Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Winds of Winter: No New Information Here #ASOIAF #GOT #LEGO

I've noticed that the latest "news" regarding the sixth book of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter, come frome ideological news sites, with names like "Christian Post" and similar. These articles tend to be non-news and speculation posing as news. You'd think that religious news sites would generally post religious news, just like politically biased news sites generally post "news"/commentary that support the ideology of the site. I suppose these click-bait "news" stories drive traffic to these sort of sites.

Perhaps I should transform this blog as a non-news news site, speculating the release of the imminent arrival of The Winds of Winter, as well as other click-baity things. Mayhaps I'll do this from time to time, as a running joke.

In any case, I've been releasing a series of Game of Thrones scenes, reenacted with LEGO minifigures, on my Instagram account every Sunday for the past several weeks, and for the foreseeable future. I attempted to do this in early 2014, on Tumblr, but I lost interest.

This was my original Tumblr post for "Winter Is Coming":

I rephotographed the scene last month for my Instagram account:

Here is the second and final Tumblr LEGO Game of Thrones post from 2014, depicting "The Kingsroad":

Thanks to Bricklink, I recast the role of direwolf Lady for 2015:

I didn't have time to "build" a "set" for this scene from "Lord Snow," so I made a LEGO "green screen":

The actor who played Syrio Forel apparently liked my Instagram post.

I think I'll "green screen" the elaborate sets; otherwise I'll try to make these set pieces as simple as possible, like in "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things":

And "The Wolf and the Lion":

Not counting the minifigures and minifigure accessories, the above set was built with only about a dozen LEGO pieces:

This Sunday, I'll photograph a scene from "A Golden Crown," which should be fun. That's all for this blog post. I shall try to photograph tonight's Blue Moon, which will likely end up on my Instagram.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

#Marvel's #Daredevil: Filler-less @Netflix "TV" Seasons Make for Deeper Villains

After binge-watching Daredevil on Netflix, and of course, checking out Ant-Man, I think I've caught up with Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe. (I think I skipped most of the first half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, but I don't think I missed much.) I also recently read an article in which A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) author George R.R. Martin praised Ant-Man but critiqued the consistent flatness of Marvel's movie villains. I agree with Martin's assessment, with an addendum: Marvel's Netflix villains -- and perhaps, Netflix heroes -- are way more fleshed out than their movie counterparts.

One major reason why Marvel's movie villains aren't very threatening is because Disney-Marvel doesn't want to make their films dark. I read another article in which Disney's head Marvel guy, Kevin Feige, expressed that sentiment. After all, Disney makes all sorts of toys for kids, based on these movies, and it would be bad form to market too-grim movies to children. They get a whole range of films to market to broad audiences, adults and children alike: Hilarious space adventures like Guardians of the Galaxy, quasi-gritty thrillers like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and silly heist capers like Ant-Man. The audience cheer for the heroes, and none of these film villains decapitate their failed business partners with a car door. The villains on Marvel's ABC network shows are just as tame as their movie counterparts, by virtue of being on prime-time network TV.

Another reason why Marvel's movie villains aren't very threatening or fleshed-out characters is that the medium of film is very restrictive. The space between 90 minutes and 3 hours isn't enough time to fully form more than a handful of characters, if any. It's probably just enough time to establish that the protagonist is likeable and the antagonist is unlikeable, and that's about it. (Then again, Marvel's go-to villain, Loki, has all sorts of fans, in all likelihood due to the actor.) Add in a whole lot of heroes to the mix, and the character depth will end up a bit shallow.

In contrast, using the TV season medium, there is enough time to flesh out characters. I think the 10- to 13-episode format is perfect to give depth without necessitating filler episodes. The 22-episode TV season format that American audiences are used to has quite a bit of filler. Compare Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. full season with Agent Carter short season: The former stretches the season-long arc with lots of diversions in between; the latter's short first season is all main story and no -- or little, if any -- filler.

Daredevil's first season highlights the origins of both the hero -- a blind lawyer with superpowered other senses -- and the villain -- a big bald guy with anger issues. The show's 13 episodes give us enough time to get into what makes the hero tick, and what makes the villain tick. It's basically a 12-hour+ movie. I must praise Vincent D'Onofrio's take on Wilson Fisk (not yet named Kingpin, if that's a spoiler). You can see an awkward, scared, angry child bubbling inside the facade of the big, bald, bad guy. You know he cares about his right-hand man, his girlfriend, and his mother. You don't get that sort of sense with any of Marvel's (currently) one-off film villains, from Obadiah Stane to Malekith to Ronan to Ultron to Yellowjacket. Loki gets some depth by virtue of being in three movies, thus far.

The point of this quasi-essay is that the 10- to 13-episode season is an excellent medium for storytelling, among all edited audiovisual forms (i.e., TV/film/video). It is potentially the ideal form of edited audiovisual storytelling. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have thrived with the filler-less, shorter season format. As a preliminary judgment, here is my hierarchy of edited audiovisual media, regarding potential storytelling depth, especially characterization:

1. Shorter season, as noted above;
2. Longer-season, hopefully with minimal filler;
3. Franchise movie, hopefully with quality sequels;
4. Self-contained film -- the simpler the premise, the better, due to limitations of the medium.

Of course, none of the media listed above can top the potential of a tightly-packed, multi-layered book. (Or a comic book or graphic novel, but I don't read comic books.) Literature as a medium has the potential of telling the best tales, and it is probably the ideal form of recorded, published storytelling. That being said, there are a lot of poorly-written books. Short-season shows have the potential to be utter sh*t with crap characters. The filler episodes of longer-season shows might be brilliant (e.g., a few fan-favorite episodes of Supernatural). Movie franchises and trilogies might be fantastic, but they are usually less than. Self-contained films tend to be made more for the sake of storytelling than for selling Happy Meals, so my hierarchy above really means very little, when there are plenty of counterexamples.

My point, if there is one in any case, is that for stories with heroes, villains, anti-heroes, supporting characters, and tropes of that nature -- comic book movies, basically -- the shorter season might be ideal for deeper characters. Longer seasons usually rely on filler episodes, which in turn, introduce one-off shallow characters in the process. Franchise movies have a greater risk of being hit-or-miss, and one-off villains tend to be flat caricatures. Comic book or other potentially franchise movies that fail commercially end up as self-contained films. TV shows and movies marketed to broad audiences tend to be lighter fare than darker, weirder media for niche audiences, and the potential for large profits informs producers to lean toward lighter fare.

In conclusion ... Netflix.

Shall I say more?

In conclusion, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and HBO on cable and HBO Now are basically at the forefront for telling excellent stories, based either in fantasy worlds or closer to our reality. Binge-watching is good form, but appointment TV with filler episodes are passe. Watching movies in theaters tends to be an inconvenience, unless the movie is really good/fun/big/marketed well.

So yes, my conclusion stands ... Netflix.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Adventures with the #Dogtor: #Astrophotography Under Light-Polluted Suburban Skies

My dog Kate has got it in her head that she's a Time Lady from Gallifrey. Subsequently, she "borrowed" a really slow, really small TARDIS (made of LEGO bricks) and offered to bring me along as a companion.

I said, "Sure, why not?"

I took my trusty inexpensive DSLR, a bare-bones kit zoom lens, a lightweight tripod, and a Polarie Star Tracker (here's my affiliate link, if you want to buy it) to document our severely limited journey through time and space.

"Arf arf arf, tail wag tail wag tail wag?" asked the Dogtor. The TARDIS translated it as, "Where do you want to go first?

At random, I suggested we go to any of the stars in the constellation Cassiopeia. Before entering the TARDIS, I took a photo of our initial destination, with the following settings:

One RAW exposure;
20mm lens;
ISO 1600;
30-second shutter;
Polarie roughly pointed at Polaris, set to "Star" mode.

The Dogtor's inputted inaccurate coordinates into the TARDIS, either accidentally or on purpose, so we overshot Cassiopeia by a couple million light years. We ended up in the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away from Earth.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the blob in the upper-right.
We somehow survived that tricky adventure and ended up back on Earth, plus or minus a day from when we left. Since we were dealing with time as well as space, I suggested that the Dogtor pilot the TARDIS to a different era in Earth's history.

We ended up in an 80-minute time loop of that very night.

Polaris isn't really true north anymore, is it?
The Dogtor deduced that my camera equipment and the TARDIS were somehow technologically intertwined -- wibbly-wobbly, shutty-clicky, of course -- and the time loop could be controlled with the following camera settings:

Ten JPEG exposures (RAW files were also saved simultaneously);
18mm lens;
ISO 100;
8-minute shutter;
Polarie off.

Time loops are nightmares, but star trails are pleasant dreams. Yadda, yadda, yadda ... we somehow survived that adventure, with either a plot hole, a deus ex machina, or a lot of dog treats. (It was the dog treats.)

The next adventure would have to be a lot safer. The Dogtor set the coordinates to the southern sky, to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, our galaxy. I set my camera equipment to match:

One RAW exposure;
18mm lens;
ISO 1600;
30-second shutter;
Polarie roughly pointed at Polaris, set to "Star" mode.

Some part on or near Galactic Center is photographed, faintly.
A scary monster called Light Pollution obstructed our journey. Light Pollution sort of has the upper hand against the Dogtor and her companion, but the Dogtor knows how to defeat this enemy:

We find darker skies. Or use a faster lens (lower f-stop number). Or both.

What will we do? It's a cliffhanger!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Budget Blenders for Ice Cold Shakes and Smoothies: Six Blades Is Where It's At.

If this sounds like an informercial, it probably is. Yes, this particular blog post will go into "sell you stuff you probably don't need" territory.

Except that this is something that you might need ... for a decent ice-blended drink.

I am no stranger to the budget (under $100 or so) blender. The basic specs of a budget blender are the following: Four blades, usually a pain in the ass to clean, and does a piss-poor job at pulverizing ice. The typical ice-blended shake or smoothie with a four-blade blender will usually have some hard, jagged bits of ice in the drink. These pieces of ice tend to clog up a straw, like a blocked artery. Cleaning up is also a hassle, especially if you have to disassemble the blender and keep track of all the waterproof washers and blades, in order to reassemble the device again.

For several months, I have been using the NutriBullet blender, produced by the same people who made the Magic Bullet blender. I have to say that it is an improvement on all the budget blenders out there: Six blades, easy to clean, and usually blends the ice into something icy smooth (provided you add enough liquid to your mix). Depending on what configuration of accessories you buy, the Nutribullet should cost about $100 or less, definitely defining it as a budget blender. Here's my affiliate link, if you want to buy stuff you may or may not need.

The original Magic Bullet was relatively inexpensive and easy to clean. However, it has only four blades, and I suppose the blender's motor isn't that strong. Ice-blended drinks tended to be rough and clogged many-a straw.

There is also an "upgrade" to the NutriBullet, called the NutriBullet Pro 900 or something like that. Allegedly, it is so overpowered, that it is sort of a safety hazard, as the blades apparently broke during a safety test a while back. You can Google it, if you want. I can only guess that it would pulverize ice so hard, that the ice might turn into water, defeating the purpose of an ice-blended drink ... but that's just untestable hearsay on my behalf.

In conclusion, if you're in the market for a budget blender, I recommend the basic NutriBullet. It has six blades of awesomeness, to make fantastic piña coladas, daiquiris, and margaritas.

Or you can get an expensive blender. I hear some of those are good, too.

P.S., for personal reference. Here's how to make a decent quasi-piña colada with any overly-sweet piña colada mix, using the NutriBullet:

Pour two fingers (the thickness of two fingers should be the height) of piña colada mix;
Add one big glass full of ice (about the size of the Coca-Cola glass in the photo above);
Fill milk and/or rum to the MAX line on the Nutribullet blending cup;
Add half a big glass of ice;
Blend to the count of 30;

This formula pretty much works for any overly-sweet, syrupy, store-bought mix -- using the NutriBullet:

Two fingers of mix;
One big glass of ice;
Booze and/or other liquid to the MAX line;
Half a glass of ice;
Blend to 30;


Friday, July 10, 2015

#Headcanon: Virtually All #Keanu Reeves Movies Are Set in the #Matrix

I find movies starring Keanu Reeves exponentially enjoyable when adding an extra layer of meaning, in which these movies occur in the same virtual universe as in the Matrix trilogy of movies. I know the title of this blog posts says "Virtually All #Keanu Reeves Movies," but I suppose I should concede the point and say "Keanu Reeves Movies Released After The Matrix Revolutions."

Eleven and a half year old spoiler: The character Thomas Anderson / "Neo" is apparently dead at the end of The Matrix trilogy, with the vague hope that he -- like any other messiah-type figure -- isn't really dead. So my headcanon goes, the machines have resurrected and modified several copies of Neo and placed them in varying parts of the super-city of the Matrix. For example:

Constantine (2005): This Neo exorcises demon programs and interacts with the angels from a previous version of the Matrix, similar to Seraph (Collin Chou) in the canonical films. The original Neo's mastery over the Matrix gives this version the power to use magic and magical items.

A Scanner Darkly (2006): I am certain I watched this movie in 2006 or 2007, but I can't remember a thing about it, except for the animation technique used in the film. This version of Neo does something or another. I don't know.

Man of Tai Chi (2013): This Neo lived long enough to become a villain. It's up to the next would-be One (Tiger Hu Chen) to stop him.

47 Ronin (2013): This Neo ended up as a foundling in the feudal Japan part of the Matrix's super-city. Since Neo is a special Matrix character, he is able to interact with forest demons, remnants from a past version of the Matrix. Like almost all other Neos, this one can do some magical stuff.

John Wick (2014): This version of Neo is sad. He lost his wife. He also lost his puppy and his car because Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) makes poor decisions. Damnit, Reek! It's okay, though; this Neo thrives on getting his revenge.

It seems every action movie starring Keanu Reeves gives his character god-like martial arts moves, just like Neo in the actual Matrix films. Identifying these various characters as Neo himself makes it easy to explain why this Keanu character or that Keanu character can kick ass so efficiently. He's not a trained hitman; he's Neo. He's not a morally corrupt, rich martial arts enthusiast; he's Neo. He's not a village outcast who picked up some samurai training along the way; he's Neo. He doesn't dabble in the occult; he's Neo.

He's Neo.

In conclusion, as long as Keanu Reeves stars in action movies featuring innovative, albeit impossible, versions of martial arts, then who needs another official Matrix movie?

They're all Matrix movies, and they're all fun to watch.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

One Year of Daily Instragram Posts (and Still Going)

I joined Instagram in late 2012. I didn't have an iOS or Android mobile device back then, so I went the roundabout way to join the social network by using an Android emulator called Bluestacks, which ran really slow and buggy on my MacBook.

I started to post on Instagram on a daily basis on January 1st of 2013. After 10+ years on (post-AOL) social media, I was increasingly burnt out on the progression from Xanga to Friendster to MySpace to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. By July of 2013, I put my Facebook account on hiatus, and I mostly avoided social media for several months.

In November 2013, I finally got with the times, and I acquired an Android smartphone. I reactivated my Facebook account, and I slowly returned to the world of social media. On July 5th, 2014, after several infrequent Instagram posts, I decided to post daily on Instagram. I challenged myself to take photos that are important to me, or produce videos with quite a lot of effort. On a few occasions, I had some sort of artistic block, and I uploaded a filler screenshot, so that I could make my daily quota -- of one Instagram post. I soon noticed that there are only a handful of subjects, themes, and motifs in my visual work; my Instagram profile is like a square window to my personality, or at least my social media persona. Here are a few of my favorite photos taken throughout the year:

July 7, 2014. I wanted to show that my Kindle Paperwhite is like a TARDIS:  Bigger on the inside. Then I also made it into a time machine, displaying a speculative cover for the still-unreleased sixth book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter. Various aspects of "fandom" are recurring motifs in my Instagram.

August 16, 2014. This is a photo of my cousins' dog Lola, greeting me a good morning after an overnight visit to their house. She passed away in November of the same year. Lola was a very low-key dog, unlike my dog Kate, who is a Loki-dog, a trickster (but more on her later).

September 15, 2014. I rarely post grand, sweeping vistas because I rarely take pictures of grand, sweeping vistas. I usually take close-ups of various subjects, with the occasional photo of celestial objects. I guess that it's just my style. Anyway, I took a fun ride up the hills, where the rich folk live. Since I was driving a fancy (albeit rented) automobile, I think I sort of blended in with the neighborhood during this random drive. I noticed an opening in the trees at the end of a road, showing the university/medical center, the northern mountain range, and everything in between. I stopped and took a photo, and I continued the drive.

October 10, 2014. This was a photo from the "blood moon" lunar eclipse from early October 8. As I mentioned earlier, I take closeups of small things, dog-sized things, people-sized things, and celestial-sized things. I rarely photograph the large gap between people-sized and celestial-sized subjects. I photographed this blood moon, as well as the lunar eclipses in April 2014 and April 2015. There's another lunar eclipse coming up soon, I think, and I hope to photograph that one as well.

November 15, 2014. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is a recurring character on my Instagram feed, but he is usually in some sort of plush toy form. This Oswald is pretty cool because he's a Christmas tree ornament, he's playing a banjo, and the ornament is hanging off an actual banjo. If it wasn't for the golden-colored ring on the ornament, this photo could have passed for black and white.

December 29, 2014. My dog Kate is basically the star of my Instagram feed. I'm very certain that there are more photos of Kate (and Kate-like objects) in my feed than selfies of yours truly. I had Clayton Custom make these commemorative Kate guitar picks for the holiday season. One side is puppy Kate, and the other side is adult dog Kate.

January 7, 2015. I told you that Kate is the star of the show. She's dressed up in her dog hoodie, but I'm not sure where we're about to go.

February 11, 2015. The photo was actually taken in late January. I parked my car next to some flower bushes, where several worker bees were gathering pollen for their hive. Fortunately, I had a camera with a long lens with me, and I snapped away at the highest shutter speed I could use, with the available light.

March 28, 2015. I don't always take selfies, but when I do, they're pretty epic. LEGO minifigure photography is a regular thing in my Instagram feed.

April 16, 2015. I don't always post food pictures, but when I do, they're pretty epic. El Pollo Loco's company Instagram profile actually commented on this photo of an El Pollo Loco burrito.

May 2, 2015. This is another example of LEGO photography in my Instagram profile. The five-to-six year build-up to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was more enjoyable than the fight itself. It was a combination of a less-than-aggressive Manny (injured?) and a just-as-expected overly defensive Floyd. Mayweather's boxing style flawlessly wins victories but is basically bloodless; the target audience of boxing is usually bloodthirsty. Floyd's public persona of being a Ted DiBiase-type heel is what sells tickets and PPVs, and even that is getting old and worn out. No wonder Mayweather is supposedly retiring soon. In any case, I'm sure my dog Kate (as depicted as an anthropomorphic minifigure) would have been a better referee than most other boxing referees these days.

June 30, 2015. I recently got into working with small bits of metal, to make miniature swords. I made a brass (shiny golden in color) mini-sword for my dad for Father's Day. The week after, I made him a stainless steel companion mini-sword. The stainless steel "blade" is food safe, as it is skewering a meatball in the above photo. I call this sword Meatskewer, slayer of the previously slain.

July 2, 2015. Electricity is awesome. (Dangerous, but awesome.) I upgraded a guitar with a bass-generating pickup called A Little Thunder. I installed some LED lights on my full-band pedal board. Now I have a guitar that is also bass, lead vocals that are also harmony vocals, and a drum machine that is also a light show.

I also post regularly on two other Instagram profiles. I post on Chord du Jour's Instagram daily, hence the name. I post on FoodBoozeTunes' Instagram every Friday, making all my epic food photos that much more legendary, by adding some cover tunes by yours truly.

Honestly, I must admit that part of my motivation for posting media on Instagram is for the 'likes'. The intrinsic artistic aspect is the other part of it, of course, but I could create art offline and have the same intrinsic sense of satisfaction. Connecting with an audience is what makes Instagram and other social media more than worthwhile. Of course, there are friends who click 'like' because they are kind, no matter how they truly feel about a photo or video, and I am always grateful for their unconditional social media kindness. On the other side of the spectrum, there are spammy accounts who auto-like to try to get people to click on their spammy links; they really don't count. Getting a real reaction, a real connection, happens when a photo or video makes someone smile, smirk, giggle, guffaw, laugh, cry, cringe, think, or otherwise feel something. Then they click 'like' and/or comment. Or they repost it, whether attributing to the content creator or not, and the image or video gathers more reactions.

My photo of a LEGO minifigure depicting Ron Swanson as Captain America holding a sausage has received hundreds of 'likes'. Most of the 'likes' aren't on my original post. I'd like to think that I made the Fourth of July holiday/Saturday for those 200+ people a little better, just because I photographed a little plastic thing and posted it on the Instagram.

Well, that's what makes social media sort of worth it: The Feels, contributing to the emotional state of people on the Internet, hopefully in a positive manner. That's why I'm in it for the 'likes'.