The Parisianer: A (Hopeful) Future of Paris

Fake futuristic magazine cover depicting a man manipulating a hologram display in front a tree which is partially moultingI have to admit, after a particularly awful experience well over a decade ago I have deliberately avoided travelling through the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. As a result, I had no idea about the on-going (and absolutely stunning) art installation/project taking place there. I still wouldn’t if it weren’t for Khoi Vinh.

It’s almost enough to make me want to lift my travel ban (almost). It’s certainly a project that is right up my street, producing beautiful illustrations depicting what the future of Paris (and, by extension, the world) might be. There’s a lot of fantastical science fiction on display, from aliens to integrated hydroponic schemes to space elevators and beyond.

The designs alone are stunning but some of the ideas also really caught my imagination. Take for instance the image above: what’s going on here? Is the tree real but the environment completely micromanaged by the person shown? Is the tree fake, perhaps a hologram being manually ‘updated’ to show the changing of the seasons? Is he administering some kind of medication to turn back the tide of a withering disease? It’s a wonderfully simple image but the amount of possibilities it contains is fascinating. I’m quite tempted to buy my own print. Or possibly pick up the final, published work when it is released.

Creodonts & The Absurdity of Extinction

I just fell down a rather wonderful rabbit hole. My tale begins with a book review, written by Ross Barnett, of Sabretooth (Mauricio Anton). Apart from instantly causing me to add the book to my “to buy” list, the article also briefly lists the various mammalian clades which have exhibited sabre teeth in the past. Amongst this list were those I had expected, such as machairodonts (e.g. the famous Smilodon) and the marsupial Thylacosmilus, but it also contained several I had never heard of. Most notably, it mentioned creodonts.

If I’ve ever come across creodonts before I wasn’t paying much attention because these creatures are fascinating. As a group they are an early success story in the mammalian radiation that occurred at the ending of the Cretaceous, yet despite their broad range and varied niche placement they are now utterly gone. Whilst they may look akin to modern hyenas, cats and even bears, the creodonts are not closely related (or basal) to the carnivorans. They are their own unique, and now absent, thing.

I’ve always found the notion of entire clade extinction somewhat absurd. I remember first reading about the K/T event that signalled the extinction of the dinosaurs and, even at an age written in single figures, feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the narrative. I get how large, extinction level events cause biodiversity to crash, but the idea that such a wildly successful and diverse group of creatures would all succumb seemed silly. I must admit, then, that as I’ve aged it has been with increasing smugness that I’ve watched the consensus switch from “dinosaurs are extinct” to “non-bird dinosaurs are extinct”. Frankly, at this point, I feel the old narrative should just be ignored. The K/T event knocked several wonderful animal groups on their respective heads, but the dinosaurs were not amongst them.

Still, though, the plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ammonites and myriad pterosaur groups were all wiped out, amongst many, many others. Whole families, even genera, do go extinct, often with frightening rapidity when everything is considered. That still feels odd, plus more than a little disappointing, and I can now add creodonts to the list of groups which I would love to have had the chance to meet.

But my journey didn’t stop there. Intrigued and fired up by the beautiful imagery of Sabretooth, I went hunting for palaeoart of creodonts. Unfortunately, I largely came back empty handed, but my wide Googling did lead me to discover a new blog to subscribe to: Into the Wonder. It’s a loose connection to the subject I was after, but it’s always fun to discover someone actively writing about developing fantasy lore and creature creation!

Plus, who knows? It took over a century for someone to realise the creodonts were not just another branch of Carnivora, which is a large enough group for some individuals to have only undergone cursory examination, so perhaps they actually aren’t all gone. Maybe, just possibly, one day in the future, some slightly odd mustelid or squash-faced felid will turn out to be a creodont in hiding. Maybe that discovery will even answer questions about an unsolved riddle of folklore? It’s possible… though it’s probably also asking far too much…

The Marvel-ous Collection: A Beginning

I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it felt a bit ridiculous when I was given Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 for Christmas. To be clear, the gift wasn’t ridiculous; it’s a fantastic film and one I’ve been excited to rewatch since seeing it in the cinema. The ridiculous part was that this officially marked the start of my Marvel Bluray collection. That’s right, I might be a huge fan of the franchise and own a fairly sizeable solid-media movie collection, but I’m almost entirely absent the MCU!

I say almost, because in truth I do own both Guardians of the Galaxy (now Volume 1, I guess) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier on DVD, but for a 17 film franchise (at time of writing) that’s pretty meagre. Part of that reason is the Bluray dilemma: ultimately, I don’t care that much about the increased resolution for most films, but I definitely care about the extra features. As Bluray has become the de facto release location for collector’s editions and special features, I was increasingly left behind, waiting for both an excuse to buy a Bluray player and then, later, for prices to drop back to the realms of sanity.

Luckily, 2017 saw both goals achieved. Whilst Blurays remain expensive (Marvel’s particularly so), they’re now at an acceptable premium above the respective DVD release, so with bonus featurettes, content and a better picture quality they feel somehow more worthwhile. At the same time, Marvel finally released a collected set for both Phase One and Phase Two, something I find bizarre has taken half a decade. I mean, what other purpose does the marking of “phases” serve then to artificially create film sets? At any rate, the result was a sudden galvanisation to fill in the blanks and finally own some of my favourite superhero films.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the contents of the collected sets left me a little cold. Yes, there are new bonus scenes, animatics and fun Agent Coulson introductions for each of the films, but they also lack a number of key special features from previous releases, especially the big documentaries. As a result, I’ve thrown in the towel! If Marvel/Disney can’t get their act together and release a definitive edition of the MCU then I’ll just create one myself.

The first hurdle was finding out what variations existed, what the actual differences were and then weighing up the pros and cons. Luckily, Reddit came to my aid (after Google summarily failed) with a raft of suggestions for comparison websites geared towards just this kind of task.

Since then, I’ve been slowly going through the films, one by one, narrowing down my options until I’ve found the exact version that most intrigues me. So far, the few I have settled on have been “out of print”, but luckily a robust second hand market appears to exist, keeping resell prices low. It’s slow going, but honestly I’m finding it quite fun. I’m also tracking my decisions and aim to release a full list, and break down of why I chose each film’s specific version, once I’m done.

For now, I figured it would be worth a quick round-up of the websites I’ve found most useful, so without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top five film hunting locations:

1. DVD Double Dip
Not the prettiest site, nor the most complete in terms of information, but what it does have is extremely easy to read, compare and review. Probably the best starting point I’ve found but take the accuracy with a pinch of salt.

2. DVD Compare
Very accurate, particularly when it comes to extra features, and great for comparing regional differences in films. Take particular note of the “Cuts” and “Overall” sections at the bottom of a search page to see if the film is actively censored anywhere in the world. I wish you could compare films side-by-side, but still easily my favourite comparison site.

3. Blu-Ray.com
Probably the most complete database of film releases on this list but a bit of a pig to search accurately. There’s no way to easily compare film versions without opening multiple tabs, but you can filter by country directly on the search bar and the user reviews are solid, often clearing up any confusion over oddly phrased features.

4. Filmogs
Another very complete database without easy comparison methods. Easier to navigate than Blu-Ray.com but the search is less intelligent (e.g. “Avengers” fails to pull back any collected sets). Again, useful for getting more information, plus acts as a competitively priced marketplace.

5. /r/DVDCollection
If all else fails, ask here and someone will probably either know the answer or own the film and be able to tell you. Really helpful bunch!

Of course, once you’ve narrowed down your options and decided which version is just right, you still need to buy the darn thing. Obviously if you’re looking at buying new then all the normal locations apply, but for second hand movies I’m having most success at the following:

1. Music Magpie – though be wary, several times I’ve spent a while looking at a film, come back later and found the price has shot up. Leave it a few days and it seems to drop back down again.
2. eBay
3. CEX
4. Amazon Marketplace

Happy hunting!

New Year, New Phone? Compare the Camera First

Currently, both myself and my partner are looking into replacing our mobile phones (her slightly more urgently). As a result, we’re both quite deep in the mire of tech reviews, contract comparisons and general research. For the most part, this has only gone to prove what I wrote about several weeks ago: the mobile phone market is stagnant. None of the current generation’s big, flashy marketing gimmicks are even close to being on my list of desirable features, whilst previous years’ genuinely useful innovations seem to have almost entirely disappeared (looking at you, waterproof casings!).

As a result, more so than at any time I’ve previously delved deep into the mobile market, the minor differences and quality of parts are becoming increasingly important. For both of us, one of those now-standard features which can make or break a mobile is the camera, but trying to really tell the difference between two handsets ability is getting incredibly hard. Long gone are the days of pixel wars, where the MP rating was a broadly useable mark of quality. Now all phones have far too many pixels to ever be needed, meaning the calibre of the lens and processing software is much more important. Here, too, though it has become harder to tell pro from imposter, with even relatively basic mid-tier handsets boasting chips and glass from reputable sources like Zeiss and Samsung.

So the discovery of GSM Arena and it’s phone comparison tools (all credit goes to my partner for the actual discovery, of course) is a real boon. It’s a brilliant website – irritating banner ads aside – which is surprisingly fast to load extremely high resolution, balanced images taken with any number of mainstream mobiles. Not just photos, but stills taken from video recordings are present as well, able to be synced between three phones for immediate comparison. It’s a fantastic tool for quickly and accurately comparing models, with some surprising results. Personally, my favouritism of Sony has seen me eyeing up the XZ1 Compact, but having viewed the direct comparison between the Galaxy S8 I’m now a little put off (though oddly the video still seems much sharper). Most disappointing has been the Huawei Mate 10 Lite, which impressed me in store but at this detail is clearly lagging far behind.

Still, personal problems aside, it’s a cracking service and well worth shouting about!

The New 52: A Summary [#52]

So the end is nigh. Fifty-two weeks, fifty-nine articles, two failures and the most complete challenge I’ve ever set myself. Sure, I may not have managed to write once a week, every week, during 2017 but I have managed to write a whole lot more than I would have done otherwise. I’ve documented my plan to record more of my media in 2017 than ever before, only to have innovative new technology create a road block. I’ve shared my ever increasing love and interest in photography, including some very big personal milestones. I’ve received my first genuine comment, not just from an anonymous stranger on the internet but from a creator and individual whom I have followed for years. I’ve discussed my own life, my travels, worries, annoyances and ideas; I’ve had a space to comment on wider industry trends, disturbing news stories and things which I’ve just found interesting.

It’s been a fantastic, frustrating and, at times, not particularly well executed fifty-two weeks. On the whole, though, I’m extremely proud of, and pleased with, the fifty official “New 52” posts that were published (see full list below – now numbered correctly). I’m also a little astonished that only six of them are MiM posts, with most being self contained articles I would likely never have written if it weren’t for this challenge. Sure, I’m annoyed that I missed two weeks, just like I’m annoyed that there are several MiMs and other articles still sat in my drafts folder, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments I have made.

So then, the next question is: fifty-two more? Well, put simply, no. I still plan to post, particularly with media reviews, but 2017 was about finally finding the courage to put my writing out into the world, and forcing myself to do so. That has now been achieved and I’m very happy with the end result. The next step is to focus that energy into new challenges and new skills. I will not be starting 2018 with any specific challenge or checklist of goals; instead, I’m going to forge forward with several ideas. The first step will be to clear out/complete as many incomplete projects as possible, beginning with that drafts folder. It’s ridiculous that I have drafted movie reviews from October 2016 that have never seen the light of day. It’s equally ridiculous that I have spent over a year talking about migrating theAdhocracy; changing the article format; implementing home-brew backed cross posting; and getting some of the travel videos I’ve shot edited, uploaded and accessible. The last year has been about learning new skills, proving that I can balance commitments with creative endeavours and working out where I enjoy putting my energy. I’ve now got a pretty good idea of how that will all work, so the next step is to begin applying it. I’m excited to see what my year-in-review will look like in another twelve months time, but the aim is for it to be even more diverse!

New 52 Challenge Posts:

  1. The New 52: A Challenge
  2. Scrobbling Movies
  3. Rating my Opinion
  4. A New Mozilla
  5. Month in Media: January 2017
  6. Martian Mirrors
  7. Interneting is (Apparently) Hard
  8. The Existential Crisis Question
  9. Awesome Azhdarchids
  10. TV vs Film: The Great Debate
  11. Willow, Wetlands & Nostell Priory
  12. Empathy Just Makes Sense
  13. Thoughts from Around the Web
  14. Month in Media: March 2017
  15. April Foolery 2017
  16. Duping the Genie
  17. Finding the Time
  18. Echoing Frustration
  19. Hyperfocal Stone Rows
  20. Vinyl Scratchings
  21. Factual Distrust
  22. Welcome Home
  23. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends
  24. A Gap in Time
  25. Peaks & Troughs
  26. Security All The Way Down
  27. Month in Media – June 2017
  28. Marrs Green
  29. The Poetry of Spam
  30. Untapped Market
  31. That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection
  32. Where is Superwoman?
  33. The Weight of Opportunity
  34. Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses
  35. Life Between the Worlds
  36. When is a Cat a Mongoose?
  37. Sunrise on the Quiraing
  38. Month in Media – September 2017
  39. Month in Media – July 2017
  40. Forgotten & Surreal Instruments
  41. Welcome to the Grid
  42. Asking the Right Answers
  43. Insta Inspiration
  44. Fair Phones & Mobile Woes
  45. Dark Booking Patterns
  46. Month in Media – November 2017
  47. Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs
  48. Death of the Internet
  49. Remember: Anger Leads to the Dark Side
  50. The New 52: A Summary

Remember: Anger Leads to the Dark Side [#51]

It is Christmas Eve and the penultimate week of the New 52 challenge! There’s a nice symmetry to that, which, of course, is why I picked today to write a post… and nothing to do with it being the run-up to Christmas as well as the approach to a fairly major shift in life direction (more on that at a later date, I’m sure), leading to a distinct lack of down time.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’ll likely cover the whole 52 project next week (and sort out the numbering), but right now I want to discuss a recent holiday tradition: the annual return to a galaxy far, far away. Keeping to their promise of one a year until people stop watching them, Disney have just released the latest episode of Star Wars, and boy has it been an interesting response. Oh, and just as a heads up there may be spoilers ahead!

I want to state straight away that yes, I’ve seen The Last Jedi, and no, this isn’t going to be my review. I’ll leave that for the December MiM as is the norm, but a quick summary would be that I thought it was enjoyable but a little odd. I think at it’s core there is a good film, backed by some great performances, and even the slightly odder thematic choices have the possibility to pay off in the next episode. I didn’t leave the cinema leaping for joy but I definitely didn’t leave feeling like my childhood had been trampled all over*. Nor did I feel the strong urge to petition for the film’s complete erasure from history.

To say, then, that The Last Jedi has been divisive is a bit of an understatement. It’s fairly rare for a film with a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a critics metascore of 86 on IMDB to receive this kind of backlash. That disconnect, where critics are lavishing praise but viewers are voicing scorn, is generally a bit weird but especially when the film is a main-stream blockbuster, not some hyper arthouse concept. I’d honestly expect people to be doing a reverse BvS and claiming that Disney are just buying good reviews, but can’t find any such claims.

To be fair, the user score on IMDB seems to have settled somewhere around the 7.7 mark, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Take a look at the breakdown of those user scores (see graph below) and you’ll notice more oddities in the data. Most people are rating the film at 8 stars or higher; combined with a solid grouping of 7 star reviews and 75% of people think this is a 7+ star film. If you look at its direct predecessor, The Force Awakens, you see a similar trend, with the majority rating 8 or higher and a strong minority favouring 7 stars. In fact, TFA shows a stronger tail-off towards 10 star reviews, which (again, weirdly) are more common than 9 star reviews for TLJ. But despite the similar trends, TFA sits with an average score of 8.1, still lower than its 93% on Rotten Tomatoes but sitting spot on the 81 metacritic score and more inline with general industry trends. So why is TLJ so low? That would be the 6% of people giving this film a 1 star rating, a huge and very uncommon spike. The other low reviews all tail off in a normal trend line, then you hit 1 star and it jumps right back up.

It’s important to note here as well that the initial reaction was much, much more negative. Early aggregate scores placed TLJ at a meagre 5.6 from user reviews, which is even more fascinating. That implies that those who rushed out to see the film, people you can expect are big fans of the franchise, were the least impressed with what they saw.

Graph of user ratings from IMDB for The Last Jedi showing that the vast majority of people rated it 8 or higher but a very large minority is pulling that score down with disproportionate 1 star scores.

Which is a long winded way of saying: this film isn’t just a film some people aren’t getting – it’s a film which some people hate. You only get that kind of anomalous trend when emotions are involved and it’s fairly clear from reading any of the actual user reviews that these are running high. It’s something I find fascinating, as it suggests the kind of emotional response and cognitive shut down normally associated with tribal defensiveness. Its the kind of reaction you get in the US when gun control or abortion is brought up; in the UK when you mention Brexit or class. It’s a hardwired defense of an idea that you see as integral to your in-group, your tribe. It’s not normally something you see on this scale with popular culture.

Sure, there are plenty of instances of fandom infighting and tribalism. Heck, Star Wars vs Star Trek has been raging for nearly half a century and don’t even begin to prod the circle-jerk that is PC vs console, but whilst these ideas evoke strongly worded arguments and never-ending debate they rarely result in the kind of knee-jerk anger and frustration The Last Jedi has kicked up. And yes, some of that is likely misplaced political idealism reacting to a film which glorifies female and ethnic minority characters whilst demonising classic white male figures, but I struggle to believe that’s even close to the majority of the story. As the author of that now infamous Change.org petition himself has stated, most are just fans of Star Wars that feel that The Last Jedi has hurt the franchise.

The biggest arguments and most grief seem to centre on the aspect of The Last Jedi that I, and seemingly a large, silent majority of people, particularly liked. TLJ is not a standard Star Wars film. Yes, there are plenty of call-backs to the original trilogy, fan service is still here and the major themes are all still caught up with concepts like the Force and rebels and evil empires, but it also goes out of its way to flip as many of those tropes as it can. There are times this does feel forced, but ultimately it works more than it fails and creates a film which actually forces the audience to question themselves. It is flawed, but it definitely isn’t mindless. I mean this is a Star Wars film which actually tries to argue that bravado and pure heroics are sometimes the worst course of action possible. That’s a bold move for a franchise built on death-defying acts of heroism and concepts of fate, destiny and prophecy.

What we’re left with is a film that delivers on the promise not to repeat the main criticism of The Force Awakens and be just another carbon-copy of stories already told. In doing so, it takes the franchise far outside of its well worn comfort zone and casts it, quite literally at times, out into unknown, unmapped territory (do you see what I did there?). It massively expands or completely obliterates canon and fan theories, elements that the Star Wars universe is particularly heavily associated with, and actually dares to develop several of the main characters from the original trilogy, often in ways that casts past actions in new lights. Most importantly, it ensures that the Star Wars story is about more than just the Skywalker lineage. I can understand why that would piss a whole lot of people off, but frankly it also needed to happen. Personally, what I’m most fascinated by is what the legacy of the film becomes next. Will people grow to love it over time? Will it age poorly, as with the prequels? Will it force Disney to do an about turn and mix up episode IX to be more fan friendly or will they double down on their new, now truly expanded universe? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m excited to see where Star Wars will now boldly go**.

*I’m using that article here in a slightly misleading way. Despite the title, the author does an extremely fair job of both outlining why TLJ was painful for him to watch on a personal level and objectively analysing that feeling. His conclusions are pretty solid and well reasoned, and mostly fall on the positive side regarding the film. I could have linked to any one of a number of genuinely hate filled rants complaining about the loss of precious memories, but honestly most are incoherent and I feel the linked article is a genuinely worthwhile read on the subject. Just wanted that to be clear.

** Couldn’t help myself.

Death of the Internet [#50]

December 14th 2017: The day the internet died.

It’s a weird thing to wake up to, the repeal of net neutrality in the US. There’s is absolutely nothing that I, as a British citizen, could do to prevent the FCC from taking this course of action. Which, to be fair, isn’t too far from the reality for American citizens either; the result is not particularly unexpected, despite widespread criticism.

There’s also no way of knowing the impact it will have. Worst case scenario, as a non-American, would be seeing other governments (particularly my own) mimicking the decision and formally handing the web over to corporations, rather than people. Except, outside of the US the ISP market isn’t dominated by monopolies, so the market would actually stand a chance at forcing effective neutrality. That means I’m fairly insulated from the most obvious repercussions. Harder to measure, but probably more likely, are the ripple effects. How many new services will simply never exist if US providers decide that road blocks are more profitable than open highways? How much innovation in Silicon Valley will be lost to firms spending less on R&D and more on bandwidth?

On the other hand, if ISP’s in the US do abuse their new powers it could lead to the slow (or relatively sudden, depending on perspective) eroding of the US as a global leader in technology and software. Whilst the UK is not exactly well placed to pick up that slack, countless other countries would likely benefit. Less of an American influence on the web could actually be widely beneficial (of course, not to Americans).

The result is that the loss of net neutrality, from a global perspective, is a bit of a grey area. We may benefit or we may lose, but ultimately we will be slightly more able to shape that destiny. The ridiculousness of the decision is that such luxury is not afforded to the US itself. They are the ones rolling the dice, but they’re also the ones with the highest stake, all balanced precariously on an unknown odd. No matter what happens next it’s pretty unlikely the US will benefit, but the rest of the world just might.

On that note, if you are in the US and are rightfully worried/angered by the decision that occurred yesterday, I’d point you towards Ethan Marcotte’s break down. It offers a slim silver lining which is plausible (unlike some of the others doing the rounds) as well as an even, yet irritated, overview of what it could actually mean. Well worth a read and well worth enacting.

Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs [#49]

Well it’s been a long week of other distractions rather than writing, but I have built up several things to link out to, so I guess a round of links from the web is in order.

The Greatest Ignored CV Ever

Data visualisation of academic interests, achievements and major life moments, composed as a pseudo-CV
Now that’s a pretty (useless) CV

Originally created by Ritwick Dey (and weirdly hosted on Flickr), the mock-up data visualisation of Dey’s life has earned some serious kudos on Reddit and deservedly so. The visuals have an immediate impact and are just very aesthetically pleasing, even if (as many Redditors have pointed out) actually using it as your CV would be a quick shortcut to the reject pile. To be honest I’ve been dabbling in something similar (though far simpler) recently, so found seeing the execution of, and reaction to, something much superior to my own attempts kind of fascinating.

Spider Squeeee!

GIF image of an animated spider that is particularly adorable
Lucas the Adorable Arachnid

Lucas the spider has been doing the rounds of the internet this week and I fully understand why. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spiders but I’m also far from arachnophobic, even finding certain real world spiders adorable. That said, nothing in nature (that I’m aware of) has been designed to tug at the heart strings quite so cleverly as this short animation test. Others have already called for it, but can I add my name to the petition for Lucas to be in the next Disney/Pixar movie?

Spider Awesome

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, swings into frame and lands on a skyscraper
Into the Spider-Verse? Yes please!

Weirdly, yet another piece of spider-based animation dropped this week which captured the hearts of the internet, though this time less Tumblr and more Reddit. The first trailer for Sony’s new animated Spider-Man film hit and just looks stunning. It’s Miles Morales meets Spiderverse so I was already intrigued, but those visuals mixed with that soundtrack has left me with extreme hype!

Wildlife Photo-Ark

Around twenty heaped tortoises each with a unique code engraved on the back of the shell
Madagascan ploughshare tortoises with anti-poaching codes

I’m a big fan of projects looking to archive information of endangered species, particularly quality images, biomechanics and video, so that if conservation efforts fail future generations still at least have good data. So when I discover a project like Endangered, created by photographer Tim Flach, it has to be shared. Flach’s photographs (see more at Gizmodo) are beautiful and frequently incredibly poignant, but they’re also paired with detailed information on the animals, and the threats they face, from biologist Jonathan Baillie. It’s conservation meets art, both noble goals in their own right that are only amplified by their intermixing. Definitely going straight on my future wishlist.

The Ones We’ve Already Lost: Palaeo Art

Two theropod dinosaurs with unrealistic iguana like physiology fighting
Two Dryptosaurus (at time Laelaps) fighting in an incredibly famous image from Charles R. Knight, 1897

From ensuring the animals we may soon lose are well documented to attempting to document those that have already been lost. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the field of palaeo art and love both the finished pieces and the processes that go into their creation. There’s something incredibly interesting about decoding the past and trying to set it to understandable visuals which I just love. Stumbling on to an article taking a deep dive into the history of the field, then, was a fascinating read which has been put together very nicely. It’s great to see books I find particularly influential, such as All Yesterday’s, as well as their author’s (and respective blogs) being linked to and discussed on such a main-stream website as The Atlantic. It would also appear that some new books on the subject may be coming out soon, which is great news. An article I will want to come back to from time-to-time, if for no more reason than to explore all the linked resources. Top work.

Month in Media – November 2017 [#48]

Sigh I feel like I should just give up on the whole “I’ve achieved a MiM in a timely factor, maybe I can keep this up!” thing. It seems like every time I say that it guarantees I skip the next month. Still, considering I haven’t even finished October 2016 perhaps there is some hope for last month to surface at some point. For now, November will suffice, with a general step back away from media in general making it a lot easier to write up. With that said, as ever be aware of spoilers and on with the reviews.

On-Going Media

TV – Blue Planet II – Beautiful and fascinating but somehow hasn’t quite grabbed my attention yet. Will see how it develops.
TV – The Punisher – The Netflix arm of the MCU returns with an entertaining rip-off of Person of Interest (seriously, the cast even look the same).
Video Games – League of Legends – No, I won’t be stating this every month, but just thought it worth recording that League’s teeth have sunk in deep. I actually went ranked (Bronze III….woo?) and watched most of Worlds… so yes, well into the void.

Film

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold [Documentary]

Honestly, I had never heard of Joan Didion before watching this exceptionally personal and beautifully shot documentary. Now? Well, I have certainly heard of her, but certainly know more about her life from an emotional perspective than her works. The Centre Will Not Hold is much more a biography than an analysis, which makes a lot of sense considering her family were directly involved in the filming and direction of the documentary. The result is a surprisingly balanced and deeply personal introspective which is riveting to watch. Didion led a fascinating life even without considering her contributions to literature and journalism; the telling of her tale feels rightly deserved and rewarding to watch as a result.

The documentary also comes across as very fair, not eschewing the slightly less positive or beneficial elements of Didion’s character. She comes across as a caring but deeply practical and straight-talking person, which, at times, comes across as lacking empathy. By the end of the documentary any such accusations are firmly put in their place, but it remains incredibly refreshing to hear her directness. Most firmly implanted in my memory is the moment she, as a journalist, came across a young child taking heavy drugs, clearly addicted and in a hugely damaging situation. As a woman with a young child herself, and even just as a human, it would be forgivable and understanding had her reaction been to drop pad and pen and whisk the child out of such an abusive environment. Instead, her self-professed reaction was “What a story”; she saw life through the lens of her work and through, arguably, a clear perception of reality. It’s an uncomfortable, but also very human, reaction which makes her so much stronger for admitting it than glossing over or omitting it would have done. This boldness in the presentation of someone who is rightfully seen as a national treasure is refreshing and excellently executed. In no small sense it reminds me of Scott Card’s concept of “speaking for the dead”, an unbiased and inclusive summation of character that does not shy away from the darker elements of human experience and nature purely for the sake of presenting an elevated memory of an individual.

In the end, my one criticism of The Centre Will Not Hold is that the spotlight is cast away from her work a little too much. As someone approaching the documentary unaware, entirely, of Didion and her work I left with a good idea of who she is as a person but still lacking understanding of her contribution to culture on a broader level. I couldn’t quote a single line she’s penned, tell you the names of her works or discuss her famous articles. In all honesty, coming to write this review nearly a month after watching the documentary, I remember her quite visibly in my memory but had to double check with Google that she was, first and foremost, a writer and wasn’t more famous for other reasons. If you’re a fan already this will probably elevate the documentary but for the completely uninitiated it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge and is possibly the poorer for it.

Still, it is a mild criticism that is also intricately linked with many of the same reasons I feel the documentary, on the whole, is a triumph, so should be viewed as such. Overall, whether you are a fan of Didion already or not the documentary is an excellent watch and a brilliant example of the genre’s best qualities. It is observant, grounded and entertaining all at once and I cannot recommend it enough on those merits. If you’re interested in modern American culture, literature, the evolution of journalism, Didion herself or even just documentary production, The Centre Will Not Hold is a must watch.

tl:dr; A brilliant and deeply personal introspection of an incredible individual. A truly nuanced and exacting character analysis and a documentary style which I hope to see emulated much more in the future.

Mulan [rewatch]

Mulan is one of those classic Disney films which, I hope, will remain timeless. There are elements which appear a little dated and some of the dialogue definitely comes across as a little insensitive by modern standards, but we’re talking minor niggles rather than the blatant racism or white-washing that other films struggle with from the same era. That minor complaint aside, the animation, plot, voice work and overall design are just as brilliant now as when they were released and the film remains incredibly entertaining to watch, with classic songs throughout. One to sit proudly alongside more modern examples, like Moana and Inside Out, as a child’s film with a strong morality and beneficial message. Will definitely be a firm favourite for years to come.

tl;dr: Still a brilliant story with a moral underpinning that remains incredibly relevant. A children’s classic that is well enough made to be enjoyable for anyone.

Mulan 2

The straight-to-DVD sequel which is exactly what you would expect: nothing more than a meaningless, paint-by-the-numbers cash grab. To be honest, most of Disney’s spin-off work is exactly this, so I’m not surprised, but the sheer level of pointlessness to this movie left a slightly bitter taste. I can deal with sub-par plots, pointless cameos and even the lack of the original voice actors (though one of the few thing Mulan 2 did right was ensure that Ming Na-Wen returned for the titular role) but there’s much worse on offer here.

For starters, we get the strong vibe from the first film that Mushu is not particularly liked by the Ancestors, but the reason given is that he failed as a previous Guardian in his role. His actions throughout Mulan prove to be his reparation and by the end of the film he is back on his ancient pedestal, where it seems to be the case that he would remain inert until next called upon. Certainly, based on his general state when summoned for the first time in Mulan it would appear that he had been a statue for many years. On top of this, whilst a little cowardly, Mushu remains clearly honourable and never shows any hint of malice, particularly towards Mulan and her family. He is a likeable character with some emotional depth, which is part of his charm; he’s a lovable under-dog. All of this, however, is retconned for the sequel. Here, the Ancestors have a clear hatred for Mushu, probably because, as a Guardian, he is a complete dick. He’s self-serving, arrogant to an extreme, incredibly demanding and completely lacking in empathy. His scheming directly enables much of the storyline and therefore casts him as the antagonist, albeit one who does an about-face the moment the plot no longer calls for him to have these character traits. It makes him into a distinctly unlikeable character, makes the Ancestors seem petty and unkind and generally makes the spirit world seem quite manipulative. That’s problematic from a continuity point of view but it’s also pretty culturally insensitive.

Mushu’s character assassination isn’t the only big step backwards for Mulan 2 though, which seems to go out of its way to also trample on a large amount of the message from the first film. Whilst the core message of the sequel is that “love conquers all” (and also that arranged marriages are bad), it goes about it in a very ham-fisted way and leaves you feeling that Mulan herself is less the impassioned, head-strong female idol and more a victim of Hollywood’s notions of “romance”. Her relationship with Shang is pretty troublesome and it almost validates Mushu’s reaction that perhaps they shouldn’t be getting married (if his reasoning wasn’t so damned evil). They barely agree on anything, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company and, frankly, Shang comes across as a complete misogynist. Given how much the first film focused on female empowerment, seeing the sequel instead focus on why men should be manly and women should accept and value that felt backwards.

Overall, then, the film is a shambles. When it isn’t actively erasing the messages and characters of the original classic, it’s scraping by on a poorly written plot full of deus ex machina and pointless side-quests, badly attempted homages at fan favourite moments from the first film or odd attempts at humour (there’s a lot about how women find shoes enrapturing). Overall, it’s not even worth it for kids to watch as it will only serve to annoy or undercut the original. Just rewatch Mulan instead.

tl;dr: Terrible, character blind and very poorly conceived.

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s that time of year again: the winter film release season, bringing with it the next big hitters from both Marvel and DC. Marvel is arriving first with the third (and final?) film in the Thor franchise. Personally, Thor is one of those characters who I find brilliant in ensemble but haven’t really latched onto any of his solo outings. The first film was decently entertaining but didn’t leave a huge impression and then the second was easily the worst Marvel misstep since the creation of the MCU. That said, I get excited for each film because I love the mash-up of Norse mythology and science fiction and see a huge amount of potential for films there. The question, then, is: does Ragnarok finally find that sweet spot?

Well, yes and no. Of the three films Ragnarok is a clear leader, improving on everything the first film did well whilst increasing the stakes and generally feeling a lot more comfortable within itself. Chris Hemsworth has truly become Thor, much like other big Marvel heroes such as Iron Man and Cap, allowing his performance to shine through. Standing head-to-head is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, proving yet again that he deserves the fan fervour he garners. Luckily, as opposed to The Dark World, the new characters introduced (and returning characters) all fit the world(s) they inhabit and aren’t irritating. There were moments I felt the inhabitants of Sakaar were sliding dangerously close to the farce of film two, but luckily they always pull back at the brink and make the punchlines land.

The tone of Ragnarok helps massively in this respect, ensuring that any flatter moments are brushed out of your mind quickly by a break neck pace and styling itself in a much less serious and more colourful manner. The influence of certain Guardians in this change of pace is clear and the right decision to have made. There’s also the absence (now permanent) of Jane Foster, whose presence was tolerable in Thor 2 but largely forced the plot to find reasons (not particularly good ones) for her to even be involved. She became less of a character and more of a crutch for the stakes, a classic damsel-in-distress plot point. Without that, Thor is very literally unleashed, allowing him to be a lot more arrogant and effective in battle. Combined with enemies that are a realistic challenge for a demigod, we finally get to see Thor demonstrate his much lauded fighting abilities and the result is awesome.

Which is another area of Guardians influence. Seeing Mjolnir explode through demons and zombies is just as spectacular as watching Yondu’s whistle carve up bad guys, except it feels so much heavier and fittingly forceful. They’re great scenes (whilst they last) and involve some brilliant camera work and choreography. Later, with Mjolnir gone and replaced by the Odin force, Thor’s lightning warfare is stunning and wonderfully visceral. In other words, the action scenes in Ragnarok are great, and that’s before even discussing the much-anticipated gladiatorial fight with the Hulk!

Speaking of which, one area the film is a little, well, hard to process, is the “adaptation” of the Planet Hulk storyline. Personally, this is an aspect of Ragnarok that will improve on rewatch, now I know how it fits in the greater story arc and which parts have been left. As a huge fan of the original comic arc I was a little disappointed, but if you see the Thor story as an homage rather than adaptation it helps a lot. Plus, ultimately, I quite like how it weaves into the greater story of Hela and Ragnarok. It may trample all over the Sakaar I love (and especially the associated characters) but the world it creates still feels interesting, vibrant and alive, plus it makes the ending both a lot more unexpected and interesting. Had the Asgardians just escaped via the bifrost then the destruction of Asgard would have been less impactful and their options far more restricted. Having a literal ark of Asgard floating through space gives future stories a lot more scope to work with (even if the next step seems to be fairly concrete at this point, given what we know of Infinity War and the post-credits scene).

That said, I did struggle with how much they had changed Korg’s identity and can’t help but feel that if they had left him out of the trailer my hopes for the Planet Hulk inclusion would haven’t been quite as high. That element did muddy the water significantly, making me a little less engaged with a lot of what was happening on Sakaar, a little more annoyed at the way the Hulk was behaving and a little less accepting of Valkyrie as a character. That last one is the least fair, as she is a brilliant character done absolute justice, but I had hoped she might have been Caiera Oldstrong, Hulk’s queen, and the trailer shot of her riding a Pegasus was her bringing the Valkyries to battle. As it is, both Caiera and the Valkyries were missing, which was a double-whammy of disappointment.

Also, the plot isn’t exactly the most cohesive. There are plenty of ideas here which could have been much more fleshed out and I can’t help but feel that they just tried to cram too much into the plot. You could easily have removed the Sakaar part entirely and just had Thor pick up Hulk to help him out; plus that would explain how a Terran quin-jet somehow made it to Sakaar? I realise repulsor technology is a little hand-wavey in terms of fuel efficiency, but I do think that a short-flight, terrestrial based transport craft shouldn’t be that efficient at interstellar flight…

The result is that quite a bit of the plot is just left to progress by happen chance. Some of it feels acceptable, like the cameo by Dr Strange to cut out an “Odin hunt” sequence, whilst at other times a little callous, such as when Thor just leaves Loki incapacitated and with a death sentence over his head. That would fly if Thor seemed at all upset with Loki, which would be understandable considering that he is the one responsible for Odin’s death, thereby the destruction of Asgard, Thor’s predicament on Sakaar and the release of Hela, but he just never seems that bothered at all. Or that he shows no worry over how Loki was going to escape from Odin’s Vault after releasing the world-eating demon Sutur. Then there are the pieces which were good but could have been great, like Sakaar or even Scourge, who never really makes it into the character equivalent of the third dimension despite a solid performance from Karl Urban.

Having said all of that, on balance, the film was very enjoyable and a huge amount of fun. By the end I had warmed to the new characterisations of Mieek and Korg, thoroughly fallen for the gorgeous design and palate of Sakaar and the Master, and become completely enthralled by Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela (which, just to be clear, was on par with either Thor or Loki). I found the mythology intriguing and well explained, whilst retaining a semblance of mystery, the characterisation solid and the design stunning. The action is brilliant (as mentioned) but so is the dialogue, with a sharp wit which should become grating but actually never gets there. The one major flaw is that the film never really has that moment of emotional connection. There’s plenty of laughs and the stakes do feel high, but at the same time you never get a gut punching moment. There’s no feel-good emotional overload, like at the end of the first Guardians film, or crushingly sad instance, such as the second Guardians film. Ragnarok just continues focusing on the humour and the action, right to the very last moment. That lack of depth means I won’t be classing it amongst the finest in the MCU but it sits just outside of that band by a very narrow margin and leaves me extremely excited for Infinity War and some more Norse god mayhem!

tl;dr: An extremely fun, vibrant and action packed ride that lacks emotional depth. Easily the best Thor film but not quite worthy of inclusion in the MCU’s greatest hits.

TV

Archer [Season 6]

How did I forget this absolute gem? Archer is one of those shows which just shouldn’t be as good as it is. The principle ought to lend itself to a lacklustre, episode churning filler program: animated spy parody with just enough humour to hook the lowest common denominator. The Big Bang Theory of the action genre, if you will. For some reason, though, the team decided to go full tilt on the parody, crank up the adult humour to the point of obscenity (though never really going full gross-out, which I thoroughly applaud) and embrace geek culture harder than a Joss Whedon online-only franchise. It was a bold move but has resulted in a very deserved cult status and extremely loyal fan base.

But then they tried to switch things up completely in season five with Archer: Vice. It was a fascinating switch, again very antithetical for a now profitable American comedy, turning the premise of the show on its head and really forging forward with a whole new outlook. Fans opinions were, shall we say, mixed. At the start there was uproar, though like many I personally persevered and placed faith in the showrunners. Still, I feel like that initial kick-back was sufficient for them to do a second 180 turn into season six.

So here we are, back with ISIS, back in the spy industry and back to the same old stories. Barry’s back, Archer’s an employee again, they’ve all been to rehab and the days of drug smuggling are just glossed over with no real implications. Really, you could jump from season four to six without really missing a beat, and apart from the odd meta reference your only confusion would be having missed Lana’s pregnancy. I’ll admit to having enjoyed Vice quite a lot by the end of its run but I’m still glad to see ISIS return. Somehow, the spy genre is just so much more lucrative for parody.

That said, season six is firm proof that, for the show to continue, shaking up the plot will need to happen. The first four seasons worked so well because they leaned so hard on tropes from classic franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible but that well has slightly dried up. The big plots have been done and the result is that there isn’t much left for them to play with in season six. It’s still a very enjoyable ride and the humour is back on point but there aren’t many truly, genuinely stand-out episodes. For the most part the show skates by on old plot lines (a la Barry the Cyborg) and the slight shake up that having a baby in the cast was bound to provide (though what exactly has happened to Woodhouse?). That works well enough and has both appeased fans of the first four seasons whilst proving that the fifth really wasn’t all that bad.

As a result, I’m a huge fan of how season six ends. Yes, it was great getting back to the spy-based roots of Archer, but I’m seriously pumped for where they’re going to go next now that ISIS is, once again, toast. There are a lot more action genres out there ripe for parody and the core group of characters are just so well developed and hilarious together that I doubt any are beyond the show’s scope. Hopefully there are several more seasons left for the taking!

tl;dr: A fun if somewhat tired return to the show’s roots, providing both a solid entry to the franchise and a strong argument for shaking things up a bit more as it moves forward.

Archer [Season 7]

Well I wanted them to shake up the settings, plot and genre again after a slightly lukewarm season six and the Archer team have once again delivered. Season seven sees the team leave the espionage business behind (again) to pursue more grounded, yet legal (mostly), work in L.A. as private investigators. For the most part it leaves the show open to tread fan favourite paths, without needing quite so strong of a character shake-up as Archer: Vice did, but still leaves plenty of wiggle room.

As with most previous seasons the main areas of character development are focused on Archer and Lana’s on-going will-they-won’t-they personal life. Whilst it looked like season six was a turning point for Archer in particular, season seven doubles down on the (understandably) shaky grounds of trust the relationship is founded on. Largely this takes the form of sticking Hollywood starlet Veronica Deane in the crews path repeatedly, providing a clear temptation for Archer himself and a point of jealousy for Lana. Honestly, I feel like the show handles this part well, keeping their interactions fluid and funny without overly leaning on it to move the plot forward. There’s much less of AJ herself, which is fine, and it leaves the rest of the cast open to less serious side plots. I will say that the increased cast, including two brilliant cops and a host of Hollywood elite stereotypes, leaves almost too little time for the normal diversions. Having spent several seasons really fleshing out the side characters to more than 2-D punchlines, season  seven appears to largely reduce them back to these rolls, with Pam and Cheryl particularly badly hit. It’s a shame but, overall, not a huge hindrance.

Possibly the biggest let down of the series was the complete lack of pay-off to the “big mystery”. Clues are dropped from the very first episode that Deane and friends are involved in something a lot more sinister, with files and papers alluding to a particular scheme which never really appears. It is wrapped up in the two-part finale but I didn’t even realise that the reveal was happening until Archer explicitly mentions it. The finale did a good job of resolving several subplots whilst setting up one hell of a closing shot/cliff hanger, but it definitely feels like they dropped a couple of balls near the end of the season. Perhaps the number of episodes was suddenly cut, which would explain quite a lot, or maybe (in true Archer fashion) the whole point was to be pointless, but it results in the series feeling slightly rushed.

Still, a small gripe that allows for the show to lead itself, once again, in a very different direction. I’m pumped for the concept of Archer: Noir and very much looking forward to seeing how they cope with the characters being the versions of themselves that Archer sees. I feel like there is a huge amount of comic potential there and, possibly, an interesting way of having Archer himself go through a series of character strengthening self-realisations. I’m not sure if season eight is going to be the last but it does present a very nice way of tying off the series as a whole. Whatever happens, I’m certain I’ll be watching it very soon!

tl;dr: Another interesting twist and a refreshing switch-up. Definitely puts certain characters on the back burner, but overall a competent dive into new territory which sets up an exciting further abstraction.

Dark Booking Patterns [#47]

I just fell down a rabbit hole learning about Dark Patterns, thanks largely to a link in an, as ever, well thought out Adactio post. To be clear, I knew what a Dark Pattern was, I just hadn’t come across the term for them before. In brief, then, a Dark Pattern is a UI decision created to get a user to do something without really knowing why or how. It’s trickery and marketing merged into one and can be used to generate actual sales, push you to a specific part of a website or article, draw your attention away from negative elements or get you to agree to participate in some way. Basically, Dark Patterns aren’t great. They’re a bit morally dubious, they can leave a bad taste in your mouth and they can actively confuse or negatively impact people.

Sounds like something that should be avoided and shunned by any morally conscious designer, right? And probably something that, when noticed, should be shamed, yes? Good, we’re on the same page. But then I read a well reasoned break down of why Booking.com is a pretty awful abuser of exactly this type of user experience design. The full article, titled How Booking.com Uses Stress to Rush Your Decisions and written by Roman Cheplyaka, is a smorgasbord of dodgy design decisions. From fake urgent messages (“Someone just booked the hotel you’re looking at!”) to hiding negative reviews, Booking.com does not fare well when analysed with a Dark Pattern mindset. Time for a boycott then, right?

Well, put simply, no. I use Booking.com quite a lot. I’m a registered member and a recipient of their “Genius” discounts, which have saved me a fair amount over the past few years. I like the wide selection of hotels that are on offer, I like how key information is displayed and I particularly like their search functionality which makes drilling down through results incredibly quick and easy. I’ve recommended the service to countless friends and family and I’m not about to stop anytime soon. Do I find the urgent messages and dire warnings of inaction irritating? Yes. Have I occasionally found myself booking a room faster than I probably ought to have because of a fear of missing a deal? Yes. The Dark Patterns are clearly working, and are definitely reducing my enjoyment of the service being provided, but it isn’t a big enough issue to tip the balance away from all the positives.

Interestingly, it seems like Roman comes to a similar conclusion. Somehow, Booking.com has done such a good job in their general, overall experience that the little irritations can be happily ignored. Some of them I don’t even agree with. Is cherry picking reviews a bit dubious? Yes, I guess so, but at the same time I would expect promotion to skew those results a little. I’ve left negative reviews in the past and know they haven’t been censored or removed, so I trust the reviews that are present to be indicative of general opinion. I would also never, personally, go on three reviews alone to inform my decision; as with eBay and Amazon I will always read the most recent couple of reviews, a couple of the best reviews (and note when they were made) and a couple of the worst reviews (also noting date posted) to get a good spread. Booking.com makes finding those reviews so painless that I’ve never really noticed the ones on the main page are curated.

I will also defend their five-step rating system. You can always expand a review score to see how the aggregate has been calculated and having five specific categories makes doing so a lot easier. In the example given in the article, Roman states that:

A great location will not compensate for sleepless nights

But I have to disagree a little bit. Obviously, it depends on what you’re looking for, but I will happily sacrifice comfort for location if that’s a priority. If I’m going to a big city and planning on being out until the early morning anyway, I don’t really care about late night noise but I do care about walking distance to the venue (for example) that I’ll be visiting. It’s a bit of a pedantic argument, but I feel like their ratings scheme is genuinely useful and wouldn’t, personally, regard it in anyway “Dark”, which shows that the concept can be a little subjective.

At any rate, agree or not, the article is well put together and is worth a read if you use Booking.com, if for no other reason than to be a little more aware of the strategies the are employing. If you do find it a stressful experience, perhaps it may even help.