Man of Steel

SPOILERS: The below contains major spoilers, so don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film!

Last night I finally got around to watching Man of Steel. It’s been something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, but after some pretty lacklustre reviews (and a housemate declaring it to be “the worst film [he’d] ever paid to see”), I hadn’t treated it as a priority.

Being a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work, I desperately wanted the Superman reboot to be a success. It was alway going to be a tricky one to get right – gone are the days when Superman could declare he would fight for “truth, justice, and the American way” without being ridiculed by audiences, and the film acknowledges this – for a start he’s no longer wearing his underwear over his trousers. There are references to the old version of the character, such as leaping over mountains, but the name “Superman” isn’t even referenced until the last 30 minutes of the film.

With so many changes, you’d have thought director Zack Snyder had been given enough flexibility to avoid any disastrous clichés, and for the most part that’s true. The script is broadly believable (save for Michael Shannon repeatedly yelling “I will find him!”*), even if the story feels a little simplistic at times.

A lot of people speculated before the film was released that if it was good Christopher Nolan would be credited with it’s success, while any failure would be blamed on Zack Snyder. Most critics then promptly tried to dodge this by saying it wasn’t a badly directed film, and I’d agree that the story needed more. But after 150 minutes of things blowing up, I find it difficult not to attribute the bulk of the problems to direction, cinematography and editing.

There are two main issues. The first is film length. The film opens with all sorts of sci-fi explosions on Krypton, and although Zod and Jor-El turn-up, there’s no Superman yet (technically he is there, but given he’s just been born I wasn’t expecting him to deliver any lines). The cold-open with the protagonist’s parents is exactly what was done in Star Trek (2009), but that rather neatly sums up the problem – Star Trek took 11 minutes for that opening sequence, while Man of Steel takes nearly twice as long to show what’s happening to Clark Kent. There’s no need for the film to be nearly 2hr 30m.

The other issue is just how much time is spent showing things that blow up. The Director of Photography was Amir Mokri, who previously worked on Bad Boys II and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and the action sequences feel very similar to Michael Bay’s work. The final fight sequence (which probably shouldn’t have been shot) is very similar to the fight sequence in The Matrix Revolutions – two super-humans capable of flight beat the living daylights out of each other while causing all sorts of destruction and mayhem. Hot Fuzz mocked this style of false-endings and multiple fights, but apparently the satire has gone unnoticed.

There is also a massive planet-sized plot hole (spoilers ahoy!) – if Zod wanted a planet to colonise and knew Superman wanted to protect humans, why on earth didn’t he pick another planet? The whole last 45 minutes of film could have been avoided with the words: “Well I actually quite like these humans given they raised me in the first place, but I’d be happy to help if you want to colonise Mars. The humans have been wanting to do that for ages but can’t get the hang of it, so if you tell us how it’s done and let us watch we can help with supplies while you’re getting set-up.” There’s genuinely no reason for Zod not to take this offer up, but he’s hell-bent on terraforming earth because he’s Generically Evil.

Even having watched it and with all the above faults, I still want to like Man of Steel. There are no bad performances, Henry Cavill is perfectly believable as Superman (although he doesn’t really get a chance to play Clark Kent, and the underlying issues of family and origins had the potential to be interesting. The problem is that everything feels under-utilised, and content is replaced with huge explosions and fancy graphics.

I’m now less pessimistic about the upcoming Superman vs Batman film now that I’ve seen Man of Steel. Once Zod has been dealt with there’s less of an excuse for levelling half of Metropolis, so perhaps everything will calm down and the next film will be the intelligent and thoughtful production everyone was hoping for. But I can’t help but think they’ll find an excuse anyway.

 

  • Hilariously, Wikipedia describes this as “Zod then cryptically warns Jor-El’s widow that he will find her son”. There’s very little cryptic about a man screaming “I will find him” over and over again.

Steam OS

After something of a quiet period, Valve are back with some interesting product launches. On Monday they announced Steam OS – a complete free-to-download operating system which will be optimised for their games and open source. This was followed by yesterday’s announcement of the anticipated Steam Machines (often previously referred to as the Steam Box) – a series of PCs with Steam OS already installed. There’s one more announcement due tomorrow, but given the first two crashed Valve’s website now seems like a good time to think about what they’ve said so far.

I suspect Steam OS will be the closest Linux* – and indeed any open source operating system – gets to mainstream desktop usage for some time. Every so often (usually around a major Windows revision) small crowds of Linux users declare “this will be the year Linux goes mainstream”, and to be fair, it’s had a lot of success. Android is Linux-based, a vast number of servers use Linux (including this one), and Ubuntu seems to be on a permanent upward trend.

Valve want to encourage people to mess around with the code and see what they come up with. Releasing the code base is a pretty bold move, and completely separates them from the console market. They already know what people are capable of having seen the effect of mods on their own games – Counter-Strike has made a vast amount of money and began life as a mod. The fact they’ve extended this to hardware is where things get a little more interesting – a return to the philosophy of Steve Wozniak in allowing and even encouraging people to hack their hardware and add to it. To quote Valve’s FAQ:

Can I hack this box? Run another OS? Change the hardware? Install my own software? Use it to build a robot?
Sure.

However much I’m interested in the prospect of an openly modifiable gaming OS and accompanying PC, I can’t help but feel the whole thing rests on price point. Here’s a quick estimate of prices I found on Amazon for comparison:

  • Playstation 4: £350
  • Wii U: £250
  • XBox One: £450
  • Desktop PC (first search result): £390

If Valve can do it for less than a Playstation 4, they’ll be sorted, but they’ll have a hard time convincing people that they need a PC designed just for gaming if it costs much more than an average desktop. Valve say there will be a range of Steam Machines to choose from at different price points to try and accommodate everyone, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see both.

There’s one announcement left. As much as I really want this to be Half-Life 3 (oh please oh please oh please), it’s looking increasingly like the other theories will prove correct and it will be a new controller. Valve have talked before about measuring biometrics such as heart rate to feed back into a game (if your pulse rate goes up in a zombie game, the developer can change the scenario accordingly), and I can see how this would make for better games, but it will be much easier to sell the idea to developers than to gamers.

Valve clearly want to massively change the gaming industry, and they might well just do that. Steam has already done so for the PC gaming market, although it’s worth remembering how hated Steam was at first. The announcements are impressive, but there’s a lot of marketing for Valve to do.

* I include Ubuntu in this – yes, I know it’s Debian rather than pure Linux!

A new domain

You might have noticed a slight change to the site: specifically the name and domain. It was about time I changed the old cunningtitle.com to something a little more relevant, and given I’m now doing much more tech (now working as a PHP Developer), this seemed more appropriate. So, without further ado, welcome to hashtagwebscale.com

For anyone wanting to know what on earth the webscale thing is about: I refer tech-minded folk to http://mongodb-is-web-scale.com/ (apologies for the less-than-savoury language).

For those less tech-minded: “webscale” is the notion of a technology being able to handle traffic with relative ease, without collapsing under the sheer weight of users. It’s become something of a catchphrase in some circles, to the point where people sometimes ignore other considerations. The hashtag thing is Twitter’s fault.

So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

A few months ago I received an email from a friend covering what he’d been up to over the course of 2012, and making a few recommendations. Amongst these suggestions was the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport – a book that takes a very different stance when it comes to choosing a career path.

The basic premise is that while the advice “find your passion” is extremely prevalent, it isn’t necessarily accurate. Through various examples and interviews, Newport sets about demonstrating where “finding a passion” has caused problems for people and on occasion doomed their projects to failure. He concludes that skills are much more important, and that success is much more likely to come from building up a very specific (and possibly narrow) set of abilities rather than being passionate.

Amongst the various examples he cites are Steve Jobs and Thomas. Steve Jobs famously delivered a commencement address to Stanford University advising graduates to “do what you love”, and referring to his time at university taking classes that interested him. His interest in Buddhism was well documented, so Cal Newport’s reference to Thomas – a man who decided to follow his passion and become a monk – seems even more appropriate. Thomas discovered that following his passion wasn’t enough and became disillusioned with his plans, eventually returning to working in finance. It’s worth bearing in mind that despite Steve Jobs’s advice, he didn’t dedicate his whole life to what he was passionate about, and instead focussed on founding Apple Computers. He may well have loved his job, but running a business couldn’t have been described as his passion.

I thoroughly recommend Cal Newport’s book – it’s an incredibly interesting read even from the perspective of changing how you work, as he goes into detail about how to develop a set of skills.

XKCD: What happens when coders want to read a comic

If you keep up with XKCD (described by its creator, Randall Munroe, as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”), you might have seen the comic posted on Monday entitled Time. It initially showed a pair of people sitting on the beach, but half-an-hour later had changed slightly. Thirty minutes later, it had changed again, with one of the characters lying down. As the day progressed, so did the comic – by yesterday evening the characters had built a sandcastle.

At this point several (myself included) might have assumed the comic was over, but the picture then zoomed out over the next few hours to reveal a second sandcastle being built. At the time of writing this post, the comic is still changing and is on its 178th version).

Although the concept is interesting, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the way those reading XKCD have reacted to the comic. One reader developed a system for recording each change and scrolling through them, while others found methods to compile them into a single animated .gif image.

It does show that often when those with a technical ability want something done, they may well find a way to do it themselves, to the benefit of anyone else interested. Something as simple as a changing webcomic has resulted in a few different tools for viewing it in just a few days.

Recipe: Toffee Crunch Ice Cream

With the introduction of a Magimix to our kitchen, I’ve found myself doing a lot more cooking. The vast majority of recipes are courtesy of phone calls or emails home (to that endless resource of cooking advice: Mum), including the below recipe for Toffee Crunch Ice Cream. You don’t need an ice cream maker or anything, although an electric whisk helps, as does an egg separator – something I’m starting to think every kitchen should have but is surprisingly difficult to find. I started making this in January and have been asked for the recipe several times already. Since I can’t seem to find it anywhere online, I thought it might not be a bad idea to publish it here.

 

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 6 Cadbury’s Fudge Bars (or similar)
  • 4 Daim Bars (or similar)
  • 500g ready made custard
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 284ml (10fl oz) double cream

Recipe

  1. Thinly slice the fudge bars into a bowl and add 2 tablespoons of double cream. Melt slowly over simmering water. It helps to stir from time to time, as this tends to take a while! You can leave it to melt while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, but keep an eye on it.
  2. Break the Daim bars into small pieces using a sharp knife
  3. Separate the eggs, mixing the yolks and icing sugar together until they form a pale mousse
  4. Whip remaining cream and egg whites in separate bowls until they both form soft peaks.
  5. Fold together whipped cream, custard, yolk mixture, fudge bar mixture and Daim bars. Finally fold in egg whites.
  6. Pour into freezer-proof container and leave overnight. You’ll need to take it out of the freezer about 40 minutes before serving.

On Demand: The Need for Immediacy and the Digital Media Market

The band AC/DC have finally released their recordings on iTunes. They initially argued that their albums should not be available as individual songs, but should be listened to as complete pieces of work.

This is a view I can sympathise with – I was never particularly fussed by the Beatles until my Dad played the entirety of Abbey Road, when it suddenly all made sense. There certainly seems to be a subtle art to the ordering of tracks – had What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) opened with Don’t Look Back in Anger and followed it with Champagne Supernova, I suspect neither song would have been quite as popular.

But AC/DC’s change of heart is almost certainly due to commercial pressures. Despite all suggestions to the contrary, the now-DRM-free music of iTunes and Amazon is making huge amounts of money. Manufacturing costs are almost eliminated by the process, and the downloads are both immediate and cheap. The industry initially insisted on DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to ensure only certain devices were capable of playing a song – an effort to prevent piracy that, like many things in technology, was ultimately doomed by how often users were able to work around the restrictions imposed on them.

Head of Valve Software Gabe Newell once commented that piracy isn’t a price issue – it’s a service issue. He theorised that if the service was made as simple as possible with as little restriction as possible, customers were more than happy to pay for content. Whether or not it was free was not nearly as significant as how constrained the user might be, or whether the product was immediately available.

This is, in part, the cause behind Apple’s success with iTunes. Not only have they put a music store on every computer, but also on every iPad, iPhone and iPod. You can be sat on a train and decide to listen to that song you still have “on the brain”, and download it immediately.

And now, you can even download Back in Black.

The same has not yet been true of the film industry. Interestingly, the birth of digital music downloads coincided with the peak of physical formats. At 700Mb each, a CD can easily contain the information needed for an album at a reasonable quality, and double albums are rare enough that there was never a need to produce a new format.

The movie industry does not appear to have quite reached the same limit. Manufacturers constantly strive to improve the image quality, with both HD and BluRay being embraced by filmmakers. Further experiments such as 3D are ongoing, as the industry explores the question of “what’s next?” and how to best tackle piracy. We may not see any significant shift until the industry feels it is running out of options.

I’m intrigued by Mark Kermode’s suggestion that films should simply be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, and in a downloadable format. This again leans towards resolving ease-of-use for the customer. Given how well this has worked out for the music industry, I can’t help but wonder if this might be the solution.

Edit-in-Place with jQuery

I’ve just released a very simple JavaScript file via GitHub which provides the basis of a Flickr-style “edit-in-place” (i.e. you hover over the item, it turns yellow, you click and it is replaced with a form without you leaving the page). The file relies on jQuery to work its magic.

You can find the repository here: https://github.com/BobLoco/Edit-in-Place-jQuery

It’s not exactly a complex script and probably needs some tidying, but I hope it’s of some use. Full credit should go to Drew McLellan at 24 Ways, who provided the original example in Prototype.js

iPad Mini Predictions

Today’s the day for Apple’s October press event. The received wisdom is that the major announcement will be an iPad mini to compete with Amazon’s Kindle.

I actually really want this to be false. As useful as it would be for Apple, my own “please release this”-request would have to be an Apple television. This is only partly because I want to see what other industries Apple can change. It’s also because I want to see a genuine surprise announcement. Far too many of Apple’s recent announcements have been ruined by leaks, such as the new iPad and the iPhone 5. It would be good to see some of the famous Apple secrecy pay off again.