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“Stonehenge Lego” scale model reveals the pagan monument’s unique soundscape

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Enlarge / Acoustic research using a scale model 1/12th the size of Stonehenge finds that the completed monument would have magnified speech and improved musical sounds, but only for those inside the stone circle.

Scientists built a scale model of Stonehenge, the famous megalithic structure of stones in Wiltshire, England, and used it to recreate how sound would have been reflected off the surfaces of the stones. They found that the arrangement of the stones likely would have amplified speech and enhanced music but only if one was within the circle, according to a recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Dubbed “Stonehenge Lego,” the scale model is the work of acoustical engineer Trevor Cox of the University of Salford in England and several colleagues. (Fun fact: way back in 2007/2008, Cox conducted a yearlong study to identify the top 10 worst sounds. The sound of someone vomiting topped the list, followed by microphone feedback, wailing babies, and a train scraping along the track rails.) This latest paper builds on their preliminary findings last year. They’ve since been working on testing the acoustics of different configurations of the stones that would have existed at different times in the monument’s long history.

Recreating historical “soundscapes” is part of a relatively young field known as acoustic archaeology (or archaeoacoustics). For instance, researchers have sought to understand how acoustics may have influenced the outcome of key Civil War battles, like the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Another effect of interest to acoustic archaeologists is the chirping sound—reminiscent of the call of the quetzal, a brightly colored exotic bird native to the region—when you clap your hands at the bottom of one of the massive staircases of the Mayan Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in central Mexico.

These soundscapes can have practical applications. Case in point: last year, the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was badly damaged in a fire. Fortunately, French acousticians had made detailed measurements of Notre Dame’s “soundscape” over the last few years. Another scientist, Andrew Tallon, had used laser scanning to create precisely detailed maps of the interior and exterior. All that data will be instrumental in helping architects factor acoustics into their reconstruction plans, in hopes of preserving the cathedral’s unique soundscape.

Stonehenge, too, has been known to exhibit unusual acoustic effects; it hums in strong winds, for instance. And in 2017, researchers from London’s Royal College of Art found that its igneous bluestones produce a loud clanging noise when struck, which those who built the monument may have associated with mystical or healing powers. That could explain why some of those stones were transported such long distances; most were likely quarried in a Welsh town called Maenclochog (translation: “ringing rock”). Apparently, the local townspeople used the bluestones as church bells until the 18th century.

Acousticians have measured the properties of the monument as it exists today, but “the sound is very different from the past because so many stones are now missing or displaced,” Cox et al. wrote in their latest paper. There is actually a full-scale model of Stonehenge in Maryhill, Washington, that is closer to its prehistoric formation, and scientists have measured its acoustical properties as well. But Cox et al. believe their scale model more accurately takes into account the shape and size of the actual stones.

“The problem with the other models we have is that the stones aren’t quite the right shape and size, and how the sound interacts with the stones depends critically on the shapes,” Cox told The Guardian last year. “Those blocks at Maryhill are all very rectangular, whereas real Stonehenge, when you look at it, they are all a bit more amorphous because they are made out of stones that have been hand chiselled.”

Acoustical engineer Trevor Cox works with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber at England's University of Salford.
Enlarge / Acoustical engineer Trevor Cox works with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber at England’s University of Salford.

Acoustics Research Centre/University of Salford

Cox et al. relied upon laser scans of the site itself, along with existing archaeological evidence, to build their model, which is 1/12th the size of the real thing—as large a replica as the university’s acoustic chamber could accommodate. The outer circle of standing sarsen stones likely numbered 30 originally. Today, there are five standing sarsen stones included in a total of 63 complete stones, along with 12 fragmented stones. Archaeologists have estimated a total of 157 stones were placed at the site some 4,200 years ago.

To make their model, Cox and his colleagues 3D-printed 27 stones of varying shapes and sizes. “You 3D print them and then you make silicon moulds out of them, and then you cast them in a plaster-polymer mix, and then you paint them in car paint,” Cox told The Guardian. “I ruined my dining room floor.” Then they placed the model into the sound chamber to make their measurements.

As we’ve reported previously, there is a definitive relationship between the quality of a room’s acoustics, the size of the chamber, and the amount of absorption surfaces that are present. This is captured in a well-known formula for calculating reverberation time, still the critical factor for gauging a space’s acoustical quality. Reverberation is not the same as an echo, which is what happens when a sound repeats. Reverb is what happens indoors when sound can’t travel sufficient distance to produce those echoing delays. Instead, you get a continuous ring that gradually “decays” (fades).

Acousticians typically measure so-called “impulse responses” on location and store them digitally for later use. Clap your hands inside an empty concert hall or church. That’s the impulse. (A starting pistol or a popping balloon are also good impulses.) The sound reflections you hear are the building’s response. Record both impulse and response, then compare the acoustic profile with a recording of just the impulse for reference, and you can extract a model of the room’s reverberations.

That’s basically what Cox et al. have done with their scale model of Stonehenge. They placed several microphones and speakers throughout the structure, both inside the circle and just outside of it. Then they played chirping sounds of both high and low frequencies through the speakers, and the reflections of the sounds off the model stones were captured and recorded by the microphones.

They found that the reverberation time lasted about 0.6 seconds inside the circle for mid-frequency sounds—ideal for amplifying human speech, or the sounds of musical instruments like drums. (For comparison, your living room probably has a reverb of about 0.4 seconds. A large concert hall typically has a reverberation time of about two seconds, while a cathedral like Notre Dame has a very long reverb of roughly eight seconds.) But those sounds were not projected beyond the circle into the surrounding area, and there were no echoes, since the inner groups of stones served to muddle and scatter the sounds reflected off the outer circle.

Cox and his co-authors are careful to point out that the acoustical properties of Stonehenge were not necessarily the primary driver of the monument’s unique design. “It seems improbable that sound was a primary driver in the design and arrangement of the stones at Stonehenge,” they wrote. “Other considerations were more likely to be important, including the astronomical alignments, the incorporation of two different groups of stones, the replication of similar timber monuments, and the creation of an impressive and awe-inspiring architecture structure.”

This latest study “shows that sound was fairly well contained within the monument and, by implication, [Stonehenge] was fairly well insulated from sounds coming in,” archaeologist Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in England—who is not affiliated with the new research—told Science News, adding that the unique acoustical properties “must have been one of the fundamental experiences of Stonehenge.”

DOI: Journal of Archaeological Science, 2020. 10.1016/j.jas.2020.105218 (About DOIs).

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Review: New Chip ‘N Dale movie hilariously spoofs classic games, cartoons

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Enlarge / When there’s danger!

Disney

Traditionally, when Disney films skip theaters and go straight to video, it’s not a good sign. That’s changed somewhat now that the Disney+ content beast needs to be fed, yet the company still differentiates between “triple-A television” like The Mandalorian and “cheap, kid-friendly movies” like the Air Bud series.

Hence, today’s Disney+ premiere of Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers—a PG-rated reboot with little in the way of advance press screenings—had us assuming the worst, despite of its comedy pedigree. The Lonely Island (“Lazy Sunday,” “Mother Lover”) is all over the film’s credits, but how much of the group’s boundary-pushing Saturday Night Live work could survive the family-friendly demands of a straight-to-Disney+ launch?

I’m here with surprisingly good news. Chip ‘N Dale is a self-aware comedy romp that families will appreciate. What’s more, it knows exactly when and how to toy with ’80s and ’90s gaming, cartoon, and pop-culture references without losing character development and physical comedy.

Time-to-male-strippers: only a few minutes (but PG-rated, we swear)

As far as the two characters' aesthetics are concerned, even rendering of elements like motion blur is different between the pair. The result looks pretty cool in motion.
Enlarge / As far as the two characters’ aesthetics are concerned, even rendering of elements like motion blur is different between the pair. The result looks pretty cool in motion.

Disney

The film is Disney’s best-ever hybrid of live action, CGI, and hand-drawn animation, with lead characters Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) and Dale (voiced by Andy Samberg) each offering different spins on modern animation. Chip combines 3D rendering with a cel-shaded filter, hand-drawn touches, and intentionally narrowed animation speeds in order to look like a living 2D cartoon, complete with tasteful touches of ambient occlusion and light-bounce rendering.

Dale, as part of a running gag in the film, has gotten “CGI surgery” and emerges as a fully 3D-rendered chipmunk. The film begins by zooming in on his disproportionate eyes and other uncanny-valley weirdness for comedic effect, but this quickly softens, and as the film barrels toward emotional, kid-friendly connections between the chipmunks, Dale eventually looks quite good, with his animated, glossy eyes standing out.

Mild spoilers ahead, but we’re being mindful of how easily spoiled some of the gags in this film are.

Samberg’s opening narration suggests that the phrase “Chip ‘N Dale” is likely to remind viewers of a few things—and it then flashes a PG-rated image of male strippers. The film’s script and visual gags do a masterful job of making similar above-kids’-heads references or blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jabs at the gaming and cartoon worlds.

The film’s most howl-worthy stuff skewers beloved Disney properties and Disney rivals alike. So much so, in fact, that I watched the entirety of the credits to see exactly who got thanked for allowing their biggest franchises to be either passive-aggressively mocked or outright, er, melted in this film. Though a few gags reach back to the earliest days of Disney’s film catalog, a majority will land for any parents in the room who grew up in the Gen-X or elder millennial camps. That’s probably not surprising for a film whose lead characters hail from the “Disney Afternoon Collection” of late ’80s characters. If you can imagine a cartoon that emerged or competed with Disney around that time, it’s likely to appear here in either obvious or subtle ways.

The duo, seen here finishing each other's... sandwiches.
Enlarge / The duo, seen here finishing each other’s… sandwiches.

Disney

Mulaney and Samberg each double down on the archetypes of their two characters: Chip is brainy and assertive as a leader but also a stick-in-the-mud about pushing boundaries, while Dale favors impulsive and goofy solutions to serious problems, albeit while stomaching some raging insecurities. We get to see each lead character move on from early ’90s fame to their “adult” lives for the next 25 years or so before they’re forced to reunite. Their old castmate Monterrey Jack has crossed the wrong loan shark, and Chip and Dale decide to bury their decades-old feud to do some rescuing and rangering. (One of the plot threads has Mulaney’s Chip opining about Monterrey’s issues, and if you’re familiar with Mulaney’s real-life trials and tribulations, you may darkly chuckle the same way I did during these moments.)

Reaching comedic heights that Never Stop Never Stopping couldn’t

The film’s biggest gaming-related gags are already lighting up social media, which I’m bummed to see as I write this review, but even if you merely glance at one of the jokes in question, you can still look forward to how far the joke goes—and how hilariously the film zooms in on the gag in question. The same goes for the method by which the film’s villains rope in other pop-culture references, enabled by a clever mechanism that lets the film’s art team go nuts with surprise cameos.

KiKi Layne nails a likeable-but-mild amount of earnestness while portraying an apparently huge fan of the film's leading duo.
Enlarge / KiKi Layne nails a likeable-but-mild amount of earnestness while portraying an apparently huge fan of the film’s leading duo.

Disney

But I’m the kind of cartoon watcher who thinks stuff like the Shrek series erred by too harshly skewering its cartoon contemporaries instead of establishing its own humor, jokes, and pacing. If you identify with that unease about meta-obsessive films, you’ll appreciate how well Chip ‘N Dale focuses its story on the relatable, uneven friendship between the lead chipmunks, with each sappy moment buoyed by adorable, scaled-for-critters environments and goofy humans-and-cartoons interplay. This film’s world is essentially a Roger Rabbit mix of humans and cartoons, only this time expanded to puppets, CGI creations, and more. Any time Chip ‘N Dale‘s momentum appears to stutter, the film offers up a dose of humor and whimsy.

The supporting cast is rounded out by an earnest human detective (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a Gumby-like police chief (JK Simmons), and a few surprise antagonists (each hilariously voiced by the likes of Tim Robinson, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, and more). It’s arguably here that The Lonely Island succeeds as filmmakers compared to their cult-classic comedies like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. I’m a Lonely Island apologist, but even I’ll admit that those films focus too squarely on their central cast instead of spreading the humor out and developing more funny characters along the way.

This stylish top-hat ensemble might not be enough to save Dale today.
Enlarge / This stylish top-hat ensemble might not be enough to save Dale today.

Disney

By splitting the difference between formulaic Disney journeys and sardonic Lonely Island satires, and getting more comedic voices in on the gags, Chip ‘N Dale delivers something for everyone. Parents will arguably have more access points for laughs than their kids. Yet the film still has enough modern gags and timeless humor to keep kids from getting too stir-crazy as it builds towards a riotous conclusion—and if your kids have enjoyed live-action gaming films like Sonic The Hedgehog or Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, they should give this one a shot for sure.

Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.

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Blizzard offers refund for nerfed $25 Hearthstone card

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Enlarge / Shine bright like a diamond.

Last month, Hearthstone broke a long-standing precedent by selling a single cosmetic card upgrade for a whopping $25 (or a similar amount of in-game currency). Now that the expensive card’s power level is being scaled back, Blizzard is offering a generous refund to players who made that purchase—and it’s letting them keep the ultra-rare card, to boot.

Drek’Thar has been an extremely popular Hearthstone card since its release in December alongside the Fractured in Alterac Valley set. Thanks to the card’s ability to draw and summon two minions from your deck whenever cast (if your deck is constructed correctly), Drek’Thar was showing up in upward of 20 percent of all competitive decks this month, according to HSReplay.net statistics, and decks with the card were winning more than 60 percent of the time.

A diamond is forever

For months, Hearthstone players could find a Legendary Drek’Thar in regular packs, craft a copy by using in-game dust gained from excess cards, or earn a “free” Golden copy by completing various in-game quests. Starting April 5, though, Blizzard added a way to obtain a new version of Drek’Thar: pay $25 (or 3,000 in-game gold) to purchase an ultra-rare “Diamond” upgrade.

Diamond cards were first introduced in a late-March Hearthstone update as a purely cosmetic modification to existing cards. The ultra-rare Diamond versions, which come complete with custom animations, are targeted at hardcore collectors who want to show off the rarest and prettiest versions of their cards.

For the most part, players could obtain Diamond cards by completing quests on the game’s Tavern Pass Reward Track or by collecting full sets of other Legendary rarity cards. Drek’Thar was the exception, though; the only way to get the Diamond version of that card was to buy it with in-game gold or cold, hard cash during his April sales window.

Many players weren’t happy about that sales tactic, as exemplified by a popular Reddit thread full of complaints about perceived greed on Blizzard’s part. “It’d be one thing if you’d get multiple diamond cards, but for a single card, it is not even close enough to be worth 25 USD,” user prplehuskie13 wrote in a representative comment.

Sorry for the nerf—have some gold

Fast forward to Thursday, when Blizzard’s Hearthstone update 23.2.2 scaled back Drek’Thar’s in-game power level. Now, instead of summoning two additional minions, the card only summons one when cast. The change has led to an immediate reduction in Drek’Thar’s usage and win rates, according to HSReplay.

These kinds of nerfs are pretty common when a card becomes too dominant in the Hearthstone metagame. And when they happen, Blizzard offers affected players refunds in the form of in-game dust that can be used to craft other cards (while also letting players keep the newly nerfed cards in their collection).

For players who spent money on Diamond Drek’Thar, though, Blizzard is going the extra mile with its refund. “Any players who own Diamond Drek’Thar at the time that the patch goes live will automatically receive 3,000 Gold when they log in as a refund,” the company wrote.

That’s enough gold to buy 30 packs of cards, which would usually cost $35 to $40 if purchased in various bundles. And that refund is on top of the nerfed Diamond Drek’Thar itself, which players will get to keep as evidence of their conspicuous digital consumption.

While Blizzard stopped short of giving actual money back to players who spent $25 for a Diamond Drek’Thar, the in-game gold is a pretty generous bonus for those who made the investment. And who knows—maybe it will make those Hearthstone whales even more willing to throw money down on a single cosmetic card upgrade in the future.

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A time paradox births a “freaking Kugelblitz” in Umbrella Academy S3 trailer

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The third season of The Umbrella Academy will debut in June on Netflix.

The Hargreeves siblings return to 2019 only to find themselves caught in an alternate timeline where they were never adopted by their wealthy father in the official trailer for The Umbrella Academy S3. Instead, they must confront their alt-timeline counterparts, the Sparrow Academy, and ward off yet another apocalypse as they try, once again, to return home.

(Spoilers for first two seasons below.)

For those unfamiliar with the premise, in S1, billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven children out of 43 mysteriously born in 1989 to random women who had not been pregnant the day before. The children were raised at Hargreeves’ Umbrella Academy, with the help of a robot “mother” named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) and became a family of superheroes with special powers. But it was a dysfunctional arrangement, marred by the tragic death of one of the children, and the family members ultimately disbanded, only reuniting as adults when Hargreeves died. They soon learned that they had to team up to prevent a global apocalypse.

As I’ve written previously, S1 ended on a cliffhanger, after Vanya (Elliot Page) rediscovered his powers and destroyed the Moon with the acoustic energy he accumulated playing the violin in a concert at the Icarus Theater. As the Moon’s fragments rained down on Earth, marking the start of the apocalypse, Five (Aidan Gallagher) offered to bring his siblings back with him in time so they could once again try to avert the destruction of the world. The S1 finale ended with the group’s time jump.

Enlarge / (l-r) Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Viktor (Elliott Page), Luther (Tom Hopper), Five (Aidan Gallagher), Diego (David Castaneda), and Klaus (Robert Sheehan) returned to an altered timeline in 2019.

YouTube/Netflix

But that jump didn’t go smoothly. The siblings landed in the early 1960s, but they all arrived at different times between 1960 and October 1963 in Dallas. Five landed on November 25, 1963, just in time to witness nuclear annihilation linked to the fact that history had been altered when the assassination of President John F. Kennedy did not occur. Five managed to travel back to 10 days before the nuclear apocalypse and track down the separated siblings, all of whom had built new lives for themselves.

The Umbrella Academy had to figure out how to avert the apocalypse while negotiating a deal with the Handler (Kate Walsh), head of the Commission, so they could return to their original timeline. They were also being pursued by a trio of Swedish assassins determined to wipe them out. And we learned that their adoptive father, Reginald Hargreeves, was actually an interdimensional being with some pretty devastating super powers of his own.

The siblings ultimately managed to travel back to 2019, only to find that the timeline had been altered. Hargreeves was still alive in this timeline and had adopted five different “gifted” children who made up the Sparrow Academy—one of whom was their deceased sibling Ben (Justin H. Min), who appeared in the first two seasons as a ghost who could only communicate through Klaus (Robert Sheehan). In the new timeline, Ben is very much alive and remembers nothing about the Umbrella Academy or his original siblings.

Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.
Enlarge / Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.

YouTube/Netflix

That’s quite a setup for S3. Per the official premise:

After putting a stop to 1963’s doomsday, the Umbrella Academy return home to the present, convinced they prevented the initial apocalypse and fixed this godforsaken timeline once and for all. But after a brief moment of celebration, they realize things aren’t exactly (okay, not at all) how they left them. Enter the Sparrow Academy. Smart, stylish, and about as warm as a sea of icebergs, the Sparrows immediately clash with the Umbrellas in a violent face-off that turns out to be the least of everyone’s concerns. Navigating challenges, losses, and surprises of their own—and dealing with an unidentified destructive entity wreaking havoc in the Universe (something they may have caused)—now all they need to do is convince Dad’s new and possibly better family to help them put right what their arrival made wrong. Will they find a way back to their pre-apocalyptic lives? Or is this new world about to reveal more than just a hiccup in the timeline?

We know that Vanya will come out as a transgender man, Viktor, in S3, mirroring Elliott Page’s own real-life transition. And it looks like Ritu Arya will be reprising her role as Lila, the late Handler’s adopted daughter (and Diego’s love interest) from 1963, who can mirror the powers of other gifted people. Ben’s fellow Sparrows in the new timeline are Marcus (Justin Cornwell), Fei (Britne Oldford), Alphonso (Jake Epstein), Sloane (Genesis Rodriguez), and Jayme (Cazzie David).

It's Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve's closest assistant.
Enlarge / It’s Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve’s closest assistant.

YouTube/Netflix

The trailer picks up where S2 left off, as the Umbrellas confront Reginald, who insists they don’t belong there, leading to the reveal of the Sparrows and Ben. “When we jumped here we created a time paradox,” Five explains. “Our little paradox brought forth the freaking Kugelblitz.” In physics, a kugelblitz is a black hole formed from radiation rather than matter. In the series, the Kugelblitz is a glowing cube that seems to be some kind of powerful weapon. It might just be turning into a black hole (if it isn’t one already), since it seems the paradox is swallowing everything up. That’s right, we’ve got another looming apocalypse on our hands, and only four or five days to save the world.

It’s good to see that the wry humor that raised S2 above its rather more dour freshman outing is intact. There’s the inevitable battle between Umbrellas and Sparrows, but perhaps they’ll decide to combine their gifts and work together, because apocalypse. There’s a great scene where Viktor tells Marcus that he’s not better than him. “I ended the world twice,” Viktor says. “And you? You’re just meat and spandex.” Burn!

Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics' Hotel Oblivion?
Enlarge / Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics’ Hotel Oblivion?

YouTube/Netflix

We might meet the alternate versions of the Umbrellas in this new timeline, since even though they weren’t adopted by Hargreeves, they should still exist. And what should our originals do when they meet those other selves? Diego wants to kill that self, and Klaus wants to sleep with his counterpart. (“Oh, come on, as if you wouldn’t climb Luther Mountain,” he says when Luther objects.) Avoidance is the wisest course of action, which probably means nobody will take it.

And is that the Hotel Oblivion making an unexpected appearance, renamed the Hotel Obsidian? In the comics, the hotel is a tower on another planet, built by Hargreeves, that serves as a prison for all the criminals captured by the Umbrella Academy. It’s briefly mentioned in The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite and plays a major role in 2019’s The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, in which a supervillain named Perseus X breaks out all the prisoners in 1980. We’ll have to see how much, if any, of this storyline will find its way into the series—it doesn’t look like the hotel is on another planet, and the name has been changed—but its presence here in an alternate timeline is intriguing.

The third season of The Umbrella Academy drops on Netflix on June 22, 2022.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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