Wed Jul 01 2015 07:14 June Film Roundup:
- Cowboys (2013): a.k.a. "Kauboji". Combines the highbrow downer of Eastern European film (the theater director) with the lowbrow energy of screwball comedy (every other character). Genre fiction—in this case the western—brings them together. I had a good time. There were a lot of really clever jokes, including one I think was added just for the foreign audience. During her audition the female lead starts doing her piece, and there are no subtitles. It sounds like Croatian but the subtitle says:
The camera cuts to the other auditioners, all looking confused.
[It's okay, they don't understand either.]
Good stuff, recommended.
- Flying Deuces (1939): I thought this film would save me a lot of time by simultaneously satisfying my idle curiosity about Laurel and Hardy, and the French Foreign Legion. For the French Foreign Legion I should have gone to Beau Geste, or Wikipedia. As for Laurel and Hardy, meh. I don't like when the straight man is the funny man's punching bag, and I only found them funny when they were doing really dark material like Hardy's protracted suicide attempt.
This film either assumes its audience is quite ignorant or demands more suspension of disbelief than a normal 1930s comedy. For instance, there's a stuffed marlin trying to pass for a man-eating shark. If I was bursting with laughter the whole time, I wouldn't care—I don't care when The Muppet Show does something cheesy like that—but despite the name of the movie L&H don't even touch an airplane until the final sequence, and that final sequence isn't too great.
- The Shining (1980): Starring Jack Nicholson as The Patriarchy! He really hams it up. Like Alien, a movie where I came in having read the book and well aware of the "spoofed in" scenes. As with Alien I loved the slow burn at the beginning, the long tour of the hotel with its glorious 1970s design. Probably not so fun on television, but that's why I wait to SEE [these films] BIG. It was intense, creepy and fun. It kind of dragged in the middle, possibly because of Hamlet cliches, but I think rather because none of the characters are that interesting. In the book the hotel slowly drives Jack insane, but in the movie it just gives him an excuse to let his preexisting problems run wild, meaning there's no character progression. And Shelly Duvall is still stuck in her Method acting as Olive Oyl.
The first thing I did after seeing this movie was create a bot. I call it A Dull Bot. It's not the first movie that inspired me to create a bot, but it is the first one where I got the idea while watching the movie. My dadaist heart was touched by how much Jack's manuscript resembles a real typewritten manuscript. It's not preternaturally neat, the way a possessed person would type. It's full of typos, like when your fingers can't keep up with your ideas. Jack really thinks this is great stuff. The manuscript thing is not in the novel, but if you've read On Writing I think you'll agree it's a very Steven King sort of scare.
My original plan was to create a full statistical model of typewriter typos, but once I abandoned this quixotic project I got the bot done in Darius time. I did copy the layout of the Adler typewriter used in the movie, so sometimes you'll see ½ in a typo.
- House Party (1990): Turns out Warrington Hudlin, film curator at the museum, also produced House Party. This was a 25th anniversary screening with a Q&A afterwards (including Play, via video chat), and the theater was packed with House Party superfans. There were a lot of good laughs, but after hearing people come up to the mic and saying they'd seen House Party over one hundred times, I wonder if it was the sort of laughter you'll hear from me watching The Big Lebowski.
Anyway, good teen party movie, and because it takes place over a single night the action is a lot tighter and the pacing more intense than other teen movies. Minor characters show up again in different contexts, major characters move around the game board and meet each other in different combinations, creating opportunities for different types of comedy.
Standout performances from Martin Lawrence as the un-smooth DJ, and Robin Harris as the working-class values dad, who's idealized in approximately the same way as the socialist mom in Good Bye Lenin! (2003).
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994): Continuing my new resolution to watch only 90s movies with the initials "H.P.". I really dug this as a parody of classic 50s office movies like The Best of Everything. The main character was more complex than I expected, and it's pretty rare for the Coen brothers to do flat-out parody. And then the ending...? How, why? I don't understand it. It went from a funny parody of good 50s movies to stealing ideas from not-so-good 50s movies. What's going on? Maybe I don't get it, but I think I'm pretty good at figuring out the Coens' film-nerd tricks, and making me think something really clever is awful... not a useful trick. Still a "buy" on balance.
Tragically, this marks the end of Film Roundup, as the resolution I foolishly made late in the month means that the only movies I can see from this point on are the likes of Hocus Pocus (1993), Heaven's Prisoners (1996), Hurt Penguins (1992), and the Tagalog comedy classic Haba-baba-doo! Puti-puti-poo! (1997). We'll miss the magic, the mystery, but most of all... the movies.
Wait, I can just disregard resolutions? They're not legally binding? Amazing! See you next month! I gotta go cancel my Columbia Record Club membership.
(1) Mon Jun 29 2015 09:36 Beautiful Soup 4.4.0 beta:
I've found an agent for Situation Normal and the book is out to publishers and I don't have to think about it for a while. As seems to be my tradition after finishing a big project, I went through the accumulated Beautiful Soup backlog and closed it out. I've put out
a beta release which I'd like you to try out and report any problems.
I've fixed 17 bugs, added some minor new features, and changed the implementations of
__repr__ to work more like you'd expect from Python objects. But in my mind the major new change is this: I've added a warning that displays when you create a
BeautifulSoup object without explicitly specifying a parser:
UserWarning: No parser was explicitly specified, so I'm using the
best available HTML parser for this system ("lxml"). This usually
isn't a problem, but if you run this code on another system, or in a
different virtual environment, it may use a different parser and
To get rid of this warning, change this:
BeautifulSoup([your markup], "lxml")
It's a little annoying to get this message, but it's also annoying to have your code silently behave differently because you copied it to a machine that didn't have lxml installed, and it's also annoying when I have to check pretty much every reported bug to see whether this is the problem. Whenever I think I can eliminate a class of support question with a warning, I put in the warning. It saves everybody time.
The other possibility: now that Python's built-in HTMLParser is decent, I could make it so that it's always the default unless you specify another parser. This would cause a big one-time wrench, as even machines which have lxml installed would start using HTMLParser, but once it shook out the problem would be solved. I might still do that, but I think I'll give everyone about a year to get rid of this annoying warning.
Anyway, try out the beta. Unless there's a big problem I'll be releasing 4.4.0 on Friday.
(1) Sun Jun 21 2015 12:26 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1985/07:
Here it is, the final entry in this series, started seven years ago when I picked up a bunch of old SF magazines at a swap-fest. I've acquired a lot of magazines since then, and those are getting 'old', so it could continue, but this is the last of the original set. And good riddance, because this magazine smells like laundry detergent for some reason.
So what do we got? The cover story (one assumes) is the first part of Timothy Zahn's "Spinneret", which would later be published as a novel. It was good but I kinda see where it's going and don't feel a strong need to read the novel.
Eric G. Iverson's "Noninterference" is a pleasant story whose sole purpose is to dis the Prime Directive. The accompanying artwork seems more appropriate to a story about the mixing of the ultimate prog-rock album.
Charles L. Harness's "George Washington Slept Here" is the cream of this issue: a creative, funny and entertaining story that combines several Analog favorites (aliens, historical figures, and fussy middle-aged hobbies) that you rarely see together. Bonus: no time travel or major alt-history, just a character with a really long lifespan. I really liked the concept of the main character, a lawyer who loses every case he takes, but in a way that's more beneficial to his client than if he'd won. That concept's strong enough to support a series, but it looks like this is the only one.
This month's vague story blurbs:
- There are always ethical considerations in dealing with either indivuals or cultures—and the two can't always be kept neatly separated.
- Some fictional clichés eventually achieve a sort of reality—but seldom exactly as their creators imagined.
- Can a good thing be carried too far?
Now to nonfiction. David Brin's essay "Just How Dangerous Is The Galaxy?" classifies every known potential solution to the Fermi Paradox and puts them in a big table by which term of the Drake Equation they affect. He also introduces his own "Water World" solution, which he deigns to classify in a separate section called "Optimism". This solution posits that "Earth is unusually dry for a water world," and that intelligent life evolves all the time, and thrives for long periods, but very rarely builds spaceships. I'm just riffing on the idea here, and I don't buy the idea that "hands and fire" are prerequisites to advanced technology, but you could imagine a dolphin-type civilization treating a planet's surface and atmosphere the way we treat low-earth orbit.
Tom Easton's book review column includes a review of Ender's Game, which wanders into a long philosophical discussion that I won't reproduce here because it's pretty similar to stuff you can find on the Internet. I was disappointed to read that "Russel M. Griffin's The Timeservers is a pale incarnation of the diplomatic satire that made Laumer's Retief so popular." It was a Phillip K. Dick Award finalist, though, so maybe it's just on a different wavelength from Laumer.
In letters, paleontologist Jack Cohen returns fire at Tom Easton, who in an earlier book review column disputed the evolutionary biology in Harry Harrison's Cohen-collaboration West of Eden. And reader Michael Owens has it out with Ben Bova about the latter's support of the Star Wars program. Summary of Owens: "far from leading to a defense-oriented world, Star Wars leads to another offense-oriented arms race." Bova responds that he wrote a book (Assured Survival) that deals with all this stuff, and then mentions this comforting tidbit:
[T]he new defensive technologies do not apply only to satellites and ballistic missiles. They are already being developed into "smart weapons" that will make the tanks, artillery, planes, and ships of conventional land and sea warfare little more than expensive and very vulnerable targets. "Star Wars" technologies (plural!) can make all forms of aggressive warfare so difficult that an era of worldwide peace is in view—if the nations of the world want peace.
Which leads nicely into the thing I've saved for last because I've got a lot to say about it, in direct violation of my usual "if you can't say anything nice" rule. Previously on Analog, columnist G. Harry Stine asked readers to send in their answers to the following question, which I will quote in full:
What, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should tackle in the next twenty years, and why do you believe this?
In this issue Stine reports the results, and I was looking forward to doing a kind of The Future: A Retrospective thing on them.
The first thing Stine does is disqualify 120 of the 127 replies he got. That may seem extreme, but that's approximately what I'd do if I was running a magazine and accepting fiction submissions. I was kind of laughing along as he disqualified entries for exceeding the word limit or otherwise ignoring the rules, but then I got to this:
49.61% of the replies [63 of 127]... discussed problems that were either (a) not technological problems, but social and political instead; (b) already solved or well along the road to solution; (c) trivial and parochial in their scope; (d) based on incorrect, incomplete, or outmoded data; and/or (e) the result of someone else's telling the respondent that the problem was a problem because the expert said so, whereupon the respondent stated it on faith without checking.
And at this point I gotta call bullshit. You didn't say "most important technological problem", you said "most important problem technologists should tackle." Social and political problems have technical aspects, and vice versa. The impact of a technological development is judged by its effect on society. This is the basis of the science fiction genre! You could replace every vague Analog story blurb with "Social and political problems tend to have technical aspects, and vice versa...", and it would always fit the story!
Half of Analog's readership can follow directions but their opinions are wrong. Let's take a look at the top five disqualified "problems" (all direct quotes, scare quotes in original):
- Control of nuclear weapons
- the "population explosion"
- the "energy shortage"
- the "raw materials shortage"
- "pollution" in various and sundry forms
I sure am glad technologists didn't waste any more time on these non-problems after 1985! According to Stine, America's ballistic missile defense system is well on its way to solving #1 (if the nations of the world want peace, of course). #2 isn't a problem anymore because the rate of population growth has slowed. #3 and #4 were never real problems. ("The only reason we had an 'energy shortage' was to provide an excuse for politicians and bureaucrats to gain control of natural resources, and thereby gain control over people.") As for #5, who's to say what counts as "pollution"? Like most words, it's a "semantically-loaded term". "Pollution in its many forms may be a localized problem in some areas, but it is not a worldwide problem."
So what are the seven entries that made the cut? I'm glad you asked, previous sentence:
- "Making products maintenance-free, i.e. designed for a 100-year life with a 0.0001 probability of maintenance." DISQUALIFIED. Maybe the move from 75 years to 100 would be a technical improvement, but the problem as it exists today is a problem with the way products are sold, and technical improvements won't change that.
- "[C]ontrol of the weather" to boost crop yields and prevent famine. SEMI-DISQUALIFIED. Modern famines are political problems, not technical problems. Control of the weather would indeed be great, not for this reason, but because it would let us mitigate the damage caused by our worldwide pollution problem.
- "The construction and maintenance of closed ecological systems". Sure, OK.
- Here's the shortest quote I could get that explains this one:
Education depends on communication. John points out that communication involves moving information from place to place... which really isn't much of a problem, but... managing the information is. It's possible to download lots of information into a student's mind. But if the student doesn't know how to determine what information is meaningful and relevant... everything stored in the student's memory is useless.
Now that's more like it! Not only is this a real problem, it's one that we made significant progress on between 1985 and 2005!
- "The development of the direct link between the human mind and the computer to produce a true intelligence amplifier." Another good one. We got both parts of this (mind-computer link and intelligence amplifier), but in practice they don't have anything to do with each other.
- "[T]he construction by machines of very small machines." This also happened but proved not to be a huge deal, and even Stine is kinda skeptical ("he doesn't specify exactly what technological problems can be solved by developing sub-microscopic technology"). I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the real problem is the reader doesn't specify exactly what social or political problems can be solved with this technology.
- And finally,
Del Cain of Augusta, ME presented a technological problem that is as much philosophical as technological... He wants technologists to develop structures and artifacts that tend to support healthy behavior in human beings—i.e. to help people live and rear children so they can develop to their full potential without trauma but not without struggle, difficulty, or drama. To do this, he believes that we should solve the technological problem of determining what are the optimum sizes and structures of healthy communities. In short, he feels that the big problem is developing technology with a life-affirming philosophy behind it.
I don't understand how Del Cain managed to smuggle the concept of Scandanavian social democracy past G. Harry Stine, but good job. No, wait, I figured it out: I'm projecting, and so was he.
Well, there we go, that's our look at old SF magazines of the 80s. To commemorate the end of the series, I've scanned all the old ads in this magazine, not just the ones I thought were interesting or funny. But here are the ones I thought were interesting or funny:
I'll leave you with this question: what, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should have tackled from 1985 to 2005, and why do you believe this?
Sun May 31 2015 17:55 May Film Roundup:
This month features some interesting foreign films, an old-favorite blockbuster, and an awesome new blockbuster with a surprising connection to one of my all-time favorite films. What are these nuggets of cinema gold? I don't know, I'm just the intro paragraph, you'll have to ask the bulleted list:
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): I know this movie pretty well by now, so I watched up to "Fly, you fools!" (my favorite part) and then left the theater and got some dinner. It was interesting to see the expanded editions on the big screen (and in a real digital print, not the DVD projected onto the theater screen like the museum sometimes does). I don't know how often I'll get to see that.
Dunno what else to say, if you've been reading this blog you know my feelings on Tolkien, both book and film. In fact this is one of the few films I reviewed when I first saw it, thirteen years ago, and I stand by everything in there.
MinecraftMoria looks good, the elves are limpid, the large creature CGI now looks terrible. Hell, Peter Jackson, go ahead and pull a George Lucas, clean up that motion capture. It was all done on an SGI machine to begin with, you're not disrespecting anyone's craft. Although... to be honest I think the Hobbit movies had the same problems. All the mo-cap characters are constantly milking the giant cow. I don't think it's a solved problem yet.
It was really weird being in a theater seeing a movie that a) has been the basis for major Internet memes but b) the whole movie isn't a meme a la Rocky Horror/The Room. There was a lot of snickering at Boromir saying "One does not simply walk into Mordor" and it felt awkward, like people snickering at Ginger Rogers saying "Aren't we gay?" or Groucho Marx saying "Making love to Mrs. Claypool is my racket." They didn't know how we'd read that line!
- The 39 Steps (1935): Sort of a dry run for the much better North by Northwest. To be honest I forgot I even saw this movie until I saw it in my notes. It wasn't bad, the handcuffs conceit was solid, but there were just too many betrayals. It got old after a while. I also think this scenario (ordinary person on the run, in over their heads) demands spectacle, and the budget wasn't there.
- Black River (1956): aka "Kuroi kawa". Good drama about the corrupting effects of being under military occupation. It's pretty amazing how visually striking it is for all the signage in a Japanese movie to be in English.
There's a laugh line where the protagonist is confronting a gangster:
Protagonist: "Who are you?"
Gangster [flicking away cigarette]: "Godzilla."
It's funny and topical but also accurate, because the gangster is planning on tearing the protagonist's house down. Within this movie he is, effectively, Godzilla. This is notable as the only cinematic Godzilla joke I can think of that's not a Japanese character in an American disaster movie running away from the disaster screaming "This is worse than my encounter with Godzilla!" Which always struck me as a weird joke to make, because it puts your movie in the Godzilla universe, where the UNGCC exists and governments should be prepared for, or at least accustomed to, large-scale disasters.
Other Japan-specific plot points: obsession with knowing everyone's blood type, the near-uselessness of personal seals as a form of document security.
- Max Max: Fury Road (2015): I'm just glad that we as a nation have finally moved beyond Thunderdome. (Actual review starts now.) This was a good movie that became great at the beginning of act three, when it used my favorite action-movie plot twist—"let's turn around and go directly into the danger"— and revealed itself as an update of my third favorite film of all time, The General (1926). Pure infernokrusher fun.
As always, the worldbuilding is incredible (and understated), but expression of character is limited to everyone's individual post-apocalyptic fashion statements. Other downsides: every time there's voiceover or text on the screen it's embarrassing. The whole premise of the series remains silly. But c'mon, it's a canonical Mad Max movie featuring Megaweapon. Best of the year list for sure.
Doubting the The General connection? Here's director George Miller (h/t Sarah): "[T]he best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now." And:
A while after this talk, during a post-film reception, I spoke with Miller about his affinity for that black and white version of Fury Road. He said that he has demanded a black and white version of Fury Road for the blu-ray, and that version of the film will feature an option to hear just the isolated score as the only soundtrack — the purest and most stripped-down version of Fury Road you can imagine.
Maybe you'll believe when you finally see Fury Road as a silent movie. Or just watch The General now. No other movie puts so much work into creating a nonstop thrill ride. Gravity (2013) does a good job keeping the adrenaline pumping, but it's got a totally linear narrative. (I'm guessing you could say the same for Speed (1994), the other big Sandra Bullock vehicle, but I haven't seen it.) Fury Road uses the double-back twist to turn all the ideas used in the first part of the movie on their head. And The General does all that while also being funny as hell.
- Rashōmon (1950): My verdict on this movie is that it's done its job and is now mainly of historical importance. I understand what it was doing but it had a really awful message of "gee, the rapist and the rape victim have conflicting testimonies, I guess we'll never know the truth!" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I also don't think the movie wanted me to feel the moment of maximum tension right at the end. What's going to happen to that kid? After all that I'm supposed to believe that kid is going to be okay? Don't you know how foreign films work?
I feel like this is a rare example where the Mel Brooks spoof would convey the appropriate points just as well, and age better than the actual movie.
- I Can Quit Whenever I Want (2014): aka "Smetto Quando
Voglio". A decent Italian comedy that's... a huge ripoff of Breaking Bad on every level, from plot to cinematography. I guess the character arcs are different. I'm not really unhappy about this, because there is one major twist in the formula: the drug the disgruntled chemists make in this movie isn't actually illegal. Changing that one variable and leaving everything else the same makes the movie feel more like a scientific experiment than a ripoff. It is in fact still a huge ripoff, but I had fun.
The main source of my fun was watching the non-chemists in the gang of academics bring the mindset of their fields to drug dealing. The one laugh-out-loud moment for me was seeing how they acquired guns for their heist. There was a lot of laughter in the theater, though, even for jokes previously found only on the Buzzfeed list "Only Real Italian Academics Will Get These 25 Jokes About Hyperfragmented Leftist Politics." There's some ethnic stereotyping of Roma which I didn't really pick up on because they used a specific Italian sub-group of Roma I'd never heard of, but I looked it up afterwards and yup. Pretty uneven overall, but if you wanted Breaking Bad to stay a comedy the whole way through, I think this is the current frontrunner.
(3) Tue May 12 2015 07:00 The Future Is Prologue:
I'm experimenting with writing a prologue for Situation Normal, to reduce the thrown-into-the-deep-end feeling typical of my fiction. I say 'experimenting with' rather than 'just doing it' because I wrote something and it wasn't a prologue. I'd just turned back the clock to before the book started and written a regular scene.
I don't like prologues for the very reason I'm trying to write one: they're introductory infodumps. I usually skim them, unless they look like the Law and Order style prologues where the POV character dies at the end of the scene. But this book has so many POV characters already, I don't think I should go that route.
I talked it over with Sumana and she gave me the idea of pacing the prologue as though it were the first scene of a short story. That's something I've done before, so I know I can do it again, and it doesn't mean big infodumps, just more internal monologue.
I'd like your suggestions of genre fiction books with effective prologues. Prologues that made you say "yes, I want to read a whole book about this stuff." I can't think of many examples but I admit I'm blinded by prejudice.