Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Learning Linux and Ubuntu

June 10, 2016

Most of the time I try to remain platform agnostic, but over the past couple of years I've taken a real liking to Ubuntu linux. I actively use a Mac and Windows 7 at work, but for my own projects I use a linux web server, and at home run Ubuntu on a 6 year old Dell laptop as a kind of media centre (look, it just runs Netflix, Stan and DVDs, but it works great!)

Ubuntu has been a great way to extend the service life of the laptop, it still runs great and does everything I need it to, and it's fast enough at decoding h264 and h265 video and streaming web video that it runs pretty well as a media centre.

There's a few issues that crop up from time to time with running Ubuntu, but if you're not scared of a little command-line work, I've found it much easier to keep this laptop stable on Ubuntu than on Windows 10 and Windows 7 previously.

Here's a list of links that have helped me manage this laptop setup, that I'll add to from time to time so I don't forget:
  1. Play HEVC (h265) video in VLC on Ubuntu linux (mostly involves adding libde265 repository and vlc plugin package)
  2. Unable to mount root fs after installing updates. This particular error occurred due to running out of disk space on the boot partition. The steps at the bottom of the thread take you through uninstalling old linux images. You can see which image you're currently using by running uname -a at the command line.
  3. Play videos in ASCII — this one's just fun.

Batman v Superman, and why I loved Batfleck (Spoilers)

March 25, 2016

From Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) — recognise the armour?
This is a spoiler-filled snapshot of some thoughts after seeing the new Batman v Superman movie. I actually really loved it, and mostly wanted to jot down some thoughts before going to read and listen to reactions online. This has certainly been a divisive one, with critics apparently hating it, and a whole bunch of fans either loving it or hating it. Consider me in the geeking-out loving the hell out of it category, and excuse me while I continue to pad out this opening paragraph so that spoilers don’t appear in anyone’s facebook preview.

Okay, that’s a long enough first paragraph. Zack Snyder did something really special and kind of unique with Batman v Superman. It’s not structured like a normal movie, it’s structured and told like a graphic novel. A bunch of exposition and character moments are handled in the framing of a scene, and the plot regularly leaps forward like at the break of an issue. While references have been made to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (and Miller is thanked in the credits), the experience of watching the movie reminded me more of Mark Millar’s excellent and unusual Superman: Red Son which imagines what would happen if Kal-El landed in Communist Russia instead of the mid-west US.

Although Batman v Superman opens with the consequences of the closing events of Man of Steel, it’s not a sequel so much as a film that responds to the former and opens up a larger, expanded universe. The title sequence is a mythic depiction of the crime alley scene where Bruce Wayne loses his parents, a scene that we’ve seen on screen now countless times. This scene is referenced again and again throughout the film, rendered in sumptuous detail as the centre-point to Batman’s character. We have a Batman and Bruce Wayne who is a veteran at what he does. He’s tired, cynical, and has no doubt as to his purpose. Snyder enters the scene late with Clark and Lois — they’re in a relationship, sleeping together, and she knows who he is. The film tells us early on — enough running around in origin stories, the DC universe is about to get huge.

BvS is a long movie, but with good reason. As a comic book movie, it’s attempting to do something very different to all the others we’ve seen so far. Snyder weaves a tale that builds a consistent universe where the street-level Batman and gritty Gotham can co-exist with the god-like scale and grandeur of Superman. This needs to be believable and to be taken seriously, especially as they introduce Wonder Woman and uncover a larger mystery that there are more of these superhuman creatures out there who will eventually form the Justice League.

I thought Affleck had a really great take on Bruce Wayne. It’s the first time since Michael Keaton where I’ve felt that Bruce is actually competent at what he does. And here, there’s a level of depth and cynicism to Wayne that felt really refreshing. Superman is the naive alien, trying to do good. But Wayne is the one who has seen the worst of humanity. He is rightly suspicious of Superman, and Batman’s investigation takes up a good portion of the movie. For me, this is where Batman stories are the best — the adventure / detective plot as Wayne uncovers a mystery. The excitement of superhero stories for me is in the singular sense of purpose of the hero. Where the rest of us seek approval in our day to day lives, care about what our friends, colleagues and employers think of what we’re doing, while deep down we don’t have a clue, the superhero is the fantasy that deep down, someone does actually know what they’re doing. For me, where superhero stories fail the most is when they decide to explore the ‘Oh no, I bit off more than I can chew!’ plotlines. A little of this is okay, but I always want them to fast-forward to the bit where they’re back with it again.

And Wonder Woman — I cannot wait to see where a stand-alone movie takes this character. I thought the way Gal Gadot played her subtle disdain for man’s world was really spot on.

I liked that the thing that made Batman finally trust Superman was realising that although Clark is an alien, he too is just a man who was raised by good people, and cares about his family and loved ones just like anyone else. That the fear of a superhuman creature could be overcome by the revelation of his humanity was a familiar and touching point of the DC universe. And although the film likely still failed the Bechdel test, there seemed to be way more good moments with female characters in the movie than most Marvel films to date, even if Lois is continually damselled in this movie.

So, you know, it’s not perfect by any stretch, but as you can tell, I really dug the movie. I love that it’s entering into Batman’s story late in the game, and that Snyder’s insistence on a dark, ultra-serious universe gives us one where the superhero stories can reach for a mythic scale. A world where Batman can co-exist with Superman and Wonder Woman could easily become overly campy. You’ve got an alien, a woman from a parallel universe, and a billionaire who fights street crime. But rather than this all seeming bizarre and over the top, the film is filled with mystery, as parts of these characters’ stories start to be revealed. For me seeing them treat even just a fragment of the Wonder Woman story with such sincerity and mystery via a hundred year old photo of her, made me so happy.

There was still lots not to like. The final monster looked like the cave troll from Lord of the Rings, just like every other monster. A lot of the action sequences dragged, and Lex Luthor’s motivation seemed really all over the place (but at least it wasn’t a story about real estate). And don’t get me started on the UI design of the LexCorp operating system. Okay, I’ve probably lost you there. But as with any version of Batman and Superman, we’re given just one take on these characters… and if this isn’t your Batman or Superman, then I can imagine the film could be hugely disappointing.

But for me, this is the film I’d been looking forward to for years, where Batman joins an expanded universe filled not just with quirky villains, but with mythic storytelling on the scale of a Dark Knight Returns, or Elseworlds storyline. And Affleck’s jaded, older, been around the block a few times, confident and vulnerable Bruce Wayne was the Bruce Wayne I always wanted to see. (And holy crap the dream sequences were amazing — like a dark comic book come to life.)

Guilty pleasures, Leverage, and TV vs Film

January 16, 2016

Leverage (2008 - 2012)
Over the past year, I watched only a couple of dozen movies. Before going back to uni to study coding (it’s officially a Software Development course, but I prefer the umbrella term), I knew I’d have to put a few hobbies on hold. The first to go was watching movies. There’s still a couple of video stores in my area, and it’s still possible to go hire 5 weekly DVDs which is still one of my favourite things to do.

But priorities change, and while I love movies, I’m really enjoying pursuing the overlapping areas of job-related career-like things, and tech creative projects. For me it’s that wonderful crossover where in role-playing-game terms, I’m finally accruing enough experience points that I can venture out into the more dangerous wilds. Or in less over-inflated language, I’m getting to work on some really inspiring stuff, both at work and in freelance projects. And I’m only overwhelmed just enough that it’s exciting. Not so much that I’m running for the hills and considering a career in embroidery (which would probably be considerably harder, anyway).

So, watching movies has become less of a hobby of self-education and expanding the range and reach of the kinds of things I watch, and more just about relaxation and fun. Which is to say, the reasons that probably most people watch movies.

But after a long day of work and / or study, the barrier to entry for a film is a little harder to work with than a TV show. With TV, you can kid yourself that you’re only going to watch a single episode, and that means only 45 minutes. But more importantly, with TV you get to return to a world that you already know, and catch up with characters you let into your life.

While films provide a self-contained journey, it’s the ongoing day-to-day adventure of television that helped me get through the past year. Learning new skills is an incredibly incremental process, and I find myself enjoying my day-to-day routine more than ever. Rather than looking for a couple of hours of escape, in television, I think I’m looking for something that resonates with the everyday challenge of getting better at things and dealing with what life throws up.

Like everyone else I love Game of Thrones, and Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix was a bit of a revelation. Long-form, deep comic book storytelling, with novel-like pacing. The Flash was also a great discovery — good, campy, YA sci-fi, with some time travel thrown in. But for me, discovering and binge watching the 2008–2012 series Leverage, was the real highlight.

If you haven’t seen it, Leverage starts out as a light-hearted over the top confidence thriller. A team of five, comprised of a Mastermind, Hacker, Hitter, Thief, and a Grifter work to take down large corporations, corrupt officials, and as they say, they pick up where the law leaves off, robbing the rich to feed the poor. It’s a modern Robin Hood, but it’s also indebted to movies like Oceans Eleven and Sneakers. It’s by no means a serious drama, and at first glance, it’s cartoonish and ridiculously over-the-top. But somehow, this little show captured my imagination with its unfailing optimism, charisma, cleverness, and the warmth of the main cast (led by Timothy Hutton).

Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire has a lot of good things to say about Leverage over on her tumblr, and fans are somewhat obsessive. I can see why.

David Mamet describes the confidence thriller as the greatest of all genres (Red Belt and The Spanish Prisoner are my favourites of his). It allows for some of the most interesting and intricate of plots, but the real pleasure of Leverage, for me, is in how it reframes problems. As a post-financial-crisis show, the clients in the show represent us dealing with some of the most common and despairing of contemporary first world issues. Crippling personal debt, insurance that fails to pay out, the gaps and loopholes in health care, personal tragedy due to corporate greed and negligence. But for the Leverage team, these problems aren’t problems. They’re jobs.

There’s a similar philosophy in agile software development teams, of continuous integration, iteration and experimentation. That dealing with failure is a necessary stage in development, and that failure provides opportunity for growth and change.

Leverage draws an optimistic world in which people can and do help each other, but it’s an optimistic world in which problems are exciting. In which a team of disparate members can pull a problem apart, and each serves their role in bringing people to justice. The writers and actors have done such a great job at crafting these five comic-book-like characters, that each is clearly defined, but together they form a functional whole. It’s a demonstration of good team dynamics, and a reminder that we don’t need to be able to do all the things.

We just need to be able to play our part well, work well (or at least functionally) with others, and take pleasure in problem solving.

Leverage might not have won any Emmys, but I’ve gotten so much more out of watching this than any number of Red Weddings. And as the wise Dave Grohl says, there’s no such thing as guilty pleasures.

(via anne-apolis on tumblr)

Jurassic World: A theme park disaster movie

June 14, 2015

Chris Pratt's Owen from Jurassic World (2015)
22 years on and we have, I think, a worthy sequel to Jurassic Park. When John Hammond stares wistfully out the window of the helicopter at the end of Jurassic Park, there's a sense not just of the awe and wonder of nature, but we see a powerful man whose dreams have crumbled.

These movies are both monster movies and disaster movies, but the tension is that John Hammond's dream of a park where you can go see real live dinosaurs is a seductive dream that captivates us. We at once want to see the park come to life, but we also want what we paid to see – dinosaurs take back the earth.

So, for me, the opening of Jurassic World, with a park in full operation, was overwhelming emotionally. Colin Trevorrow captures beautifully the nostalgia for Jurassic Park as we follow the two boys' journey to Jurassic World, and see the park in operation as John Williams' score from the original reaches its peak, just as it did when we saw the first dinosaur in the original film. The reveal of the dinosaur was the selling point of the original. The reveal of a fully working park, was the focus of this one.

Everything I loved and hated about this movie comes back to this point – this was a movie about theme park operations, and about the park itself. It wasn't about dinosaurs.

Michael Crichton was obsessed with the idea of theme parks. He wrote and directed Westworld (1973), then worked on the short-lived TV series Beyond Westworld (1980), and finally after 20 odd years, perfected his theme park destruction story by essentially remaking it as Jurassic Park. Throughout his career, he used sci-fi as a means of exploring contemporary social, political, and scientific issues, and at the time of Jurassic Park, the ethics of genetic engineering and the impact of the 'digital revolution' were ripe for weaving into a story about corporate hubris, man vs. nature, and ultimately, a theme park destruction story.

22 years on, and this film feels like an honest extension of the themes Michael Crichton, David Koepp, Spielberg and co explored in JP. Jurassic World is a theme park littered with corporate sponsorship, Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire is an Ops Manager who is kept in the dark regarding the JW board's real intensions behind the park, and the money used to fund this scientific research appears to have been spent ultimately for military ends. In all these ways, I found it refreshing to see the film pick up these issues and take them a few steps further.

On the other hand, we're left with a movie that revels in theme park 'wow' moments, with an assortment of characters that never really feel like a true and balanced ensemble like in the original. And while there were plenty of dinosaurs on screen, the dinosaurs didn't take over the film. In a time when we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I would have liked to have seen the dinosaurs take centre-stage.

This was a film without John Hammond, Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, and Ellie Sattler, and so it was a film without the wistful longing for a time gone by. As BD Wong's Dr. Henry Wu says, the people running the park don't care about reality, just with what will sell.

As a theme park operations disaster movie, I'd give this 4.5 stars. As a Jurassic Park sequel, I'd say it's a worthy successor, but lacks the warmth and memorable characters of the original.

But holy cow, that Chris Pratt is pretty great.

Stuck in Love (2012)

January 1, 2015

Greg Kinnear in Stuck in Love (2012)
Stuck in Love is my new favourite indie family drama/romance/comedy. I don't remember this at all from when it came out in cinemas here in 2013, but it's a great first film from writer/director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars), a huge Stephen King fan who is now lined up to direct The Stand.

This little film is about a family of writers and the love lives of father, daughter and son as they each wrestle with relationships. A bit more Hollywood than The Spectacular Now, and a bit more indie than Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron (both of whom I love). The dialogue's layered and sharp, the relationships are unique and authentic, with nuanced performances from Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly. It's well worth a look if you're after a heartfelt sentimental romance or tearjerker, and it's a nice ode to books. If you end up watching it and liking it, check out Kevin Smith's Hollywood Babble-On podcast with director Josh Boone, it's a great filmmaker's story.