international stage, and many of these dancers come from extreme poverty in small cities and villages that we know nothing about. I also love the fact that it completely destroys any preconceived notions about race and culture. When you see Asians often dominating the competition, it just blows away all the Asian stereotypes.

Terminator: Salvation – Although for an action film, it was entertaining enough, I was disappointed by how the the writers portrayed John Connors as an adult. I always felt that John as an adult should still have that mischievous sense of humor, but he was totally one-dimensional in the film. I was also disappointed by the portrayal of the younger Kyle Reese as well–it did not feel like him at all. I wonder if the writers really understood those characters and what made them appealing in the first two films. They should never have continued the franchise without James Cameron.

17 Again – Careless writing with inconsistent focus and lots of missed opportunities. If the screenplay had gone through a few drafts of scrutiny, the film have ended up a lot better. But let’s face it–films like these are your standard Hollywood disposable entertainment–they were never meant to be great.

The Other Boleyn Girl – A decent period drama that is a bit too neatly packaged to have the impact it should have. Natalie Portman acts circles around Scarlett Johanson, and it’s a bad idea to have them compete on the screen because they’re not even in the same league in terms of talent.

Thirst – I was told this film is really good, especially if I loved Let the Right One In. I don’t know what other people are smoking, but this film was a big disappointment. It lacked a focused intent and meandered aimlessly, with a plot structure that felt random and arbitrary. The tone was also schizophrenic, going from wacky comedy to macabre drama. I don’t mind mixing genres or have a wide range of tones in a film, but it has to work and it has to still feel cohesive, and Thirst did not feel cohesive. This film is nowhere near as good as Let the Right One In.

Grace Is Gone – I liked the two daughters a lot more than the dad (played by John Cusack), and while I like Cusack in general, I thought this was the wrong role for him. The older daughter (played by Shelan O’Keefe) really stole the show for me–she was radiant, natural, and had the kind of “old soul” vibe that precocious children and teenagers exude.

Up – I always look forward to every Pixar film, confident in their track record of producing artistically and technically superior animated works. While I did enjoy Up (especially the first ten minutes), it was surprisingly very simple–in fact the simplest Pixar film thus far. I wish it had more character development and plot twists, but overall it’s still an enjoyable film.

Coraline – I found the film a bit random and lacking a solid emotional center. The theme is easily recognized–that one should appreciate one’s own life instead of being unsatisfied, but many of the details don’t really help support the theme and felt like gimmicks that don’t actually contribute to the overall story, thus end up lacking a satisfying emotional payoff.

Maria Full of Grace – A good film that perhaps could’ve been stronger if the direction was a bit more dynamic. Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s such a simply film, especially when today’s films tend to heavy on style instead of substance.

[REC] – I watched Quarantine, not too long ago, which is a shot-by-shot American remake of [REC]. Now that I have seen both films, I have things I prefer in each version. Overall, I think Quarantine benefits from taking an already good film and remaking it shot-by-shot, and because it’s supposed to be as close to the original as possible, there are very few differences in story, plot progression, or characters. Being the remake, the filmmakers have the benefit of distance and objectivity, and they’re able to improve upon the original–mainly more character development, more legible cinematography (without losing the intensity), and some additional scares not in the original. What I can’t figure out is why they changed the secret revealed at the end of the film to a scientific explanation instead of the super natural one of the original (big mistake IMO). Super natural will always be scarier because it’s not something we could understand, control, or fight against, and it’s much more mysterious, which amps up the scary factor. Also, I prefer the original’s version of Angela more, since she wasn’t as hysterical once everything goes to hell. The original’s actress, Manuela Velasco, played Angela to be a bit tougher, and only really started falling apart at the very end, which is totally understandable, because I think 99% of the population would fall apart under those conditions. Velasco is also much easier on the eyes (I always found Jennifer Carpenter to be quite strange looking, and in Dexter, when she was referred to by other characters as being “hot,” I had such a violent case of cognitive dissonance that my mind was reeling from the jolt), but Angela gets covered up in blood and bruises in most of the film anyway. The remake’s longer intro brought us closer to the main characters, which made us care a bit more about them, and it was also nice to actually see the guy behind the camera in the remake. If I had to pick one as my preferred version, it would be a really tough call. At gunpoint, I’d probably say Quarantine, since it’s overall more engrossing due to better character development and more scares.

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