Quick thoughts: On Superman vs. Batman


Note: I'm no comic book expert, but these represent my thoughts as a general fan of both characters.

It was recently announced at the San Diego Comic Con that the next Superman movie would feature the Man of Steel battling the Dark Knight [note: an entirely new Batman, as the one from the recent trilogy is set in too realistic a universe]. It's a battle fans have waited a long time for; while it's been done in the comics before, never have these two titans faced off on the silver screen. Of course, there are some immediately apparent issues: Superman's strength and abilities are godlike, whereas Batman is a mere human (albeit a supremely intelligent one with an insane amount of money). I don't want to think too much of how the battle will play out, but I'd imagine it'd be something like this comic by Julia Lepetit and Andrew Bridgman on Dorkly:

All this talk about the upcoming movie got me thinking about another battle these two have had, one they've been engaged in for much longer: the title of greatest superhero. In other words, not simply who would win in a fight, but which character is the better superhero overall.

Anyone who knows me personally knows that Superman is my unhesitant answer. He's the first, he's the strongest. As the years go on, however, I seem to represent a more significant minority. After all, Batman is almost undoubtedly the more popular character in the public mindshare, something that reflects current storytelling trends in popular entertainment. Batman is human, he's relatable, and he suffers from the same moral issues we all face in our day-to-day lives. He's also closer to the archetype of the antihero so many find appealing, yet still remains a good-guy; perhaps 'Byronic hero' is a closer description. People just seem to be attracted to that sort of darkness, and the ethical dilemmas Batman is frequently asked to resolve seem to be intrinsic to his very character.

This makes the Caped Crusader, in some ways, easy to write for. So often confronting enemies with natural abilities much greater than his, you expect him to struggle. Set in a universe where characters can run faster than the speed of light or repair rips in reality with their bare hands, Batman represents the perpetual underdog, and an unyielding example of what humanity is capable when the odds are stacked up against it. Of course, this isn't always the case. The other part of Batman's appeal is that his recurring villains are often simply criminals with no special powers; these tend to be the ones that place him in moral catch-22s. He's vulnerable to, yet capable against, enemies from everyday mobsters to galactic overloads. He strives for the general idea of justice in a world filled with darkness, including his own. This all makes for prime entertainment fodder.

Where does that leave Superman then, the over-powered, endlessly-charming, always-does-the-right-thing boy in blue? How do you build up drama in a story where you know, incontrovertibly, that Supes will win? Perhaps more importantly, how do you do this when you know he will win the right way? It seems about as easy as walking on a millimeter thin tightrope. I wont even bother addressing Superman's strength here; he'll virtually always find a way to be powerful enough to fight a given enemy. Coming up with a moral script is more troublesome. If you allow him to defeat an enemy without questioning the right choice, the story becomes boring and predictable. On the other hand, make him choose an action that isn't obviously the correct ethical one, and you're accused of going against what Superman's very character stands for. I mean, if Superman makes a mistake, it's probably because he was being mind-controlled. Go figure.

Therein lies the issue. With both characters you know the good guy will win, but with Batman, you're less sure how. But I don't think Superman's story woes are enough to dismiss him as inferior, because ultimately he is the unyielding monolith against which all other superheroes are measured. I feel that pressure is taken for granted, and it's the appreciation of it that makes me side with Superman.

Batman's ethical conflicts are captivating, but there's something to be said about the hero who has the ability to obliterate anyone in his path, yet still chooses to do the right thing in virtually every possible instance. After all, the physical confrontation between Superman and Batman is only interesting because we know objectively that Batman is orders of magnitude weaker; we expect Batman to somehow have to overcome that weakness in order for it to be a compelling match. It's not Superman's fault he is so powerful, but it is his responsibility to make the right choices with that power, something he does unrelentingly.

This is why at the end of the day, Superman is the unwritten leader of the Justice League, why he's the last character called in to save the day. Superman leads by example, is an ideal for humanity to strive for. And I don't know about you, -- this is now purely personal -- but I'm a bit tired of the recurrence of the dark, gritty, brooding hero in the media. It's refreshing to have someone who just does the right thing because it's the right thing, and not spend half an hour on melancholy exposition internally questioning the validity of his choice.

In some ways, then, I think the two characters have become inextricably intertwined as DC's representation of Good. If Batman represents humanity's struggle to maintain justice in within its own darkness, Superman represents justice at peak form.

Which one ends up being more interesting? Well, that's up to you.



Roosevelt Island: An(other) ode to weather-sealing


Roosevelt Island: An(other) ode to weather-sealing

Note that due to the smaller sensor of Micro Four-Thirds, all stated focal lengths should be doubled to get the 35mm equivalent. All photos made the Olympus OM-D E-M5 at base ISO, processed through LR5. Most from JPEG, a few from RAW. 

I've said before I think every electronic product should be weather sealed, particularly our cameras (you can check out my blog post on the matter here). Still, sometimes I think I take the issue too seriously and imagine an umbrella, rainsleeve, and a little foresight would suffice for most. But then days like yesterday happen.

I had planned to hang out with a good friend of mine at Roosevelt Island, a small territory in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The weather forecast was uncertain: partly cloudy with chance of isolated storms (hint, hint). We left her house with a relatively clear sky above us.

When we emerged from the subway station, however, the picture was quite different.

25mm - f/1.4 - 1/1600

25mm - f/1.4 - 1/1600

It was absolutely pouring, so we figured we'd try and wait it out for a bit. Ten minutes passed and no change came, so grabbed our umbrellas and committed to braving out the storm. A little water wouldn't hurt us, after all. 

My camera though? That's a bit of a different story. Partially, anyway: the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is weather sealed for rain and dust when using a matching lens. Even if I'd have to relegate my best, weather-vulnerable lenses to storage (the Olympus short portrait lens and the expensive Panasonic-Leica normal lens), I was very much excited to get another chance to try out the OM-D's weather sealing with the its kit zoom lens. This lens usually just stays in my camera bag unless I need something wider than 50mm equivalent, the occasional macro shot, or of course, something to withstand the rain.

Well, this rain was no joke.

50mm - f/6.3 - 1/125

50mm - f/6.3 - 1/1250

 I was standing under a decent-sized umbrella, but that clearly wouldn't have been enough to protect my other lenses. 

12mm - f/7.1 - 1/250

Even under the mighty Queensboro bridge, I wasn't completely safe.

12mm - f/6.3 - 1/400

28mm - f/6.3 - 1/80

And then... sunlight. As we arrived at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the southernmost tip of the island, the sky cleared up. You might have never thought it rained were it not for the wet ground.

12mm - f/4.5 - 1/1000

 I could even pull out the my expensive Leica lens again.

25mm - f/1.4 - 1/4000

25mm - f/4.5 - 1/1000

25mm - f/4.5 - 1/1000

 Of course, my portrait lens wouldn't be left behind.

45mm - f/4.5 - 1/1000

45mm - f/1.8 - 1/3200

45mm - f/1.8 - 1/3200

After this we explored the rest of the island. As afternoon turned to evening, however, I realized I'd never taken a photo of the great sculpture of FDR at the park because I was so shocked by the change in weather. We decided to walk back to the park so I could get that shot; how could I not when Roosevelt was one of my favorite presidents and it was the eve of Independence Day?

As my luck would have it, as soon as we entered the park a small sunshower began, which would quickly evolve into legitimate rain by the time we arrived at the monument. I switched back to my 12-50 from the 45 as soon as I felt the water, but I wasn't satisfied with the images I was getting this time. The lens just wasn't bringing out the details of the sculpture. The way the intricate, quietly determined expression of the piece was rendered somber by the surrounding rain felt extremely powerful to me, and I wanted to capture that scene as best I could.

Thus, I risked lens and sensor damage by carefully switching to my 45mm in the pouring rain under my umbrella, and got what was my favorite shot of the day.

45mm - f/4.5 - 1/125

There were a few drops of rain on the lens regardless of my carefulness; thankfully nothing was damaged as far as I can tell. But wouldn't it be nice if I wouldn't have to worry about it? Of course I risked my sensor by switching lenses in the rain, but that is easier to cover up, and I'd rather have one failure point than two. How amazing it would be if I could have used any or all of my lenses without having to worry about a little water. There's so much beauty to be found on rainy days like these, and I wish more camera manufacturers would appreciate that. While preparation is ideal, sometimes your greatest memories are crafted in a bit of spontaneity. I'll skip the rain check.



HTC 8X vs Nokia Lumia. Shameless Copying or Converging Designs?

The Lumia 900

The Lumia 900

The HTC 8X

The HTC 8X

Note: This is a paraphrasing of a quick forum post I'd written when the 8X was originally announced. As such, it's slightly outdated and a little sloppy, but I still hope it provokes some deliberation about the designs of these phones.

The development of the Windows Phone platform has resulted in some of the most unique looking phones to come along in some time. The Nokia Lumia series and the HTC 8X both forgo the typical aluminum and/or black plastic construction of their competitors for an array of vibrant, polycarbonate devices. The designs are, at a glance, similar: Matte finish. Bold, uniform color. Soft edges. Curved display. So similar, in fact, that upon the announcement of the 8X, crowds of commenters across tech blogs denounced it as being a shrewd rip-off of the Nokia line. But I don't think so.

I believe these similarities are primarily coincidence, and actually commend HTC for following this direction despite an apparent resemblance. I feel the designs of the two companies evolved from different sources and happen to be converging at mutual point in time, for a mutual software backbone. Any likeness of the 8X and 8S to the Lumias doesn't come from an attempt to copy Nokia’s design, but rather from an aesthetic that is inherent in HTC's desire to physically match the design language of Metro. In other words, if I had never seen a Lumia phone and were attempting to design a product inspired by Metro, I think there's a good chance I'd come up with something similar.

(Yes Metro, dagnabbit. Modern UI sounds horrendously bland.)

Matching the Software's Design Language:

Microsoft's current design philosophy is about being "authentically digital": getting rid of fake textures, cheesy skeumorphism, unnecessary glossiness, etc. It features bold, solid colors, simple transitions, and squares. Lots of squares. 

The 8X (and 8S, to a slightly lesser extent) seems to aim for precisely that. Making the phone's hardware feature patterns or textures, a la Samsung or Motorola, would immediately detract from and clash with Metro's design. And since gloss is to Metro like open-source is to Apple, a matte finish makes the most sense.  

I mean, does Samsung's Ativ look like it fits WP8 at all?

I mean, does Samsung's Ativ look like it fits WP8 at all?

Unibody polycarbonate helps maintain the uniformity of structure, color, and texture. Metal construction would interrupt the design, as it would necessitate a plastic or glass part to the back of the device for the antennae to function properly (see One S, iPhone 1 and 5, etc).

Authentically Digital, but Authentically HTC:

But it's not just Metro that HTC is taking cues from; the 8X is also evolved from their very own Android flagship, the One X. This is a phone which already features unibody polycarbonate with a matte texture, as well as a curved display. Having a similar construction connects the two phones aesthetically, and the signature HTC grilles are visibly present and highlighted by color on the new devices. To me, the 8X largely resembles a One X repurposed for Windows Phone. 

Take the One X, sharpen the corners, drop it in a bucket of paint, and you're already getting pretty close.

Take the One X, sharpen the corners, drop it in a bucket of paint, and you're already getting pretty close.

So if it wanted to be so "Metro", why did HTC chose to taper the design instead of just making a plain rectangular prism? For one, a curved screen makes it easier to use WP's frequent side-swiping. Then, well, there's issue that people actually have to hold these things, and a tapered design is simply more comfortable. This is especially true with larger screen sizes, where more reaching means more uncomfortable pressure on the palm. It also has the nice side-effect of making the phones look and feel thinner than they are. I mean the iPhone 4S looks nice, but it sure doesn't feel as nice to hold as my tapered One S. In any case, the tapering is quite different from the Nokias, which are more cylindrical.

And so, just that short train of thought leaves us with a phone that comes in solid colors, a square shape, matte texture, tapered edges, curved display, and polycarbonate construction.

A Different Source, a Similar Destination

Nokia's design, on the other hand, evolved from a completely different direction, and somewhat coincidentally. Its current design language can be traced all the way back to at least the Symbian N8, going N8→N9→Lumia 800→Lumia 900→Lumia 920.

The N8 featured a matte-finish with bold colors and cylindrical tapering.

The N8 featured a matte-finish with bold colors and cylindrical tapering.

The MeeGo-running N9 followed the N8, and is basically identical to the subsequent WP7 Lumia 800, which defines what people identify as the "Nokia Look". It just so happened that the N9/800 solid-colored and seamless construction seemed to fit Windows Phone quite well.

As such, I don't think the Nokia phones were designed solely with Windows Phone in mind, because their aesthetic started long before WP7's release. With HTC, other than some cues from the One X, its design seems to have evolved for the specific purpose of application to Windows Phone 8. 

The unknown variable here is just how long ago Nokia knew they'd be running Windows Phone. Was the N9 redesigned to further match Metro because of prior knowledge that the hardware would be re-applied as a Windows Phone device? I've seen conflicting information on this, and watching the design videos for both the N9 and Lumia 800 only further muddles the matter. But if it was, I don't think it played a such a dire role given many of the elements already present in the N8 and other previous Nokia phones.

A Windows Phone Family

At the end of the day, whatever the reasons may be, HTC and Nokia's related aesthetics are a good thing for Windows Phone as a whole. As the products of the two main players in the market, these designs give WP8 readily identifiable visual character, in the same way you can identify an an Apple product at a glance, or you used to be able to identify Android HTCs by their chin. 

I also completely think it's possible Microsoft had a significant influence in HTC's design process, as they might have had for the Lumias, and tried to direct them towards the colorful styling in order to strengthen brand presence for the OS (and knew Samsung probably didn't care, since they are so successful on Android). It should be noted, however, Nokia has started to shift gears a bit. It's transitioned towards a glossy sheen (ugh), which will help differentiate the companies' products at the store stands. 

Personally, I expect HTC to do quite well with this new lines of phones, probably better than Nokia, simply because I believe the designs are more universally attractive than those of the new Lumias. As nice as the Lumia 920 and 820 are, people are growing tired of gloss. Then they'll see the HTC's that have similar functionality, but cleaner designs. And blue. 

Then there's the issue that Nokia has previously shown more carrier exclusivity than HTC has. If they continue to have their flagship available on AT&T only, their potential US sales will be greatly diminished. Besides, it's not as if HTC is a newcomer, it already has a strong following of its own. 

But we'll see. Whichever way things go, I think the outlook is better than ever for the Windows Phone ecosystem. I might just move away from the Android Army.