Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day on the Bay

This past weekend I was fortunate to enjoy the 3-day holiday and the awesome weather.

On Saturday I sat out for a few hours at the local park to relax & read. Since I recently finished the  biography of Steve Jobs, I'm now reading another biography, Scar Tissue by singer Anthony Keidis. I started listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers way back when I was in middle school in the early 90's. They are a great band & have a unique sound that's endured for decades now.

Sunday night I drove down to Atlantic City for a Dude's Night Out. I ended up at the Beach Bar off the boardwalk & had a pretty crazy time.

Despite having a formidable hangover on Memorial Day, I drove my brother to a nearby town where his girlfriend was staying. Her friend has a house right on the bay, so we spent the day swimming in the pool overlooking the water. After a few beers and a a couple plates of crab pasta, & I felt like a million bucks.

I decided to capture the patriotic image of the flag above that was flying over the dock, with the symbolic den of gambling, debauchery, & material excess in the background.

From this vantage point, at least, the flag is flying higher than the TRUMP-branded high rises.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Urgency of Rest

With the Memorial Day holiday this weekend, I thought this poster I saw on Ffffound! offered some excellent advice.

This is the essential core of personal well-being:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Game Review: Assassin's Creed 2

I'm not even sure where to start when reviewing Assassin's Creed 2, other than, "Holy Crap, that was impressive."

Since I don't spend crazy amounts of time playing video games, I try to only pick titles that I know I'll enjoy after reading reviews & watching previews.  That's why many of the games I've reviewed are 9.0's, because I don't waste my time if I don't think it'll be really good.

Gamespot review:

The story behind the Assassin's Creed series actually takes place in the modern day. The main character, Desmond Miles, is a descendant of a line of members of a secret historical faction, the Assassins. Their rival faction, The Templars, have been fighting for control of a mysteriously advanced technology over the course of hundreds of years.

Through experimental technology known as "The Animus", memory imprints can somehow be extracted from a person's genetic makeup. This DNA 'memory' is used to mentally re-create the historical experiences of Desmond's ancestors in a virtual reality experience. The player takes the role of Desmond- accessing his ancestors' memories to learn deeper truths about mankind's forgotten history.

I played the first Assassin's Creed a couple years ago. The original game takes place in the Holy Land during the Crusades, as Desmond's ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad. I thought the re-creation of these ancient sites such as Jerusalem were awesome. Despite the fact that I like to try completing a game's side missions, though, they started getting very repetitive. Then, the game kept freezing every time I reached a certain point, & I couldn't continue playing. I sure as hell wasn't starting over, so I said 'screw it' & gave up on it.

Even though I didn't plan on playing any other games in the series after that, one of my brothers had Assassin's Creed 2. It is set in Renaissance Italy (which seemed really interesting) & got overwhelmingly positive reviews, so I decided to give it go. I'm extremely glad I did because it is an amazing game, with a superior level of production value that still has me awe-struck.

The sequel continues with Desmond trying to flee a Templar mega-corporation, Abstergo, that has been using him in experiments with The Animus. After he escapes with the help a small band of collaborators who have their own Animus machine, Desmond begins to recall the genetic memories of his Italian ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze.

Being a designer & art history scholar, I found the opportunity to virtually explore cities of Renaissance Italy to be enjoyable in itself. Like most games that are produced with this high level of quality, I often found myself just wandering around the expansive locales- observing the meticulous detail of all the costumes, textures, architecture, and atmospheric effects that most people probably take for granted. As someone who has been playing video games since Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, I find the graphic quality of modern games like this to be spectacular.

I couldn't stop marveling at the impressive feat of reconstructing multiple, highly-detailed whole towns in an historically accurate way. Ezio gets to explore the sights & sounds of urban Florence, the country setting of Tuscany, and the canals of Venice. The crazy final sequence also takes you to Rome. The last scene takes place inside the Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling has not yet been painted by Michelangelo.

In addition to the beautiful graphics, Assassin's Creed 2 incorporates some actual art history into the gameplay. Ezio's family estate, Villa Auditore, is initially in disrepair. Throughout the game, items that you aquire help you improve the villa. One way to do this is to buy paintings by contemporary artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, & Titian. By the end of the game, you collect a large gallery of virtual paintings that would be any art lover's dream.

Another aspect of the game which I think is really cool is the deeper thread in the story, concerning the search for the mysterious origins of mankind and ancient knowledge, lost to history. This is a theme that was similarly explored in a book I read over the summer, Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock.

The search in Assassin's Creed revolves around "Pieces of Eden" which are technological devices from a now-extinct civilization of beings who created humans as slave labor. (It's sort of like the Ancient Astronaut Theory, but these beings were from Earth- just older & more advanced than mankind.) Some humans rebelled against their masters & stole one of the artifacts, The Apple, that controls human neurological functions. Using this power, they recruited other humans to wage war against their creators. However, both groups became so caught up in their conflict that they neglected a cosmic threat that nearly destroyed them all. There were enough humans scurrying around like cockroaches to rebuild with the help of the few survivors from the First Civilization, who were now regarded as gods by their primitive creations.

To uncover details of this mystery, you must find clues left by Altaïr & the mysterious 'Subject 16', whose mind has become trapped in the virtual worlds of The Animus. An awesome aspect of this game is that Leonardo da Vinci appears throughout the game to supply equipment upgrades & also to help in deciphering the Codexes left by Altaïr. There are also mysterious 'glyphs' hidden in certain areas that open very challenging puzzle sequences. These make you feel like a genius when you figure them out. I'm proud to say that I figured out all the puzzles without looking up any answers. I did come really close to cheating on a few of the puzzles, after staring at the screen for a 1/2 hour or more trying to figure them out! Unlocking these scattered clues help piece together the story behind the age-old battle between the Assassins & the Templars for the powerful Pieces of Eden, which has occurred behind the scenes of history's major events.

Unlike the first one, Assassin's Creed 2 never lost my interest or seemed repetitive. I was enthralled by the visuals, the gameplay, and the story... all the way to when the end credits rolled, during which there is still a bit more of the game to play!

The only complaint I'd personally voice would be that the targeting and combat can be annoyingly inaccurate at times, but it doesn't hinder the overall experience. 

The depth of this game is mind-boggling. Elements as diverse as Renaissance art, ancient mysteries, and ponderous philosophical questions are weaved between the open world free-running & the brutal assassination missions in a masterful way.

I'm planning on writing a post about the idiotic argument over whether video games can be considered works of art. This excellent game is 'Exhibit A' in the assertion that video games can actually represent the pinnacle of creative effort & are indeed artistic masterpieces unto themselves.

• The Monkey Buddha's official rating: 9.0

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Most Popular Infographics

Infographics are visual tools which can be very helpful in understanding complex ideas and comparisons.

Monkey Buddha Archives:

Despite their usefulness, sometimes it's difficult to know if the data presented is accurate & in the correct context.

This is a funny overview of the common types of infographics circulating around the web.

It's an infographic... about infographics... woooah.

click to enlarge

Man to Ape

A drastic episode of de-evolution...

Seen on This Isn't Happiness

Ape Portraits

  I saw this striking collection of photos on Boingboing, showing close-up faces of wild apes.

Although of course I think it's cool because it's pictures of monkeys, it also shows the amazing diversity that Life can produce.

We tend to have idealized, iconic images of animals in our head. Even within a single species, though, there is truly endless variation.

by James Mollison

Monday, May 14, 2012

Welcome to Life: Post-mortem Software

I saw this interesting thought experiment on Neatorama:

There are many people who might welcome the chance to use something like an Apple iThink or a similar brain implant to augment their consciousness.

However, as this video shows, there would many unintended consequences & logistical issues that people can't even begin to imagine yet.

If technology progressed to a point that one's mental processes could somehow be enhanced or extended beyond physical death, I hope it wouldn't be encumbered by such banalities as legal agreements or advertisements.

Unfortunately, it's possible that by digitizing their consciousness in order to preserve it in perpetuity, people would be subjecting themselves to an infinite virtual prison sentence.

Of course, absolutely nobody knows whether death is a permanent "lights out"- or a gateway to another state of existence... so that's the gamble one would have to take.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Crazy Presidential Art

As the Presidential campaign season heats up, I'll be doing plenty of political posts. Of first importance, though, is trying to keep a humorous outlook.

On io9 I saw these awesome renderings of great moments in American History... that never happened.

The pictures, by Jason Heuser, are ALL great & hysterical.
Click the link to see more- like Teddy Roosevelt shooting Bigfoot, Ben Franklin vs. Zeus, & Andrew Jackson, alien hunter.

I especially like the battle between Thomas Jefferson (with Declaration of Independence in hand) punching out a bunch of gorillas.

Simian Similarities

Saw this on The Chive recently.

Anyone who's seen a toddler learning to walk or clinging to a parent knows we're really not that different from other primates.

Of course, the way some adults behave could also validate this comparison.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Avengers movie

This weekend I went to see Marvel's "The Avengers" in 3D & it was pretty awesome. This is going to be a geek-tastic post, but I have to rave about this film a bit.

Marvel's The Avengers Trailer 2 (OFFICIAL)

When I was a kid, I collected comic books- but never had any issues of The Avengers. I was familiar with these and most of the other Marvel & DC characters, though. This movie made excellent use of the iconic heroes that make up the super team.

I'm very critical when it comes to most creative works, because I can usually think of a better way to do it. Only recently have superhero action movies gotten to the point where I think they are produced properly.

The Superman movies from the 80's seemed cheesy to me. I thought Tim Burton's version of Batman was ok back when I was 12 years old, but the sequels were garbage.
More recently, DC has been improving the quality of their movie franchises. Batman Begins was very cool, but Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight was horrible & The Dark Knight Rises looks like it's going to be crap. Bane & Catwoman look like they've been handled all wrong & Christian Bale's voice when he's Batman is unbearably annoying. I saw & really enjoyed The Green Lantern recently. I was glad that they did justice to one of my favorite comic characters.

As for Marvel movies, I really liked the X-Men movies & the Wolverine spin-off was done well. The Spider-man movies were good, but the portrayal of his arch-nemesis Venom in Spider-man 3 was weak. I don't really care for the Fantastic Four & haven't seen those movies. Even though The Silver Surfer was one of my favorite characters, I refused to see the Fantastic Four sequel when I learned that the planet-devouring Galactus was going to be some kind of nanobot cloud.

The individual movies leading up to The Avengers have all been solid films in their own right. They all came together to make a truly kick-ass movie that even my critical eye can find few faults with. The way that Marvel has worked to interweave all these separate stories into one overall thread has been brilliant.

• Iron Man has the benefit of the best casting decision ever, with Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark. The state of computer graphics is finally at the point where the portrayal of the mech suit is believably realistic & looks amazing.

• I thought the digitally rendered Hulk looked 'off' in his previous movies, but he was much improved in The Avengers.

Thor would have been a really cool movie if Natalie Portman & her character didn't ruin it.

• I haven't seen the Captain America movie yet, since I've always thought he was really lame. Chris Evans is a convincing Capt. America, though, that is true to the character.

Cap, The Hulk, & Thor are all being handled infinitely better than the ridiculous attempts made in the 80's.

"The Incredible Hulk Returns"

"Captain America" (1990)

As for The Black Widow, she's played by Scarlett Johansson... so..... that's all there is to say about that!

Loki was a decent villain for The Avengers, but the Asgardians (Loki & Thor) seemed pretty vulnerable for god-like beings. It was funny when The Hulk gave an unsuspecting Thor a taste of his strength, though.

The Avengers had some well-placed humor, eye-popping visuals, an exciting story, superb casting, and everything that should be in a great superhero movie. Like most people, I left the theater going "Wow!" & freaking out over all the amazing details. I give it my highest recommendation, whether or not you like superhero movies.

The excellence of this film was topped off with a final teaser scene, shown after the first set of end credits. The Marvel Film Universe is about to get a whole lot bigger & crazier!

To see the spoiler, highlight the text below:

The scene showed the alien who  kneeling before an unseen figure on an asteroid in space. The alien said something to the effect that "battling with the humans would be courting Death." That's when I thought... "no way!!!"... before they showed 'the mad Titan' Thanos turn towards the camera & grin. I hadn't read any spoilers about this scene. However, I said right before it that the only way Marvel can build on something bigger would be to use a storyline like The Infinity Gauntlet series I read when I was a teenager. They are clearly going to bring the entire Marvel movie lineup (The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, & The X-Men) together to face off against Thanos & the Infinity Gems. Based on Marvel's track record so far, it is going to be completely awesome!

At least the official Avengers movie turned out better than this:

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Imaging the Microscopic World

One of my best friends, who I've known since 1st grade, is currently in med school in NYC. He came back around recently & we always talk in depth about scientific topics. We were discussing the crazy things that happen in the small scales of microbiology.

On of the most underrated uses of the computer is as a visualization tool. Digital media can allow us to conceptualize processes existing on levels that we can't directly perceive.

I thought the animation in this TED talk by Drew Berry, showing the molecular workings within our own cells, was pretty mind-blowing.

Since I'm talking about small-scale phenomena, I'll also post this almost surreal video of tiny organisms in water.

Even though the narrator talks like some kind of robotic alien, the video of the microscopic creatures is amazing.  Turn off the sound & put on Groove Salad instead.

It makes me wonder... what in the world is going on with this very weird thing we call "Life"?!?!

'Temporal Distortion' Video

Since I've been on the subject of time, here's a very cool video of time-lapse images of the night sky.

It looks great on an HD monitor, fullscreen if possible.

I can't blame ancient people for their awe of the Great Rift in the sky, which defied their understanding. However, we now know that the dark area of the visible Milky Way is caused by interstellar dust & material blocking the concentrated starlight.

The only time I get to see a really good view of the Milky Way is when I'm in the Pocono mountains in PA. It's one of my favorite things to sit out at night on lake, under a starry sky with a beer, & just admire the infinite cosmos.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

"NOW" Wristwatch

In my last post I said that fractals could help model our experience of time in a deeper way. 

However, there is only one description of time that is always accurate:

This is a good reminder that there is only the present moment. The past, future, & whole the idea of a linear historical time line are part of our collective imagination.

There is only NOW.