How Do I Join Hell’s Anthropologists?

Science Gang Tattoos by Tom Gauld, created for New Scientist.

A brilliant little illustration of possible science-based gang tattoos. The names aren’t the best (though Particle-Physics She-Devils has a special place in my soul) but the actual imagery is spot on. I’d love to revisit this idea at some point and come up with my own variation for us Evolutionary Biologists (or possibly Software Engineers, I can rep both crews)!

The Most Dangerous Way to Write

I have no idea how useful this little web-app may actually turn out to be, but it’s definitely a neat idea (and I wrote all of this in it too!). “The Most Dangerous Writing App” is certainly an odd one: keep writing in the completely streamlined text entry box for the allotted time limit (you set this yourself) or else “die”. Death, in this case, doesn’t refer to some chain-mail-esque curse, but the threat that if you stop writing for longer than ~5 seconds (total time unknown, I conducted a few simple tests but nothing too rigorous) the screen and box begin to fade, a red haze descends and then, ultimately, the “time’s up” message hits. At this point, it isn’t just game over… it’s message gone. Your entire piece of text (all of it) gets deleted, leaving you with a red screen, a red face and nothing to show for the effort.

As a result, I’m not convinced I’d ever want to try a time limit of longer than 5 minutes (which is what I’ve been experimenting with), just in case something went wrong. I’m also not sure what counts as “typing”; I went to correct typos and found it fading out whilst I was still hitting backspace, which was unnerving. Still, it definitely makes you stay focused, which is no bad thing. If that results in greater productivity then perfect, though I definitely felt the stress rising towards the end as the timer ticked down, my mind largely becoming clouded with thoughts of “this would be awful if it disappeared now”.

That said, once the timer has run down the option to Save or Restart becomes available and the risk of losing everything goes away, so I guess it’s probably a very good way of “getting in the zone”. At any rate, definitely worth a look, even if it’s just for some quick writing challenges or to get thoughts out without any formatting worries. Will likely try it out a few more times in the future!

Time Sinks and Indie Thoughts

I’ve just noticed that it’s been over a week since my last post. In and of itself, that isn’t an issue. There are no schedules here; I have no binding commitments to theAdhocracy. Entire months or years could pass between posts and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid (though, I hope, I would feel a little sad). Instead, the lack of a post is noteworthy because I’ve actually been writing content consistently for the last four days, as well as a couple of days last week. That content isn’t still stuck in draft form, it’s all fully edited and ready to ship (so to speak). In my mind it’s actually finished, archived and filed away as a completed job well done. So the reality that no one else can see these posts genuinely struck me as a little odd. This scenario is not one I had really considered when I started my monthly media roundups, but I guess, in hindsight, it can’t really be avoided. One large post a month may have to substitute for more regular content – right now I don’t have a solution, except to make sure my posted content is more varied.

One clear way to increase the throughput to the visible side of theAdhocracy would be to utilise micropublishing, effectively pulling in any facebook posts, RSS likes, instagram/Flickr photos etc. and cataloguing them all here. But, oh no! Once again I’ve stumbled into the indie web without any preparation. I wrote about my headaches with the learning curve associated with the indie web before. What I didn’t realise then was that the very person I’d “called out” in that post had already created what I was asking for: a more simplified, step-by-step guide to getting started on the indie web. So that’s awesome (and, once again, thank you Jeremy Keith!). Now to just find some time to play around with the suggestions. Oh and get my back end in shape first. Plus, maybe tidy up how my current categories work. I mean I’m not stalling at all…

Seashore Safari

Seashore Safari

Private boat anchored in the River Dart. Also, a portal to my first Flickr album!

Over a year ago I received a voucher. Over a month ago I finally managed to cash it in. The result? A fantastic day out in Dartmouth with the Great Escapes team! We spent the morning down on the beach (what little there was… after a year you’d think we’d have learned to check for spring tides!) with some of the fantastic staff, learning all about the ecosystems of the seashore, rock pools and general intertidal zone. I honestly cannot recommend the Seashore Safari enough to anyone interested in biology, conservation or animals; you may not be looking at the “usual” marine draws (no cetaceans in sight, I’m afraid) but I’ve never had a more informative and enthusiastic guide in the UK and now have a much deeper understanding of (and interest in) this fascinating and completely accessible world. Safari is not a misnomer in this instance, it actually felt like that kind of experience.

The afternoon was largely absorbed by a longer trip out on the company’s rib, down the coastline from Dartmouth to a breeding colony of Fulmars, which I hadn’t realised even came this far south. After a brief (and unsuccessful) trip up the River Dart in search of seals enjoying the calmer river waters, we were treated to a fantastic lunch hamper and then bid farewell to the great crew at Great Escapes. We had a little time to kill but the weather set in, so ended up idling around the Dartmouth Museum, which was interesting enough but not boundary pushing (unless you’re a fan of model ships, in which case you’ve probably already been… twice), before heading home.

Overall a really fun day with total information overload! On that note, although I’ve tried to gather my thoughts together in Lightroom (which therefore appear as captions in Flickr – and can I just take a moment to point out how momentous it is that I both have a Flickr and have actually published an album on it!) but almost certainly got a few things muddled in the interim month, so apologies if I’ve inadvertently spread misinformation! I’d also like to take a second to record/recommend both the RSPB’s Bird By Name subsite and the frankly incredible The Seashore website, both of which were crucial in fact checking and are amazing resources if you fancy a self guided seashore safari yourself.

Month in Media: April 2016

Hopefully the first of many. So what have I consumed this month? Well, a whole lot of graphic novels, largely due to a birthday occurring. In case people need reminding, all reviews may contain spoilers, so: Spoiler Warning!

Graphic Novels

The Man Who Laughs (Batman)

I picked up The Man Who Laughs off the back of several recommendations that basically implied that the contained storyline “got” the relationship between the Joker and Batman better than any other run, including The Killing Joke. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it quite lives up to the hype. It’s a great riff on how the Joker operates and a very clever “scheme” that definitely encapsulates the iconic villains methodology perfectly; you’re kept guessing throughout, with the standard “chaos as a smokescreen” the Joker excels at. What it isn’t, however, is a particularly complex analysis of the relationship between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong, as an origin story it definitely hits the mark, but I’d say The Man Who Laughs is more of a primer/introduction to the Joker than the perfect example of Clown v Bat. If anything, I’d say the analysis of Jim Gordon was more on point than either of the “main” characters.

Artistically, however, the graphic novel is spot on. The effects of the joker venom are wonderfully unnerving and force the eye to linger, enhanced by some great colouring that often amplifies the sense of paranoia and fear. Indeed, it is this sense of fear, of mounting tension and increasing paranoia, that The Man Who Laughs truly excels at and I imagine is why it is so upheld amongst fans of the Joker. I definitely enjoyed the novel and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone intrigued by the Batman universe, or who wants a slightly more coherent, though less emotionally charged, Joker heist than the Heath Ledger incarnation.

Special mention, however, must go to “Made of Wood“, an unexpected second part to the story. I have no idea why the two have been paired together for the trade paperback print, as apart from both occurring during the Zero Hour continuity they aren’t at all interconnected. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed the second story, which offered a nice analysis of Batman’s feelings towards other caped heroes (a little similar to that found in HUSH, as mentioned below) and his place amongst them, as well as providing insight into the early Green Lantern’s life. It was a fun romp, well done with some nice twists along the way; altogether an interesting and competent story arc.

Black Science: Vanishing Pattern (vol. 3)

To say I stumbled onto the Black Science series would be too kind. I bought the initial volume because a staff member at my local Waterstones noticed that I had been idly flicking through graphic novels for almost ten minutes and enquired if I needed some help. I happened to be holding Black Science at the time, had just noticed the price sticker wasn’t present and, more out of societal awkwardness than anything else, asked if they could find out the price. I had no intention of actually buying the book, but when they returned and said it was actually on offer and currently less than £4 I thought “hey, why not”? The fact that, two volumes later, I’m considering putting myself down for pre-order of the entire series until the run (which is very much still on going) is complete speaks to how much I am thankful for that odd moment of consumer obligation. Black Science has become the only series I’ve picked up to date that is constantly just whirring away somewhere in my subconscious, cropping up from time to time as random hypothesise as to how the story will play out. The worlds it has created, the central narrative and the characters themselves have all completely captured my attention and imagination. In other words, I’m quite a big fan.

All that said, Vanishing Point is yet another solid step forward for the series. It helps explain a little bit more of the mystery of what’s actually going on, rounds off a couple of key plot threads (particularly the “rough’n’ready”, time hardened versions of Grant and Sara) and sets up the next chapter wonderfully. I mean seriously, can our Grant ever catch a break? And what the actual fuck just happened! Crucially, though it jammed a wrench in the narrative machinery and allowed the characters to just stop for a few pages and actually analyse everything that’s happened. Quite often, I’d probably be annoyed, feeling the pace had been thrown out to shoe-horn in exposition and help the writers out of a tricky spot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth here. If anything, a little space to breath was exactly what Black Science required after two completely frenetic volumes. It was brilliant to see the interrelationships of the crew actually develop and come to some much needed crunch points. I’ve always loved the main characters and how they feel as a group, but they definitely needed a little development time and that’s exactly what Vanishing Pattern has allowed.

Scott and Grant needed that heart to heart; the Shaman needed to take a stand; the readers needed the revelations surrounding Rebecca and why she’s really there. It aired out the original motto of “Every world better than we found it” and gave it actual, substantive meaning (although, again, that ending…) which in turn pivoted the story from one about survival to one about morality. In short, the entire plot has evolved into something more nuanced, the characters have developed in some very intriguing new ways and the stakes have never seemed higher. So yeah, definitely still a very big fan of this series. I cannot wait for volume 4.

HUSH (Batman)

Quite likely the best Batman novel I’ve read to date. HUSH was fantastic, start to finish, weaving a new antagonist into the Batman universe so smoothly it’s incredible to think the titular villain hasn’t been around since the early days, alongside the Joker and the rest of the familiar foils. In doing so, the creative team behind the novel also provide a wonderful overview of the “Bat family”, from Huntress through to Oracle, even touching on the relationship Bruce has with other superheroes (one Boy Scout in particular) within the DC Universe. The result should be an incredibly broad, confusing mess but actually comes together perfectly; you definitely need a little bit of a primer going in as to who people are and rough relationships to the titular hero, but if you have even the most basic level of knowledge of the pre-New 52 universe then HUSH is an extremely accessible entry point into the deeper ideals and plot threads that were ongoing at the time.

More than simply being a meta-analysis though, HUSH is the turning point in several of the characters relationships. It plays off past failures wonderfully, finally putting to bed certain plot threads that may have been a little “up in the air” from previous big events, all without feeling the least bit like fan service. Similarly successful is the whole relationship subplot with Catwoman, which is spot on. A love interest that has been a previous enemy could have overloaded the entire story (too many cooks and all that) but instead becomes central to the plot, without ever feeling forced for either character; particularly masterful is its conclusion, neatly leaving questions open for the next creative team to play with, without leaving readers jilted. The deftness with which the team handle all these myriad characters is truly remarkable, in fact, with each one feeling unique and the plot never truly feeling rushed. Huntress does feel like there may be something else going on off-page, potentially in another comic run, but otherwise the story is paced wonderfully, which is a real rarity amongst graphic novels I find (indeed, a lot of Marvel’s work could have learnt a lot from HUSH in how pacing should go!).

Plus, it would be heinous of me not to point out that the artwork is stunning throughout, the scripting is practically flawless and the colouring, quite simply, blew me away. HUSH has to be one of the best coloured graphic novels I’ve ever come across, with some incredibly clever use of colour washing panels and using digital techniques to really bring out highlights and darken shadows without looking over-contrasted. Just superb.

The Killing Joke (Batman)

Yup, I read the classic Batman paperbacks in the most hipster order possible. I don’t regret it. So I guess the real question is: were the Amazon reviewers correct? Is The Man Who Laughs a better encapsulation of the Joker/Batman dynamic? Well, no, I don’t think so. The Killing Joke (despite having been thoroughly spoiled online for me multiple times over) definitely lived up to the hype. It is a brutal, ceaseless, gut-wrenching analysis of both characters and the definitive outline of the Joker, both as a person and as a villain, in a way that The Man Who Laughs is not. I can understand the comparisons and, perhaps, as an origin story The Man Who Laughs is more complete and more compelling as a result, but personally that feels slightly wrong. The Joker should be an enigma, with the artist behind The Killing Joke even stating that the “origin” portrayed in its’ pages perhaps should be interpreted simply as one of the possible stories the Joker’s fractured mind has coalesced around, without any weighting of truth or fact about it. Personally I feel that may be a step too far, but the ambiguity to the mythology is far more nuanced than the heavily-hinted but ultimately not confirmed origin portrayed in The Man Who Laughs.

Comparisons aside, as both are fantastic stories worthy of anyone’s attention, The Killing Joke is genuinely stunning. I was expecting that to be the case (frankly you’d be ignorant not to, given the level of critical and fan acclaim) but I was still surprised by how much the craftsmanship exceeded my expectations. The script, in particular, was stunning; Alan Moore is regarded as a master of dialogue but I think this is his finest work (that I’ve had the pleasure to read, in any case). Not a single word was out of place and both the opening line and final interplay were exacted with pin point precision that left me stunned and forced me to reread them both several times over. The phrases, puns and linguistic choices throughout were (almost) flawless. My one niggle would be the initial interaction between Batman and the fake Joker, which felt a little out of character, although I will admit that the Batman I know and love must certainly have evolved since the novel was written. Indeed, though this is a Batman story in name, Batman himself is very much a bit player. Truly, this is a story about the Joker, told by the Joker and for the Joker. That it also manages to give an insightful and poignant outline of the core relationship between the two characters only goes to further show its genius.

Personally, the artwork felt a little dated (as I would expect, given the publication date) but its tonal quality cannot be undermined. The Joker’s malevolent gang of carnival stereotypes are truly unsettling in their portrayal and the entire fun house sequence is breath-takingly executed. As I read the modern re-published edition, I can only comment on the digital colouring that was redone for that run, but I would say that the book looked fantastic. The use of colour in the flashback sequences is particularly notable, but the whole story was beautifully done. Perhaps a little garish here and there, particularly for Barbara’s initial scenes, but again a nitpick rather than a true criticism.

Finally, on the note of Barbara Gordon, I feel it wrong not to at least mention that scene. I’ve heard plenty of arguments about it, but ultimately felt it was played very well. The whole story was dark, right from the start, but the shooting of a major character in such cold blood (and so early on) made that tone concrete and gave the entire plot an anchor point. Insinuations that rape was too dark, I feel, are a little overplayed. Each person will read that scene differently and I haven’t researched whether the creators themselves have gone on record as to what happened “off page”, but to me it didn’t read as rape. Declothing her, showing her completely vulnerable and dying, just helped emphasise the Joker’s psychological tactics; jumping to the conclusion of rape occurring is out of character for the villain and also didn’t feel inherent to the script. But that’s just my two cents.

As for the other scene iconic for its ambiguity, the ending shot, I have to say it didn’t quite hit the target for me. The joke was on point, but what happens next, personally, just felt like a writer leaving it open ended because there was no way to end it. Did it work? Yes. I have no qualms with leaving the story without a definitive conclusion, indeed I think it fits nicely, but do I think Batman, there and then, strangled the Joker? No. In fact, for my own personal head canon, I see everything after the close-up of Batman’s face and “heh” dialogue as taking place in Batman’s head; the action he wants to take, feels he should take, but can’t, hence his own maniacal laughing. Perhaps it’s even the Joker’s own desire, the ending he wants, given so much of the story seems to be from his point of view rather than the readers or Batman’s. Ultimately, though, who knows? And isn’t that the whole point?

Movies

We’re The Millers

I really only decided to watch We’re The Millers to kill time; Prime has been suggesting it for a while and I remember it being in cinema without any obvious negative, so heck, why not, right? Well, as it turns out, the suggestion was spot on.

I really enjoyed We’re The Millers, which consistently exceeded expectations. The story isn’t ground breaking, but it was much tighter than I would have presumed and actually a lot more heartfelt. The initial setup, both of the plot and the core characters, is definitely a little “by the numbers”, but I was really surprised that the stereo types really ended there; definitely side characters remain nothing more than comedic over exaggerations, but the core “family” fleshes out very nicely and doesn’t just stick to tired tropes. The stripper has had bad luck in love and clearly regrets some life choices, but actually spends the entire film showing how together she really is, becoming the emotional and moral rock. The drug dealer isn’t just some low life layabout with no desire to engage with life, but a clearly intelligent individual who just became a little trapped and is still unsure of where the next step is. Basically, everyone was far less two dimensional than expected.

Then there’s the supporting cast. Nick Offerman is fantastic, making a number of “could have been awkward” scenes instead very amusing, often via his own brand of understatement (I’m looking at you, “swingers in a tent” scene) and rounded it all off with possibly the funniest action sequence I’ve seen in a long while: big gulps have never been as deadly! Plus, Ed Helms is great. His crime lord buffoon could have been hammed up to high heaven, a la Mugatu in Zoolander, but instead he tread a fine line between caricature and reality that made his character far more enjoyable.

All in all, I have to say, I was really pleasantly surprised. Not sure what they’re possibly going to do in the proposed sequel and definitely don’t think it needs to happen, but as a standalone couple of hours of fun I would recommend We’re The Millers.

Marc van Roosmalen: Adventurer Extraordinaire!

Have you ever heard of Marc van Roosmalen? No, I hadn’t either – although that is slightly less surprising for you, unless you also have a degree with a heavy focus on primatology. So who is this mysterious person? Well, he may well be one of the last, great naturalist explorers left in the world. I’ve just been introduced to his work, thanks to the ever informative Tetrapod Zoology blog, but he’s been around for quite some time. Indeed, you’d have to have been to have named 11 new species of mammal, plus have started active investigation/research into over a dozen more (not to count any plants discovered…)!

Honestly, the reality may not be all that it seems, especially if his Wikipedia entry is at all accurate, but regardless I feel Roosmalen may be a person I should keep an eye on. With a tapir, a titi monkey and a tree porcupine under his belt, Marc is definitely contributing to the discovery and knowledge of several of my favourite animal groups, so I’m excited to see what more he uncovers in the future!

Plus, this has reminded me that I really do need to write about Darren Naish’s recent ebook, Hunting Monsters. I feel that Roosmalen is a prime example of a real world cryptozoologist, of the sort that should be held aloft and waved around whilst proponents of the science (such as myself) scream “stop watching In Search of Bigfoot and start looking over here before you lump us all together with the nutjobs!”
But that’s a story for a different time…

Apple vs PC: Lightroom Benchtests

Just stumbled onto a recent analysis of the current generation, top end iMac (2016) and an equivalent cost (~$4,000) custom built PC, pitched head-to-head in a selection of Lightroom tasks such as photo merges, importing files and on-the-fly thumbnail creation. You can read the full break down here, but the general gist probably shouldn’t come as any surprise: the PC won, categorically, across all tests.

To be clear, this was a relatively unscientific, simplistic set of tests that purely focused on the minimum time required to complete a task, but given that time wasted is arguably the greatest commonly felt issue with post processing, I also think it represents a valid and fair test. I would have liked to see basic system usage stats also recorded alongside, however, as it’s one thing to argue that the PC is faster, but if it’s also unusable whilst performing the task, personally, that would be more irritating. It also doesn’t look at multi-threading (another big time saver) or any similar multi-tasking, which I would be intrigued to analyse. I’d still predict that the PC would outperform the iMac on both counts, but I imagine the difference would be less drastic.

I’d also like to see a similar comparison run on more budget friendly models (although I imagine this would fare even worse for the Mac) and on similar laptops, the one category I would assume the Mac(book) to take the prize in. All that said, I’ll still argue that Mac’s are often a more useable tool for a photographer, simply due to the wealth of software available and build quality, however personally this article just highlights that they remain entirely too expensive an investment for the return.

Microsculpture aka Beautiful Bugs

 

So this looks pretty awesome: Microsculpture, a new exhibition on at Oxford University Natural History Museum (27th May until October 2016). Basically take some amazing insects, photograph them using high end, microscopy lenses and combine the literally thousands of resultant images back into one, hugely detailed composite. Then blow it up to a few meters across using high end printing and stick it on display. Yes please!

Micropubawhoozits! Am I right?!

I’d really love to get micropublishing up and running on theAdhocracy. I’ve recently started dabbling in Flickr and it would be great to upload here and automatically have my photo’s fired over there; I’d also definitely get way more out of Twitter if I felt like small “thoughts” thrown up here could just get flung out as a tweet. I love the core concept as well, keeping control of your content and protecting against potential future service outages or (god forbid) full on closures.

So every time I read about the an Indiewebcamp or someone like Jeremy Keith throws up another interesting insight into their own methodologies and progress, I get excited. I want to start trying stuff out, so I start Googling. I pretty much always end up back here, at the main site for Indiewebcamp itself. And then I hit a wall.

Reading through the wiki page regarding Micropub is equivalent to reading through the pilots manual for the Millenium Falcon. I understand that the ultimate end result of my grasping this knowledge can only lead to awesome future adventures, but honestly it may as well be written in Xhosa. I get a headache, I close the tab and I go do something else, defeated once again.

One day I will actually spend a weekend getting my head around this. Much like learning to fly the Falcon (I wish), this is something I will continue to get excited for and, ultimately, that excitement will result in learning actually happening. But I do feel my frustration is warranted, and I feel that’s a great shame. The idea of the indie web is, to use Jeremy Keith’s own words:

about having your own place on the web so that you have control over what you put out in the world.

It’s just a shame that understanding the how is quite so buried under a whole raft of new terminology, much of which is needlessly obfuscated in its naming (I mean, what exactly is an h-card? What does that actually mean?). Maybe, in the future, once I’ve bent my own understanding around all the h-names, microgizmos and selfdogtreats out there I’ll find the time to right down some plainer, simpler instructions for others in the same situation. Then again, maybe there is some internal logic and once it “clicks” I’ll never think twice about it again. Only time will tell.

Earth Day Octo-Doodle

Stylish neon drawing of octopus with tentacles and coral spelling out Google

Earth Day Octo-Google

It’s Earth Day and what better way to celebrate than with a beautiful Google Doodle of an octopus! I like to think it may be a certain Kiwi octopod enjoying hard won freedom 😀 Either way it’s beautiful.