Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Defence of the Realm

Reading today on the BBC News website, I discovered the imminent demise of the Royal Navy's flagship, the Aircraft Carrier 'HMS Ark Royal'. I hate to say it, but something about it just doesn't sit right with me.

Our current coalition government is in the process of sweeping cuts and reforms, the system having been left in such a dire state by its former carers. But while significant belt-tightening has clearly been required, as cut after cut is announced, you can't help wondering if they're getting carried away in the momentum of all this money saving.

Now we learn that our country's defence budget is being cut drastically, and the equipment being scaled back. The list is as follows:

  • The Ark Royal, launched in 1985, will be decommissioned almost immediately, rather than in 2014, as previously planned
  • The construction of two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will go ahead, as it would cost more to cancel the projects than proceed with them
  • The navy will lose 4,000 personnel and its surface fleet will be cut from 24 to 19
  • Some squadrons of RAF Tornado jets will be saved - although some air force bases will close
  • The Army will have to cut up to 7,000 or so personnel over the next five years, and lose 100 tanks and heavy artillery
  • The Ministry of Defence itself will face substantial cuts to its civilian staff

(I hasten to add, the above list is only what David Cameron is expected to say, but at the time of writing this, could change.)

Britain is a country in a peculiar situation. Due to our Colonial and Naval past, we have continued to punch above our weight on the world stage, but in reality, we are just a small country with limited financial abilities. Not only that, having only recently paid off the enormous WWII debt owed to America, we're now in enormous new debt, from mismanagement over the last 10 years or more.

The question is, do we try our best to keep hold of our tenuous and somewhat mocked position (Or at any rate, slow its diminishing). Or do we accept that we are no longer what we once were, and give in to being an increasingly smaller player on the world stage? Especially given our financially crumbling infrastructure.

I can't help feeling a sigh of inevitable defeatism at the thought of our protective and highly regarded military being increasingly sidelined and undermined. But am I just feeling that way, because of a pride in our country's past magnitude and glories, that we should now accept are distinctly in the past?

There are those who would say that our country has an inflated ego with regards to its position in the modern world. Then again, doesn't every country try to improve and/or maintain its standing, as highly as possible? If so, why should we not try to maintain what is left of the position our former history established, even knowing it can't last indefinitely? Maybe we're clinging to the coat tails of our past with our fingernails, but given that the position is unlikely to be obtainable ever again, what is wrong with trying to stay there a little longer?

Some might say that our inflated global position is due to the past exploitation of others, and therefore we have no right to it. Whatever your opinion on those issues, the point is, they were in the past. I'd be surprised if any country in the entire world couldn't go back into its history and find that it exploited others for its own benefit at some point. So I don't believe in that argument, because if you do, you may as well say that every country of influence in the world should give it up, because its power is most probably based on historically stepping on others to get there.

So the question remains, should we spend money to keep our military in a position of reasonable strength, or save it for running the country? It's all too easy to initially say 'save it', because the average person sees little direct benefit from our military presence in the world. However, we must remember that our military is a major representation of our position in the world (And that's without even getting into the actual tangible benefits of physical defence). What economic strength we have is intrinsically linked to our perceived global standing. So by lessening our military, do we lesson our world standing, and thus lessen our potential long-term economic stability and strength? Our position in the world might well be linked to ego based on former glories, it may even be somewhat illusory, but should that stop us trying to maintain it as long as we can?

It's difficult to say what the right path should be, as issues could be argued equally either way, but there does seem something distasteful about the momentum with which our military, with all its lauded history, has its abilities lessened in the global arena.

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

(My) History of Computing – Part I: Turtles to Rubber Keys

A BBC Micro
As a child, my first real exposure to computers was the BBC Micro in school, which is probably true of many people my age who lived and went to school in the UK during the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s. I didn't learn a great deal on it, but I was interested. We had just the one in our primary school, and I got the chance to program in Logo and dabble in BASIC a little. The main thing I can remember is using a Turtle to plot out our Logo commands onto a piece of paper, drawing numerous patterns. It was all very limited, but fun.

An Amstrad PCW 8256/8512
The next step was the Amstrad PCW8256 (See more in Writing and Publishing the 'Rebel Review'). My father bought this machine essentially for creating the local Parish Magazine, although he was also a bit of a gadget fan which I'm sure played a significant part. When he wasn't using it, my older sister Hilary and I were allowed to have fun trying different things. She was learning computing in secondary school while I was still in primary, so she was the most knowledgeable. Occasionally my father's '8000 Plus' magazine (Later renamed 'PCW Plus') would contain 'listings' in the back pages. These were short programs that you could type in to the computer using the PCW's 'Mallard BASIC'. Whenever one popped up that was a game, my sister and I were soon busily typing away, inputting line after line of code onto the PCW's green-only screen. Hours would be spent sifting through the code, sometimes printing it out so we could compare it to the magazine listing, and highlight bits where we'd gone wrong. I also spent a fair amount of time creating graphics using the PCW version of Logo, and printing out the pictures.

Tomahawk on the Amstrad PCW
Eventually we got a few games for the PCW, the main ones of which were Fairlight, Tau Ceti and Tomahawk. Tomahawk was my first exposure to 3D gaming, and also prompted the purchase of a joystick. It was heralded as being incredibly realistic to the physics and mechanics of the real thing, with countless buttons on the keyboard used to control the various aspects of the helicopter. I spent a long time studying the manual and trying all sorts.

Fairlight on the Amstrad PCW
Fairlight was the first isometric 3D game I had ever played, with a wonderful and utterly engrossing fantasy world full of unusual and exciting locations to explore and mysteries to solve. Tau Ceti was essentially a fun shoot-em-up, but again with a wide-ranging world to explore.

My most prominent use of the PCW was for my own magazine, the 'Rebel Review' which you can read about separately (Click here). Eventually my father upgraded the machine with an extra 256k internally, a whopping 1MB ram-pack, a bubble-jet printer and a mouse, with which I was able to enjoy creating early monochrome pixel graphics with some desktop publishing software.

A ZX Spectrum 48k
During this time, I also got a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k, the very first computer of my own. Well known for its small size and rubber keyboard. To this day it's still a design classic, in my opinion. Admittedly, I fell into the trap that many did, of using it to play only games. When I needed to write a document or print anything, I still used my father's PCW. One thing the Spectrum did do, was encourage my early tinkering. Once or twice I had problems with something, or a friend's machine went wrong, and I was able to swap chips around on the inside, changing those from a couple of dud machines in to the damaged one and vice-versa, till I could get one working. I even still have a 48k Spectrum that stopped working, but after my experimental repair work functions fully, but only in B&W! Later I moved onto the Spectrum+2, with its 128k memory and built in tape-loader, enabling me to play the newer, larger games with better sound.

Issue 1 of 'Your Sinclair'
No discussion of the ZX Spectrum would be complete, though, without mention of its most successful magazine, Your Sinclair. It was an irreverent glimpse each month into the Spectrum world, full of the latest games, tips, gossip, and outright oddity. They knew the machines flaws and drawbacks, and revelled in the fun of it all with rarely (if ever) a serious outlook. It always came packed with games and demos on the cover tape to keep the readers happy, and it had a personality all of its own that kept it entertaining outside of simply being a magazine for the Spectrum.

Chaos on the ZX Spectrum
I didn't do a great deal other than gaming on either Spectrum, but I do remember programming the +2 BASIC to play Happy Birthday, and write Happy Birthday bouncing around the screen in multiple colours for my father's birthday. I also attempted some extremely simple 3D modelling and game creation with 3D Construction Kit, based around the Freescape engine. Amidst the solo-gaming, I also remember having fun with group games like Chaos, with my mother and sisters, all firing different spells at one another and conjuring magical creatures to attack.

Robocop on the ZX Spectrum
I have enormously fond memories of playing all the old games on the Spectrum, from RoboCop with its monochrome graphics, to two-player ATV Simulator with my friend David on the kitchen table looking at a 6” B&W portable TV. There was a charm to those old games, because the limitations forced their creators to think imaginatively. It was impossible to rely on graphical power and anti-aliased texture mapping to impress. It was the fun, the game-play, that kept people coming back or not. In the current gaming world, this style seems to have had somewhat of a resurgence in the mobile gaming market, with restricted but creative games.

A ZX Spectrum+2 Computer
The ZX Spectrum will always be a major milestone in my computing experience, because it was not only the first machine of my very own, but was at a time when computing was only just taking off. It was still something of a miraculous event, simply to see some animated shapes moving around a screen at the press of a button. They may have been primitive by today's standards, but the Spectrums were the X-Box360, PS3 and Wii of their time, all rolled into one. Not only that, but as others have said before, the Spectrum is responsible for creating a generation of British programming talent that still allows our country to punch well above its weight in the gaming industry. Beware, though... It can't last forever, and the new generations only know how to point, click, tap a joypad or wave a motion control...

In Part II, I'll talk about possibly the greatest computer ever made, the SAM Coupé (no, it's not a car). It wasn't the most powerful, it wasn't the most successful, it wasn't even the most reliable, but it had style, baby... Style and blue feet...

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Eat Pray Love (2010) – Cinema Review (4/10)

Eat (for distraction) Pray (for the end) Love (the final Credits)

Eat Pray Love is based on the novel of the same name, written by Elizabeth Gilbert. In this case it is the (semi?) autobiographical story of her journey to 'find herself'. Another of those many tales about someone going through a variety of experiences in order to discover their own inner peace/purpose/happiness/what-have-you. Having not read the book, I am judging the story solely on the merits of the film, though I have it on good authority that a great deal has been lost in the translation.

Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mystic Pizza, Notting Hill) is in the lead, returning to movies after a gap of some time, while the film is directed by Ryan Murphy, who's previous credits include TV's Glee and Nip/Tuck.

'Liz' is a travel author, someone who goes from place to place, writing guides and reviews. She's unhappily married and, aided by some words of wisdom from a medicine man in Bali, soon realises that she needs to move on and try something new with her life. Next thing she knows, she's over-compensating and in a failing relationship with a younger man, before heading off to Rome, India, and back to Bali to experience all sorts of insights and life-lessons before finding love once again.

In literary form, an author can convey a lot through emotion and thought, which is not visual. Events that are otherwise relatively mundane can become interesting through the author's perspective (either personally or via the characters they write). A good film maker can convey these subtly through visuals, editing, script, or even musical accompaniment, but it's not an easy task. One need only look at the many failed book adaptations that are out there. I have no knowledge of the book, but I can only presume that its success was down to triggering some level of engagement and interest in its readers. Thus I can only surmise that the director, script writers and editors, have taken a too literal approach to the material in this case, and missed a lot of what makes the character's otherwise somewhat pedestrian experiences take on new meaning.

The film also lacks explanation in many factors. For example, when Liz cries whilst praying to God for help, her reaction seems totally melodramatic and over-the-top in comparison to her life shown on screen by that point. She is clearly in an unsatisfactory marriage, but she reacts in a way that wouldn't be out of place in a story about a woman who was beaten and abused by her husband. In this case, the husband appears merely to love her but have different goals in life that don't fit with hers. I have been informed that when reading the book, it is possible to see how her character comes to this point of desperate emotion, but the film lacks any emotional build up to it.

Likewise, we are told near the beginning of the film, in a way that is clearly meant to presage events, that she would become penniless, only not to worry as she would find wealth again. During her divorce, we are told she offers everything she has to her husband, in order to get him to sign the papers, but he refuses, as he is still in love with her. Later, he apparently agrees to the divorce, but it is unclear that she has lost her money, or that he has taken any, for that matter. Next, she is gallivanting around the globe with no apparent need for financial aid. So are we left to assume that perhaps the husband didn't take all of her money? In which case, are we still supposed to pity this 'penniless' woman who can afford not to work, and live in foreign countries at will? Apparently, in the book, the husband DID take all of her money, but she was then lucky enough to later get a sufficiently large book advance to go on her travels of 'self discovery'. Non of this is clear in the film.

Perhaps it is just the way the movie is pieced together, but it is difficult to empathise with many of the character's emotional responses to certain situations, because they are often presented in ways that seem to blow them out of proportion. If taken only on the basis of the film, the character seems to be a very self-absorbed individual with little in the way of either responsibility or personal coping skills to deal with life's trials. She appears to be someone who needs the most basic fundamentals hammering home through experience after experience before she can come to any life-affirming conclusions. I hasten to add, this is NOT what I think of Elizabeth Gilbert or her character in the book, but of how the character in the film is portrayed. Of Gilbert and the book, I have no opinion. The whole film feels unnecessarily drawn out, dwelling far too long on some sections, and in danger of feeling a little too narcissistic.

As for Julia Roberts, I'm unsure what to say. Part of me feels she carried what little there was, and without her the film would have been even worse. At the same time she often comes over somewhat un-varying in the role. All too often she resorts to that patented Julia Roberts 'quivering lip and tearful eyes' look, just on the verge of emotional breakdown. Perhaps she should not be blamed though. The part simply seemed to require far too many of those moments.

I could go through the rest of the cut-out characters in the film, but there doesn't seem much point. They're essentially devices with which she gains her 'insights'. If you would like a similarly themed movie that is superior in almost every way, I would suggest Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun (Click here to read my review), which while probably less realistic, is a far lighter, more cheerful, enjoyable and heart warming film, including its quirky secondary characters.

I'm tentatively giving Eat Pray Love four stars, because Julia Roberts seems to have put in the effort, and the director, while perhaps not able to do a great deal with the material, does include some beautiful scenery and surface atmosphere here and there, especially during the scenes in Rome. Other than that, I can't honestly say a lot to recommend Eat Pray Love, even to those who enjoyed the book.

4 / 10

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

End Of The War – Creation of a Digital Painting, Part III

Clouds and Ruins
(Click here for Part I or Part II)
As the planet crumbles and chunks fall to the surface of the creature's world, I thought a good harbinger of imminent doom would be an approaching cloud of destruction, rushing toward the creature from the background impact point. I looked at a few examples of volcanic pyroclastic clouds, rather than explosions. I wanted that feeling of something rolling out of the distance inexorably, rather than suddenly. What you quickly realise, is that they're simply made up of lots and lots of small misshapen lumps grouped into larger lumps. They're all of the same general tones, light to dark in relation to whatever light source there is.

Essentially I just had to pick a medium grey colour, and draw the rough shape of the cloud. Then I went into it and created the darker areas of the larger lumps and bumps, then the lighter ones. Of course this created more of a fluffy cloud look, but it was only the first step. I then went into those larger areas, and broke their edges and interiors up into quickly suggested smaller lumps. Where the sun was closest, I brightened the general highlights with a yellowish tint. Before long, with a few minor details such as considering where it was in contact with the ocean and a roughly suggested reflection and shadow, it was complete. I then altered the hue and saturation slightly till I was happiest with how it should look in the context of the scene.

Next came the fortress ruins upon which the creature is standing. As I started to shade, I realised that I needed much more detail to work with. So I quickly sketched a more detailed version, along with the distant building. Since these were drawn physically in pen, they were only generally correct in proportion to what I already had, so after photographing them and getting them into the picture, I resized them appropriately.

I soon realised I had set myself rather a chore. There were lots of repetitive details that would each require a lot of attention. Having already established a high level of detail with the planet, I couldn't churn them out in a loose style, and so began a rather laborious task. Firstly I shaded the main 'struts' and the spheres at the top, then I began to work on the main split lines.

Split lines are an interesting thing in-and-of themselves, the importance of which was driven home quite a bit when I studied Product Design many years ago. To give a similar example, one thing you quickly learn in art or even in animation, is that even the most unskilled eye can pick up the flaws in an incorrectly drawn face or movement of a character. Why? Because every one of us is looking at other humans every day. In the mirror, in the street, on the T.V. Our brains have a natural understanding even if we are not conscious of it. That's why even the most un-artistic person can pick the difference between a good portrait and a bad one.

In an odd way, some details in everyday life (such as split lines) have taken on a similar familiarity. We are so surrounded by them in one form or another, from cars to computers, brick walls to wooden furniture, that we subconsciously associate them with the structure of objects. Things will often look more real to us because they conform to our expectations of how they fit together. So a simple split line can quickly create the feeling of a dimensional object in its own space. In most cases, just think where the light is coming from, then draw a light/white highlight along the edge mostly facing the light, and a dark/black highlight beside it to give the impression of the shadowed edge. Voila! Suddenly you have a shape divided into two or more shapes that build up to the whole, just like we're used to.

Anyway, you're probably cursing the term 'split line' after I went off on that tangent, so onto something else. Next came the cracks and weathering, to imply age and use. Again, these are simply a case of conforming to our visual expectations. If there's a big hole or gap in something, it will usually be darker than the surrounding area, because it is naturally less exposed to light. So firstly there were areas I simply darkened. Then it's just a case of thinking what direction the light is coming from, and adding light and dark highlights to the appropriate edges. In addition, think of areas where water or other fluids have perhaps gathered and leaked over time, leaving drip stains. A few simple dark lines can easily imply these, and they create a very quick visual cue to aged and used items.

When initially colouring the wall, I did it in such a way as to imply a different material. Something not quite earthly. It looks almost metalic or plastic, rather than stone-like, but is cracking, pitting and crumbling like stone. In all honesty, I'm not quite sure how well this has worked. Because it doesn't conform to expectations, it could instead just look poorly painted, as though I haven't quite managed to achieve the look of stone correctly. It is what it is, and I suppose it's for the viewer to decide if I succeeded or not.

Next came the large building or citadel. As I mentioned with the wall, I realised that I needed more detail to work from, than I had initially sketched. I quickly drew a new sketch of the building in pen, and photographed it. I was reasonably happy with the design, but I didn't like the proportions. Luckily, given the nature of the design, I was able to squash it into a wider rather than taller form. Then it was simply a case of painting it in a similar way to the walls, as described above.

What sells it most, is perhaps the reflection in the water. To achieve this, I simply duplicated the building, flipped it, and then erased the lower portions and altered the overall transparency. Then I used the finger-smudge tool (in Photoshop), dragging randomly left and right to blur the details and create the suggestion of the rippling water distorting the reflection.

In Part IV, I will discuss my original thoughts behind the image, and the final steps to completion of the warrior creature.