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The One

While I’m still waiting for that billionaire prince who takes me to Las Vegas, New York and all around the world to see great shows, I of course have to make do with what I have in front of me here in Germany and aside from the Cirque du Soleil occasionally popping by and many smaller entertainment shows that’s not much. The one thing that stands out like a shiny tower in the middle of the desert is the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin, one of what we call “Erich (Honecker) ‘s good deeds” back from the days of the GDR. Built to the newest standards back then as the largest open stage in Europe, it somehow survived all the turbulences of the great turnover and after some dire years in the 1990s things turned around in the early 2000s, when they started creating their own resident shows.

I always wanted to go and see those shows, but as is typical, for one reason or another I always missed out, so this has been on my bucket list for forever. Conversely, my mom always wanted to go as well, but when she was still working as a teacher the timing never worked out and when she went into retirement, we had all this trouble with my dad, so it took us just that much longer to work things out. At long last we went this Saturday and while I never had much doubt that I would enjoy it in some way, The One turned out much better than I had anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised. Mind you, it’s still not Cirque du Soleil, but highly enjoyable.

Structured around the old trope of somebody’s dream serving as the framework of the show there is of course not much in the way of a linear narrative, but you still kinda get what it’s about. They didn’t need to hammer it home by explaining it all too much in a spoken voiceover during the intro, IMO. Once the show starts, time flies by quickly, which is alway’s a good thing. If you are not speaking German, though, that may be a bit different, since naturally some of the songs are not in English and you may not understand what they are about. For my taste the singers were a bit underused, considering that in many Cirque shows there’s often a permanent chorus, so there’s room to improve on that. I wasn’t too convinced by Roman Lob‘s performance, which sounded very much like “your average musical singer guy”, but Brigitte Oelke as the aging diva was great.

The musical performances are helped by a sizable live orchestra, something which is becoming rarer and rarer because many shows aren’t willing to afford the cost. This is also where the size of the stage pays off. It’s very deep (to the point where you could literally build a palace inside the Palast) and the musicians have plenty of room at the back of the stage, with only the wind instruments having been put in a separate room at the side of the stage (to better control their volume and overall sound, presumably).

The artistic performances were a bit of a mixed bag, being that the larger groups of course were represented by dancers with some additional training, which limits what they are able to do. The solo performances by “real” acrobats on the other hand were quite good and caused a lot of cheering, with the cyr wheel and trapeze acts enawing the crowd in particular. There was also quite some rigging and wire work with people and set pieces going up and down and appearing in unexpected locations, which goes to show the advantages of a resident show with stationary equipment perfectly finetuned to the needs of the performances.

The marketing makes quite a bit of Jean-Paul Gaultier‘s costume designs, but to be honest it’s not really that much that’s standing out. It’s more or less a “best of” collection, from Madonna‘s cone bra making an appearance to a lot of fetish- and BDSM-inspired shapes and materials. I would argue that a halfway talented fashion student could have copycatted it without the maestro himself being involved at all.

Overall, though, this is worth your time and your money. It’s only still running to 5th of July, but if you are in Berlin on a day with bad weather this could be a good way of killing some time. I’m already looking forward to the new show Vivid and definitely have plans to go see it one day. Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long as it did to even get started with this…

The fat Lady sang…

…and she won! Yupp, the chubby girl with her chicken imitation took home the prize and next year’s Eurovision Song Contest will once more be in Israel, pretty much exactly twenty years after Dana International. That could be fun, but it doesn’t change the fact that the song wasn’t particularly good and it seems to me that it was pandering a bit too obviously for the #MeToo movement with some cheap, crude lyrics. One has to be thankful for little things, though. At least this spared us from Norway‘s and Sweden‘s umpteenth attempts to manipulate viewers’ opinions with their shitty mainstream-optimized, smoothed-over radio music fare. Talk about nepotism! Geez, they should introduce rules to prevent that! It also saved us from many a poor singing like the one with that Lithuanian lady. Girl just can’t sing!

As far as personal favorites go, though, it would be hard to mention any. Naturally I’m pleased that our own German contest entry was well-liked and scored heavily, even if I find the song just slightly annoying as well. Others could be deserving of similar observations, be that Denmark with their well-sung, but poorly presented Viking-ish chants, Italy with their politically flavored song, France with something similar or even that weird opera singer from Estland. All of them are kinda enjoyable when you hear them, but you wouldn’t necessarily remember them five minutes later, much less do they compel you to dig deeper into the artists’ work. It seems we have come to a point where the ESC is almost too perfect for its own good and memorable songs and performances are barely to be found.

Even the surrounding show was less than memorable this time, with only Salvador Sobral‘s presentation sticking out. He clearly didn’t care much for the trappings of the Eurovision show and if he had his way, would probably have jammed out all evening on the stage. ;-) The four lady presenters were struggling with language a bit too much on occasion, which made the interludes painful to watch. Interviews can be really awkward when both sides don’t communicate in their native language and even simple attempts at humor tend to be misfires. What also rubbed me thew wrong way is that despite all optimizations on the voting procedures and a strict show schedule the event seems to be getting longer and longer. I’m really having more and more of a tough time to stay awake for so long and probably will feel the effects for the rest of the week and try to compensate my lack of sleep…

Bad got even worse (again)!

Yupp, exactly what you would expect: It’s NAB, it’s Adobe, it’s the latest After Effects update being totally screwy. You have to hand it to them – if there was an award for “Most reliably predictable mess-up with every new version”, Adobe‘s video division in Seattle would have an entire showcase full of them. I really, really would love to write something positive, but one can really only wish them to shove it up their collective fat and lazy asses. Need proof? Here goes!

With the demise of Quicktime they have now fully switched to custom PNG handling code and – surprise, surprise – suddenly a lot of people are unable to import their sequences in that format. Similar observations seem to apply to items that are dependent on Camera Raw and Lumetri due to changes in their features.

The new Master Properties mess with the renderer not just when they are actually used, but seemingly even with mundane stuff and the crooked logic of this whole system drawing ghost images of other layers/ comps. Supposedly this is only to happen when re-using the same nested comp over and over with different tweaks, but alas, here we are.

If you ask me, this was bound to blow up in their face, anyway. Since it seems that these days their Beta testing force seems to consist of like five people, it was inevitable that only hours after release a user in the wild would come up with a way of totally breaking the upstream/ downstream inheritance logic. It makes you wonder why they even bother with such stupid features, as clearly it isn’t the much-requested “edit nested comps in the parent comp timeline” thing, either.

Looks like they already got themselves in a pinch by making everything dependent on the Essential Graphics panel (and the expression-based linking it uses) and with more and more features being dumped onto this ailing infrastructure, the more convoluted and error prone things can only get. but i told you that a hundred times already, so I won’t bore you with my gloating.

They also pimped the Puppet tool, but that seems so wrong, too. I never quite understood why people even attempt to use it for tasks it never was meant for. It always seemed that after the initial release most users simply forgot about all the other distortion effects and used Puppet even when it was possibly the worst solution to their problem. Will better interpolation and smoother motion help? Sure, but wouldn’t it make just as much sense to finally update Bezier Warp, Mesh Warp and a few other effects? Oh my!

As should be clear by now, this is yet another release full of bugs, quirks and neglected features in desperate need of renovation…

VR is dead (again) already, you just don’t know it yet!

Over the last few days I’ve read a lot of articles over the “transformative powers of virtual reality” and similarly fancy-sounding gobbledegook in the wake of the upcoming/ just released (depending where you live) Ready Player One movie. The whole thing is just ridiculous on so many levels, but offers the perfect opportunity for a reality check on the state of VR, regardless.

It’s just a Movie

The biggest misconception is that people don’t seem to grasp the concept of movies (and in this case the book it is based on) being works of fiction. Even though the novel is pretty recent, it ultimately portrays a possibly dated, but definitely romanticized version of what VR can do and achieve and how it might work, based on the understanding of a writer. No matter how feasible the scenarios and technologies displayed in it may seem, based thereon any predictions on when and if they come to pass in the real world are as sensible as asking your 85-year-old grandma about what next year’s hot mobile app is going to be.

Here this is even more critical because the novel tugs heavily on our heart-strings with nostalgia. Some German reviews nailed it perfectly: It’s a crazy race through video games pop-culture, but nothing more. One also asked the almost philosophical question of whether you would actually want to live inside such a virtual world for an extended period of time or permanently and the overall conclusion seems to be a pretty firm “No!”. Also you need to figure in the additional soft-washing by Steven Spielberg in the movie, and you know how “realistic” this possibly is.

For better or worse it simply is a world someone may have dreamed up, not how it is necessarily going to be or how it would “work” to add something to people’s lives. Technology in movies just like fashion and hair styles ages badly, anyway. We all know that when we laugh about stuff in films that ten years ago we thought were the coolest thing on Earth. Nokia phones anyone? I’m sure we’ll giggle just as heard over those ski-goggles in the movie (and the movie itself) one day, which brings me to the next point.

Technology Issues

Yepp, you’re gonna hate me, but to me VR is just another technology rat race. The harsh truth of the matter is that enough is never enough. At the moment dealing with VR content is more than a royal pain in the rear, both in production and delivery/ playback.

The first element in this chain of failure pretty obviously is the actual display resolution. 4k and 8k resolutions may sound impressive for that new flat screen you just bought, but but once you wrap those many pixels into a sphere or cylinder, it still looks a lot less than 720p HD even. Those resolution issues alone could suffice to explain why most VR experiences are pretty *meh*. Add to that a ton of other technical issues like those pesky lens distortions and you begin to wonder why anyone would even put up with this stuff – both for production and suffering through the unpleasurable viewing experience.

Of course you need to figure in even more things. So far nobody really has cracked navigation and spatial orientation in a way that would prevent headaches and nausea. There’s more mundane side effects like your eyes turning sore and itchy when staring too long at those screens glued in front of your eyes, your hearing being impaired under those helmets and ear muffs, spatial audio mapping and so on down to the almost too trivial to mention issues like physical safety as in not bumping your head and knees into your living room furniture.

Consumer Unfriendliness

What’s pretty aggravating is that companies despite being fully aware of the shortcomings of their VR devices and solutions, manufacturers/ vendors seem to expect the customers to pay for everything. Now of course one could argue that “early adaptors”, depending on how you see it, were either always the ones that got shafted or the ones that helped technologies on their feet by financing the initial cost. Yet, at least they got something out of it in return. With VR that seems a quite different thing because the old chicken vs. egg paradox is particularly prominent here. You can cook up the nicest stuff on your computer, but you have no good way of getting it out there and let people experience it in the same way you may have intended.

Strangely, it somehow always boils down to current VR devices being either way too expensive and too unwieldy or on the other hand just cheap “fun” toys that only half work or are seriously underpowered. In the first category you have things like the Oculus headsets of course, in the other things like for instance Samsung‘s Gear VR. If that wasn’t bad enough, the real kicker is of course that on their own those devices don’t do anything and they need to be fed by a beefy computer, a PlayStation or your smartphone plus possibly a ton of other peripherals. As a result, your VR experience can vary hugely and range from pretty cool to downright awful. It simply depends way too much on how much you are able to afford and invest.

And it doesn’t end there. Remember how Oculus made their stuff (temporarily) useless with a botched update just two weeks ago? How the heck are you supposed to get a reliable, enjoyable experience that way? I mean you have that ugly two thousand dollar helmet and then it suddenly becomes just a piece of trash because the company who sold it to you messed up big time? Such experiences certainly don’t instill confidence and will make people think twice, assuming the actually can get over the fact that they have to wear those conkers. It’s funny how people always refuse to wear bicycle helmets, but totally don’t mind looking like idiots with VR gear on.

So for what it’s worth, until someone can tell me that you can pack all this stuff in a simple box that can be put in your pockets, connected to simple, elegant glasses and at the price of an iPod, I’m not buying it – literally and figuratively. I’m not saying that it won’t be this way some time in the future, but currently we are far, far, far away from that point.

Bad Timing

Yes, there’s another wrench being thrown into the gears of VR at the moment and that is simple market demand for graphics chips. You could call it sheer coincidence, you could call it fate, you could call it bad timing, but as it stands, people apparently have found better, more profitable uses for GPUs rather than feeding their VR devices with pixels. Mining cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence and deep learning or even basic cloud computing powered with graphics hardware have become all the rage and as a result of those use cases essentially sucking the market dry, prices for cards from nVidia and AMD are soaring to new heights despite those companies maxing out their manufacturing capacities.

It’s so crazy that some models are constantly sold out and you sometimes have to wait for months to get your hands on the card you want. Should you then be so lucky you may in fact have to pay a higher price than on the initial release date even for older cards. The old rule of prices dropping every quarter after release no longer is valid, at least for those cards that qualify for those uses, which coincidentally also are the ones you would need to bolster VR. And this isn’t going to change any time soon. There is simply no way in hell for those cheap, yet powerful devices that VR so desperately needs to become available. It’s simply not lucrative. You could even expand this as e.g. nVidia is surely having a good time selling their Tegra chips for Nintendo‘s Switch console just as well.

Lack of (good) Content

One thing that totally rubs me the wrong way is the piss-poor quality of a good chunk of all VR. Especially when it comes to the “cinematic” variety, i.e. pre-recorded clips and presentations, there’s just so much wrong. We don’t even need to discuss the millions of sloppily done “let’s replace our regular camera with a VR one” clips, but also elaborately produced documentaries, music clips and so on all too often just totally miss the mark. It always seems to me people are way to busy shoving down the VR aspect everyone’s throat instead of focusing on telling their story. Yes, show pieces in the worst meaning of the word.

What a lot of creators don’t seem to understand that any VR piece by its nature is an experience-driven medium, not a narrative one. The user simply has way too many possibilities to evade your intended form of interaction and storytelling or misses out on it inadvertently. Basically there’s usually two ways this pans out: A sparsely designed experience will bore people to death and just at the moment they may veer off to find something else to explore, they’ll miss that single important moment that you intended to be the core of your VR experience. The other way around there’s a lot of overstuffed productions under the (wrong) assumption that there always needs to be something for your viewers to always have something to look at no matter where they turn. As a result, those viewers still may miss what was supposed to be the most important bits plus it results in a nauseating overflow of every sensory channel.

And what about interactive content? Games to the rescue? Unfortunately not. So far it’s like there’s only one or two VR-enabled games trickling out every month and a lot of them are short and convoluted, more acting like a tech demo. The rest are adapted versions of existing games with the games companies seemingly only doing the bare minimum of extra work – replacing the renderer/ virtual camera model and remapping inputs. They are of course fully within their rights – with for example 2 million units of the PlayStation VR having been sold vs. at least 50 million actual PS 4 consoles it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out how many games are actually played this way.

What is even more discouraging and confounding is that companies who have been riding the VR train for a while are already jumping off again and shutting down their games for economic reasons. A good example for this is Eve Valkyrie. A space flight simulator with full head movement is one of the most obvious and sensible uses for VR helmets I can think of, yet people aren’t even into that? Imagine how unattractive games tens of times less immersive than this then must be. It’s a bust!

Nobody really wants VR

With all the endless issues, it simply seems nobody really wants VR. Wait – of course the people making a buck from selling this stuff want it – but that’s about it. Otherwise adoption rates are more or less negligible and people don’t seem to have the least bit of desire to enter ridiculous virtual chat systems, explore tourist attractions from their sofa or for that matter get seasick while playing their games.

To me it looks like yet another phase we seem to be going through like every few years and because it is being pushed by “the industry” rather than evolving organically, it ultimately going nowhere. We all know what happened to the stereoscopic 3D TV fad, don’t we? Same story all over again. everyone is just wasting their time, energy, resources and money on something that will be forgotten again a few years down the road…

 

 

Modo, you suck!

It used to be that I was a big fan of Modo, but over the last few versions that enthusiasm has waned to the point of a freezing zero. With the latest version 12 announcement coinciding with NAB as usual I’m even more convinced I would never buy an upgrade even if I wasn’t in this shitty health situation and had the money. But wait? Buy an upgrade? That isn’t even possible now since they have moved fully to an annual maintenance/ subscription model. Good job of shutting out the last hobbyist who just want’s to create a few assets for his little free game or model his dream car! I’m sure the Blender community will see another bump of frustrated users moving over.

With regards to features there’s almost nothing there that I would use. It seems these days they are too busy trying to cater for realtime content creation (and boosting their own content marketplace) rather than trying to keep conventional 3D customers happy. It’s particularly disappointing to see that the procedural tool set is not showing any real progress and looks just as clunky and inefficient to use as way back then in v9. Other parts like the particle simulation haven’t received any significant improvements in a while, either…

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S.N.A.F.U. Time!

Ah, good times! Being the nasty little gnome that I am it gives me some weird pleasure to report two quite noticeable fuck-ups this week.

First, the one you probably haven’t even heard about yet – Lytro is finally doing everyone a favor closing its doors for good. Of course they make it sound all positive on their own blog, but the simple truth is that nobody wanted their half-baked product(s). If in a day and age where movies easily cost 200 millions to make nobody could be bothered to buy their super-expensive Lytro cinema camera then this speaks louder than any of their fancy marketing talk. Where did they fail? The obvious and equally simple answer is: price. Yupp, they apparently couldn’t find a way to fabricate their expensive sensors at a cost that would be compatible with mass markets. Sounds familiar? Yes, exactly, that’s what’s going to happen to all that VR nonsense in a few years, too. Unless something miraculous happens and someone comes up with a 100 dollar independent VR set that doesn’t require a PlayStation or a beefy computer, a few years down the road we’ll probably be talking about the shutdown of Oculus et al just the same.

The other S.N.A.F.U. that makes a lot more waves and has everyone talking is Adobe giving Muse the bullet. Aside from the fact that for a company active in the media industry they are really shitty communicators when it comes to their own policies, the actual hang-up here is how a lot of people feel left out in the cold. This is of course a multi-faceted issue with a lot of things being good and bad at the same time. One of those is for example that it allowed users to create websites visually, but at the same time many of those users probably should have found other hobbies. I could of course go on endlessly about issues with code generation, technical issues or the program never being able to do certain things despite a shit ton of widgets and third-party services built around it, too.

Ultimately, and I guess now I’m getting near a point, those are factors that only make it logical that eventually the product would get axed and all the petitions in the world to keep it alive won’t changed that. Yes, static web pages are a thing out of time and as Adobe say in their own FAQ, services like Wix, Jimdo and even WordPress do a pretty decent job of offering website hosting without having ever to get your hands dirty. Are they perfect? Far from it, but honestly, I often wondered why people who merely needed a simple info page for their small business even bothered with Muse. I’m far from being a sophisticated web designer and only put up with such stuff to help out people I know, but even I always try to talk people out of the complications of running their own sites and refer them to those services.

Another thing that people also need to get into their heads is that web design is not necessarily financially lucrative these days. Unless you yourself can offer specific services, run your own servers or continually update a web page, you don’t make much money by just designing it once. there’s a stiff competition out there, which funny enough includes many of those pre-hosted services. That’s a harsh truth many Muse advocates also need to come to grips with – you couldn’t expect Adobe to basically let your web page run forever basically for free with the stuff included in Creative Cloud and at the same time complain about pricing, lack of features or competitors offering better service. You simply can#t have it both ways.

With all that said, not all is lost. Reading between the lines adobe obviously have a plan for being a part of the web design community, it’s just not clear what this is going to be. With Dreamweaver having been on a steady decline, too, due to its outdated technological basis they may take the chance to create a completely new web design program, amalgamating features from Muse and DW, but then again they could just as well on a completely new web service. Either way, it’s probably safe to say that Muse is dead for good and people should leave it at that. You know, it’s al labout business and Adobe are not going to change their mind…

The (Haw)King is dead…

By now no doubt everyone has heard of Stephen Hawking‘s passing and for the last few days I have been pondering on what this meant to me as sort of a nerd with an interest in exotic physics.

Unfortunately, the first things that always came to my mind aside from his cameo in one of the Star Trek – TNG episodes was a slew of godawful movies about his life, from Eddie Redmayne‘s typical terrible overacting in The Theory of Everything to lesser know productions that have been dusted off from the archives and ran in late night programming on TV ever since the news hit us. Likewise, the mere thought of Mr. Hawking ever having appeared in the abomination that is The Big Bang Theory made me shudder once again. Just plain creepy. Then I remembered some of his older interviews that showed his true funny bones, which made me feel a bit better. It’s endearing and oddly charming in a way.

Another thing I realized when watching the endless re-runs of cosmology and particle physics documentaries in his honor is how one-sided it all was/ is. There can be no doubt that he was one of the greatest minds of this century, but like people forget that like Einstein thought quantum physics were nonsense at first, Hawking way too often was unaccepting of other scientists’ achievements in his field. It took him forever to even accept the idea of dark matter, much less fully embrace it. So say what you will, like all geniuses he certainly had his dark side, too.

Regardless, there can be no denying that his body of work has changed our perception of some things forever and I’d imagine in the next few years we’ll hear about one or the other surprise when people dig through his unpublished works. Personally I never shared his “Humankind needs to go to space to survive.” views, though, strange as this may seem for a sci-fi person. There’s so much too fix on this little blue ball still… That said, it sure would have been interesting to hear his opinions on some of these things. With the James Webb Space Telescope about to be launched (if and whenever that may actually finally happen) and on the verge of other breakthrough discoveries I’m sure he would have had to say a lot about it and, which ultimately is his greatest achievement, in a way that we pea brains can understand it. He will be missed!

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