Thursday, 7 October 2021

RED HOT PREPPERS

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” - Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790



Red Hot Chili Peppers (sorry, misread the title)
Image: Tookapic/pixabay

A double whammy – the global pandemic and Climate Change – has stoked a movement to prepare for TEOTWAWKI*. Rich techies make super-preppers. They buy big plots of land in remote places (for ex. New Zealand), build blast-proof bunkers, and stock up for long-term survival.  They hide their billions in secret off-shore accounts.  At Silicon Valley cocktail parties the mot du jour is DOOMSDAY.


Ordinary Nervous Nellies prepare for months, instead of years. Practicing Mormons are master Preppers –  they believe it teaches self-reliance. Mormon cellars are stocked and they are advised to have money in reserve. The French aren't big Preppers, but towns and villages along major auto routes keep emergency blankets, water, and food to aid stranded motorists.

Prepper list:  dried and canned food, bottled water, booze, and/or pot, if you want to relax, toilet paper, paper towels, first-aid kit, batteries, flashlight, candles, matches, multitool, knife sharpener, scissors, nitrile gloves, wipes,  hand sanitizer, duct tape, a vegetable garden, a shovel, masks, an upbeat attitude, and cash. Stocking up for the worst ain't cheap; it takes resources, planning, and work to prepare for a world WROL**.

* TEOTWAWKI: The End of the World As We Know It
** WROL: Without Rule of r Law***
*** Prepper dig acronyms

Sources:  The Economist, Washington Post, Pandora Papers*, internet, Cyril Maret

*A worldwide investigation: how, and where, billionaires hide their billions. 14 world leaders and a king are implicated. (source: Washington Post 4/10/2021)

Next week: ROOTIN' TOOTIN' TEXAS VIGILANTE ABORTION LAW

Note: I guess the rich have always feared the day when the peasants have finally had enough and go get their pitchforks.

Me, well, I'm not rich and definitely not a prepper. The closest I get is a whole day without going to the grocery store. Those are pretty rare. Even if I haul two metric ton bags home in the evening, feeling certain that I forgot nothing and that tomorrow there's definitely no need to shop... in the morning it turns out we're out of coffee.

I'm hopeless.

CU
--
Eki

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Is FINLAND Hooked on Digital HEROIN?

Money shot by Thanasis Papazacharias / Pixabay


CASH is king. But that's so "yesterday". Today Finland is digitalized. ATM machines are almost impossible to find. If you lose your phone you're up shit creek.  My accountant said she couldn't work without it. The Shark was in her hometown and wanted to stash some stuff in a train station locker – she wondered where the hell she could find a two-euro coin. Eki says he never has more than 20 euros in his pocket. I took the risk of getting caught by the tram police because I couldn't pay with my phone and forgot to buy tickets at a kiosk. If you don't have an online bank account you're cooked - long queues for cash at the few banks that have it, look like wartime ration lines.

I asked a taxi driver what would happen if there was a ransomware* attack on the banks, or even one bank, he said, "Oh, we're too small for the bad  guys to pay attention." Yeah. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  I thought my new iPhone was secure – they installed a bunch of private info and my fingerprint. I was wrong.

If you CALL for a taxi instead of texting, you pay – Helsinki taxi charges 2.90 per call plus .60 per minute, while a recorded voice tells you this in Finnish, Swedish, and English and you wait for a real person to answer.  Finland's over-sixties population is approx, 200,00  and growing. As eyesights dim will they be able to cope with texting for just about everything? And then there are those bad guys, who lurk in the shadows ready to pounce. It might be smart to stash some CASH under the mattress just in case.

* Ransonosmware attacks on US cities have cost millions. (Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2021)

Sources: personal experience, friends, the net, Washington Post, the Economist

Next week: That DAMN WATER: what if the mighty COLORADO RIVER dries up?


Note:

Yep, we've become kinda sorta cyborgs. 

The phone is an integral part of our being. Running out of battery feels almost as if you suddenly lost hearing or eyesight - or your memory. You're missing a sense, your world just shrunk from a global presence to your immediate surroundings and your pool of knowledge got reduced to whatever you currently happened to hold in your meaty think box...

Sure we're hooked, but I'm not sure it's a bad thing. The lure of technology is based on the actual real-life benefits it gives.

CU
--
Eki

Sunday, 29 August 2021

A WHATSAPP SAPP

IRC, Internet Relay Chat (Image: Wikipedia)
    
Eki knows I hate cell phones. But when he told me if I bought an 11 or 12 iPhone I could take better videos than with my camera. And it had a stabilizer. I was hooked and bought an 11. Told the Apple staff to install WhatsApp and forgot about videos - I wanted to talk. Called Eki. He didn't recognize my voice and said he hated WA – he only used it for texting – easier and quicker than talking. But after a couple of days, I was talking to Texas, Missouri, Colorado, New York, Great Britain. I was on a WhatsApp high.

Then a pal, who had lived, and worked in the Middle East, told me she heard on CNN that Jamel Khashoggi, the Saudi Washington Post reporter, who was brutally murdered by the Saudis, had bought a bunch of cheap cell phones and gave them to contacts in Saudi Arabia with WA installed. They were hacked by Saudi agents.

India, with 400m users - many of them living in remote villages - was terrorized by WhatsApp videos of children being eviscerated for their organs. The videos turned out to be faked. WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), unlike Apple, doesn't screen content. These APPs are like penny candy - cheap and tasty - they get us hooked and can do a lot of damage. But they sure are fun.

Sources: Sharon Heller, the Economist, Apple staff

Next week: Is FINLAND on digital HEROIN? 



Note:

Where should I start? Perhaps not all the way from the dial-in BBS days, but IRC might be it. Because that was the first time I fully realized that online discussions can be the ultimate time sink. They can devour all your free time, and creep into the not-so-free time too.

Lightwave 3D version 4.0, 1995 NewTek inc.

At the time, in the mid-1990s, I participated in IRC chats about 3D animation. At first, it was a really meaningful discussion between peers on the IRC channels, a small and tight group of mostly professionals who were at the emerging frontier of desktop 3D animation, which had just become somewhat affordable enough for even small to medium-sized post-production companies.

The discussions then transformed, almost unnoticeable over a few years, into a helpdesk for newcomers. I'm not saying it was a bad thing per sé, but it took all the time I used to have to learn that stuff myself. What's more, people started demanding instant answers and were pissed off if I didn't reply with a solution to their problems immediately.

So I cut the IRC cord.

So did a few dozen other 3D animators that used the same software I did, Lightwave 3D. They had formed an e-mail list for professional users, and I was lucky enough to be invited at some point. It became a different kind of time sink, discussions were not all necessarily work-related anymore, but it was much more enjoyable this time. 
Amazingly, the mailing list still exists after over two decades.

This brings me to WhatsApp and other modern 
forms of online discussion. There are many, and they all are time sinks. So one needs to pick the battles.

So, I indeed told Maggy I hate WhatsApp. Why? Simply because I cannot completely opt-out from it.

There are WhatsApp groups I must follow. And that is a distraction. One more thing I need to remember to check. I've had some issues with people that have been - again - angry with me for not instantly replying to them on WhatsApp. Even after telling them that I *DO NOT* follow it daily.

If it was only that, the problem would be manageable. But there's also the Slack groups for some jobs, the Telegram groups for others, the Discord server for yet another issue, and so on.

Not to mention the usual suspects, SMS messages, e-mail, Facebook Messenger, and online forums (which I have more or less phased off recently). Luckily I never got into Twitter in the first place.

So, as far as communication goes, what do I prefer? It depends.
  • If it's something that does not require instant action, e-mail is still my favorite. I can reply when it's convenient - when I actually have time - and often with a solution to the problem at hand, be it posting Maggy's blog or making corrections from a client to a TV commercial. Want something done? E-mail me, and I will e-mail back to you with the finished product when it's done.

  • If you want to notify me of something, send an SMS. Even if it's just a text reminding me to check my e-mails ;-)

  • If it's urgent, or if we need to have a more detailed discussion, call me. The phone still works, and it's more efficient than writing for a fast discussion.

  • If it's related to a team project, I prefer making a group in Messenger. Facebook is something I and most others check pretty regularly (yes, one more time sink), and Messenger comes with it. It does pretty much everything important that WhatsApp or Slack or Telegram or Discord do - without the need to remember to check a separate app.
So, I guess I do not hate WhatsApp itself. I hate constant distraction and unnecessary time thieves, and spreading the attention across multiple discussion platforms is the pinnacle of that.

Now please excuse me, I need to e-mail Maggy that this text has been posted on the blog.


CU
--
Eki


Thursday, 5 August 2021

ORTON rides to the RESCUE

Wounded knee. pixabay.com/andersonvr


When my knee began to bend to the left in early 2020,  I knew I knew I was in big trouble.  The only place I wanted it checked was ORTON orthopedic hospital in Helsinki – they repaired a botched knee operation my husband had at his local hospital. Then the Covid 19 bomb dropped and I was stuck. Four appointments, three canceled, finally got to Helsinki May 2021.

The meeting with Dr. Mikko Maninnen was short and decisive – I needed a knee replacement. He made the appointment and the Orton org. went into action. They called me in for pre-opp tests and a meeting with the physical therapist and anesthesiologist. I got a booklet in English with all the info. The hardest part was getting to Orton at 7:00 am. I  went to the 4th floor and a crew took over. It was so quick and organized before I could be scared or nervous the operation was over.

I was back in my room. The staff* took over. Physical therapy began the next day – mornings and afternoons. I walked with crutches on my own – my left leg was straight as a stick and hurt like hell. They gave me painkillers. When I got tired of beef and potatoes for lunch one of the nurses went online and found a Chinese takeout.  After two weeks, my new knee worked and there was almost no pain. I left Orton grateful and in awe at how efficient, upbeat and cheerful it was. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall but was back together again. Thank you ORTON.

*STAFF: Anu, Tuuli, Taina, Helena, Susanna, Nea, Toni, Mikael. Eric, Mikko. Mikko, Leene, Riikka, Maire, Sanni, Olga, Sirppa, Elina, Henna, Markku, Mikkel, Anton. Hope I got everyone, because you were all great.

Source: personal experience

Next week:  A WhatsApp SAP! 

Note: Well, nothing to add this time ;-)

CU
--
Eki

Friday, 2 July 2021

EKI's VIRTUAL REALITY COURSE for DUMMIES

Virtual Production of The Mandalorian

Monday. Called Eki to catch up. NA. When I got him, he said he'd been on a shoot. That always gets my attention. Asked him what was the project. He said they were doing Virtual Reality tests.  And began to tell me how it works. Whoa. I was totally lost.

He sent a  STAR WARS video of a crew working on VR. I could see a circular screen.  Still didn't have a clue. Called him back. He tried to explain. But it was only after I compared it to 1930s pre-on-location movies, where the action might take place in Monte Carlo. The French cafe' is on a set, and the MC background is stock film. But VR surrounds the actors and they can see the action. I think.

He said he'd been working on the technique on and on for three years. And sent a video of the set-up in his home office. Three years sounded like a long time for Eki to nail something. So it must be tough to cracK VR. I want a Dummy: VIRTUAL REALITY 101.  Over to you EKI.

Source: personal experience

Next week: FLYING through COVID 


Note: Okay, this is a big one to bite at one go but let's try ;-)

First of all, it's not Virtual Reality, but rather Virtual Production. The two are related but not the same. Virtual Reality is when one puts on VR glasses and is immersed in a video game. Virtual Production is when similar techniques are used to produce movies or other video content.

There are a few different disciplines of Virtual Production, but I'll just concentrate on the two that best apply here. The common characteristic is that they both share the use of real footage from a camera combined with elements (usually a background) that is computer-created with a game engine, in real-time.

Virtual Production Demo Day, Helsinki 2020

The first is what was used with The Mandalorian, a Star Wars spinoff series. As Maggy writes, it's somewhat similar to the rear projection techniques famously used on the original 1930s King Kong and other films from that era and well to the 1960s. On those, a background scenery film was projected on the rear side of a translucent movie screen, and the live-action set was built in front of it. The camera captured the actors and the background at the same time. The effect was sometimes quite convincing, and no post-processing was required. These days, the film screen is replaced with a led wall - essentially a huge television set. This technique is in wide use also in television programs, where the led walls often replace practically built sets.

King Kong, RKO Radio Pictures 1933

The challenge with this method is that the angle of view is fixed. There is no depth to the background image, which is fine if the screen is used just as an abstract set piece like in television shows, but becomes a problem if the backing is supposed to be a real environment like in movies. The illusion breaks the moment the camera starts moving as the backing is just a flat 2D image - the perspective works correctly just from one single angle.

The solution is to use a computer-generated 3D background that takes the changes in perspective into account. The location and rotation of the real-world camera are tracked in real-time and the background seen on the screen is always rendered from that point of view. When the camera moves, the backdrop changes accordingly, and everything lines up. One can think of it as if the camera was a character in a 3D game - which is actually quite close to how the effect is really done: the backgrounds are usually made with the same game engines that are used when making computer games.

On the high end of the production scale, the video screens are not just flat panels, but rather surround the set and the actors almost 360 degrees, often called a "volume". Even the ceiling can be a screen. This has the benefit of immersing the actors in the scene. The set looks and feels real to those in it - if there's a distant city on the horizon, it's not only seen by the camera but also by the actors and crew on the set. Another important benefit is that the screens act as a light source, giving a realistic ambient light to the set. They also show in reflections, which can be very important if the subject that's being shot is e.g. a car, most of the look of car paint actually comes from the reflected environment.

My Virtual Studio setup at an early prototype stage.

The second Virtual Production technique is similar, but using a green screen instead of a led screen. The actors are in front of a green wall, and the computer-generated backdrop is keyed behind them on a computer, in real-time. The same game engine as in led screen productions is used, the real camera is tracked in the same way. The main difference is that the camera does not capture the final image, but rather just the foreground element, and the actors need to imagine their surroundings.

Lucia – a Christmas story
littlemargieproductions 20©08
    
This technique also has a long history, and even moving cameras have been used for a long time - but not in real-time. Tracking and matching the camera moves was usually done in post and could be a very slow and tedious process. Because of this, most productions opt for a stationary, locked camera. This is also what we did for the acted "old black & white" segments of littlemargieproduction's Lucia - a Christmas Story.

On television, real-time virtual sets have been used since the late 1990s but they required state-of-the-art supercomputers of the day and were rather cost prohibitive. In Finland, only the large television broadcasters could afford setups like this. They were also horribly non-user-friendly. I worked with one of these systems back in the day, created the virtual sets for a digital sports channel in 1999 or so, and it was quite frustrating, to say the least.

The largest benefit of modern green screen based Virtual Production is cost. Large led volumes cost millions to own, and tens of thousands a day to rent. Greenscreens are relatively cheap. A working basic setup can be built for a few thousand, including the green screen, cameras, computers and so on. This is what I've done at our SW5 studio. It's still a work in progress, but getting there.

The green screen stage at SW5 Studio, freshly painted.

The basis of all operations at our studio is of course the green screen stage. We built it from basic construction materials and some flexible vinyl floor for the curved areas, painted with Rosco green screen paint. It's not the prettiest in the world, but it was affordable, can be torn down if we ever have to move again, and it does the job.

The cameras are tracked using a consumer-grade Vive system. Essentially, we take the data of a Vive VR headset's trackers and apply that to our virtual cameras. This gives us an area of a few meters across, where the computer knows exactly where the real camera is positioned and how it is oriented.

The video camera's signal is connected via an HDMI interface to the computer. I use an affordable Sony a6300 hybrid mirrorless as the main camera. This is one place where the low budget shows - while the image quality is actually great, the cabling and connections are not as robust as with dedicated professional systems. Our streaming computer is a decent, but not by any means high-end graphics workstation.

UE5 demo shows the rendering capabilities of the next generation
of the Unreal Engine. All this film-quality animation is real-time - no more waiting.

The virtual background is created using Unreal Engine. Unreal is a popular and very powerful piece of software, it can be used to create first-class video games - and the photorealistic virtual sets we need. Best of all, it's free. The data from the Vive tracker drives a virtual camera inside a "video game". The position, orientation, and lens properties are matched as closely as possible to the real camera.

If done right, the two align perfectly and the live actor can be placed within the virtual world.

The video and background could be combined within Unreal Engine (or a 3rd party addon like Aximmetry), but for now, i am using Open Broadcasting Software, OBS, for compositing the two. This may change in the future. Obs is also used for switching between different angles, mixing audio, and adding on-screen graphics, etc., as well as streaming the live video to Youtube or other platforms. OBS is another great piece of free software. 

I coded a simple greenscreen keyer for OBS, as i was not happy with the results i got with the built-in tools. Once i have perfected that, i'll probably share the code so that others can benefit from it too - hopefully i can contribute a little to this amazing free tool. 

Having these free tools at anyone's disposal is nothing short of a miracle. What once cost millions is now at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection and the will to learn.

CU
--
Eki

Thursday, 13 May 2021

POX on ANTI-VAXERS

I believe in getting immunity the old-fashioned way: By letting a bat virus take control of my lungs and turn my face into a disgusting plague fountain while my immune system desperately Googles 'how to make spike protein antibodies'.

Comic by XKCD.com

Germany ain't pulling their punches – AVs are kept under surveillance.  Deniers come from different tribes: loyal Trumpers, skeptics, lazy layabouts who can't be bothered.  Read about a far-left Catholic nun who thinks the vaccines are a capitalist plot. And  I know a kid. 23, she thinks the planet is dying and we are too,  so what's the use.

Every AV, unless they're hermits, is a walking talking time-bomb for the rest of us. The vax jab protects us, but we can still get ill. And we'll all be stuck a lot longer in virus-limbo. Unless AVs wear T-shirts with ANTI VAXER printed in 3-inch letters  in bright red on the front,  we won't know who is safe and who is not.

About 25 % of the word's pop. are AVs. Even if some far-off country is the worse-hit, the virus and its variants are speedy spreaders. Just about anywhere, except the great outdoors, is not safe. Sweden (pop. 10.5 m.) with its 'let it all hang out' policy, has had 15,000+ Covid 19 deaths. Finland (pop. 5.5 m.), with hot spot restrictions and obligatory face masks in public places has had 910 deaths – the best record in the EU. Hip, Hip, hurray for SUOMI!

Sources: The Economist, Washington  Post New York Times, Cyril Marret

Next week:  EKI's "VIRTUAL REALITY" course for DUMMIES


Note: 

I know a few anti-vaxxers too. What's scary is that some of them are people that I actually like in normal circumstances. Smart colleagues, dear old schoolmates, and so on. Intelligence - or being an overall good person - does not seem to be a foolproof guard against conspiracy theories.

I've had too many debates on Facebook and other social media with these. It's rather infuriating at times: how do you reason with a person whose position is not based on reason? 

Well, the same as with any other form of science denial. Try to be calm, state the facts, point out the lies and logical fallacies. Go high when they go low. Not for the one you are debating (they are likely beyond salvation already), but for the others reading the discussion (they maybe are not).

But as said, this can be rather irritating: you are restricted to sticking to the actual verifiable facts and need to take into account all uncertainties, while the opponent can just spew new lies every time the previous one has been debunked. 

And in the end, they do not even need to win. It's enough if they can sow something that looks like "reasonable doubt" to the layperson, and suddenly the scientific consensus is just another "opinion".

I'm worried that this might be a losing battle. And THAT is scarier than anything.

CU
--
Eki

Monday, 26 April 2021

Helsinki's UGLY BUILDING COMPETITION - by invitation only

"Makkaratalo":  not art-deco. Image: Wikipedia
(The Central Railway Station is in the background)


The city planners have published their five choices for a building next to Eliel Saarinen's famous Railway Station. And its neighbours:  the 1938 art-deco Central Post Office, Lasipalatsi. One of the contenders looks like a giant pagoda plucked out of Peking. Helsinki, a gem of great architecture has fans all over the world.  The city planners seem clueless.


"Klyyga", one of the entries for the new building. Image from the competition site.
(Also starring, from top left: Kiasma, Sanomatalo, Oodi, Sokos building, Central Railway Station, and a tiny bit of "Makkaratalo" in the bottom.)

When Eki and I made the series, TEN FINNISH ARCHITECTS, we were lucky to see, and learn, close-up why Finland is so famous for its architecture and design*.  Poor, mostly agricultural,  until after the second world war,  I was knocked out by how Finland's bold and unpretentious architecture developed and flourished. At least one reason was Open Competitions.

Without Open Competitions, the city planners have given permits for duds. Hotel Clarion is a perfect example. It wrecked the entrance to the center.  When the taxi from the airport takes the route by the sea, or a ship comes into port, there it is – a high-rise exclamation point with one of the best views of the Baltic. In June the citizens of Helsinki will have a chance to voice their opinion about the project by the RR station. Let's hope the majority put a big, Black X  on NO.

* Long before I moved to Finland, I was a big fan of Marimekko. It was my first introduction to the country. Eki and I made a documentary about the company.

Source: the Shark

Next Week: A POX on ANTI-VAXERS 



Note: Well, where should I start. There are two main issues I rather strongly disagree with.

1) The first is that you're sort of lying by omission. Sure, there's the Central Railway Station and Post Office and Lasipalatsi, which are early 1900's art-deco.

"Oodi": not art-deco. Image: The City of Helsinki

But there's also the "Makkaratalo" which is a rather ugly shopping center from the late 1960s that got its nickname from the sausage-like concrete bulge that surrounded its 2nd-floor parking lot (now renovated to hold more shops), the 1990 Kiasma modern art museum which is almost Gehryesque, Sanomatalo from 1999 which is an all-glass office building, the Helsinki Music House concert hall from 2011 which is a tilted glass and marble box, and the 2018 Oodi library
, which is a beautiful piece of abstract modern wood-glass architecture.

All these are within about the same distance from the new building as the art-deco buildings you list.

2) Second: I think what makes cities appealing is the layering of different styles and bold architecture that looks the period. I'm actually pretty sure that the art-deco buildings that are now praised were seen as "too modern" and "not fitting" in their own time.

And that appeal, to me, includes even the ugly 1960's shopping centers, "a little too high" hotels and whatever buildings there are - they are children of their time, and they all have a place in a city that wants to have a history and character that is there for the future generations to discover. Today's abomination can be a future jewel.

PS: I'm actually not sure whether the other buildings mentioned here were a result of an open or a closed competition. Likely both. 

PS2: I actually like some of the new competition entries.

CU
--
Eki