Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Month: May 2018

Babylon 5 in the Age of Streaming

Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.

It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.

But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.

That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.

Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.

Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?

I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.

Back to the Digital SLR

I have a digital SLR—a five-year-old Nikon D7100—but I haven’t been using it very much over the past few years. Blame that on the iPhone, which has a camera that while nowhere near as good or as versatile as a digital SLR, is good enough in most cases, and has the advantage of always being (a) with me and (b) connected to the Internet. Which meant that I was able to get shots I’d otherwise miss, not having my camera with me, but it also meant that convenience and spontaneity often trumped image quality. The Nikon came out for deliberate acts of photography—such as last summer’s solar eclipse—which lately haven’t happened very often.

I think that might be changing. I’ve been picking up the Nikon more and more lately: to take pictures of nearby garter snakes, the trilliums growing on our property, and the birds that pay us a visit. So I’ve been blowing the dust off the photography-centred parts of my brain and getting myself back up to speed on using the big gun.

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Books Read: February-April 2018

  1. Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets. Because Star Trek Discovery (which outright steals Stamets’s name for a character and uses his ideas about mycelial networks); also see Stamets’s TED talk. Also because we have multiple mushroom species growing on our property, some of which are actually edible. As I expected, a bit more woo than I’m comfortable with, but I learned a bit about mycology.
  2. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Graphic novel. Because of the movie, and it was available.
  3. The Art of Map Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock, Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill and Sarah King. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  4. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. Novella set in her Xuya universe. Holmesian detective story about a disgraced teacher and a traumatized ship mind: they solve crimes. Stories like these should come in six-packs, and I’d binge-read them that way; just one is just too little and too thin.
  5. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson. Novella in which cyborg time travelling environmental remediators from a despoiled future travel to ancient Sumeria. You know, when you put it that way…. Review forthcoming.
  6. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. Batshit comedy sf novel, basically Douglas Adams meets Eurovision with just the hint of a post-Brexit edge and a ton of heart. So much goddamn fun. Strongly recommended.
  7. The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell. Reviewed here.
  8. Head On by John Scalzi. Review forthcoming.
  9. Lock In by John Scalzi. Reread for my forthcoming review of Head On.

House Anniversary

It’s been one year to the day since we took possession of the house, and we’re still working out its quirks and features.

These are the things you don’t notice when you tour the house for the first time, or even during the inspection. I’m amazed at what now seems conspicuous, even glaring, but that we missed completely when we were buying the place. For example, the floors. They’d obviously been redone since the house was built 30 years ago, but it’s clear now that that work was done not too long before we bought the place, and it had not been done well: there were problems with the transition pieces and the doors that wouldn’t close, which we had fixed almost immediately, and the carpet in the upper living room/dining room has been causing all sorts of problems with bookshelf stability that we’re still trying to engineer a permanent solution for. More subtle things have since emerged: baseboards that don’t line up, mismatched paint patches, that sort of thing.

But things like this are fixable, and more to the point we can live with them in the meantime, so they don’t bother us too much. We’ll get to them eventually.

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