Tag Archives: entertainment

Sonic Rhetoric: Just a little bit(rate) more

It was interesting to learn of the mp3’s functional history and to explore its status as a cultural artifact. A lot of attention is paid to the effect of the mp3 on the music industry, but I wonder if this article is situated at a turning point, published as it is only a year before the smartphone explosion kicked off with the introduction of the iPhone. Before that point, mp3s were a convenient format for those who wanted to carry a large music library with them wherever they went, but they were far from a necessity, so the industry saw no need to unify under a single format. Even if they were a ubiquitous luxury, dedicated mp3 players were a luxury nonetheless, so producers were content to pressure users to stay within their proprietary systems.  Smartphones expanded the userbase for digital music significantly and rapidly, and it may have been at this point that the battle of the dominant format was decided. With digital music players landing in so many pockets, major distributors of music saw further compartmentalization of the market into proprietary file formats as unprofitable. By 2010, the largest providers of digital media, Amazon, iTunes, and Google, had all switched to MP3 as their music sales service’s file format, albeit at the data compression rate at 320 kbps. Apparently the music industry has accepted that the digital music genie won’t go back in the bottle, and has given up using file formats that limit the free exchange of files, opting instead for the expansive compatibility of mp3.

That these services chose 320kbps signifies a lot. If, as we learned from Jonathan Sterne, the brain/ear does a lot of the work to fill in the possible gaps created by the mostly lossless 128kbps, the distribution of so high an encoding rate could be as much a choice of vanity as it is functionality. Knowing that the digital music buying public was fractured over which format was the best compromise of quality and file size, encoding at 320kbps was a boost to consumers’ perception of the audio file’s use-value. At the same time, music sales services have enjoyed expanded sales by lowering the price points of complete albums, and media storage devices have continued the general trend of greater capacity at lower cost, boosting the exchange-value. Sterne suggests on page 831 that no one is buying mp3s. I’m not so sure that’s the case now. I know I certainly see the value of a sure bet 320kbps album for only $5 over attempting to piece together the same thing via piracy.

As for my own conceits concerning audio quality, I believe I can tell the difference between 128 and 320kbps encoding fairly easily. When a song comes up in my library that sounds kinda off to me, more often than not, it’s an older encoding at 128kbps, a leftover from when I cared more about conserving disk space than audiophonic purity. Each time I discover one of these albums/tracks in my collection, I silently vow to re-encode them as soon as I can get my hands on a CD.

For some fun, try this quiz that tests your ability to distinguish between low and high encoding. Good headphones or speakers are a must.

Visual Rhetoric: “It’s called ‘total situational awareness,’ Lana.”

So I’ve only just scratched the surface of the McCloud’s Understanding Comics by reading the provided chapter, but I’m already kinda hooked. My critical appreciation of the comic and animation art forms has always been a background interest that I’ve meant to expand on, but it’s never been a high priority. Just this little snippet on faces as icons has made something very clear for me: we don’t passively consume anything.

When we watch live action representations of abstract-to-us settings on television an in movies, we still have a host of kneejerk checklists we go through. We expect to see crash carts, medical beds, curtains, x-ray lightboxes, and high-countered nursing stations for a hospital setting to pass muster before we’re even willing to consider its characters and stories. This happens to varying degrees of complexity, depending on the setting depicted, but we simply do not accept only cursory attention to detail.

ArcherYet we have illustration and animation that continually challenges the boundary between realism and stylistic choice. I think first of Archer, the FX adult-themed cartoon about a womanizing, emotionally-stunted, manchild of a secret agent and his often inept intelligence agency, ISIS. From its beginning, Archer has pushed a visual aesthetic that relies heavily on detail, and especially in the characters’ faces, as much of its humor is derived from face-to-face acerbic, sardonic, and sarcastic wit. We need detailed and realistic representations of Archer faces because we want to see more refined difference in emotional state. We don’t want just happy; we want nervous relief, wryness, cockiness, and schadenfreude. We don’t want just sad; we want humiliation, disappointment, demonstrably feigned indifference, and vulnerability. We don’t want just anger; we want outrage, offense, seething hatred, and sublimated rage. Archer’s character interactions cover these nuances and all the shades of grey in between in every episode. Perhaps because the production team places so much emphasis on facial detail, that defines the series aesthetic of detailed surroundings, too.

Homer 2Turn now to The Simpsons. It would be unfair to say that our eponymous characters and their fellow Springfielders don’t also require this nuance in facial expression; Homer Simpson certainly has expressed all of the emotional states I just attributed to Archer (I’d certainly hope so in 25 seasons!), and his illustration has the necessary nuance to do so. The difference between Archer and The Simpsons is that the latter is is fundamentally not as emotive. The Simspons is a more physically-derived comedy (especially in the last half of its run), so while the characters are capable of being drawn for a similar range of emotional expression, it’s not as essential to their function in a scene. We need only to know the general state of their emotions. Thus, their faces are more simplistic and exaggerated representations as McCloud suggests, stripped down to the essentials to enable animators to amplify meaning in a way that realistic art can’t (30).

XKCD: Two Years
XKCD: Two Years

My final example is something of a counter to McCloud’s suggestion that basic faces are necessary, but also an affirmation to his belief that the reader will fill in whatever details are necessary if the illustration is an appropriate canvas to do so. XKCD, a founder of the webcomic genre, completely circumvents faces as a mode of expression. To my knowledge, the artist has never drawn a character with a face, relying instead on simple stick figures with one or two secondary identifying features, such as a hair style, a hat, an article of clothing, or a prop. Yet the blocking of the characters bodily, taken with the occasional inclusion of a setting or important item, has enabled the series to grapple with the gamut of emotion and happenings from madcap to sober. This is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison with two animated shows versus a static image comic, but I believe XKCD stands out as even more impressive as a result of this handicap.

McCloud’s suggestion that we are aware only of the fundamentals features of our own face as others might perceive them is interesting, and generally correct, but I think we are willing to see ourselves in even more generalizable patterns. The human brain is a fantastic pattern recognition system, and since we are so keenly aware of ourselves/others and our environments, we seek to sort everything into a pattern in order to make more sense of our inputs. I think the real take away is only that the messenger simply must not stand in the way of the message, as McCloud suggests, but defining where that line is crossed is the challenge.

Note: Back when we were trying to get back on track from the snow closures, I also wrote a post as an offshoot from the Barthes/Panzini ad assignment. You can see it here.

8900: The false god of device convergence

I resonate with Henry Jenkins’ preoccupation with the black box effect, and I think the fourish plus years since the publication of Convergence Culture has only deepened the ongoing kludge of our relationship to media technology. Every feature integrated into a device, a new digital community, entertainment venue, or writing space beckons us to acquire more hardware. What we end up with at the current time is both convergence and divergence.

As an example of the divergent, I’ll fess up to some of my own embarrassing hardware missteps. Around 2007, I had thusfar resisted and in fact disdained the Blackberry trend, boggling at how difficult it was for some people to simply disconnect and acknowledge that their time just wasn’t that important. Then came the first iPhone. While my needs for mobile communication had not changed, I, as so many did, fetishized the device. I was lured by the promise of integration – of convergence. Here was a device that was both my phone and my music player, something I had actively been annoyed at carrying separately at this point. The fact that it also offered continuous access to interesting or fun or useful or illuminating content was not as important, but was easily rationalized in favor of its purchase.

I sat out the rush for the first model and came on board with the iPhone 3G. It was everything I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t perfect. I realized its limitations; it wasn’t a robust processor, it provided fenced-in content, and I realized that while it was great for short writing burst, its tiny touch screen came up short for lengthy writing. I never expected it to replace my laptop or desktop. I happily used it and enjoyed as its usability expanded through various updates, and moved on to the iPhone 4 two years later.

Concurrently, my interest in the iPad was increasing. I know this makes me sound like an Apple fanboy, but what I was drawn most to was the form factor. Plainly stated, it was just a big iPhone, but I hoped it would be the balance between the bulkiness of a laptop (the same laptop whose lightness, thinness, and relative power I marveled over only a couple years before) and the confines of the phone. Again I resisted for over a year, but again, I broke down and my wife and I bought one to share.

This is where the divergence begins to reappear despite all these seemingly convergent devices. Despite some buyer’s remorse over the iPad – for it really was just a big iPhone, so what did we expect? – the device has remained and inserted itself into a niche of use. My relationship with four very similar devices is thus: the phone I obviously carry with me everywhere (the irony of my former disdain for the Blackberry cult is not lost on me) and use so frequently for tasks both silly and serious, I cannot see having a “dumb” phone again. The iPad does what I don’t need the laptop’s serious power for, and also enables me to engage in longer and more comfortable screen reading than a laptop can, such as reading articles for classes and my own research. The laptop is there for when I need to seriously settle in to productive, high-intensity writing or research. Finally, a self-built PC desktop rounds out the onslaught as my access to the more processor- and graphics-intensive gaming world, something my laptop was incapable of doing for very long.

I have four devices that do extremely similar things, yet I’ve let them settle into precise and unique roles. This list can expand further, with my wife having a kindle for sustained digital reading, and our accumulation of 10 years worth of gaming consoles, an internet media streaming device, and a music and video serving device. Even one of the consoles has a fractured identity, having found new use recently in streaming downloaded video through the gaming PC. What galls me about this is that despite my wish to simplify, I have carved out so precise a niche for each of these items that I have difficulty considering how to let one go.

Thus, the divergence Jenkins foretells is realized, but in the name of convergence. I can’t deny the device fetishization at work, but each time I’ve acquired one of these devices, its cost relative to its offered service always seems a bargain. Before long, the device has carved out its niche and another golden calf appears on the horizon, promising to be the one device you need to restore balance to our fractious, fraught hardware existences. While I believe only the laptop holds the distinction of being truly required, I know I would sweat the loss of functionality the rest of the pack brings. I can only hope that true convergence happens in the near future, bringing a single (or hell, at this rate I could get by with only two or three) convergent messiah device to unify all these digital wants and needs, and that this is just the divergent storm before the convergent calm.

For Good Measure: We’d all love to see the plan.

Note to ENGL 8900 readers – I posted this shortly after my weekly 8900 submission, which can be found here.

NBC’s Revolution pilot and second episode have aired, and have left me with something of an axe to grind with television science fiction. Spoilers may await you below, so be warned.

A short synopsis: sometime in our near future, an unnamed catastrophe strikes the entire planet, rendering all electronics non-functional. Televisions fizzle to eternal darkness, cellphones and computers wink out, cars coast to a stop on highways, planes fall from the sky, and cats and dogs are free to marry at last. Fifteen years later, survivors live in the bombed out remnants of the Chicago area, reduced to pre-tech (and seemingly, pre-industrial) means of providing for themselves. At least one survivor, as is indicated in a pre-disaster vignette, may know the cause of and perhaps information crucial to reversing the blackout. When he’s killed in a militia’s attempt to kidnap him for this information, his daughter and two other plucky villagers (a doctor and an ex-Google engineer) join her quest to fulfill her father’s dying wish that she locate her uncle to help rescue the brother that was taken instead during the botched abduction.

Aside from being uncomfortably close in concept to existing novels (SM Stirling’s Dies the Fire, for one), Revolution signals that producers still aren’t learning any lessons from mainstream science fiction juggernauts like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I make it a general policy to give new shows at least two or three episodes before I abandon them, but I’m not finding a lot to work with here. The people over in the TVTropes forum have been having a ball with this since its trailer appeared months ago, but my irritation with this show has to do with more with the substantive part of any drama, not just science fiction.

Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was known to ask any writer pitching an episode to explain what the story was about. For Roddenberry, and I think for any story that will stand up to critical viewing or reading, there has to be a deeper storyline than just surface deep. Think about how some of our greatest science fiction films stack up against that: Terminator 2 (fate, the human condition, compassion), The Matrix (destiny, the mind as a prison, the nature of reality), The Empire Strikes Back (legacy, the sins of the father, self-discovery), Space 2001 (self-awareness, our place in the universe, our impact on others), Planet of the Apes (the seventh generation, slavery, man as steward of the Earth) The Wrath of Khan (aging, relevance, loss, self-assessment). Of course there are many more films that never reached real blockbuster status that still hold up to the same standard, but my point is that we do stumble upon the occasional story that, despite a science fiction facade, manages to deliver a real story to the masses and win popular acclaim at the same time. Why can’t this apply to television shows more often?

What we have in Revolution is what we see again and again in network science fiction offering. Scrimping on acting talent; shoddy writing that fails to see the difference between genuine mystery/intrigue and chaotic script twists; and failing to plan beyond the hook of the story (something I fully admit I fell for, as skeptical as I was). Like with ABC’s V remake, NBC is acting like an ethically-deficient used car dealership, and appears to have slapped another coat of shiny paint on the same rickety, mechanically unsound clunker that will break down within five minutes of driving off the used car lot.

I love apocalyptic fiction, but what I love is nowhere to be found here. In compelling fiction, the story is about characters. In compelling apocalyptic fiction, the characters are really all you have to work with because the size of the world has necessarily shrunk, and characters necessarily have immense impact on each other – good and bad. The genre reduces humans to their basest motivations and puts them in fascinating conflicts between their cultured selves from a lost world and their primal selves in a new world. Yet I know so little beyond the surface depth of these characters because they are all clichés: a guilt-ridden, angry teenager with something to prove; an enigmatic outlaw who has been a loner so long that depending on others is anathema; a megalomaniacal villain who thinks he’s the good guy; and a violent and ruthless henchman (this last one is a true disappointment for Giancarlo Esposito, coming off his success as a fantastically deep and nuanced villain in AMC’s Breaking Bad). These characters are still their archetypes two episodes in.

Combine this with some standard failings of mediocre science fiction shows, such as acting that ranges from bland to forced, exposition that’s incongruous with the fictional world it comes from (such as forcing the common back story of a family member’s death into the dialogue between a father and daughter – they should both know and wouldn’t need to speak so explicitly), and situational clichés aplenty. And I’m no physicist, yet I’m pretty sure that while a plane faced with sudden power loss/engine failure would of course crash, it would happen in a glide that turns into a nosedive. It would not spin downward like a winged bird.

I’ll watch the third episode of Revolution tomorrow, giving it one more chance to show a glimmer of potential because this is a personal rule of mine with new shows. I want it to be better because I want science fiction on TV to be better, but also because I know this show’s failure will be more “proof” to producers that science fiction is too risky a genre for TV. Surprise, surprise.