Archive: August, 2013

Anna Gunn and ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Skyler White: just the tip of a very big iceberg

TV critic Maureen Ryan, writing for The Huffington Post:

“Breaking Bad” is an undoubtedly a great show, but, as is the case with too many television dramas, for while there it didn’t really know what to do with its female characters. The AMC drama clearly struggled to make Skyler and Marie Shrader (wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader) anything but subsidiary figures who rarely moved into — or deserved — the spotlight. Their behaviors and reactions were easy to predict, and if the writers didn’t show consistent interest in their emotional lives and the women’s inner depths, why would viewers care about them, let alone have positive responses to them?

While I can’t express myself as eloquently as Ryan does here, I got the same feeling when reading through Anna Gunn’s NYT editorial. Gunn makes a lot of good points about some of the extreme Skyler haters on the show. But especially in Breaking Bad’s first few seasons, Skyler just wasn’t that fleshed out as a character; she was at times pretty easy to root against (Mad Men’s Betty, as Ryan writes about later, shares a very similar problem.)

Testing: the new Nexus 7’s battery life

Norman Chan, Tested:

And therein lies what I think is a significant difference between how battery life should be managed and valued between the Nexus 7 (along with other small tablets) and other mobile devices. For the majority of Nexus 7/iPad Mini owners or potential buyers, my guess is that these small tablets are secondary devices that complement other computers. Unlike a full-size tablet like the iPad or Nexus 10, I don’t think the Nexus 7 is appropriate as most people’s sole computer. As a consequence, secondary devices are by definition not as critical in day-to-day use as a laptop or smartphone.

I couldn’t agree more with Norm here. I’ve been putting a Nexus 7 through it’s paces for work testing over the past few weeks, and it drops its battery life significantly faster than a 3rd or 4th generation iPad. But even with some pretty intense web browsing, YouTube videos and jumping between multiple apps, I don’t think I ever saw less than seven hours of battery life. In short, two really long spurts of secondary use over two days between charges. That’s excellent.

The Last of Us and gaming’s narrative evolution

I’ve been racing through the PS3 horror survival game The Last of Us at a blistering pace over the last few weeks. Unlike almost every other console game I’ve played, I’m doing so because of the game’s great storyline, not its gameplay.

Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists of The Last of Us, propel the narrative forward. Both characters are morally flawed and have depth; they grow and evolve significantly throughout gameplay. It’s a progression that’s more impressive than a lot of what I see on TV today, especially when you factor in the relatively short in-game cutscene time. We’re not talking Mad Men levels of development here, but for a video game this is a huge accomplishment. Overall, I feel invested in these characters and can’t wait to find out what happens to them next.

There are other ways that the The Last of Us’ narrative has similarities to a great TV or movie screenplay. There’s no excess exposition; characters rarely talk about how they feel or unnecessarily recall earlier events to fill in the audience (e.g. no character says “tell me again about…”). Instead, nuanced actions convey emotion. Elle slightly changes her stance when she gets agitated. Joel glances at his broken watch to recall a tragic backstory.

In addition, The Last of Us doesn’t front-load the story with clumsy, overly direct details such as intro voiceovers, a common mistake among action games. Instead, the game fills in the blanks on its post-apocalyptical setting along the way, mostly in the action’s periphery: two characters have a throwaway conversation about a summer barbecue before the infection spread. Loudspeakers shout ominous warnings from FEDRA, the militaristic remnants of the U.S. government.

Unlike a lot of games, gameplay violence has serious consequences that aren’t glorified or fetishized. Gun fights are short and deadly. Enemies (and their victims) are dispatched in brutal, realistic ways. Joel and Ellie obviously rack up an unrealistically high body count (it’s still an action game), but are far from unstoppable super heroes. Thanks to excellent sound design and motion capture, both characters are often weak, scared and tired during battle. With all these factors in play, “fun” combat ironically ranges between feeling uncomfortable to flat out dreadful. Consequently, extended gaming sessions are hard to handle. But I think the game developers would argue that’s exactly the point.

Overall, The Last of Us shows a real maturity in its narrative, an evolution past what we normally see in gaming. It’s fitting that the game is one of the PS3’s last tentpole releases. Here’s hoping the next generation of gaming, from the XBox One and PS4 to the iPhones and PCs of tomorrow, will push their respective stories to even higher levels.

Reviewing free-to-play games is turning me into a nervous wreck

The Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera on free-to-play games:

The economy of free-to-play games are always designed to be unsatisfying in some way, that’s how the business works. For-pay games feature a kind of brute honesty: If you don’t pay the asking price, you don’t get to play. Free-to-play games hide their hooks in the game play itself, like sharp bones inside a nice piece of meat. It’s hard to feel like you can dig in when you know any bite may bring pain, so we’re stuck ripping the meal apart with our knife and fork to try to figure out where the bones may be hiding.

This is pretty much exactly the problem I’ve had with the popular mobile free-to-play game Real Racing 3. To get to more advanced races I felt the need to grind races over and over for more coins to buy. Was the game putting up a wall and telling me to fork up a few bucks? How much would I feel obliged to spend to get some of the later stage, more powerful cars? I’ve decreased my play time significantly since I had to start asking these questions.

PNG can be a lossy format

Admittedly before I read this feature page on the ImageAlpha app site, I didn’t fully appreciate how PNGs could be saved effectively in a lossy or compressed format. That’s what JPEGs were for, right? But I was wrong. If you use a smart algorithm and compressor like on the free ImageAlpha app, PNGs can get their size easily stripped in half. An alternative to the TinyPNGs of the world.

Crippling the web

Developer Tim Kadlec, talking about the power of the web’s ubiquity:

When we use techniques that work only on top-of-the-line modern browsers, but don’t consider what happens in other browsers, we’re crippling that super power.

When we build fat sites that are incredibly slow to load on older devices or slower networks, if they can even load at all, we’re crippling that super power…
When we slam the door on people because of the device they’re using, we’re crippling that super power.

By the numbers: next-generation console software showdown

There’s been lots of hype around both the PS4 and XBox One regarding the state of launch titles. Ars Technica gaming reporter Kyle Orland presents the numbers on each side, divided by exclusivity, genre, and more. It’s a helpful guide and a potential factor in deciding which console to pick up.

Color Hexa

There’s many web based color picker tools out there, but when you want to learn as much as possible it’s hard to go wrong with Color Hexa. To quote the description: is a free color tool providing information about any color. Just type any color values (view full list here) in the search field and ColorHexa will offer a detailed description and automatically convert it to its equivalent value in Hexadecimal, Binary, RGB, CMYK, HSL, HSV, CIE-Lab, Hunter-Lab, CIE-Luv, CIE-LCH, XYZ and xyY.

WebKit has implemented srcset, and it’s a good thing

I’m a much bigger fan of the picture element syntax but this is one big step forward for responsive imagery on the web.

Why “open always wins” isn’t the point

Web developer and speaker John Allsopp:

So, next time you want to bash Google, be my guest. I’m pretty sure they won’t “go pee pee in their big boys slacks”. But don’t beat up on the concept of openness, as if those who champion the latter, necessarily support the former uncritically (if at all). Rather, you really should be getting down on your knees and giving thanks for openness, as we all should. Those of us who have been around the block a few times know how much the extraordinary modern world of the technology, and so all of us, owe to it.