Sunday, December 16, 2012

Some Thoughts on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Updated after Second Viewing)

Note: contains abundant spoilers.

One of the challenges of adapting a well-known book into a major film is that to earn back its cost, and turn a profit, a film must attract a far larger audience than just the book's fans. Because of this it is probably actually much easier to adapt a lesser-known book, such as Cloud Atlas or The Children of Men. Peter Jackson faced this challenge when he adapted Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings 3-volume novel (note: it is really one long novel in six parts, not a true trilogy in the modern fantasy trilogy sense, where in-universe time usually has passed between volumes).

I'm one of those fans of The Lord of the Rings, the novel, and a big Tolkien fan, having read all his works repeatedly. I've even studied his outtakes and rough drafts in the form of the 12-volume History of Middle Earth books, and while I don't claim to actually be conversant in Elvish, I can wipe the board with anyone around me in a quick game of The Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit. If you feed me some lembas and an ent-draught I'll talk of the Silmarils and Feanor and the Nírnaeth Arnoediad until the Eldar come home.

Even as a fan of the books, I enjoyed Jackson's earlier trilogy films a great deal, and I've watched them repeatedly, especially the extended editions released on DVD. I recognize that the language of film has a different grammar than the language of a novel, and that a slavish adaptation of Tolkien's novel simply would not have worked well, even as I might quibble with Jackson here and there over changes to plot and character. Comparing the two film versions, I can appreciate the way Jackson provided both a faster-moving theatrical release and an extended edition that allows the story to stretch its legs a bit, revealing more subplot and back-story, perhaps at the expense of boring the less-hardcore fans. In addition, Jackson's films have stood up well with time: although some effects might look a bit dated after a dozen years, the storytelling is not dated at all.

In this first film of Jackson's new trilogy, though, he seems to have gotten things backwards. It seems as if he's released the extended edition in the theater first. It feels long. But mere length in minutes shouldn't necessarily make a film feel long -- the extended Fellowship of the Ring film, at 219 minutes, is still a very exciting film, despite the addition of a half-hour's worth of material to the theatrical release. But consider that, at 169 minutes, this new Hobbit film is actually shorter than Jackson's theatrical release of Fellowship, which clocks in at 178 minutes. Viewers and critics for the most part did not feel that those 178 minutes felt slow. I certainly did not. The film retains an impressive 92% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review site. Meanwhile, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey drags to an extent that is really surprising.

It's not that this is just a terrible film -- it isn't -- but it is a disappointment, and not just to the hard-core Tolkien fans. It fails to engage the audience as deeply as any of the previous trilogy, even the dark and difficult middle chapter, The Two Towers. It smells of mediocrity and feels like a missed opportunity. Peter Jackson has produced a hugely ambitious film that sets for itself a number of contradictory goals, and in attempting to meet them all, does not entirely succeed at any of them. It weakens itself in ways that are frustrating and even a bit heartbreaking. The result is not a terrible film, but a muddled film, a nearly-magnificent film, a film that should have been better. I'm sure I'm not the only one disappointed. The animators, costume designers, actors and artists who worked on this film did amazing work. The film's visuals are stunning. But these artists should feel indignant that their work was showcased so poorly.

If the film wins any awards, they will be strictly technical awards. It feels to me like the biggest failures were in the screenwriting and editing. I believe the release may have been rushed, the film frozen in this cut to meet the release deadline. Perhaps Jackson just stretched himself too thin. This actually gives me some hope that a possible re-cut film could be stronger. It might be wise for Jackson's team to consider pushing back the next two films to give the screenwriting team a little breathing space to reassess their storytelling -- if indeed there are the bones of a good film in the miles of digital video recorded during principal photography.

Three Dimensions

The attentive reader will be able to discern my feelings about the cinematic importance of the 3-D technology used in that version of the film by counting up the number of times I refer to it.

48 Frames

Much has been made in the press of this film's hyper-realist 48-frames-per-second technology. At the risk of making myself seems blind or dense, I don't think this change is nearly as startling as some are making it out to be. I think the bigger transition was to go to digital projection, and this 48-frame technology is an incremental change beyond that. It is gorgeous in daylight. Rivendell surely is clearer and more vivid than I've ever seen it. Outdoor scenes are brilliantly lit, filled with amazing contrast and color. Night scenes lit by campfires are brilliantly lit, filled with amazing contrast and color. Bilbo's scenes in the pitch-black depths of goblin caves, at the very root of the Misty Mountains, are brilliantly lit, filled with amazing contrast and color. Hmmm. I see a problem here. I see it all too clearly, in fact.

I realize that a film is a painting made with light, and so you can't actually film a scene in complete darkness. I wouldn't advocate that. But the fact remains that Bilbo's amazing sojourn with Gollum in the depths is far too bright and clear. It is a brilliant scene because the performances are truly impressive, and when Andy Serkis is on the screen in the guise of his digitally-puppeted Gollum, it's impossible to look away from his luminous computer-generated eyes. But yet there is an aspect of fright and darkness in this scene that has gone missing. The producers succeeded in bringing in a little creepiness using some terrific audio effects -- Gollum's taunting voice movers around the surround-sound stage in an eerie, disconcerting manner -- but the fact that we can always see Gollum very clearly represents a lost opportunity.

To try to give the film as fair an assessment as possible, I went back to see it again a couple of days later. This time, I was in a different theater, and saw it projected using a conventional film projector, at 24 frames per second. The difference was noticeable -- flames flickering, in particular, appeared to "stutter" visually a bit more, and some of the micro-expressions on the actor's faces might have been lost. The big camera moves were a little jerkier. But honestly, I prefer the look of the film -- on film. The 48 frames per second might have made a bigger improvement in the look for the 3-D version, but I haven't embraced either the 3-D ticket price surcharge or the effect itself.

I don't imagine myself to be a reactionary conservative in matters like this, but perhaps I am. On film, in 2-D, the image isn't always in perfect tack-sharp focus, as the digital projection is, but I didn't find myself spending nearly as much time staring at the way Gandalf's makeup job keeps changing, or the way the producers apparently enhanced the contrast of his face under his wizard hat, or the artificial pores in the dwarf noses.

I don't consider myself a Luddite, but I also have reached an age where I no longer embrace technology that doesn't really enhance my life. I do have a cell phone, but I don't have an iPhone. I like the way computer graphics allow Jackson to bring Gollum to life in incredible resolution, but a perfectly vivid medium is actually a step backwards for storytelling. Many rightfully famous and historic films noir teach us that not every scene needs to be fully lit. Smoke, fog, film grain, lens flare, chiaroscuro -- all these things make the projected world less sharp and less clinical and precise, not more -- but yet, we embrace them as part of the art of cinema. A Gollum that is not quite visible would be awfully menacing in the dark. But it almost seems here as if Jackson's desire to showcase the new technology and make you see every dollar he spent on the amazing sets and computer graphics work against the dramatic potential of film. Pixar films fake lens flair; can't Jackson fake the frightening darkness at the root of the Misty Mountains? It seems that he did this far better in Moria. Was a dark dark considered too scary for The Hobbit?

A Children's Movie?

The Hobbit is much more a children's book than The Lord of the Rings. The moral themes and occasional frightening scenes aim it at, perhaps, ten- to twelve-year-old children. Jackson honors this, to some extent -- there is violence, but the gore is toned down. When Bilbo pulls his sword out of a dead warg, it comes out clean, not coated with blood. The Hobbit, the book, has some notable deaths -- but no bloodbaths, and no orgies of killing.

Consider one chapter -- the chapter in which the party is captured by goblins and dragged in chains down into the caverns deep under the Misty Mountains. In the book, Gandalf kills two or three orcs by "lightning," right as the party is captured, and then kills the Great Goblin, in a dramatic scene; later, as the party flees through the tunnels, they turn and fight, and Gandalf and Thorin in the rear kill a couple more to defend the escape of their comrades. There is no mass slaughter; this isn't the Battle of Helm's Deep. Only these two hardened characters kill; most of the dwarves are not presented as fighters, at all. The dwarves don't go on a frenetic killing spree, dumping dozens of goblins off of cliffs and bridges and ladders.

Adding scenes of adult violence while sanitizing their trauma and consequences is something that gives me pause. There are revisions, and then there are Revisions. This one is just appalling. I can understand the impulse to make the goblins more threatening, to ratchet up the dramatic tension and the sense of danger. But this sequence absolutely fails to do that. From the moment that the dwarves fall through the floor of their cave into the Goblin lair, you feel that you're in a Universal theme park ride. The whole sequence is on rails; to use a video game term, it's a cut scene. The slaughter of goblins, while the dwarves basically sled their way to safety, is presented as comic fun. That's morally despicable. I usually look forward to hearing the Wilhelm scream, and chuckle at it. This time I cringed.

When I went back to take a second look, I took my 18-year-old son and my eight-year-old girl, to see what they thought of the film. My son is a Tolkien fan and he's read The Hobbit, and studies Elvish for fun. He found the movie serviceable, but not thrilling. My daughter wasn't frightened. Watching the good guys get captured by goblins and threatened with torture ought to be scary to an eight-year-old girl. This sequence just isn't. It's boring.

About halfway through the film, my eight-year-old daughter started to squirm in her seat, and put her head on my shoulder. She didn't actually fall asleep, but her eyes were glazed. What was really striking about this moment was that my wife had done the exact thing a couple of days earlier, at approximately the same point in the film. Both my wife and daughter loved Radagast, and loved Gollum's riddle-game with Bilbo. Both came out of the film saying that they enjoyed it. But given the millions of dollars -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- poured into this film, we all should have come out cheering. That, perhaps more than anything else, points out the magnitude of the this film's failure.

A Seamless Tapestry

Jackson knew there were going to be a lot of fans of the first trilogy coming out to see the film, and so he pieced together some subtle changes. His screenwriting team discovered some fairly elegant ways to begin weaving this story into a unified tapestry with The Lord of the Rings and even The Silmarillion (for example, Radagast refers to the giant spiders of Mirkwood as children of Ungoliant). This intermixing of the texts is something Tolkien never really did, as the Hobbit was written quite a bit earlier, and was not truly a "prequel." Tolkien did not know, because he had not yet created, the history of the ring when Bilbo picked it up; Tolkien does not seem to have decided, at that point, that the Necromancer was the Lieutenant of Morgoth, Sauron, later to stand as the villain of The Lord of the Rings, although he does do a little bit of "retconning" -- he creates "retroactive continuity" -- in The Lord of the Rings, to join those pieces together.

The Hobbit does not have a clear primary antagonist other than Smaug, the dragon. It is episodic -- there are minor villains that impede the company's progress to Erebor -- and Smaug remains buried in gold under the mountain until the company arrives to dislodge him. Jackson seems to have decided that a clear and obvious imminent-threat bad guy must be brought on to the screen every few minutes, and so he elevates a minor Orc character, Azog, named in an appendix, the slayer of Thorin's grandfather, to the position of full-blown nemesis of Thorin himself. By all rights this "pale orc" should have died centuries earlier, but Peter Jackson made him nigh-immortal. I don't really approve of this change, although I suppose I can see the need for it -- and in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson made some of the minor orc characters into more clearly differentiated bad guys, with personalities, and that was a move that improved the visual storytelling. But Azog is unconvincing, and feels unnecessary.

I found the way Jackson brought back Galadriel, and Saruman, to be mostly interesting and skilfully done. However, making fundamental changes to the story like this causes a serious continuity challenge. In The Lord of the Rings, we learn that back in the time of The Hobbit, Galadriel and Gandalf and Saruman worked to drive the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur. But this only asks the reader to imagine that this happened. Since The Hobbit is also silent on the details, whatever images the reader comes up with is just fine. But when you try to explore that part of the story too closely, it becomes clear that it doesn't make a lot of sense. If the powers-that-be in Middle Earth are all fully aware of the identity of the Necromancer, and they cast him out of Dol Guldur, how is it that they then decide to essentially sit on their hands for the next sixty years and allow him to strengthen his forces and rebuild the armies of Mordor?

Jackson has also introduced a weapon that proves to Galadriel that the Necromancer is something more than a human sorceror, because he is apparently working with a Ringwraith. But Saruman seems to be in denial, co-opted by, and covering for, the Necromancer. Does he have his palantír already? If so, Gandalf can't find out about it, or he can't be surprised by it in Fellowship. Now that Gandalf knows that Saruman is a Sauron sympathizer, how can he be taken by surprise by this sixty years later? The answer is that he can't, unless at the end of this trilogy he is convinced that Saruman is free of Mordor-ous thoughts. If not corruption of his mind via the palantír, what is driving Saruman's apparent desire to downplay the Necromancer's threat?

In any case, it seems that Jackson has set up a confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman in this film that can't wait sixty years to come to a head, and so he now needs to expand on the expansion. In the next two movies, he won't be able to put the genie back in the bottle and simply tell the rest of the story told in The Hobbit, the book -- not by a long shot. Saruman probably already has the palantír, and the audience must find this out, but Gandalf can't find this out. By the end of this new trilogy, Saruman will have to convince Gandalf that he is not actually corrupted by Sauron, but the audience must know that Saruman remains a one-wizard "sleeper cell."

It's even worse than that. At the very least, we've got to get the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur, and the Witch King's blade back into his hands, so that he has it, later, to stab Frodo (unless we're to believe that there is an endless supply of morgul blades somewhere). Maybe we even have to get the Witch King himself back into his tomb for a few more years, so he isn't out and about while waiting for the Necromancer to get his act together again -- there's no basis for it. And a screenwriter can't simply introduce a morgul blade in act one without someone getting stabbed in act two. Who will it be? The only plausible character seems to be Gandalf, because we already know that Galadriel will come to his aid, as she promises in act one. But no man may slay the Witch King of Angmar, so will we see a fight scene between Galadriel and the Lord of the Nazgûl? Does the Pale Orc shit in the woods? Now we're in the realm of complete fabrication; Tolkien never even scrawled this plot-line on the back of a napkin. I can only hope I'm wrong, but whatever happens, it's going to be something Tolkien never dreamed up. Will these necessary scenes, whatever they are, be any good? Changes beget changes; will this story still be The Hobbit when all is said and done? Hell, is it even The Hobbit now?

Jackson wisely ditched a lot of Fellowship (no Barrow-wights, no Bombadil, no hot baths, no hearty meals of mushrooms) to ratchet up the dramatic tension. He knew that for the audience to stay awake, the Hobbits would need a sense of urgency, or they would take their own sweet time to get to Rivendell. But now we've got the opposite problem -- fabrication of new scenes to flesh out a trilogy. How can all this rewriting fail to to derail the rush to reach Erebor by Durin's Day, in order to present a complicated sub-plot that Tolkien didn't write? While I like these scenes as they appear in the first film, they introduce a lot of moral ambiguity, damage the continuity of the characters, and work against the structure of the Hobbit as a relatively simple moral adventure story for children. In and of itself these attempts to do what Tolkien never even tried to do -- make his Legendarium truly consistent and continuous -- are tempting, but may wind up draining away a fair amount of drama as the film struggles with its own identity and purpose.

It Isn't a Big Thing

In addition to these big changes, there are small changes that seem to work against the very continuity Jackson is trying to achieve. Let me cite one example. In the introduction to Fellowship, old Bilbo is telling hobbit children about the events in which his party defeated the trolls, sixty years earlier. Bilbo's storytelling follows the book closely, in which dawn creeps up on the trolls as Bilbo and the dwarves keep them so distracted that they do not notice; Gandalf, arriving, heralds the dawn by calling "dawn take you all, and be stone to you!"

In this film, the sun has already risen, but is obscured by a wall of stone. Gandalf uses his magical powers to split this stone dramatically, so that the dawn sun is suddenly revealed. It's a small change, and it gives Gandalf more to actually do in the scene, but it's inconsistent with both the book and the earlier film, and watching Bilbo tell the story in Fellowship now causes cognitive dissonance. How did it go again?

Add to this that Jackson's re-telling of the confrontation with the trolls throws out most of Tolkien's original and highly amusing banter between Bilbo, the trolls, and the dwarves, modernizing the language, and it seems again as if a scene that could have been quite brilliantly presented has been made overly complicated, and for no good reason other than the egos of the screenwriters.

It's a Ring Thing

Another minor matter winds up obscuring a fairly important plot point. In the prologue to Fellowship, the film, we see Bilbo stumble across the ring by chance, and this is how it is described in the book:

His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall. He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment. He did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while.

The odds against Bilbo, in the pitch-black miles of tunnels under the Misty Mountains, just happening to come across the ring by touch, are astronomically high, of course. Or they would be, unless the ring, as Tolkien described it, really is trying to get back to its master, Sauron -- it "wants to be found." It can't walk, of course, but it can choose to drop off a finger at an opportune time; in the same prologue, we learn that it betrayed Isildur.

But in The Hobbit, the movie, Jackson undoes this "retconning." Bilbo actually sees the ring drop from Gollum's pocket. He knows immediately that the ring belongs to Gollum. He knows immediately that he's basically stolen Gollum's lost property -- and he doesn't care.

There's more to this matter. There actually is a storytelling discontinuity between the books of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo initially claimed, to Gandalf, that he won the ring from Gollum in the riddle game. He later acknowledges that he lied about that. In the first edition of The Hobbit, Bilbo bargains with Gollum over winning a "present" in the riddle game; Tolkien changed this in the second edition, retconning it to make it clearer to the reader that Bilbo's version of the story contained a self-protective lie. Bilbo's lie, the notion that the ring was a reward for winning the riddle-game, was his self-justification for his cruelty in keeping it from Gollum, the story he told himself until he believed it, or at least seemed to believe it -- the same way that Gollum, many years earlier, justified his murder of Deagol to take the ring, telling himself he deserved it, as his birthday present.

It's part of a larger pattern in these books, in which events from different ages -- myth, legend, and history -- prefigure one another. It's a major theme in Tolkien's work, echoing across his whole Legendarium; Iluin, the silver lamp of Arda begat the Tree of Valinor, Telperion, which begat the tree Galathilion, which begat the tree Celeborn, on Tol Eressëa, which begat Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor, which begat the four generations of the White Tree of Gondor. Morgoth begat Sauron; the ring betrayed Isuldur, and later Gollum. Gollum made an excuse for taking it, and even convinced himself it was true, as did Bilbo.

So in Tolkien's own writing we had two versions of this story, the self-aggrandizing, self-protective lie -- and the truth. The screenwriters had an opportunity to hang a lampshade on this inconsistency, but this opportunity was lost because contradictory stories were not included in Fellowship, the film. And so the least confusing path would have been for the screenwriters to simply stick with the prologue version of events, in which Bilbo seems to stumble across the ring by "chance," and does not know it was Gollum's, until he suspects so when Gollum realizes his "precious" is missing.

But now instead we have a third version of events, that contradicts visually, not just in a verbal account, the earlier film. Did the producers think that the audience would not understand that it was Gollum's ring, unless they actually saw him lose it? I can think of lots of ways to clarify this, without blatant revision. So much effort went into trying to make this film a seamless part of the story of The Lord of the Rings. So why insert this blatant inconsistency, demean Bilbo's character, and lose the opportunity to mention the way that the ring is actually an actor in trying to decide its own fate?

The Book of Exodus

Jackson mostly gets the feel of the dwarves right. That's tricky. They are comic, but some must also be excellent fighters, and some must show wisdom, and all must ultimately display courage. Jackson gets this effort going by setting up Thorin Oakenshield's character in a neat bit of visual storytelling about an earlier attempt to retake the Mines of Moria. We learn there that the hair-covered dwarves are not merely cute, but can be fierce and deadly.

In one of the commentary tracks in his earlier films, Jackson comments that when creating Orc faces, he had a rule: "no Witchiepoo noses." Witchiepoo is the witch character in the Sid and Marty Kroft TV show H.R. Pufnstuf, and her nose resembles a piece of putty that has been squeezed to make it long and pointy, almost like a carrot. Jackson's point was that he wanted his Orc faces to appear varied, realistic, scarred, and scary, each with its own character, and to not just made an extra into an orc by adding putty to the nose.

And yet most of his dwarves have big, hooked prosthetic noses. But only most. What is going on here? My wife, with Semitic ancestry, asked me why they were all Jewish.

I noted with some discomfort that in fact they didn't all look Semitic -- the heroic dwarves, like Thorin Oakenshield, look Nordic, while the cruder, clumsier, less heroic dwarves do look vaguely like the cast of "Old Jews Telling Jokes." Hell, Nori's hair and beard actually forms a pretty blatant six-sided star of David. That seems like a pretty strong hint to me. It's perhaps not as egregiously anti-Semitic per se as, say, George Lucas's Jar Jar Binks, but it makes me wonder, just a bit, whether Jackson considered that some folks might be offended, as they were by the goblin bankers in the Harry Potter movies -- goblin bankers with Witchiepoo noses, and faces that looked like they came straight out of anti-Semitic propaganda posters.

But it raises a deeper question -- seriously, did Tolkien intend to make his dwarves the Jews of middle earth? There is a dwarvish diaspora, and a movement to re-colonize their ancestral homeland, and the leader ultimately does not get there with them. So perhaps this is deliberate, and perhaps it would not be alien to Tolkien, and what I know of Tolkien suggests that he would have found anti-Semitism in any form absolutely repugnant. In any case, it's almost certain to be lost on young viewers, while taking on a certain risk of reinforcing stereotypes.

Who's That Dwarf?

I will give Jackson some credit: it was a big job trying to create thirteen separate recognizable, developed dwarf characters, while also pairing them up as they are in the book, as pairs of brothers: Fili and Kili, Ori and Nori, etc. But despite the really impressive prosthetic and makeup and acting work, Jackson did not actually succeed in creating thirteen separate, recognizable dwarf characters.

The second time I saw the film, I tried an experiment -- I did my best to identify the dwarves and remember who each one was, trying to say their names to myself each time I saw them on screen. It didn't really work. By the end of the second viewing, some of the dwarves were still a jumble. Keep in mind that I had watched these characters on screen for upwards of six hours, but still couldn't easily tell them apart.

Oh, I could readily recognize Thorin, of course -- he's taller, because he has to be able to use an Elvish sword effectively -- and Balin, and Dwalin, and Fili, and Kili, and maybe Ori -- or is that Nori? And Bombur, of course, the fat one.

But the rest remain a bit of a blur. I think that's Bifur, in the hat with wings. But that leaves a half-dozen that aren't clearly differentiated. I'm expecting to eventually buy the DVD release, so maybe I can finally get them all down. But it shouldn't be that hard.

It isn't just me. I showed my children a picture of all the dwarves and asked them to name them. They could only pin names on four or five. Kids have great memories. My son is the same young man who can rattle off the names of, literally, hundreds of Pokemon. The dwarves aren't properly introduced and differentiated. Jackson rushes their introduction. The first few arrive in pairs, following the book, but then he unceremoniously dumps seven or eight of them into Bilbo's foyer in a heap. Jackson's got time to have Bilbo and Gollum play pretty much the entire riddle game from the book, but we can't take the time to properly get to know the dwarves, who are going to be our companions for the next nine hours?

The unexpected party at Bilbo's home is quite funny in the book. The dwarves are unkempt and have drunk a lot of ale, so it is not horrifying to see a few dwarves try to out-belch each other. But the washing-up scene, where the dwarves sing a song about smashing up all of Bilbo's antique dishes while not actually breaking any of them, is surprisingly weak in the film. Bilbo is nervous about his plates, but the audience isn't, because they pretty clearly aren't real plates. Jackson could simply have made the dwarves very good at throwing and catching dishes. They could and should have shot the sequence by tossing real plates. So maybe the actors aren't so great at catching plates. Are you going to tell me with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on this film, the budget couldn't stretch to cover a hundred extra plates, a plate-throwing choreographer, and a few hours of practice? The kids have a word for this kind of thing: it's "lame!"

Bilbo's Arc

In another change, Bilbo's departure the next morning feels much less abrupt than it should. In the book, Gandalf actually meets Bilbo at his home the next morning, the dwarves having left him a note on his mantelpiece, which he has not yet dusted. Gandalf shoos Bilbo right out the door. When Bilbo starts to object, Gandalf just shouts "no time for that!" And so he doesn't exactly jump, but is pushed.

In the film, Bilbo wakes up and realizes that he actually does want to go, and takes his time thinking about it; his change of heart, at this point in the story, feels a little unconvincing. It's not the actor; it's the screenwriting, here.

In Tolkien's book, Bilbo really does not act with decisive, unforced initiative until his final lonely epiphany at the head of the tunnel leading down to Smaug's lair. But just like Jackson feels he has to produce a conventional fantasy villain, he also feels he must provide a story arc for Bilbo across the first film. This makes Bilbo's development as a character feel rushed. Bilbo's whole appeal to the audience is that he is not a conventional hero, but truly a homebody; he wins mostly by luck, the ability to hide, and reserves of courage that are a surprise even to him. But it takes him a long time to get there. By the end of this film Thorin has already recognized Bilbo's courage. I don't like what this implies about the growth of Bilbo's character in the next two films -- can there be any?


Now to a change that my wife really liked, and I didn't like quite so much. In the book, Gandalf's fellow wizard, Radagast, is briefly mentioned. He never appears in person. He has no dialogue. Jackson has made Radagast a much more significant character. He is a comic St. Francis, protector of birds and animals, and he gets a crazy wooden sled to ride, pulled by a team of animated rabbits. This gets silly fast, which brings us to further issues of tone. This film tries at times to combine the comical or childish with the terrifying directly, in ways that don't really work well, and aren't true to the book emotionally.

I like Radagast in this movie; he's a nice bit of comic relief, and he serves to remind us that the evil growing in Middle Earth really is dangerous, without harming any of our major characters yet. And yet he's put into a sort of confrontation with wargs, and our pale orc antagonist. These wargs are every bit as dark and frightening as they were in the first trilogy. The juxtaposition of overtly comic and deliberately scary feels odd, and seems to derail both Radagast's ability to provide comic relief and the warg's threat level, as if they were terms of an equation that simply cancelled each other out.

I'm assuming Radagast will return in the second and third films; I just hope he is used a little bit better, in ways that are more integral to the plot, rather than the way Jackson has given him this apparent make-work.

Inaction Heroes

The sequence where Bilbo helps rescue the dwarves from a band of trolls has a similar problem -- in the book, it takes the time to build up more dramatic tension, while here in the film it is frenetic, slightly disjointed, and yet takes a long time to watch -- cancelling itself out to some extent. The sequence afterwards, where the party discovers some ancient Elvish weapons, ought to be just a brief epilogue to the troll scene, and yet feels much more interesting.

Next up, we get a very uneven sequence in Rivendell, in which the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings clash awkwardly with the animosity of the dwarves. In the book, the dwarves stay two weeks. In the movie, they can barely stand staying a single evening in Rivendell before they bolt.

There's a funny line that is true to the book -- Bilbo is wondering if his sword Sting has any special significance. Balin tells him not to bother, as it's not likely to have achieved renown in battle, and he's not even sure it's really a sword -- more of a "letter opener" (the hobbit-sized Sting is described in the book as a dagger).

The scene in which Elrond decodes Thorin's map is gorgeous, and Gandalf's awkward scene with Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel is intriguing, but Thorin's scowl and the other dwarves' rudeness clashes badly with the beauty of the sets. A gag that implies the elves are vegetarians falls utterly flat. Are we really supposed to believe that the elves invite dwarves to dine with them, and the legendary hospitality of the Last Homely House East of the Sea is such that they offer their warrior guests only salad and -- what are those other things on the screen, sushi rolls? It's one of the film's truly cringe-worthy missteps, as opposed to merely weak or unconvincing moments.

A sequence follows that shows the party traveling through the Misty Mountains in which they are literally clinging to the bodies of fighting stone giants. This ought to be visually exciting, and I'm sure it cost a great deal, but it just isn't convincingly threatening. It just isn't credible at this point that any of the company might be killed or badly injured, and without that, there's no drama. And so this is another point in which deviating from Tolkien doesn't do the storytelling any favors.

There's a very long sequence as the dwarves fight their way out of goblin custody under the Misty Mountains. I wrote earlier about the moral implications of the violence in this segment. Just in terms of the senses, all the falling wood and burning torches and swinging weapons and narrow escapes really just pile on until you reach a sort of visual overload, and a corresponding loss of emotional significance. Again, we don't believe that any dwarf is going to be seriously harmed in this sequence, and so it is robbed of much of its weight.

In the book, the scene is a sort of high-speed forced march, under the lash, through the caverns of the goblins, centered around a confrontation with the Great Goblin. The kernel of that scene is here, but it's rebuilt into a long fight scene that merges the visual look of the orc-forges at Isengard and the daring escape from Moria. But with everything going on at once, for the whole scene, and no real sense of danger, the result is a sort of emotional cancellation.

Things to Like

So with all that, lest I seem too harsh on this film, let me talk about some things that I like. The introduction has been criticized as too long. I thought it was just fine, and very vivid. It is setting up a lot of things that I can't wait to see played out fully, like the sub-plot involving the Arkenstone. I could have done without an elf riding a moose, but you can't not have everything you don't want, at least not when Peter Jackson is involved.

I didn't want to cheer at the end of the movie, but when Frodo casually walks out of one of the rooms in Bag End, I was surprised to find myself tearing up a little bit. The instant jump across sixty years, merging the beginning of this present film with the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, really did make me want to cheer.

Some critics have mocked the dwarvish singing in Bilbo's house, claiming it goes on for far too long. But this is a beautiful scene, and wonderfully convincing -- and it takes only a minute or so. They don't sing all of Tolkien's lyrics, by a long shot. I think these critics are criticizing the wrong scene. This scene is not boring. It's the debate about whether Bilbo is going to come along or not that gets tedious; that, and the unconvincing washing-up scene. And the (yawn) battle to escape the goblins.

In the book, the goblins sing as they chase the dwarves into trees and ignite the trees. Like the Tom Bombadil sequence in Fellowship, that's probably something that would out better in your imagination, or in a fully animated film, rather than a live-action film, even one with a lot of computer graphics. The goblins have to be menacing to drive the plot, and it's hard to make them menacing when they stop to sing songs. So I can understand why the filmmakers did not attempt to literally make the goblins sing. But if you think that goblin-singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars, look up the Rankin-Bass animated special from 1977. In fact, if your plan is to take your ten-year-old child to see this movie, you might do better just to show her that wonderful animated version instead, at least for now, and hope for a better cut of the film on DVD.

High Hopes

Despite this mixed review, and my general dissatisfaction with this film, I must say that I'm still really looking forward to the next one. There's a lot more story ahead, including the visit to Beorn's hall, the spider attack on the company in Mirkwood, the barrel-riding sequence, Bilbo's daring burglary, the dramatic defeat of Smaug, and the Battle of Five Armies. It might seem ridiculous at first glance to think that a relatively thin book like The Hobbit really justifies a trilogy, but in fact a great deal happens in the book, and Jackson's great opportunity to film all of it is one that fans really should be excited about. So let's hope Jackson and crew doesn't screw up the next one.

I believe Jackson can overcome some of the problems in this first film and do a great job with the rest. Bilbo's riddling conversation with the dragon Smaug, if it is played out pretty much as written, as his riddle game with Gollum was, will be brilliant. Jackson's trick will be to try to balance the elements. He's opened a can of worms, in trying to link up Tolkien's great tales, and now he has to get it closed. The quicker he can do that and get back to telling Tolkien's story itself, the better the next two movies will be.

But he's got to get the tone right. He's got to decide whether he's telling a children's story or dumping the appendices from The Return of the King to the screen. Both could be interesting films, but the films can't truly do both. It is perhaps the odd paradox of this somewhat self-defeating film that the slow scenes that follow the book line by line are the ones that are exciting, while the invented scenes to link the stories together are less so, and the conventional action sequences that elaborate and speed up the action for the sake of drama are not dramatic.

And so I find myself excited by the prospect of a special Condensed Edition DVD release. Perhaps a re-cut really would be possible. But it's not urgent. Get the next two films right, and viewers will look more favorably on this episode. But if the next two films let their ambitious screenplays outweigh the actual effective visual storytelling that I know Jackson can do, history will not be kind to this Hobbit.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Apple Breaks My Gitit Wiki Under Mountain Lion

So this is a pretty specific problem, and I'm just posting in case this helps anyone else who comes across this via Google.

I have a Wiki that I use on my LAN by using gitit (a Haskell wiki running on top of Git). It runs a web server, on a local port (5001), but I want to share it with other machines on my LAN, so I use Apache and some proxying. This was all working under Lion, with some effort, but when I upgraded to Mountain Lion today, I discovered that Apple really hosed up people who actually used their Apache web sharing. MANY things were broken and it's taken me some gnashing of teeth to figure it out.

First of all, they overwrote /etc/apache2/httpd.conf which was, I thought, a bit rude. Fortunately my old config file was preserved in https.conf~previous. I did not just use the old one; I pulled out the lines I had added (you always tag lines you add or change in config files with comments like PRP ADDED: (stuff) END OF PRP ADDED or PRP CHANGED FROM: (stuff) TO: (different stuff) when you change standard system config files, don't you?) Fortunately the Mountain Lion upgrade did not remove the proxy_html.conf and gitit.proxy.conf I had put in /etc/apache2/other/. Since I'm documenting this, my gitit_proxy.conf file looks like this:
# These commands will proxy /gitit/ to port 5001

ProxyRequests Off

<Proxy *>
  Order deny,allow
  Allow from all

# Per the mod_proxy_html 3.1.2 sample proxy_html.conf file, this is a critical security setting

ProxyRequests Off

ProxyPass /gitit/ http://localhost:5001/

<Location /gitit/>
        # PRP: This is obsolete for mod_proxy_html versions 3.1+
        # SetOutputFilter proxy-html
        # The result is silent failure!
        # PRP: use this instead:
        ProxyHTMLEnable On
        # Note also that it is critically important that the proxy_html.conf file (default works for me)
        # is present where Apache can find it (in mod_proxy_html versions 3.1+, apparently no HTML
        # elements are changed unless they are specifically declared in a config file, so again, the
        # result is silent failure!)
        ProxyPassReverse /
        ProxyHTMLURLMap / /gitit/
        RequestHeader unset Accept-Encoding
while my proxy.html.conf file is the standard one that came with mod_proxy_html.

Also while I'm at it, if you have problems with punctuation in Wiki URLs, I recently got some advice from the author of gitit to include xss-sanitize: no in the .conf file I use for configuring gitit, and that fixed it. For example:

[Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet]()

was not being recognized as a Wiki link because of the colon until I changed this. Note that this might enable some sort of obscure security hole if your Wiki is facing the general public instead of behind a firewall.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Mountain Lion and the Apache web server. Apparetly after the upgrade, you can no longer turn on web sharing from the "Sharing" control panel, which was kind of a dick move on Apple's part! But you can find some instructions to turn it on here.

What I did was to enable the launch daemon with sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/org.apache.httpd Disabled -bool false and then to allow me to turn it on and off more easily while testing, I installed this 3rd-party web sharing preference pane. Now personally I don't care about sharing something from my home directory or from my web root, so I didn't bother to fix the fact that accessing http://localhost/ now gives "permission denied," since I'm using a virtual server under http://localhost/gitit/, but if that bugs you, can probably find how to fix that elsewhere.

OK, there's more. I had a couple of Apache modules added to my system. They were broken. Apache wouldn't log any errors, but was failing constantly, and so the system was trying to restart it every ten seconds. I finally was able to figure out what was going wrong using apachectl configtest, which told me things like httpd: Syntax error on line 98 of /private/etc/apache2/httpd.conf: Cannot load /usr/libexec/apache2/ into server: dlopen(/usr/libexec/apache2/, 10): image not found. Which meant the shared libraries were missing.

So I didn't bother to try to find if the Mountain Lion upgrade had preserved these shared libraries somewhere; I wanted to rebuild them. I had originally built them using this gentleman's advice. But under Mountain Lion this would no longer work. The commands he suggested,
$ sudo apxs -ci -I /usr/include/libxml2 mod_xml2enc.c
$ sudo apxs -ci -I /usr/include/libxml2 -I . mod_proxy_html.c
had several problems; the libtool commands used by apxs under Mountain Lion apparently have some new problems, so I'd get
libtool: compile: unable to infer tagged configurationlibtool: compile: specify a tag with `--tag'
I tried to fix this by changing things in /usr/share/httpd/build/, but that wouldn't work, and I really didn't want to go down a libtool rabbit hole trying to understand that whole nightmare. So what I finally had to do was modify the commands that the apxs calls expanded out into. There were a couple of things I had to fix first. Although I had XCode and the command-line tools installed under Lion, when I upgraded, they were removed. This meant I had no system headers under /usr/include (the error referenced missing ctype.h). The fix was to run XCode, look under Preferences, Downloads, Components, and check for and reinstall the Command Line Tools component.

Next, note that the CC path referenced in the aforementioned is broken, which looks like a Mountain Lion bug to me. So I had to change that path to correspond to the one that actually exists in the latest XCode (now installed under Applications instead of the whole Developer tree). And finally, our specific libtool used for this build needs to get --tag=CC in order to work correctly.

Inside my downloaded mod_proxy_html source directory, I used these commands:
sudo /usr/share/apr-1/build-1/libtool --silent --mode=compile --tag=CC /Applications/    -DDARWIN -DSIGPROCMASK_SETS_THREAD_MASK -I/usr/local/include -I/usr/include/apache2  -I/usr/include/apr-1   -I/usr/include/apr-1  -I/usr/include/libxml2  -c -o mod_xml2enc.lo mod_xml2enc.c && touch mod_xml2enc.slo
sudo /usr/share/apr-1/build-1/libtool --silent --mode=compile --tag=CC /Applications/    -DDARWIN -DSIGPROCMASK_SETS_THREAD_MASK -I/usr/local/include -I/usr/include/apache2  -I/usr/include/apr-1   -I/usr/include/apr-1  -I/usr/include/libxml2 -I.  -c -o mod_proxy_html.lo mod_proxy_html.c && sudo touch mod_proxy_html.slo
Try saying that three times fast. All I can really say is "it worked for me." Your mileage may vary.

Then I had to hand-copy the generated .so files out of the super-secret generated .libs directory and into the place Apache uses them, so:
sudo cp ./ /usr/libexec/apache2/
sudo cp ./ /usr/libexec/apache2/
And, my stuff's working again. http://localhost/gitit/ connects to my Wiki from my local machine, and also works across the network.

I hope this might save you a little time. What a mess!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Followup on Apogee Ensemble, Logic, and Skype: Making Them All Work Together

So, in this previous blog entry I talked about Apogee Ensemble, Logic, and Skype: Making Them All Work Together and included a bunch of drawings and screen-shots and what not.

After upgrading to Lion -- which was an ugly mess, in that I had a lot of plug-ins that wouldn't work right under Lion -- one problem remained, which was that I could not get bidirectional S/PDIF audio to work on the digital optical connectors. In other words, the setup that worked fine under Snow Leopard didn't seem to work under Lion.

The problem seems to be the way the Ensemble and its control panel application, Maestro, refer to the S/PDIF coaxial and optical ports. Under the previous version of Maestro, it seemed to work OK to configure the S/PDIF optical in to route to software inputs 9 and 10, so I could use 10x10 routing -- even though this wasn't actually clearly shown in Maestro -- and to route software outputs 9 and 10 to the S/PDIF optical outs.

Under Maestro 2 and the Lion drivers, this doesn't seem to work, as far as the inputs go. It seems now that the software is more clearly convinced that the coax and optical digital inputs are separate. In order to even be able to select the optical digital input for software inputs 9 and 10, you have to have the Ensemble in 18x18 mode. Like so (click the images to enlarge) -- inputs:

and outputs:

Note that what I'd really like to do is configure software inputs 11-18 as "no mapping" -- that is, I'm not using them, and similarly for the hardware outputs: I don't want any logical output channels on the coax digital out, or the three "N.A." hardware outputs (whatever that means). But whatever -- this configuration works! I can do two-way digital I/O.

However, the bigger problem is that I don't really want to run the Ensemble at 18x18 -- it uses up extra FireWire bandwidth. This means that I probably can't use my iSight camera along with the Ensemble to record a video while I'm recording audio (and I could, in the 10x10 configuration under Snow Leopard). So does it work to switch back to 10x10 after making this configuration? On the theory that I've told it what the routing should be, but I only want to route data for channels 1-10?

Nope. At least in my test, while the input to the Ensemble works fine (so, for example, I can listen via Logic to input 9/10 and hear music from my iTunes library playing from my Mac), when I try to send audio out channels 9/10 I get white noise (or what sounds mostly white noise) out of the Ensemble's digital optical S/PDIF outputs. And I can't even access the S/PDIF optical inputs or outputs in the input and output configuration windows to try to change them:

So, there you have it. A feature that was semi-working under Snow Leopard, now broken under Lion. It looks like I will have to run my Ensemble in 18x18 mode if I want to use the S/PDIF digital optical inputs and outputs.

It would be kind of nice if this were not the case -- assuming the unit is transmitting and receiving 10 channels of data, why can't it send ten arbitrary software data sources to any or multiple hardware outputs, and vice-versa? Maybe there's a reason -- I write DSP software, and sometimes for performance reasons you have to rely on a DMA, that blasts data into our out of memory in a specific ordered pattern and you can't change the pattern -- but in this case I don't think that's what is happening; I think the data is being copied out of DMA buffers into user space in arbitrary order, since you can map (say) a software output to multiple hardware outputs. And also, it worked under the previous version of MacOS X. I think the issue is just not adequately testing and supporting an edge case. Maestro has never really been the most stable and solid of applications. It seems better now, but I still managed to crash it and lock it up several times today while testing. Not what I really hope for the "flagship" audio interface for the Mac Pro, even though it is not the highest-end product in Apogee's lineup.

I spent time with Apogee's tech support chat, and although I was not able to resolve the issue while engaged in the live chat, the conversation did serve to point me in the right direction (18x18 versus 10x10 routing). Here is an (edited) transcript:

You are now chatting with 'Patricia'
Patricia: Hello! I'm an Apogee customer success representative here to assist you with your tech support needs. Let me take a look at the issue you've described, one moment please.

(Bleh -- customer "success" representative? Please...)
Patricia: Hi paul
Paul: Hello
Patricia: can you open apogee maestro
Patricia: and tell me your version numbers?

(Chat about software version numbers and Ensemble serial numbers, and more possibly confusing explanation of my issues, removed -- actually I was impressed with how much time the representative spent with me).

Paul: Right now it is working - I have a mic in to my Ensemble, a Logic project that processes it and routes it to 9/10 out, and an optical cable going into my Mac Pro. The sound control panel is set to Mac audio in from the optical port, and the meter reacts, and I can (for example) use this mic as a source for a Skype call this way
Paul: But it does not work in the opposite direction (I have a separate cable, the Mac audio out is set to the optical out, and I'm monitoring inputs 9/10 in Logic). I think I have Maestro configured properly although some of these settings are not that clear, like SRC Select and SRC rate. In any case they don't seem to fix it. Clock is sets to internal
Paul: Like I said this worked under Snow Leopard (with Maestro 1 and the previous drivers).
Patricia: Should it be set to 11/12?
Paul: What?
Paul: 11/12 out instead of 9/10 out?
Patricia: my apologies
Paul: The I/O allocation is set up as 10x10 -- I think that's what worked before
Patricia: on the output routing page
Patricia: ah
Patricia: then no 11/12
Paul: 9/10 are the highest numbers that show up in Logic
Patricia: that is correct if your allocation is 10x10
Paul: Was there maybe a change where the coax and S/PDIF digital outputs are separate now? I never really understood how those were counted, how it decides which ones to send/receive on?
Paul: I guess maybe that is the Optical In/ Optical Out setting. They are set to SPDIF Optical now
Patricia: In order to utilize the spidif optical you will need to use 18x18
Patricia: and use 11 and 12
Paul: But it is working one way already for the output from Logic to the mac on 9/10?
Patricia: spdif coax is 9/10
Patricia: optical is 11 and 12
Paul: Let me try that
Paul: Did that change? Because I don't think I ever had to use it at 18x18
Patricia: I am pretty sure that has always been the case

(Note that I think this is not entirely true -- or, at least, even though it may have been an unsupported configuration, I was able to get "11 and 12" optical I/O working when routing 10x10).

Paul: OK, I am changing my Logic setup... one moment
Patricia: okay
Patricia: you may have to reopen logic and re-choose the ensemble
Patricia: changing io allocations can make logic see it as a new interface
Paul: Yes I shut it down and restarted Logic
Patricia: okay
Paul: OK, Logic knows that I have more channels now, but if I output to 11/12 the Mac does not see audio on the S/PDIF in. If I output to 9/10, it does
Paul: So literally, the Sound control panel with the input set to Digital In, the meter doesn't register if Logic is sending on 11/12
Paul: As for the other direction, I'm playing music from iTunes to the Mac audio out, set to digital out, and the Ensemble front panel still shows activity on the last meter when it is playing, but I can't get anything in Logic from either 9/10 or 11/12

(Note that if I had looked at the input and output routings under the 18/18 configuration, I probably would have seen the problem at this point, but I was kind of hung up on how it had been working with a 10x10 routing).

Patricia: Well unfortunately, I don't have an ensemble here to troubleshoot with you, so I am going to have to ask you to call in for further assistance.
Patricia: 310.584.9394
Patricia: they should be able to give you more insight
Patricia: I apologize for the inconvenience
Paul: OK, well, thanks anyway
Paul: I appreciate you taking the time
Patricia: You are welcome
Patricia: they will be able to replicate your set up
Patricia: no problem!
Patricia: thank you for choosing Apogee!

Anyway, I am happy with Apogee's tech support, and could take it to the next stage and call, but since my issue is solved, I don't really have a bug to report per se. I just wish Apple (and Apogee's) audio routing was more flexible. If I could specify the exact hardware that conforms to "system audio in" and "system audio out" at the Core Audio level, with an Apple-provided GUI, this whole workaround would be largely unnecessary.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Effort it Takes to be Honest

I bought a DVD set for the kids.

Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD
Item Id: 260997560997
End time: May-05-12 08:25:49 PDT
Buyer: (your humble blogger)
100.0% Positive Feedback
Member since Oct-15-99 in United States

From: (your humble blogger)
To: (eBay seller)
Subject: Other: (your humble blogger) sent a message about Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD #260997560997
Sent Date: Apr-23-12 15:16:40 PDT

Dear (eBay seller),


I ordered/paid for one copy of this DVD set but I actually received two in the mail on the same day. Do you want me to return the 2nd copy? If so can you please send me the mailing address I should use. Thanks - Paul

- (your humble blogger)

From: (eBay seller)
To: (your humble blogger)
Subject: Re: Other: (your humble blogger) sent a message about Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD #260997560997
Sent Date: Apr-27-12 11:52:08 PDT

Dear (your humble blogger),

Thanks for your message.

We have issued return authorization # JB03201470 for your return. 

Please follow the directions listed on the packing slip and the package will be routed back to our returns department for a refund to your PayPal account.  

Please be sure to include the RA# in the appropriate field on the label.  The prepaid postage label will be sent to you in a separate email.

We apologize for the inconvenience, 

- (eBay seller)

From: (your humble blogger)
To: (eBay seller)
Subject: Re: Other: (your humble blogger) sent a message about Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD #260997560997
Sent Date: May-31-12 11:27:15 PDT

Dear (eBay seller),

It looks like I have gotten a full refund but I did not actually want a refund -- note that I got _two_ copies accidentally and so I still have one. I just returned the extra one. ???

- (your humble blogger)

From: (eBay seller)
To: (your humble blogger)
Subject: Re: Other: (your humble blogger) sent a message about Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD #260997560997
Sent Date: Jun-04-12 06:20:18 PDT

Dear (your humble blogger),

Hello and thank you for contacting us,

Please let us know if you would still like this item. If so, we will submitted a replacement order for you.

We apologize for the inconvenience, 

- (eBay seller)

From: (your humble blogger)
To: (eBay seller)
Subject: Re: Other: (your humble blogger) sent a message about Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD #260997560997
Sent Date: Jun-04-12 12:59:57 PDT

Dear (eBay seller),

Let me go over this again --

I wanted one copy of this DVD set

I bought one copy of this DVD set and paid for it

I got _two_ copies in the mail

I asked to return the extra copy

Your company sent me an RMA and a postage-paid mailing label

When you received it, you credited me back for my original purchase

This means I now have a copy that was basically FREE.

I would like to pay for it. Can I just pay you again through PayPal?


(your humble blogger)

From: (eBay seller)
To: (your humble blogger)
Subject: Re: Other: (your humble blogger) sent a message about Rocky And Bullwinkle: Complete Season 5 DVD #260997560997
Sent Date: Jun-05-12 14:34:58 PDT

Dear (your humble blogger),

Hello and thanks for your message.

We apologize for the confusion.  At this time, we are sending a invoice for payment for the amount of $25.87.

We appreciate your patience in this matter,

- (eBay seller)

Dear (eBay seller),

Just paid it -- no problem, and thank you!

- (your humble blogger)

Might (this humble blogger) hope that this is actually the end of it? Hope springs eternal!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Apogee Ensemble, Logic, and Skype: Making Them All Work Together

I've been experimenting with ways to do "semi-live" music and speech over Skype with my Apogee Ensemble and Mac Pro.

The goal is, in a nutshell, to be able to run a couple of open live microphones and instrument inputs, all through plug-ins, and do a full mix, which can be recorded while performing, and also send that stream to Skype. What this gives me is the ability to make a call into a live streaming radio show, processing my voice and instruments as I see fit for the live audio, and get a high-quality multi-track recording that I can play with later, for post-production. I'd like to be able to use this setup for Skype, and I'd also like to use a similar setup for deejaying a live show using a controller -- for Traktor, maybe, or Itch, although I have not worked that all out yet. I could stream the results to UStream, or some other streaming service -- or up to Skype, although Skype's half-duplex nature and lag makes it impossible to use for live jams.

Now here's the basic difficulty I have with a lot of audio applications on MacOS X. CoreAudio is fantastic, and gives me an incredible amount of control -- but that control stops at the individual applications that I want to route together. There is not a "standard" way to choose audio routing, or a standard Apple-provided way to patch audio together. My Ensemble has a lot of outputs and inputs, but Skype doesn't. The settings for choosing audio input to Skype looks like this:

I can only choose the interface I'm using -- not the channel I'm using. In other words, I can't run an output into just any input and tell Skype to use that specific input. With a little experimentation I've determined that Skype always listens on Channel 1 of the given audio interface only.

So, I've got to send my processed live audio back into my audio interface's channel 1 input. See this highly sophisticated computer rendering which explains the routing:

This is how I record the Bloodthirsty Vegetarians podcast with Rich Wielgosz. I'm using a condenser microphone plugged into one of the microphone inputs of the Ensemble, with phantom power on. It can't be just any of the inputs though -- it can't be the first input, since I'm going to use that to send the mixed audio to Skype. That microphone is going into a channel strip in Logic Pro. On that channel strip I've got an instance of Izotope Alloy set up using a preset that gives me an "NPR" sound -- a smile curve and some mild compression and gating. What Logic is recording, though, is the raw audio from the microphone. After we're done with the Skype call, I take that raw mic audio file and run it through Izotope RX to remove some faint computer fan or heating system noise, turn it into a FLAC, and upload it to a place where Rich can get it. He then puts it together with _his_ mic audio, lines them up, edits them while keeping both channels in sync, applies whatever compression and gating effects he thinks best, and of course drops in the intro, outro, any sound effects, and the songs we're talking about.

So what I've done is to route my mixed audio to an Aux channel in Logic, and out output 8, where it is converted to analog, and then back into input 1 on my Ensemble. I've set input 1 to line level, not mic level -- and you must make sure that phantom power on input 1 is turned off!

Because of the hardware, I had to order a special short cable to do this: a TRS 1/4" (for the channel 8 analog output) to XLR male. It will actually work to use a short 1/4" TS to TS or TRS to TRS cable, and run it into the "effects return" input for channel 1, which is designed to use as a "return" from an external compressor, but this is not ideal (it loses the balanced connection and does something to the voltage that might change the level; I have to admit I'm not quite nerdy enough at the hardware level to explain exactly what, in terms of dBu or volts. If you can, use the right cable.

Make sure you turn on low-latency mode with a setup like this, so you don't hear noticeable delay in your headphones, and of course if you have monitor speakers on outputs 1-2 you'll want them turned down so you don't get feedback. I've also found that I need to turn the headphone level down to well below my normal listening level in order to avoid headphone bleed from the Skype call. This might normally not be noticeable -- if I'm recording a vocal track to use for a song, while listening to the backing, any bleed will likely be in sync and covered up in the final mix. But when using Skype, there are some delays involved, and if you're not talking over a music bed, your co-host might be audible. If you both have headphone bleed, it will be out of sync due to the Skype latencies -- trust me, it's a mess, so keep your headphone levels as low as you can bear.

So that works, although to me it seems frustratingly inelegant -- these are pretty good analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, but it doesn't seem sensible that I have to give up my channel 1 input and do an extra set of conversions, even if the extra audio is only feeding a fairly low-quality Skype connection. It's also all a little touchy -- there are lots of settings, and sometimes I will have changed them, or they will have changed out from under me; every once in a while, my audio interface goes crazy. So before I record a show -- every single time -- I always have to do a Skype test call, to verify that the audio stream going up to Skype sounds OK. Sometimes it sounds perfectly fine on my end, but the audio input Skype is hearing is full of glitches. In that case what usually works is to just power-cycle my Apogee Ensemble.

There does seem to be a better way, or at least a different way. I've tried solutions with an extra software-only audio bus: Soundflower, or Jack. But Soundflower is broken on MacOS X, and has been for a long time. It seems to have a design issue that can't be fixed with a simple patch. I was able to get Jack working, but it is complicated and fiddly and I don't like the GUI, and it uses CPU. I could add an extra audio interface to my Mac Pro -- like a separate USB-based audio interface. But my Ensemble cost a lot of money, so I'm not really inclined to buy more hardware, that likely sounds worse and still involves those extra D/A and A/D conversion steps. But there is another option. My Mac Pro has built-in digital audio, in the form of TOSLINK S/PDIF I/O. I've long been curious as to whether I could use this input for this sort of thing, and avoid an extra D/A and A/D step. So this past weekend I bought a TOSLINK cable. And it turns out I can make it work -- but with, you guessed it, a few minor issues. Like so:

The cable I got is nothing special -- it wasn't a glass cable, or a super-expensive one. Just make sure it has standard TOSLink optical at both ends, and not the Mini TOSLINK. The Ensemble optical I/O uses the standard-sized connectors. If you're going into a laptop or Mac Mini instead of a Mac Pro, you'll want a cable that has a standard TOSLINK connector at one end and the Mini connector at the other end. There are adapters available, but it is probably best just to get the right cable. Note that these cables only transmit data in one direction -- from an output to an input. If you want to get audio back out of the Mac back into the Ensemble this way -- say, you wanted to record system beeps or something via your Ensemble, you'd need a second cable. I did not bother with that, but I'm sure there might be some interesting possibilities there.

The hard part was figuring out where to find all the relevant settings. Here are the settings that worked for me. First, the Maestro control panel. Note the I/O Allocation must be 10x10 or above; with 8x8, the digital I/O isn't supported at all. The format for the optical out must be set to SPDIF (I think it defaults to giving you ADAT, which won't work).

This is what my Maestro mixer settings look like: first, my mixer is turned off (you can have it on if you want to do some kind of live monitoring of your direct inputs).

The input routing matrix is set up as follows: note that I'm not using any digital inputs on the Ensemble:

The outputs look like this. Take particular note of the way the S/PDIF outs are on the first two optical outs, not the ones labeled SPDIF Out 1/2 -- even though Maestro labels them "SPDIF Coax L/R" on the column of outputs on the left. I had to mess with this a bit to get it to work -- Maestro is slightly buggy when editing these -- and if it isn't right the only clue something is wrong is that it won't work.

When troubleshooting this, note that the little meter in the Sound panel under System Preferences comes in very handy -- it will show you if anything is coming in on the optical S/PDIF. You can leave this open and make some noise and tweak settings:

Here are my Audio MIDI Setup app settings:

And a live setup in Logic:

That "Solo Safe" problem has showed up, which has only just started appearing in my projects and is driving me batty, but never mind that, let's look at the routing. It's similar to the setup above for analog, except that I'm using a second microphone, and routing out to 9/10. I have the output level down a bit but that was just me experimenting. Note it is panned hard left, since Skype only listens to the first channel on its selected input anyway, although this is not strictly needed and changes nothing.

This setup lets me do other interesting things too -- for example, I can add my iSight camera and record a video, where the audio is coming through the Ensemble with all Logic's processing. This adds a slight bit of latency, though; I might have a visible lip-sync problem.

Things that don't work, or don't work reliably:

Note that since I'm doing compression in Logic, I have "Automatically Adjust Microphone Settings" turned off. Apparently Skype may have a tendency to turn it back on, though: check out this blog entry on the subject. This is only an annoyance. It will affect the quality of our Skype call, but not what you're recording.

Editing the routings in Apogee's Maestro app is somewhat flakey. You can easily get it so it starts displaying incorrect or confusing things. If it does this, try resetting the routing and starting over. It also always seems to display "SPDIF Coax L/R" when it is actually routing to the optical outputs.

It seems to me that I ought to be able to set up Logic to route out to "channel 9" only -- just the left side of the digital S/PDIF TOSLink stereo channel. However, if I choose a mono output from my Logic channel strip, it doesn't work at all. It does seem to work if I pan that channel strip hard left. Somehow when I tell it to send out channel 9, this seems to immediately turn the S/PDIF output into an incompatible format and the digital input on my Mac starts ignoring it.

Supposedly it might be possible to decouple the clock rate and format of the S/PDIF connection from the sample rate of my Logic project. I'd like to, for example, record at 24-bit, 96KHz, while sending audio to Skype at 16-bit/44.1KHz. There are some options to do sample-rate conversion (SRC select and SRC rate) and these are described (inadequately) in the Ensemble manual. So far I have not been able to get this to work, even going from 48KHz to 44.1KHz. It seems like the digital audio input is always clocked by the rate of my Logic project and they never "decoupled." Maybe this decoupling only works for "CD Mode" and maybe "CD Mode" only actually works on the coax digital output. I do seem to be able to set the sample size to 16 bit on the digital input side while leaving it at 24 bit on the Logic side, but I don't think that buys me anything useful.

I have not really experimented all that much -- maybe I can just leave my project at 24/96 and the audio that Skype gets will automatically be down-sampled by CoreAudio. The extra processing ought to be pretty insignificant on a Mac Pro, and since Skype audio quality is not fantastic anyway, dither should be pretty irrelevant. The FireWire bandwidth could be an issue, though; it seems to work for me to drop on iSight camera onto the machine with the current FireWire utilization, but 10x10 at 96KHz might use enough that the camera won't work, or the connection to the Ensemble will flake out (you won't get anything as friendly as an error message).

Supposedly it might be possible to send the system audio output and "beeps" to the speakers, and tell Skype to use the Ensemble as its output. That doesn't actually work for me, though. I can tell Skype to use the Ensemble as its "speakers," but it actually always sends incoming audio to the selected system audio output no matter what the menu shows. Also,when I change these settings in Skype, it seems that I always need to quit and then re-launch it before they take effect. (Skype's user interface is something I would charitably describe as "artistic," but this seems like a real bug. My experience attempting to report Skype bugs has caused me to swear off on ever attempting to report another one).

If you figure out any of these issues, or you get a similar setup working for yourself (or fail to), leave a comment. Comments are moderated. Thanks!

Update 03 May 2012

I am continuing to use this setup and it is working very reliably for my podcast recording. I made a change today -- I added a second TOSLink cable going the "opposite" way -- there is no difference between the ends or the direction of the cable itself, but it goes between the output of the Mac Pro (the glowing one) and the input of the Ensemble (the non-glowing one). Then I had to make a change in the Maestro setup, adding an input, very much like the way I set up the output (like the output, it says "Coax" even though the actual configuration uses the optical ports). Then it was just a simple matter to set the system sound output to the optical port and add a channel in Logic -- which I do not want to run to the output going to Skype. This setup actually gives me the ability to send and receive audio via Skype, recording the Skype audio as a separate track if I wanted to, without using any analog I/O on the Ensemble, except of course the stereo output on channels 1 and 2, which are feeding the headphone output. With this setup I could also record at a higher bit rate -- I can set the project to 24-bit, 96KHz, and use Audio MIDI Setup to set the Mac optical output to match. This allows me to record my live sources at 96K for later processing, while CoreAudio seems to know how to do the right sample-rate conversions behind the scenes. Very cool! Now I need to get a couple of different optical cables and try something similar with my Mac Mini.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mythos Limited and Dreamlands Cards for Trade

I have complete collections of Mythos Limited and Mythos Dreamlands cards and would be happy to trade to "even out" my collection, with two exceptions: I don't have any spares of the rare cards "Dendrophobia" and "The Lonely House in the Woods" (so I'd especially like to trade for these, if you have them).

Mythos New Aeon is another matter entirely -- I have a long "need" list of rares from that set (search this blog for "New Aeon" to find my latest list).

If you'd like to trade, leave me a comment with your e-mail address. Comments are moderated. I won't publish your e-mail address here on the blog, but I'll send you a note and we can talk about it via e-mail.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dark Age: Feudal Lords Remaining Needs and Wants

After completing some more trades, my "need" list for Dark Age: Feudal Lords is now down to one card, marked "promotional" -- and so there is not much point in my trying to acquire it by buying more boosters or decks, since I'm pretty sure it isn't found in any of them.
  • Supply: Artifact: Efficiency Bot

With that card, I would then have a complete set, which is my main goal for this collection. I'm also looking for second copies of any of these:
  • Leader: Clergy Ann
  • Instant: Once More Into the Fray
  • Leader: Warhead Leader

To trade, I have duplicates of every other Dark Age: Feudal Lords card, including the very rare foil cards. I also have a few remaining wants for Mythos, especially New Aeon, if you'd be interested in trading for those, and I'd also be willing to trade away some of my Iron Crown Enterprises Middle Earth cards.

If you'd like to trade, or sell, leave a comment with an e-mail address. I won't publish your address, but I'll get back to you. (Comments on this blog are moderated, so I will see it listed for my approval).

Monday, March 12, 2012

This is Satire

I've been hearing several conservative friends, even some who claim that they dislike Limbaugh, or don't regularly listen to him, defend his comments about Sandra Fluke on the grounds that what he was saying was intended as satire. Having listened to El Rushbo's comments, I find that I disagree with this claim, and believe it to be a desperate last-ditch defense of the indefensible.

According to Wikipedia: "In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon."

There seems to be an unwritten aspect of satire that I heard pointed out on David Feldman's comedy podcast during a round table discussion: it works up, but not down. This kind of humor in personal attacks has to be used by the less powerful against the powerful, not by the powerful against the less powerful -- otherwise it's comforting the comfortable and oppressing the oppressed. The sympathy goes -- or should go -- in the wrong direction, and so the weapon misfires. If Limbaugh's attack is considered in the context of the glorious history of genuine satire, with that in mind, it's easy to see why it was a critical failure, and it is revealed for the bullying that it was.

This is my attempt at satire in the style of Rush Limbaugh. Had he said the following, would it have felt less vicious, and would have have been convincing when he claimed it was satire? How about if I said it? What if one of her fellow law students said it?

And we're back. In this hour, more about the contraception debate, and we'll be talking about Sandra Fluke (pronounced "Fluck.") Sandra Fluck. Sandra Fluck. Quacks like a duck. Loves to... promote the use of hormonal contraception to relieve painful dysmenorrhea.

You know folks, we did the math. Sandra Fluck claims that it costs $3,000 per year for her birth control pills. We did the math. For that money she was apparently taking 186 birth control pills per day. She has effortless, pain-free menstrual periods.

Her estrogen levels are so high, that we discovered, via some information we found on Feminazipedia, that she was actually moonlighting as a superheroine, bringing pain-free menstruation to all her fellow classmates, even the men! Her vaginal muscles are so well-toned that when she does Kegels, it transmits shock waves of sensation right through the entire liberal media.

She projects a sort of force field -- a contraceptive field, if you will -- so that in a radius of about three quarters of a mile, sperm cells are rendered inert and utterly helpless. It's truly amazing, folks. Her level of dedication to the cause of reproductive health is truly amazing.

And if she happens to find a young man she finds attractive, and would like to get to know better -- well, by happy coincidence, she's protected against unwanted pregnancy. Isn't that neat?

We'll be back after this message from Sleep Nazi Beds.

The following is not satire:

What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

OK, so, she's not a slut. She's round-heeled. I take it back.

I want to know, who bought -- Ms. Fluke, who bought your condoms in junior high? Who bought your condoms in the sixth grade, or your contraception? Who bought your contraceptive pills in high school? Wouldn't you be just as likely to go broke in high school and junior high as you would be in college?

I'm not questioning her virtue. I know what her virtue is. She's having so much sex that she's going broke! There's no question about her virtue.

She's having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk, but she made it up there.

She wants all the sex that she wants all the time paid for by the rest of us. She wants no consequences for it, or to it. She wants a penalty-free, moral-free life where everybody else pays for the mistakes that she makes as a consequence of the way she lives her life.

If this woman wants to have sex ten times a day for three years, fine and dandy.

You don't need birth control if you're not having sex. The woman wants unlimited, no-responsibility, no-consequences sex, and she wants it with contraceptives paid for by us.

And not one person says, well, did you ever think about maybe backing off the amount of sex that you have?

Thirty years old, a student at Georgetown Law, who admits to have so much sex that she can't afford it anymore.

The moment the activist, Ms. Fluke, asserts her right to free contraceptive, to handle her sex life -- and it's, by her own admission, quite active.

Oh! Does she have more boyfriends? Ha! They're lined up around the block.

[Fluke is] struggling financially. Why? Just quote her. Her sex life is active. She's having sex so frequently that she can't afford all the birth control pills that she needs, is what she's saying.

[T]he Democrats are putting on parade a woman who is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her-life woman. She wants all the sex in the world, whenever she wants it, all the time. No consequences. No responsibility for her behavior.


During her testimony, Sandra Fluke said nothing about her personal life in general or sexual behavior in particular. Rush Limbaugh recently entered into his fourth marriage, and is childless. In 2004, customs officials in Florida seized 29 Viagra pills in Limbaugh's luggage, labeled with his doctor's name as the patient, as we was returning from a vacation in the Dominican Republic. Limbaugh was between marriages at the time, and had been traveling with four other men. Viagra is usually dispensed in lots of thirty tablets. The Dominican Republic is a popular sex tourism destination. Limbaugh has not denied inappropriate behavior; in fact, on his radio show, he said "I had a great time in the Dominican Republic. Wish I could tell you about it."


See also: Ad hominem, subtype "Abusive"; Double Standard; Hypocrisy