As I hope is blatantly obvious by now I’m very much a fan of the sci-fi genre. It started out as a fascination with the future, with all the tech wizardry that it promises us, however it’s long since grown into a full fascination with the world of science and what plausible futures could arise from it. Thus, whilst I enjoy a good story in its own right, sci-fi movies and other media are a great opportunity to explore scientific principles and I love to see how they’re used as plot devices. Of course the narrative will often take precedence over the laws of the universe and whilst I can appreciate a departure for the sake of plot I have my limits, like Gravity’s take on how orbital mechanics work. However there’s been quite the hubbub around the science behind Interstellar and I finally managed to catch it over the weekend.
In terms of basic science Interstellar gets top marks for getting so many things right. Things like travel time between planets in the solar system, gravitational lensing of light around objects that have heavy gravity or spacetime warping properties and the handling of relativity all line up with my (admittedly limited but I’d hazard a guess better than average) understanding of how those principles work. The black hole itself was absolutely stunning with the interaction of the accretion disc with the strong gravitational lensing, something which now seems so obvious, giving us a new perspective on what these monsters would actually look like out in space.
The robots are also one of my favourite aspects of Interstellar as they go from being what appears to be some kind of clunky, cumbersome relic of the pre-blight era they’re in fact highly capable machines. The designs are incredibly interesting too as whilst many movies would’ve gone for the stereotypical humanoid Interstellar instead opts for a HAL-9000esque monolith. It’s hard to discount that their personalities play a big part in this too, especially with all the humour around their programmable emotional settings.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
There are numerous liberties taken with certain mechanics however, all which are somewhat forgivable since they’re in aid of the plot. The small craft which are quite capable of achieving orbital velocities would have to have some kind of advanced engine that doesn’t rely on propellant and has the required thrust and specific impulse to achieve such feats. This is somewhat hinted at the start when the craft they use to get to Saturn makes it there in 2 years (I’d assume without any gravitational assists) however it’s still something that bears mentioning. It’s mostly only because if they had technology like that then it’d be quite easy to get a lot of people into space, potentially making that habitat they were working on viable without needing the secret “gravity” source.
As with all movies that like to play around with the notion of time things start to get a little hand-wavy once you start mucking with the timelines. Once Cooper’s character is stuck in the tesseract he’s essentially creating a paradox since he wouldn’t be there without the manipulations he caused, yet he is already aware of them when he’s making them. The one way to rationalize this away is to eliminate the prospect of free will within that world and so Cooper was compelled to do that no matter what happened. Otherwise he could, say, send the quantum data to someone else through another method, rendering the whole mission moot (but then introducing yet another) paradox to contend with. Indeed whilst this later part of the movie is a great piece of cinema it’s riddled with scientific problems, one that likely needs a novel to explain them away.
One thing that does irritate me about films of this nature is that they usually follow the format of “everythings going ok for a bit until things go all Event Horizon on you”. I get that this is playing into the fragility of the human condition, where our survival instinct makes us do things we otherwise wouldn’t, however it does feel like the trope has been done to death. There’s multitudes of other avenues to pursue to provide that kind of tension without relying on humans going postal, but it seems human fallibility is still the route of choice. Then again hard sci-fi is a hard sell without a relatable human element, which I guess is the reason we keep seeing it.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar despite the last sections wandering into extreme hand-waving territory. The scientific basis which it begins from flows through the entire movie, providing a great backdrop for the rest of the movie to build on. I’m looking forward to seeing a breakdown of how all of the strictly-not-scientific elements were developed as there’s a lot of questions I’d like to see answers to. In the same vein though I’m also completely ok not knowing as the discussion my wife and I had afterwards were just as interesting as watching the movie itself. Definitely a must see for all sci-fi fans out there.
It should come as no surprise that my favourite movie genre is science fiction. Even though I was born long after the original Star Wars trilogy had finished watching it with my parents is still one of the fondest memories I have and that has long since bloomed into a passion for the genre. Of course this also feeds into my love of sciences as whilst I also enjoy fantasy, in all its forms, nothing quite compares to plausible futures that are based on real science. Whilst I understand that scientific accuracy will often take a back seat when the narrative requires it I can’t help but feel compelled to point out some of the more obvious flaws, especially when it’s such a big movie like Gravity.
Now before I launch into this let me just be clear: I absolutely enjoyed Gravity. Whilst I was sceptical about George Clooney and Sandra Bullock being able to bring life to the roles they were given it didn’t take me long to warm to their characters. I was also very surprised by how much tension I felt for multiple different scenes, something which I don’t typically feel, at least not to that extent. All this, combined with the beautiful cinematography culminates in a movie that’s thoroughly enjoyable even if you take the hard line with science like I do. With all that being said though there are some points which bear mentioning and should have you not seen the movie I’ll advise you to skip reading on.
PLOT SPOILERS AHOY
The first thing that I, and several others, have taken issue with is the notion that from the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope you’d be able see both the International Space Station as well as the Chinese Tiangong station (which is way more developed than current plans indicate, but that’s another story). Even if all of them shared identical orbits, which they don’t, the Hubble is in an orbit that’s some 200KM above the ISS and Tiangong making any naked eye visual impossible. Following on from this the idea that you’d be able to then travel between them becomes somewhat difficult as the energy required to do the plane change manoeuvres would be far above the capabilities of Manned Manoeuvring Unit. Indeed the backup plan NASA had for a shuttle that had suffered a catastrophic failure event such as the one in Gravity was to send another shuttle up there to rescue them, dubbed STS-400, which was the reason why we saw 2 fully fuelled shuttles on their respective launch pads the last time we serviced the Hubble.
I’m sort of able to forgive that for the sake of story however one moment that I won’t was when Bullock is holding onto Clooney’s tether and he says he has to let go or they’ll both be doomed. You see at that particular point there’s no more forces acting on them as once they got tangled up and stopped moving all their momentum had been transferred to the ISS, rendering them at equilibrium. If Bullock had simply tugged on the tether slightly Clooney would have then started drifting lazily towards the ISS and Bullock could have pulled herself back along the parachute cords. I would’ve let that slide if it was a minor side point but it’s one of the main turning points of the movie and unfortunately it just has no basis in reality whatsoever.
One thing I was also going to pan Gravity for was the use of fire extinguishers as thrusters since I figured the amount of delta-v available in them wouldn’t have been enough to provide any meaningful thrust. As it turns out, depending on what kind of extinguisher you have, there could be as much as 100m/s in them, a heck of a lot of thrust by any means. Whilst you’d be far more likely to send yourself into an unrecoverable spin if you were using them in the way shown in Gravity it does lend some credence to the idea of using it to correct your trajectory in order to intercept something else.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
There were also numerous other minor details but compared to the previous few I mentioned I don’t think they’re worth digging into. Whilst there really were some cringe inducing moments from a science perspective it is a highly enjoyable film, even if you’re not into the whole space scene. It’s also worth it to see it in 3D, something I don’t say often, as the producers have taken care to use 3D as a tool rather than slapping it on in order to increase the ticket price. It might not be super hard sci-fi but then again not many films are and ones of Gravity’s calibre are even rarer.
You know who gets a ton of my money these days? Game publishers. Whilst they might not get the same amount per sale that they used to the amount I pump into the industry per year has rocketed up in direct correlation with my ability to pay. Nearly every game you see reviewed on here is purchased gladly with my own money and I would happily do the same with all forms of entertainment if they provided the same level of service that the games industry does. However my fellow Australian citizens will know the pain that we routinely endure here with delayed releases and high prices, so much so that our Parliament subpoenaed several major tech companies to have them explain themselves.
If I’m honest though I had thought the situation was getting a bit better, that was until I caught wind of this:
I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas sometime last year and the concept instantly intrigued me. As someone who’s nascent years were spent idolizing The Matrix I’ve always been a fan of the Wachowskis’ work and so of course their latest movie was of particular interest. Since I’m on the mailing list for my local preferred cinema (Dendy, in case you’re wondering) I simply waited for the email announcing it. For months and months I waited to see something come out until I started hearing friends talking about how they had seen it already. Curious I checked my favourite Usenet site and lo and behold it was available, which mean only one thing.
It was available on DVD elsewhere.
That email I was waiting for arrived a couple days ago, 4 months after the original theatrical release in markets overseas. Now I know it’s not that hard to get a film approved in Australia nor is it that difficult to get it shipped over here (even if it was shot on film) so what could be the reason for such a long delay? As far as I can tell it’s the distributors holding onto their out dated business models in a digital era where they have to create artificial scarcity in order to try and bilk more money out of the end consumers. I’ve deliberately not seen movies in cinemas in the past due to shenanigans like this and Cloud Atlas is likely going to be the latest entry on my civil disobedience list.
I seriously can’t understand why movie studios continue with behaviour like this which is what drives customers to seek out other, illegitimate means of getting at their content. I am more than happy to pay (and, in the case of things like Cloud Atlas, at a premium) for content like this but I do not want my money going to businesses that fail to adapt their practices to the modern world. Artificial scarcity is right up there with restrictive DRM schemes in my book as they provide absolutely no benefit for the end user and only serve to make the illegitimate product better. Really when we’re hit from all sides with crap like this is it any surprise that we’re a big ole nation o pirates?
A decade ago many of my generation simply lacked the required disposable income in order to support their habits and piracy was the norm. We’ve all grown up now though with many of us having incomes that we could only dream of back then, enough for us to begin paying for the things we want. Indeed many of us are doing that where we’re able to but far too many industries are simply ignoring our spending habits in favour of sticking to their traditional business models. This isn’t sustainable for them and it frustrates me endlessly that we still have to deal with shit like this when it’s been proven that this Internet thing isn’t going away any time soon. So stop this artificial scarcity bullshit, embrace our ideals and I think you’ll find a torrent of new money heading in your direction. Enough so that you’ll wonder why you held such draconian views for so long.
I am, like many of my ilk, a long time fan of Star Wars. I have many fond memories of watching it with my family as a kid, not completely understanding all the themes but just revelling in the story. When I heard that George Lucas was going to be making another three I was incredibly excited as I just couldn’t get enough of the Star Wars universe. It’s at this point that my course deviates somewhat from the norm as whilst I don’t believe the prequels were better than the originals I failed to see them being as bad as everyone made them out to be. There were some pretty glaring flaws to be sure but I never really found myself being bored by them which is my yardstick for differentiating good movies from bad.
However I do share the concerns of many with the fact that George Lucas just can’t seem to leave well enough alone as with every new release of Star Wars he seems to make tweaks to them that change the story fundamentally. I probably don’t have to tell you that Han shot first (and if you’re going to disagree with me than we’ll have some words, harsh words) but that’s only the most well known of Lucas’ transgressions against his most devoted community. A quick Google search will bring you this incredibly detailed breakdown of all the changes in the re-released versions, some small some that change the characters and plot in fundamental ways. Needless to say us long time fans have a love/hate relationship with him and this is probably why recent news has caused such a stir.
Yesterday Disney announced that they have signed an agreement to acquire all of LucasFilm, including the intellectual property rights to the Star Wars franchise, for a cool $4.05 billion. The collective nerd sphere screamed out in panic, fearing that this was just the latest front in a long running assault against their most beloved movie franchise. If anyone has a reputation for plundering something for all its worth (more so than George Lucas) it’s Disney and many of them fear that the Star Wars universe will be turned into another Disney Princess, with movie after movie being churned out in order to maximise their multi-billion dollar investment in the company.
Now whilst I can’t allay all your fears in that department (it’s a real possibility) there’s one thing here that I feel a lot of people are missing. Of all the movies in the franchise the most critically acclaimed are the ones that weren’t directed by George Lucas (Episodes 5 and 6, if you’re wondering). The rest were all directed by the man himself and many put the blame squarely on his direction for the reaction that the prequels received. With the transfer of all the rights to Disney it’s very likely that he won’t be heavily involved in the process of creating Star Wars 7, much less end up the one directing it. Of course there’s no guarantee the director they put in charge of it will be any better but the track record is pretty clear in showing that a non George Lucas directed film usually ends up being more well received.
Disney, for what its worth, can make a pretty darn good movie and have shown they can run a franchise pretty damn well. You might disagree on principle but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’ve been behind quite a few big name movies of recent times like The Avengers and other long running franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Toy Story. “We can’t trust them with the Star Wars franchise though!” I hear you saying but who then, apart from Disney, would fit the bill for you? Because realistically you’d find similar fault with any other company that had the means with which to acquire LucasFilm in its entirety and honestly I think Disney makes a great fit for them. It’s no guarantee that we’ll see a return to the glory days of the original trilogy but you’ve got to admit that the chances are better now than they were before.
Maybe I’m just being optimistic here but as someone who’s managed to enjoy the Star Wars universe in many different ways (seriously, The Old Republic was an amazing game) I can’t help but feel that a new head at the helm might be the kick in the pants required to get it going again. Sure Disney will milk this for all its worth but that’s no different to what has been happening for the past 3 decades anyway. At the very least I’d withhold judgement until we start to see some of the previews of what a Disneyed Star Wars looks like before we start jumping to conclusions, especially ones that fail to take into account the fact that the fans’ biggest complaint may have just been taken care of.
3D is one of those technologies that I’m both endlessly infatuated and frustrated with. Just over a year ago I saw Avatar in 3D and for me it was the first movie ever to use the technology in a way that wasn’t gimmicky but served as a tool to enable creative expression. Cameron’s work on getting the technology to the point where he could use it as such was something to be commended but what unfortunately followed was a long stream of movies jumping on the 3D bandwagon, hoping that it would be their ticket to Avatar like success. Since then I’ve only bothered to see one other movie in 3D (Tron: Legacy) as not one other movie demonstrated their use of 3D as anything other than following the fad and utterly failing to understand the art that is 3D.
Last year was the debut of consumer level 3D devices with the initial forays being the usual TVs and 3D enabled media players. Soon afterwards we began to see the introduction of some 3D capable cameras allowing the home user to create their very own 3D movies. Industry support for the format was way ahead of the curve with media sharing sites like YouTube allowing users to view 3D clips and video editing software supporting the format long before it hit the consumer level. We even had Nintendo announce that their next generation portable would be called the 3DS and boast a glasses free 3D screen at the top. Truly 3D had hit the mainstream as anyone and everyone jumped to get in on the latest technology craze.
Indeed the 3D trend has become so pervasive that even today as I strolled through some of my RSS reader backlog I came across not one, but two articles relating to upcoming 3D products. The first is set to be the world’s first 3D smartphone, the LG Optimus 3D. It boasts both a 3D capable camera and glasses free 3D screen along with the usual smartphone specs we’ve come to expect from high end Android devices. The second was that NVIDIA’s current roadmap shows that they’re planning to develop part of their Tegra line (for tablets) with built in 3D technology. Looking over all these products I can’t help but feel that there’s really little point to having 3D on consumer devices, especially portable ones like smartphones.
3D in cinemas makes quite a lot of sense, it’s another tool in the director’s kit to express themselves when creating their movie experience. On a handset or tablet you’re not really there to be immersed in something, you’re usually consuming small bits of information for short periods. Adding 3D into that experience really doesn’t enhance the experience at all, in fact I’d dare say that it would detract from it thanks to the depth of field placing objects in a virtual space that in reality is behind the hand that’s holding it. There is the possibility that 3D will enable a new kind of user interface that’s far more intuitive to the regular user than what’s currently available but I fail to see how the addition of depth of field to a hand held device will manage to accomplish that.
I could just be romanticising 3D technology as something best left to the creative types but if the current fad is anything to go by 3D is unfortunately more often misused as a cheap play to bilk consumers for a “better” experience. Sure some of the technology improvements of the recent past can trace their roots back to 3D (hello cheap 120Hz LCD screens) but for the most part 3D is just used as an excuse to charge more for the same experience. I’ve yet to see any convincing figures on how 3D products are doing out in the market but anecdotally it’s failed to gain traction amongst those who I know. Who knows maybe the LG Optimus 3D will turn out to be something really groovy but as far as I can tell now it’s simply yet another gimmick phone that’s attempting to cash in on the current industry obsession with 3D, just like every other 3D consumer product out there.
The last day of any holiday is always filled with a wide gamut of emotions. We woke up naturally a good 3 hours before we needed to check out and spent that time lazily packing our bags for the day ahead. Our flight wasn’t until 10pm that night so we would have a good 10 hours before the time we had to leave the hotel and the time we had to catch the plane back home. Whilst we still had tickets to the San Diego Zoo I wasn’t too keen to drive the 2 hours there to see it, nor was I too confident that the drive back would be less than 2 hours. Instead we decided to spend the day shopping in downtown Los Angeles for gifts and generally lazing about before the 14 hour flight home.
After checking out and grabbing our car from the valet we headed towards a mall I had managed to find through Yelp. It was a traditional American outlet mall with everything being outdoors and the only indoor area being the food court on one of the upper levels. We spent many hours perusing through the various shops, picking up gifts for our family members that we hadn’t yet accounted for. Time was passing slowly and after what seemed like forever we collapsed in Barnes and Noble for some coffee and free wifi. It was only 4pm around that time meaning that going to San Diego was out of the question so we decided to hit up a movie to pass the last few hours before we’d charge over to LAX.
Arriving at one of the local theatres we discovered that the movie we had decided to see, Skyline which had been endlessly hyped during our entire trip, wasn’t available at this cinema. Undeterred we decided that we’d check the others to see if they were showing it. Strangely none of the theatres near us were showing it meaning we’d have to choose something else. Not really enticed by any of the options we went for Due Date since it was a comedy, figuring some light hearted fun would be the ticket. We bought our tickets but the show wasn’t on for another 45 mins, so we went into the attached mall.
Just as we entered the mall we spotted a puppy store (yes just puppies) and like any young couple we decided to go and ogle those cute little things. Really it wasn’t unlike any other pet store apart from the fact they had 3 “play rooms” set up at the back where you could pick a puppy and then take it there to play with it. I saw 2 families in separate rooms falling for this ploy, knowing full well that they’d be hard pressed to leave without their children’s new found playmate. Afterwards we spotted a Disney store and went in to grab a couple things that Rebecca wanted to get but hadn’t had the chance to last time we were there. We made our way back to the cinema which had the smallest rooms I’ve ever been in. It was really nice though as all the seats were comfy leather couches and the front most rows were giant futons you could lie back on.
After the movie was done we started the drive back to the rental car place to return our ride of the past week. I always remember these kinds of trips distinctly as that’s usually when it starts to sink in that the holiday is really coming to a close and all the memories start to flood in. I remembered so many things: the blazing Florida sun on my skin, the roar of the Corvette, the bitter cold kiss of Montreal, the sleepless city of New York and the child like wonder I rediscovered in Los Angeles’ theme parks. All of this was running through my head as we dropped off the car and took the shuttle to LAX where we checked in for our flight home.
The flight home went by much quicker than the flight there with the working entertainment system making sure many of those hours passed with ease. As we landed in Australia I felt those mixed feelings that any traveller has when they return home. Relief at the familiarity yet a sense of mourning that the trip is over, not wanting to let go of it. The feelings continued all the way back home and stayed with me until I fell asleep that night.
And now here I sit 3 days later recalling those experiences and the emotions come flooding back as if I was just boarding the plane back in Los Angeles. They will not soon be forgotten as the month Rebecca and I spent in the Unite States of America was more than just a holiday to us, it was our first true escape from our everyday lives that either of us have had. Sure we’ve both travelled before but never independently for this amount of time and because of that our perspective has changed radically. Time will tell if these feelings stay with us, but I feel this is tantamount to what happened to me almost 12 months ago which resulted in The Plan. One thing is for certain though, my heart now yearns for more experiences like these and my determination to make them happen has never been stronger.
I’ve been deep in the social networking world for a long time now and while I’m no expert on how to use them effectively I do recognise their power to drive a product or brand. Most recently this has led me to get involved in the YouTube community, albeit as a consumer more than a producer. Still I couldn’t push back the thought that this was something I’d love to get into, seeing it as a kind of evolution of my blogging efforts of the past couple years. Plus it would give me a great excuse to go gadget shopping and everyone knows I love me a good gadget.
I’d been eyeing off the new Canon DSLRs for quite a while since I’d heard they were capable of doing full HD video recording. Looking over some of the sample videos posted around the Internet the Canon 550D was shaping up to be a good replacement for my 400D, and the camera body by itself could be had quite cheaply. However after bumping into an old friend of my brother he extolled the virtues of the Canon 7D to me, what with its dual processor loveliness and full magnesium body. The camera itself wasn’t too expensive although certainly more than the 550D, and so I resigned myself to get one before our trip over to the USA.
Of course right after that, I started looking at accessories.
Now I’m just a hobbyist photographer and I haven’t invested too much into my kit yet, probably somewhere on the order of $1,500. The 7D by itself would almost double the amount I’d spent thus far but that would still leave me with an expensive camera and only 2 lenses (one of them a not so good kit lens). I then decided I’d need another lens if I was going to do this video thing properly which bumped the total investment up to a point where I started to question just how much I wanted to do this. Thus I decided I should find a cheaper alternative first before sinking almost $3,000 into a hobby that I might not even be interested in.
And so enters the Sony DSC-HX5V.
I had only 2 requirements when I was looking for this camera. The first was that it had to be a compact, not a scaled down DLSR or anything that would be comparable in bulk to my old Canon. Secondly it had to shoot full 1080p HD video as that meant that as long as the quality was at least halfway decent at that resolution I could always scale it down to 720p to get a pretty decent picture. After looking at various Micro 4/3rds and other interchangeable lens cameras I stumbled across Sony’s latest line of compacts and I must say their specs were impressive enough for me to investigate them further.
In particular the HX5V stands out thanks to all the wizardry that they pack into this tiny, pocket sized device. Not only does it support full 1080p video at 50fps but it also does 10 megapixel stills with a 10x optical zoom. Additionally the camera comes equipped with a GPS sensor and a magnetometer so your photos not only have their location in them but also the direction you were facing when you took it. They also managed to fit a stereo microphone on the top of it as well.
Although the camera body is made entirely out of plastic the build quality is good with the whole camera feeling quite solid. The optical zoom action of the camera is quite smooth and is very quiet, great for when you’re using it during video mode. For someone like me with giant hands the camera is actually a bit too small as I can’t hold it comfortably without covering up most of the camera. Still the size lends it to fitting well in your pockets without feeling too bulky so I’m willing to make the trade off for portability. The battery pack is quite adequate for taking hundreds of photos but will run dry rather quickly when recording in full HD video. I think I’ve got about 30~60 minutes total on a full charge, which is pretty reasonable considering its size.
The menu system on the DSC-HX5V is a little confusing at first but most of the regular ones can be found after a few minutes of stumbling around. Thankfully the large LCD on the back informs you what each of the little symbols on the mode dial mean when you switch as some of them (like the auto HDR one) don’t really convey their meaning very well. There’s a button on the back of it to go straight to movie mode which is a nice addition and saves you from having to navigate around unnecessarily.
So how does it shape up as a camera? Well rather than blather on about picture quality and all that I’ll just let the pictures do the talking, below is an album of some pictures I’ve taken over the course of the past month that showcase the camera’s abilities in various conditions:
Ah but I hear you asking, what about the video? Well you won’t be disappointed I’ve compiled a video of some of the footage I’ve taken as well, although I’ve replaced the sound as there wasn’t anything really worth hearing in any of these videos (highly recommend hitting the 1080p button for this one):
Overall I’m very satisfied with this little compact. Whilst it wasn’t exactly cheap by any stretch of the imagination, about $400 on Ebay, the capabilities it provides are well worth the price of admission and it’s the perfect substitute for when my DSLR would be overkill. The picture and video quality are quite good and the auto HDR function provides great pictures even in extremely low light situations. If you’re a budding vlogger or film maker I’d highly recommend this camera as a starting point before you sink thousands of dollars into professional kit. It does unfortunately lack some features (external mic in, bluetooth) which would’ve made it a technological dream but for the price I couldn’t find anything to beat the Sony DSC-HX5V in every area consistently. That might change with the product refresh cycle coming around for this holiday season but that would just mean you could pick one of these up for a bargain price, and I’m sure you wouldn’t be disappointed.