Thursday, January 15, 2009

Five More Thoughts, LCD Ed.

1. I join the digital age, whining all the way
I know I talk a big game about the evils of consumerism, but the truth of the matter is that I really enjoy my technological comforts, and as such, I'm willing to devote some small fraction of my undeserved paycheck for the purposes of entertainment. My desire to get a flat television was actually less to bow before the alter of the great glass-eyed Polyphemus (I kid, please put that stick down), and more to float that gigantic old blown-speakered CRT box off the floor of my tiny living room. Like a good American, I got a big TV with all the latest available interfaces, which, unsurprisingly, is pushing my aging video equipment into obselescence, but if I ever get a signal that's good enough for this television, I tell you, it's going to be awesome.

So far, my biggest gripe is the aspect ratio. Naively anticipating cinematic film viewing and football games with enough resolution to pick out chipped teeth, I quickly discovered that all of my cable and DVD content is broadcast in 4:3 aspect ratio. Even the "widescreen" content coming from my cable and my two DVDs is still spaced 4:3 and keeps those letterbox stripes, which ends up giving me a box all around the picture, which in the end is about the same image as on my old TV. For the lo-res widescreen stuff, I can get fiddle the settings around to make it to fill the screen with approximately the right proportion, but it's imperfect (top and bottom edges cut off), and it's kind of a pain in the ass. When blown up, it acquires texture too, like a film projected onto burlap. Although the unit has some preset settings for different viewing environments (not to mention plenty of extra buttons on the remote), there's evidently no way to customize them, nor to toggle quickly between them.

To get signals that are meant fit in the viewing box, it looks like I need to spring for blu-ray or for HD cable, which I'm sure is part of the marketing plan. I half suspect they're intentionally blurring any picture riding an old style feed. And yet I'm sure I don't care to spend any more money to boast an additional six inches of picture. Damn you, Samsung.

2. The Wire, Season 1
Now that I have something to watch stuff on, I opted into a Netflix free trial to find out what all the stuff was about. I've seen The Wire advertised as the best show ever, the sort of thing that (to paraphrase some commenter somewhere) art historians will review centuries from now, and deem, disregarding everything else that has wandered pixellated space, to have made the invention of the medium worth it. Or at least good enough to justify owning a TV. Some praise. I decided to check it out.

And let's be clear, I could've cared less if I ever saw another police procedural. Opening up, here's yet another charismatic-but-rough-around-the-edges white guy in what looks to be the lead, putting in long hours, bending the rules for the sake of the case. I mean really, is police detecting such an all-encompassing job? Really the sort of thing that pulls in the top analytical (and intuitive) talent, staffing an assortment of geniuses that's willing to scrape every stain, yank every file, bend every rule for the sake of an infallible personal sense of public Justice? How much does a detective even get paid, anyway? I'm watching the first episode of The Wire, and I'm thinking, wow, it's the same old crap with bonus office politics. Cop drama written by Aaron Sorkin with a humorectomy. A first impression mind you: it took the introduction of the unlovable crowd of incompetents to warm me up to the environment of the cop shop, and the thin, human line the writers drew between the police competence and the actual underworld made it suddenly more interesting. I'm leaning toward buying in, at least for the sake of enjoying the drama. (But still, if the competent multiracial policewoman isn't (a) killed (b) a victim of violent crime or (c) addicted to drugs by the end of the first season, then I don't know television writing.)

The setting in the projects is more engaging from the get-go, even if they'll leave no metaphor untortured. (Will I ever see that chess set again?) We quickly find young murderer D'Angelo plying his trade with what, once he can get past the wretched necessities of the job, could almost be called decency toward his customers and employees. It shapes up rapidly to highlight the accident of birth and the arbitrariness of the law, and the way lives are accordingly shaped. I think the moment The Wire won me over was when D'Angelo noted that the inventor of Chicken McNuggets probably is not, in fact, rich, but is probably still shuttered in his bolthole in the nether reaches of the McDonaldland empire, concocting taste sensations for a pittance as the executives get rich and neighborhood kids juice up on corn oil and chicken by-products. I'm sure that bit would have hit home even more if I'd ever invented anything of value.

3. Burn after Watching
[Spoiled!] Okay, just after watching the last 15 minutes. The first 3/4 of Burn After Reading brought us through a series of comically unlikable people behaving like assholes to one another, and I like that just fine. Highlights include (an ever-more emaciated) John Malkovich taking his turn at indignant white collar anger mismanagement (would that Ted Knight were still alive), Tilda "White Witch" Swinton's bedside manner as a pediatrician, Brad Pitt in his most natural role since he played Floyd, horrifying geek intercourse, and a secret project that works up to a great sight gag. Some Netflix troll mentioned that the film would have benefitted from better dialogue, and I can't disagree. Even if the acting was top notch, a little repartee would have sold the comedy more. Quite possibly, it's one of those that works better on repeat viewings (like the Coens' other comic masterpiece).

Well and good as it went, right up to the point where it got splattered against the back of the closet wall.

I'll take my dark comedy with a mordant dose of cynicism, usually. But I can't get myself to laugh about the gray matter spewed across the back of the car--one fucking Tarantino is already too much. I mean, I make a plenty of exceptions to graphic violence, but the context is, you know, everything. We wouldn't have been too worked up had even the Malkovich character been murdered on screen, it's a common enough literary conclusion to fate-tempting, but taking the opportunity to dash the brains out of the two people in the film who could be called anything like "innocent" broke my amused suspension of disbelief entirely. Charitably, I could say it made me think about my assumptions about film violence, but so much for my entertainment.

4. Polarize me, sensitize me
Empirical evidence of the relationship between electrical currents and magnetic fields had been plugged away for a while by then, and the equations themselves look suspiciously similar to the famous Euler or Navier-Stokes formulations for fluid mechanics, and yet James Clerk Maxwell's contributions to physics sure feel like one of those lightning-bolt strikes of brilliance that changed everything. It's as if he took all that bizarre phenomenology, derived something like Newton's laws from it, and then instantly mapped the subsequent 150 years of post-Newtonian theoretical development onto electromagetics to bring it perfectly up to speed. Good stuff, and the mad genius part is that he also brought an explanation of light into the fold. Maxwell told us that light was an electromagnetic phenomenon, a coupled wave, and while it didn't quite resolve the physical argument (even Maxwell didn't believe it propagated without a medium, and there were still a few odd tricks it did with materials), it did offer a rigorous mathematical framework for electromagnetic theory, which, at least according to the hagiography in my old undergrad physics book, hasn't needed revision since.

So we all know that light can be thought of as an oscillating electric field, which jiggles up and down perpendicular to the line of the wave's propagation, and a coupled magnetic field also jiggles along at 90o to the electric one, also along the line. The orientation of that single wave in the picture is up-and-down, but light from most sources is understandably going to have the orientation going every-which-way, made up of lots of little waves. The orientation of the electric field (for a given wave) is the polarization direction (when you're talking about visible light, pretty much all materials don't have any disagreement with the magnetic component and everyone just ignores it, but pretty much all the materials we see interact with the electric field).

When light is incident on a flat surface, some part will reflect, some transmit (and some absorb, but we don't have to go there just now). Where it all meets, the component of the electric field of light that's actually aligned with the surface needs to be the same. For light polarized parallel to the surface, that would be all of the electric field, and for light polarized differently, only a component of the electric field needs to satisfy those conditions. For all angles, a beam of light reflected off of a flat surface will be polarized a little more in a direction parallel to that surface (and for one special angle, it'll be completely polarized) than for other orientations. [Fresnel worked this all out before Maxwell was born, by the way, but I guess he didn't have to acknowledge any electromagnetic character of the light wave.] It's like a handful of skipping stones get thrown at the surface, and the ones that hit it flat manage to bounce off more often.

That horrible road glare is polarized a little more in the horizontal plane, which is why polarized sunglasses (that is, which will only pass light polarized in the vertical direction) are supposed to be better than just dark ones without any directional sensitivity. I got myself a pair of those this Christmas too, and I love them. I can't tell the difference compared to regular sunglasses, but it's a lot of fun walking around with a couple of polarizers on my head.

LCD displays use polarizers too. Depending on whether voltage is applied or not, the liquid crystal molecules will orient so as to pass light of one polarization or another. There's a polarizer on the front of the display which will either block the output, or pass it, and that's one pixel blinking on or off, depending on which way the LCs inside it are orienting the light. I've had a lot of fun this past week looking at LCD displays, including my spiffy new TV, through my sunglasses. Twist my head parallel to the output polarizer and it's nice and bright; turn at a right angle and it all goes black. Turns out that pretty much all LCDs are oriented 45o from the vertical. Who knew?

5. Spoon!
My internal conversation is full of ridiculous little in-jokes, some of which were once shared with people, and some that no one gets but me. Now and then, they sneak out, and after subjecting my kids to apposite quotes from the olden days when cartoon binges were limited to Saturday morning and an hour after school, I finally thought to just buy the DVD and share the source of more than a little bit of my nonsense.

The Tick vs. Season 2 suffers from a missing episode, and also because the second season only ever gave a certain bomb-throwing anarchist a cameo and denied us scenes of the superhero night life, but still I'm watching it a dozen years later, with my kids, and I'm having giggling fits at the extended Doctor Strangelove outtakes, at blaxploitation star ShTaft (complete with funky theme music) working as an orderly where he dresses up to assist in a series of confrontation therapies, and I'm wondering to myself what the hell was this ever doing on Saturday morning? (And why did the Disney empire ever gets it's verminous claws on it?) To get it's place in the kiddie slot, a lot of adult humor had to be filtered through the G-rated personality of the infantile man of action, and the sensibility really had to target the silly to make the balance work. The bizarre part is that it did work, that it was such a winning combination. Unfortunately for the producers, immature college kids were the only demographic that would ever think to watch the show more than once. I guess it could have had a worse run than three seasons.

(It was also a comic book, one of several mock-superhero titles that I never read. The cartoon evolved into a live-action show, which was awful by any measure.)

American animation often suffers from the whims of marketing, shifting from adult to childish orbits, with more or less artistic effort, depending on the times and the people in charge. Some manages to break through to universality (good writing is good writing), and if I seem overly impressed by this, then you have to keep in mind that I grew up in the absoulte nadir of cartoon artistry. It's also a pretty common trick to pepper some adult jokes into kiddie fare, throw a bone to the parents forced to sitt through another jejeune pile of crap (or maybe the writers do it to keep themselves sane). It's rare that the adult and the childish humor manage to feed off of each, rounding out the simplicity of kids' tastes, and highlighting the basic absurity of adults'. I don't think I'd recommend it unreservedly, but The Tick did manage that silly synergy brilliantly, probably because it was forced to. Good times.

[Will append a screen capture if I can ever get it to work.]


twif said...

i have a feeling you'd love "the venture brothers". that is, if you aren't already a fan.

Keifus said...

I had a mind to cite the (PG-13, and also suffering for its time slot) Venture Bros as "the only worthy heir" or something like that, but I'm not well enough informed to make a categorical statement like that. Just followed wikipedia page, and now realize that there's a lot of shared artistic heritage there. No surprise.

I love on that show how the (super)scientists are such a bunch of lazy sarcastic fuckups. On too late for me though--looking forward to season 3 dvd on the big lcd.