Monthly Archives: March 2014

Movie Poster

Does Jesus Sell?

I had to wait a few days before posting anything about this movie, and I’m not sure the silt has settled yet, but I want to get to it before it’s stale.

The title of this article probably gives a little bit of my sentiment about it away. I was hoping to see a much more relatable Jesus as I had heard so much about ‘The Bible’ and its humanizing of biblical accounts. I was hoping to see a Jesus that wasn’t broody and/or a hippie. I was hoping that maybe the humanity of a man who was inspiring enough to have 12 men drop everything they had ever known to follow him on a hobo’s adventure through Israel and eventually die brutal deaths for his sake, would shine through. Alas, it did not at all. In fact, this movie actually devolved into a MST3K episode for my wife and me, and I’m torn on whether or not that is worth going to confession over.The Jesus character portrayed in this movie is not only not a counter to the previous iterations of hippie-Jesus, but the guy acts like a stoner on top of all the hippie-isms. His disciples, rather than being confounded by advanced spiritual principals that they just haven’t grasped yet, are rightly concerned with his sanity. It seems they might just be around for the miracles alone, and they fall completely flat for it. To boot, the entire framework of the movie is based around ‘passive rebellion,’ which was admittedly what the political climate was at the time, but the way it is presented it washes all the spiritual depth out of the actual teachings of Jesus. The man portrayed is not a man worthy of following, much less one worthy of dying for, and that’s the real rub here. If this was supposed to show the reality of the situation, it certainly did not convince me as to why the disciples would have followed him in the first place. But then, I am a doubting Thomas.The disciples are portrayed moderately well, with Thomas and Judas being the most reasonable among them. These two characters continually challenge Jesus that what he’s doing might not be reasonable (but if he ever explains how it was, we don’t get to see it as the audience.) Peter gets the most screen time, and is admittedly the most balanced between reason and spirituality (which is likely the closest to the real man) out of the lot of them, but the rest seem like groupies. There’s a woman among the twelve, it seems, though we’re never really clear on just who the disciples are because of time constraints in the film process, but she has very little actual content to her character other than saucer eyes.

Beyond this, the film is so horribly affected by the backlash that Mel Gibson’s The Passion received for being anti-semetic, that Ciaphas is the only reasonable character in the entire movie. Pilate has been turned in to a blood thirsty brute (a mashing of later prelates of Palestine who actually were despots with the character of Pilate who seems to have been more of a passive leader) and we see great wisdom in Ciaphas’s desire to sacrifice the ‘minor prophet from Galilee’ in favor of not having Jewish people slaughtered on Passover. I do like the redemptive quality to Judas’s actions here, in that he truly seems to be acting on what he considers the best course for all involved.After the first couple of times when Thomas is told, “that’s not X, it’s Jesus” the MST3K started between my wife and me. Thomas was questioning, and the movie was not doing a good job of answering him. When the Via Dolorosa hit, all pretense of historicity was thrown out, along with any credibility for this flick. Jesus carried a full cross while the thieves (appropriately) carried only the beam. Jesus was clothed in a white garment (that seems to have appeared mystically after his scourging) and not the purple cloak that was the most likely candidate for the dicing soldiers. The gore is reduced from that of some previous movies, but then the kicker: nails through the palms of the hands. The Romans drove them through the wrists. Period. Anything else is imagery.Not only do I recommend that you skip this movie, either as a religious person or not, but I recommend that it be forgotten. Sadly, it completely banks on the fact that Jesus sells.

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New Engine, Old Blend

Futuristic Glass Chess set displaying the Torre Attack

Created in Blender3d, rendered with the Yafaray Engine.

I’m not sure if it’s good that I feel like I’m cheating using Yafaray, but that’s about the highest compliment I can give in this case. This image rendered in 5 passes at a tremendous resolution (2120X1192) in under an hour, and that’s accounting for 3 additional anti-aliasing passes. The material setup was negligible compared to what the same image would have cost setting up in cycles, and the render time was dramatically less than something even close. Plus, flawless caustics, absorption, and jeez, just look at it.

I have to say a bit about this image before I do a Yafaray review, though. I made a version of this image very early in my time working with Blender (so about a year and a half ago.)Cycles Absorption Test It was sort of on a whim, because I had found out that you could do absorption in Cycles from BlenderDiplom and wanted to try it out. [result on the right] You can see what I came up with, it’s a little grainy (ignore the white squares, they are supposed to be frosted glass) and took over 2 hours to render. It was a fun image at the time, and it taught me a lot about the capabilities of of myself as a modeller, and the flexibility of the Cycles engine. It also taught me a lot about the frustrations of render times without a GPU, and the sheer volume of passes necessary to get a clean render. I learned a lot since then, and looking at this image, I can see there is nowhere near enough light, the bounces aren’t set high enough, and (inside the model) the geometry was fairly messy. It was more fun to revisit the image now, and see how I had grown.

Anyway, one of the problems I have with Cycles is that it is so ‘material-centric.’ Everything is determined at the level of the materials, which can make sense to some artists, I suppose, but it is counter-intuitive to me. What I’m interested in, with a background in photography, is light.

An example of the materials list, and the Shiny Diffuse Material

An example of the materials list, and the Shiny Diffuse Material

I think this is the biggest advantage that Yafaray has over Cycles, it is ‘light-centric’ in its rendering process. No more fiddling with insane amounts of settings and plugging in all varieties of material nodes / input settings/ etc. The light is going to do the work for you, and you just need to make sure that everything is set up to receive that light properly, and send it on along its way. The most intimidating thing moving from Cycles to Yafaray is the list of materials. Experienced Cycles users are going to balk at the paltry options, until they really dig in to the interface. The amount of editable content on each material is the equivalent of having 5 or 6 built in nodes on the Cycles materials, so that very little of the quantity is missed in favor of customization. Basically, the artist has to ask, ‘how is the light going to interact with this object,’ then pick the material accordingly, and modify it to precision. Once you find the material to light settings (they are hidden in the object panel in this engine) you’re golden.

The preferred render setting for most Yafaray users, 'Photon Mapping'

The preferred render setting for most Yafaray users, ‘Photon Mapping’

The rendering process is also quite a bit more intuitive, and as many who use Yafaray have found, the Photon Mapping setting does a great job of producing very detailed light effects. The documentation on Yafaray.org is very explicit in how to use every setting, and it doesn’t require much to figure out once you have your head around it. When I rendered Glass Tower Gambit, I had all the settings cranked up to 16 (ray depth, bounces, etc.) and even rendering on a crappy laptop it only took 55 minutes. I made the mistake of not reading up on anti-aliasing tests until after I had started the render, and so I probably could have shaved a little bit of time off even that.

There are some downsides to Yafaray.

  • Full support for some items isn’t integrated, yet.
  • There is no ‘node-editor’
  • There is no option to render on GPU (which I don’t miss, but some will.)
  • The engine inhales RAM, but the issue has been cornered in the code, and will soon be worked out.

In all, I’d say people cutting their teeth in Blender should stick to Internal, but then move to Yafaray when they get the interest in making much more life-like renders. The reality of Cycles is that it is overly technical, and requires much more time to set up and to render, even for experienced users with decent machines. This engine gets my hearty thumbs up.

Happy Blending.

Let me know how your experience with Yafaray goes.

What is Bitcoin, really?

So, I’m making this post to try and help some people I’ve encountered understand what alt-currency is and why it’s important, useful, and here to stay. The recent issues with Mt. Gox and Flexcoin are just birthing pains, don’t let them become the boogey-men that some groups would like.

First off, what is distributed analysis:
Arecibo_Observatory_Aerial_ViewYears ago, SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute figured out how to leverage distributed data analysis on the vast quantities of data it had pooled up from radio receivers like Arecibo Observatory. [pictured] This data, fragments of white noise from beyond our planet, *could* contain a message from an advanced alien race. (c.f. Contact by Carl Sagan.) The problem is, there is so much of it that a person sitting down to pour over the information would quickly be overwhelmed, and not be able to complete the task. This is where computers come in. If there is one thing that computers do well, it’s repetitive tasks, like looking for variations in white noise. But one computer would not be enough to analyze all this data, so SETI Institute had a program you could download and run as a ‘screen saver’ to analyze this data for them. It pulled a packet of information from SETI, analyzed it using the CPU (I believe) on your computer while it wasn’t being used by you, and then sent the results back. I’m not sure it was the first, but it was the first ‘distributed data miner’ that I’m aware of.

So, what’s Bitcoin (or any alt-currency):
Very basically, it’s an incentive. I have no idea how successful the SETI@home program was, but I imagine not very much so. It relied on people’s interests with no compensation, imagine NASA being entirely donation funded and you’ll get a picture of what I’m talking about here. Besides basic interest, there was no reason for people to participate, and the fewer people you have in a distributed system, the less likely it is to succeed. So the question became, how to get people (or more specifically their computers) involved in the distributed analysis. Enter crypto-currency.

The idea originated, according to bitcoin.org’s FAQ on a cryptography mailing list (cypherpunks) in 1998. It was fleshed out from there, but very little is known about the original creators of the program. Much like the concepts, the development of bitcoin software / algorithms (I’m not even really sure what to call it, but we’ll go with algorithms) has become distributed. The advantage here is that no one ‘owns’ Bitcoin. The disadvantage is that no one knows the full extent of what Bitcoin does. I can conjecture about the origins of money being attached to it, however, and here’s my conjecture:

How to turn data in to money:
I think the first big misunderstanding of crypto-currency is where the money comes from. It’s always been backed by other currencies, not by any intrinsic value of its own.There is no commodity to it, just investment in results. The modes of support are likely the same as the original modes, though the methods are different. You’d be surprised at how much money is out there for some of the calculations that are best performed by distributed data analysis. Finding prime numbers is a good example. Again, computers are really good at this kind of thing, where humans just aren’t, but the power needed to crunch this kind of number is just staggering. So you distribute that challenge among many different processors (one processor checks the number to be divisible by 2,3,5,7,etc and another picks up at 113, 127, 131,etc.) By distributing the calculations we can eliminate candidates faster, and eventually come to the next prime number. [Interestingly, primes are important for the other applications of distributed data analysis, namely cryptography, which I’ll discuss in a bit.] Finding the next prime number would be what we call ‘discovering a block’ which is basically just being the lucky processor in that line to nab the actual new highest prime number. So, in this example, you see how a payoff for that processing power would come from a ‘bounty’ set for the new highest prime’s discovery. This is overly simple, but it drives my next point home, so I need to make it this way.

Understanding a sea of data:
It’s impossible to tell exactly what calculations cyrpto-miners are doing. That’s sort of the point. But if we look at the overall process, we can tell a few things. First off, encoded information (that is, information that has been hashed to obfuscate it’s content) is likely being analyzed and opened. We can say this with a decent amount of certainty because it’s one of the best uses of distributed data analysis. Now, who is driving this decryption, and where it ends up, is well beyond my paygrade, I’ll let you puzzle that one. On the turn of this, new data is likely being encrypted over this network as well. I’d love to think that complex science is being done (or that the SETI information is being poured over) but I doubt that there is an altruistic bent to this anymore. What is clear is this, investors are investing, and data is churning.

When I buy a *coin what do I get:
Basically a promissory note. I mentioned Mt. Gox and Flexcoin at the top, and essentially you are at the mercy of whatever exchange you go with. Your *coin is worth whatever the going rate is, as long as you can get the company to pay for it. This may sound shady, but it’s the way we’ve done business ever since banks entered the picture. The only thing backing these exchanges is the money coming in from investors. If every *coin earner were to rush their exchanges at once, I doubt they’d have the capital on hand to shell out (and some probably don’t have any on hand, but they’ve invested it themselves.) So should you avoid this method of investment… probably not. Looking ahead, even as computers get faster and faster, the need for distributed data analysis is only going to increase. New methods of analyzing telescope data are pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe, cameras that work faster than light can tell us incredible amounts about the very basics of electromagnetic transmission, and even the tiniest amount of metadata in large enough quantities can implicate a person that might be very well protected otherwise. I don’t see the need for distributed analysis going away any time soon, and so I don’t see the need for incentivizing it going away soon either.

Think I missed the mark? Have something to add? Comment here: