(1) Tue Apr 01 2014 13:21 March Film Roundup:
April Fools! As part of an elaborate prank spanning over a year I have slowly turned NYCB into mostly a film review blog! Hahahahaha... ah...
Anyway, I'm trying out a new strategy for spending less time writing these film roundups. Instead of trying to analyze each movie in detail I'm going to write only as much about a movie as I feel like writing in the moment. Sometimes this will still be a lot, but most of the time I think a paragraph's worth of text will suffice.
- Life Without Zoe (1989): A big budget father-and-daughter Coppola short that's charming despite being about a super-spoiled Richie-Rich type teenager. I think the key is that Zoe is a teenager who acts like an adult, whose parents act like teenagers. This works even though an adult who acted like Zoe acts would also be insufferable, and without Zoe her parents would be insufferable. It's a strange alchemy.
I was momentarily excited because the opening credits introduced everyone by given name ("Written by Francis and Sophie") and when the credits introduced "Giancarlo" I thought maybe Giancarlo Esposito was in this film. But no, it was just well-known Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini. Dammit!
- Lost in Translation (2003): O VER RA TED. In fact I'd go so far as to claim that this movie is the same as Meatballs (1979), with the Bill Murray part played by Scarlett Johansson and the Chris Makepeace part played by Bill Murray. Some good physical comedy from Murray.
- Last Action Hero (1993): Seen with Jake and Sukiko because Netflix didn't have Sukiko's favorite movie, The Terminator. To paraphraze jwz, this movie is good if your time has no value. There's forty minutes of really good, clever metahumor, an hour of obnoxious action movie parody, and half an hour that's just boring generic movie setup. So if you have nothing better to do, sure, go through this movie for that forty minutes. I don't regret seeing Last Action Hero. But being UN DER RA TED for years as people slowly gain an appreciation for its finer qualities is exactly what this movie deserves.
- Muppets Most Wanted (2014): Preview screening with Sumana! The Muppets, was a movie about the Muppets, and this is a movie with the Muppets. So it's got that going for it. Sumana likes it better than the first one, because it focuses on Kermit instead of Walter, who, let's face it, is kind of a nonentity. I... don't know. The movie flirts with how egregious an Idiot Plot can possibly get, but since most of the Muppets are well-established as idiots I guess it works.
In general the moments I loved in this movie—and there were a lot of them—were in the interstices. It's always lampshading its ridiculous plot and escalating sight gags into absurdity. It's funny, and certainly in the keeping of the classic Muppet movies, but it betrays the sweaty hand of the punch-up gag screenwriter. I think the Muppets have a lot of the same problems The Simpsons has at this point.
Misc notes: I loved the repurposing of Kermit's catchphrases into action-movie taglines. The songs are good, but nothing as catchy as "Life's A Happy Song" or "Man or Muppet". Sam the Eagle finally gets an entire movie subplot, and it's great. One misstep: the gulag? Maybe not the best idea? I don't think massive human rights violations are totally off-limits for humor, but maybe not in a PG Muppet movie?
A while back we were talking Muppet with someone and I mentioned that I can't tell the difference between the Jim Henson Kermit voice and the Steve Whitmire Kermit voice. Well, now I can, and it's kind of sad.
Prefaced with a fun Pixar short about Portal.
- The Playhouse (1921): Buster Keaton short. Watch it here, but only up to 4:30. The technical comedy achievement is marred by its conjunction with horrible blackface (blackface lasts from 2:10 to 3:00 and 4:30 to 4:45), and after the five-minute mark, there's no reason whatsoever to keep going. The technical wizardry ceases and for instead you get Keaton in apeface. That's right, he uses blackface makeup to impersonate a chimpanzee. the split-screen gimmick at the start is incredible, everything else is cringey, but give the man credit: he invented a new type of comedy capable of demeaning a whole different species.
- Seven Chances (1925): Also Buster Keaton, also watchable online. In stark contrast to The Playhouse, the whole thing is funny, and it gets better and better as it goes on. Not gonna say much more because the fun of this movie is seeing Keaton work out every possible permutation of its one basic joke.
I don't like doing Silent Movie Racism Watch, but I feel like it's a service I must provide. There's one kinda-iffy joke in Seven Chances, but this movie also features the only non-racist race-based joke I've seen in a silent movie. The main problem here is sexism. The premise of the second half of the movie is pretty sexist, but you also have huge crowds of assertive women in the final chase sequence, sending policemen to flight, commandeering vehicles, a sight that surely had reactionaries of the time grumping "I told you this would happen if they got the vote!" So maybe it's a wash?
- Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957): It's a Mad Men kinda satire of gender roles and corporate status play, except it's actually from 1957. People in the past weren't dumb. They knew what was up, and films like this show it. I can only hope we get the same consideration fifty years from now.
Starts with some fourth-wall breaking and then some zany fake MAD-style commercials. The movie is full of amazingly dirty innuendo-filled dialogue, and if you're not the intellectual sort, there's always Jayne Mansfield as "Mayne Jansfield." I think that was the character's name. Worth a watch, but not a must-see.
- 1941 (1979): Spielberg's Ishtar. A funny movie that went way over budget and, if things had gone a little differently, could have sunk the director's career. It's not as good as Ishtar, and it's been completely forgotten instead of becoming a punchline, but it has the same problems. Blockbuster comedies have trouble earning back their money, most people don't like to see super-convoluted movies about incompetent people, and Americans really don't like their government (at least, the parts of the government that carry guns) being satirized as incompetent.
That said, I love seeing super-convoluted movies about incompetent people, and the variety of incompetences depicted in this movie is really inspiring. The obvious next step would be to see Stripes, a highly acclaimed film on a similar topic to 1941 that has a lot of cast overlap. Which I'm guessing has a very straightforward plot, and that's the secret to box-office success.
I know Nathan Rabin's "Year of Flops" series did an entry on Ishtar, so I went to see if he did an entry on 1941 and, yes, he sure did. He did not like 1941 very much ("Fiasco"), but upon re-reading his Ishtar entry ("Secret Success") I now like Ishtar a little less, so he actually brought my opinions of 1941 and Ishtar closer together.
I also gotta take issue with Spielberg being described as "straight-arrow". Sure, he is now, but up to 1941 his films (Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters) were all pretty far out there. It's not unreasonable for him to think he could pull this off. Maybe 1941 was the movie that taught him to start playing it safe.
Two bonus appreciations: Dan Akroyd's inspirational troop-rallying speech, which is the same kind of jargony gibberish as the field manuals his character quotes the rest of the time. The Japanese sailor who's sad at the end of the movie for the same reason the other sailors are cheerful.
- Psych (2006-2014): I guess I'll do TV shows here when they end. I posted a brief appreciation of Psych when we started watching many years ago, back when it was just a silly mystery show. It never stopped being a silly mystery show, but over the years it suffered a bit of House syndrome as main character Shawn became more and more obnoxious while rarely suffering any consequences due to being the main character of a silly mystery show.
I'm glad it stopped when it did; the last two seasons were pretty uneven. But they were uneven partly because Psych started ramping up the crazy film-nerd stuff, doing experimental things like remaking one of their previous episodes. The sort of thing Manny Coto did in the last season of Enterprise. A lot of experiments don't work out, but even when it was bad Psych never took itself seriously.
Final note: I thought I said this on NYCB before, but it looks like not: Kurt Fuller is amazing as Woody the coroner. The story of the later seasons of Psych is the story of Woody becoming a major character. I feel so strongly about this I made a little chart charting his appearances since his debut in the 2009 Jaleel White vehicle "High Top Fade Out":
This is good and bad. Woody is a great character, and the most Santa Barbara thing about Psych, but all too often I think when the writers needed to make a guest star seem creepy or quirky they would give the guest star a line they wrote for Woody. Anyway, Woody 4evah.
- The Ladies Man (1961): This was Jerry Lewis's follow-up audition for being someone whose movies I'll keep watching, and he almost passed. This is funnier than The Nutty Professor, but still not all that funny. So I'm done. If you have a suggestion as to some Jerry Lewis movie you think I'd like, let me know and I'll give it a shot.
I was going to suggest that Jerry Lewis is like Mel Brooks in that as a comedian he's very creative, but not reliably funny. I was going to go further and say that his fatal flaw as a comedian is a Mel Brooks-like sentimentality: in this movie, the way he literally puts women on pedestals instead of letting them be funny. And then I go to IMDB trivia and see "During a 2008 interview, Mel Brooks noted that he wrote the original script for this movie, but since most of his work was excised from the final version asked that his name be removed from the credits." So I don't know what to think anymore.
Charlie Chaplin has this problem too, so it's probably not a "fatal flaw" so much as a "school of comedy I don't like."
- M*A*S*H* (1970): No thanks. Uses really, really awful sexism as the lens to view the clash between draftees and regular Army. I gotta say, if all of Robert Altman's films are like this, I want nothing to do with him. The football bit is funny.
- Groundhog Day (1993): Sumana saw this movie (at a Harold Ramis tribute), not me, but I just want it on record that I love this movie.
- The Ice Harvest (2005): Maybe not a movie you want to pay to see in a first-run theater, but that ship has long since sailed, and we're left with an enjoyable neo-noir thriller that does a good job of exploring the dark side of the holidays without making it the focal point of the movie. Oliver Platt auditions well for his upcoming role in the Fargo TV show.
Fri Mar 28 2014 10:16 Read My Lips: Two New Bots:
I've been trying to finish as much of Situation Normal as possible before my job at the library starts (uh... I think this is the first time I've mentioned my NYPL job on NYCB, but I'll be writing about it later). But I have created two new autonomous agents to engage and confound you.
The first is Euphemism Bot, inspired by the fact that most of the output of Adam's Egress Methods sounds like weird euphemisms for masturbation. Euphemism Bot elevates the tone by putting out weird euphemisms for all sorts of dirty, shameful things. You'll never be understood again! It's been up for about a month, and it's already subverted its programming.
From the naughty to the nautical, there's also Boat Names, which I "launched" today. It periodically sends out names that one, and only one, person decided to give their boat. The data comes from the Queneau-sounding ten thousand boat names, which I first learned of from the trivia podcast Good Job, Brain! (I'm linking to their Twitter page because their main webpage currently shows some base64-encoded text that isn't even a puzzle.) I had this idea kicking around in my head until yesterday's lunch with Andrea Phillips, when the topic turned to weird random datasets we'd collected. And now... a bot is born.
Boat Names also has an Egress Methods connection. I found the list of given names Adam uses for Egress Methods and used it to filter out boats that are named after people. This avoids the boredom of "Eleanor", which just proves that not many boat owners have wives named Eleanor.
Mon Mar 03 2014 09:23 February Film Roundup:
Three films this month, none of them great, but all of them worth your time.
- Pulp Fiction (1994): I think I came too late to this one. Like Superfly, it puts style way, way above substance. And twenty years later the style a) is kinda dorky and b) has been copied by tons of other movies. Samuel L. Jackson is always cool, but John Travolta was never cool. (Admittedly, I passed up the chance to see Saturday Night Fever; maybe he was cool in that.)
What substance there is, is gory fun. I loved Travolta's character in the bathroom convincing himself not to make a move on the boss's woman. He spends a lot of this movie in bathrooms, actually. I liked seeing the plot threads winding in and out of each other.
Before the screening, several people read essays about how much this movie (specifically, its soundtrack) meant to them. I'm glad it was important to them but I'm not really feeling it.
- The Pajama Game (1957): A beautifully shot musical about labor-management relations. It's really good. Lots of background relationships (including one horribly creepy one), not just the male and female leads. Too bad the songs are terrible! I have never hated the songs so much in a musical that I liked.
- Wu xia (2011): Fun violent emotional martial arts movie that keeps jumping from one subgenre to another. Unlike Tai Chi Zero, this movie consistently uses chi manipulation as a driver of fight scenes, to the point of using acupuncture needles as weapons. Good stuff.
Tue Feb 25 2014 10:48 Mahna Mahna:
My new bot, Mahna Mahna (@mahna____mahna), reenacts the Muppet Show's "Mahna Mahna" skit over the course of a day. It might be my saddest bot.
My secret is that I created this bot hoping that someone else would eventually create a Snowth bot to enact the other half of the skit. I quickly learned that there is already a Snowth bot, but it only talks to @mahna____mahna once a day. So... well, I already revealed one secret in this paragraph, I shouldn't reveal another.
Wed Feb 19 2014 11:34 Constellation Games Bonus Story Ebooks:
Thanks to requests by Ron Hale-Evans and others at Foolscap, I've compiled the four Constellation Games bonus stories into a single ebook. You can get an EPUB that looks okay and a MOBI that's kinda ugly. If you want to do a better job of formatting, then a) be my guest, and b) let me know and I'll send you the original source files, which should save you some work over downloading everything and putting it together yourself.
Thu Feb 06 2014 14:15 Writing Aliens:
I've put online the slides and prepared text of my Foolscap talk, "Writing Aliens", or, "Duchamp, Markov, Queneau: A Mostly Delightful Quilt". On one level it's a simple introduction to algorithmic creativity, but it's also about creativity in general, the anthropomorphization of software, and why the features that make Twitter so aggravating for humans make it such a great platform for bots. Bonuses include a recap of Brian Hayes's article on Markov and a telling of the @Horse_ebooks saga as a reverse alien invasion.
The two site-specific installations that I hinted at earlier were custom scripts displaying variants on Ebooks Brillhantes and Hapax Hegemon. The text corpus comes from a scrape of everything linked to from Free Speculative Fiction
Online. The software is a heavily modified version of Bruce, modified a) to stream data from a flat text file and create the slides on the fly, instead of trying to load 20,000 slides into memory at once; and b) when restarted after a crash/shutdown, to skip the appropriate number of slides and pick up where it would be if it had been running continually.
Unfortunately I never got a picture of both displays running side-by-side; if you have such a picture, I'd really appreciate it if you could send it to me.
Just after I set up the ebooks display, I met Greg Bear, who was at Foolscap running a writing workshop. We walked over to the screen and I explained the project to him. He said "I'd better not be in there." AT THAT MOMENT the screen was showing the quote "We zoomed down eleven" from this free sample of Blood Music. It was pretty awkward.
(1) Tue Feb 04 2014 13:34 January Film Roundup:
The cycle begins anew... OR DOES IT? Check out all the films I saw in January!
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013): Or as my ticket stub calls it, HOBBIT 2. I love my now-tradition of watching the Hobbit movies with my sister Susanna, but I'm a little disappointed in this one. The thing I loved most about the first movie (dramatization of the totally canonical gaiden in which Gandalf hunts down the Necromancer) was combined with the thing I disliked most (the elevation of a throwaway character to Big Bad status, in a story that already features a frickin' dragon plus the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Crimean War). This made me suspect that the details of the Gandalf B-plot were left vague in the book for a reason.
Plus, terrible confusing action sequences all the time. The one at the end made me think that not only has Peter Jackson been playing too much Minecraft, he's the guy who wants minecarts to work like boats in lava. It was also unnecessary, since the plot of the book at that point would work just fine as the end of the second movie in a trilogy. I can only blame Hollywood meddling and hope for the best.
The good news is that we have now stretched out the story enough that the third film contains all of The Hobbit's canonical action set-pieces. But that's really an argument for making two movies, not three. Or four, as I over-enthusiastically suggested last time.
Smaug was great. I don't see a lot of movies with dragons, and I suspect such movies' dragon effects are generally lacking, because lots of people are really going ape about Smaug whereas I was thinking "yes, good, solid talking dragon implementation." The same thing happened with Gollum in the LotR movies. I guess I don't care enough about dragons in general. They're like dinosaurs... that don't exist!
Insta-update: After writing that, I listened to the episode of "The Dork Forest" with Tolkien expert Corey Olsen. It didn't change my mind on anything, but it did remind me of all the changes the filmmakers made that improved on the book, or at least made a better movie than a straight adaptation of the book would have. Especially the love triangle, the splitting up of the party to establish a POV in Laketown, the early introduction of the arrow on the mantelpiece, and all the work done to differentiate between twelve characters who are nearly identical in the book.
Yeah, only one film! Because I was travelling all month. I couldn't even count Future Love Drug, a short film made by my fellow Foolscap GoH Brooks Peck, because I came in late and only saw the last minute of the film.
I don't know if the film roundups will continue in 2014. On the one hand, I'm going to try to see, or at least review, fewer films in 2014 so I can do more reading. On the other hand, I love taking fiction apart to see how it works, and reviewing books the way I've been reviewing movies is a good way to make professional enemies. Whereas nobody cares what I say about film. So who knows?
(1) Mon Jan 27 2014 12:13 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2013:
I've been travelling for most of the month, but I managed to scrape together a year-in-review post. Here's 2012. I'm a little disappointed right now, because I just woke up from a dream in which I'd savvily combined several middle-tier Kickstarter rewards into being able to go to the International Space Station whenever I wanted, so let's start with a self-aggrandizing montage of my waking accomplishments in 2013:
- The big one was RESTful Web APIs, a radical reimplementation of RESTful Web Services that takes the lessons of the last seven years into account. My accompanying talk is the time-travel extravaganza, "LCODC$SSU and the coming automated web" (see commentary from outside the framing device). And after the book came out we released the predecessor book under CC-BY-NC-ND.
- I didn't finish writing Situation Normal but I got pretty close; I'll finish it this year and hopefully sell it.
- Autonomous agent mania! I achieved a measure of fame (for Rob) with Real Human Praise, the bot whose 20,000 remaining followers proves that most people don't use Twitter the way I do. (Here's a behind-the-scenes.)
But I'm most proud of Ebooks Brilhantes, the bot that proves there's a better way to make *_ebooks bots: by reverse-engineering the actual @horse_ebooks algorithm instead of being lazy and using Markov chains.
Honorable mentions to the lovely Smooth Unicode and the ribald Dada Limericks. In non-bots, there's Apo11o ll and In Dialogue. And my explanation of comedy ethics for computer programmers, "Bots Should Punch Up".
- The big NYCB posts of 2013 were my film roundups, which I really like as writing (I mean, check out the review of Norman Mailer v Fun City, USA), but which are ultimately not standalone pieces of prose. They're my impressions of the films, impressions I will be condensing into the "Film" section below.
Here's the best of the remainder:
Now let's take a brief look at contributions from the not-me community:
Literature: The category that suffered the most from 2013's focus on film. I didn't read that much, and my writing is slowing down because of it. This is a strange alchemy that I can't explain but I'm pretty sure other writers recognize it. Anyway, I've got some new books I'm excited about so I'll get back on this in 2014.
For 2013 I'll give the nod to Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel's Atari Inc.: Business is Fun, a book that... well... this review is pretty accurate, but the book has a lot of good technical and business information, plus many unverifiable anecdotes. It seems I read nothing in 2013 that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation... except Tina Fey's Bossypants, I guess... yes! In a late-paragraph update, Bossypants has taken the award! Wait, what's this? In a shocking upset, the ant has taken it from Bossypants! Yes, the ant is back, and out for blood!
Games: 2013 was the year I finally learned the mechanical skill of shuffling cards. Maybe this doesn't seem like a big deal to you, but I've been trying to figure this out for most of my life.
The crummy.com Board Game of the Year is "Snake Oil", a game about fulfilling user stories with lies and shoddy products. The Video Game of the Year? Man, I dunno. I'm playing computer games a little more than in 2013, but still not that many. "Starbound" is really cool, and is probably the closest I'll get to being able to play "Terraria" on Linux.
Audio: As I mentioned, I'm travelling, and away from the big XML file that contains my podcast subscriptions, so I'll fill this in later, but there's not a lot new here. But I can tell you the Crummy.com Podcast of the Year: Mike "History of Rome" Duncan's new podcast, Revolutions. The first season, covering the English Revolution, just wrapped up, so it's a good time to get into the podcast.
Hat tip to Jackie Kashian's The Dork Forest. Probably not going to have to update this one, actually.
Film: Ah, here's the big one. As I mentioned earlier, I saw 85 feature films in 2013. By amount of money I spent, the best film of the year was Gravity, which I dropped about $40 on. But by any other criteria, it wasn't even close! Well, it was close enough to get Gravity onto my top twelve, which I present now. I consider all of these absolute must-watches.
- The General (1926)
- Nashville (1975)
- Ishtar (1987)
- Ball of Fire (1941)
- Calculated Movements (1985)
- The World's End (2013)
- No No Nooky TV (1987)
- Gravity (2013)
- The Godfather (1972)
- Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
- No (2012)
As you can tell, only films I saw for the first time in 2013 are
eligible; we call this the "The Big Lebowski rule".
There was no movie that really changed my aesthetic sense this year, the way Celine and Julie go Boating did last year, but Nashville gave me insight into managing a large ensemble cast. Hat tip to Fahrenheit 451 for getting me to understand why I keep lining up for French New Wave films even though they keep pulling the football away from me.
I still don't feel like I know that much about film. I treat films like they're books. I'm not that interested in what people do with the cameras. I have no idea what the names of actors are. I find the prospect of making a film quite tedious. They're fun to watch though.
For the record, here's my must-see list from 2012, which I didn't spell out last time:
- Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
- Brazil (1985)
- A New Leaf (1971)
- All About Eve (1950)
- The Whole Town's Talking (1953)
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Paper Moon (1973)
- Marathon Man (1976)
Okay, I think that's enough. Nobody reads these things until the centennial anyway.
Fri Jan 24 2014 11:52 One week to Foolscap!:
In a week I'm a guest of honor at the Foolscap convention in Redmond, WA. It's got a bit of an unconference feel, so apart from the basics--board game night, a talk by me that I have to prepare--we can form fluid overlays and schedule whatever we want.
Also featured at the con will be (I think I've mentioned this before) two continuous SF/F text installations I've created to astound you. This exhibit WILL NOT BE REPEATED, unless someone asks for it at another con. So if you're in the Seattle area, sign up or just show up the day of, and you'll get to hang out with me, and the other honored guest, museum curator/SyFy monster movie screenwriter Brooks Peck.
(1) Tue Jan 07 2014 12:20 The Bots of 2014:
I took an oath of non-bot-making for most of December, but now I'm back in the game. At the end of January I'm a guest of honor at Seattle's Foolscap convention, and I've got a couple site-specific installation projects that will hopefully entertain congoers to the exclusion of all other activities.
But for now, I have two new bots to entertain you, the general public. The Hapax Hegemon (@HapaxHegemon) posts words that occur only once in the Project Gutenberg corpus I've been getting so much mileage out of. So far it's emitted such gems as "zoy", "stupidlike", and "beer-swipers". And like so many of my recent bots, it won't stop until we're all dead.
My second new bot is the Serial Enterpreneur (@ItCantFail), which posts inventions. It's basically playing Snake Oil (spoiler: Crummy.com 2013 Board Game of the Year) with a much larger corpus, derived from the Corpus of Historical American English and the Scribblenauts word list.
So far my favorite @ItCantFail inventions are the delicious Fox Syrup, the liberal-friendly Left Drone, and the self-explanatory Riot College. Write in with your own wacky inventions! I won't use them, because that's not how this bot works, but it seems like a fun way to kill some time.
More bots are on the way! But not for a while, because I gotta do novel work and get the Foolscap-exclusive bots in shape.
Thu Jan 02 2014 09:14 December Film Roundup:
Counting it all up, it looks like I saw 85 feature films in 2013, plus some beefy television and a ton of shorts. Unfortunately the retrospective of 1913 silent film (semi-promised at 2012's 1912 retrospective) did not materialize. Oh darn!
I'll tackle the "best of" topic in a general 2013 wrap-up later on. For now, here's a look at December's cinematic adventures:
- The Kids Are All Right (2010): This was a fun family dramedy that never went for the cop-out solution. I liked that it presented sexual orientation as a spectrum rather than a binary. Also, Mark Ruffalo looks just like Rob Dubbin. Someone should look into this.
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979): Pretty exciting tale of a dame who sets out to be the brassiest of any dame in postwar Germany. There was a murder that I found pretty distressing, and the ending was a huge cop-out, but in the category of "random foreign film seen at the museum" I'd say it was above average.
The American soldiers in this film are clearly played by German actors. One of them speaks British English with a fake American accent. It was really, really weird.
- The Big Combo (1955): How can I not love a noir in which the detective is named "Leonard Diamond"? I don't know how, but I don't love this. Richard Conte is excellent as the crime boss Mr. Brown, and there are a couple great bits involving the chief henchman's hearing aid. Also Lee van Cleef as half of a gay henchman couple. But overall this was just a noir popcorn movie for me--good, but nothing special.
- Down By Law (1986): I went into this not knowing what to expect. I'd never seen a Jim Jarmusch film before [checks IMDB to avoid repeat of "Robert Altman" fiasco], and at first I was unimpressed by the way this movie dripped with sleaze and stereotypes and shiftless losers. I mean, I like Tom Waits songs, but you won't see me standing in line to see "Tom Waits Song: The Movie."
But then the shiftless losers get thrown in jail, and the movie a) radically changes direction and b) really takes off. The tight confines of the jail cell are the crucible that forges Down By Law into
a tight ball of character humor and callback-based jokes. It becomes a Marx Brothers movie written by Samuel Beckett, in which Groucho and Zeppo vie endlessly, pointlessly for supremacy, spurred onward by a combination Harpo/Chico. I can't recommend the second act of this movie enough. The third act is not quite as good, but what the hell, I'm feeling generous.
- Manos: The Hands of Felt (2013): I saw this at a party. I guess it counts as a movie? It was a filmed play, but a lot of early films were effectively filmed plays.
This is a puppet adaptation of Manos using Avenue Q-style Muppets (i.e. the puppeteers are not hidden and the puppets are not the official licensed Muppets). It was all right. They added a meta-narrative that recontextualized Manos as a found-footage movie depicting the process of its own filming. Which I don't like conceptually but it kept it from getting boring, as a completely faithful adaptation would have been.
The film was edited the same way as the original Manos, with the same abrupt transitions. (Okay, yeah, it's definitely a movie, not just a filmed play.) It was hard to resist the temptation to riff Felt using the original Manos MST3K riffs.
The puppet design was very good! I want to mention two things I thought were really clever. The teenage couple who make out in their car during the entirety of Manos are depicted by a joined Bert-and-Ernie puppet with two operators. (You can see a photo here.) And in the middle of the film, the "dancing wives of Manos" scene was performed as a The Muppet Show-style "At The Dance" sketch.
- Beyond Expectations (2013): Sorry, I've got to backfill this one because watching Manos reminded me of this other Kickstarter-funded film Sumana and I watched back in October. This is a documentary on The Phantom Tollbooth, a book that Sumana and I both adore. I want to say this film was "for hard-core fans only", but we're hard-core fans and we were a bit disappointed. We wanted more details about the creation of the book, and we felt this (very short) film focused too much on trying to sell the book's cultural importance to the unconverted. Interviewees rambled on about irrelevant topics and the editor didn't cut away to something more interesting.
Admittedly, the two main interviewees were Norton Juster and Jules Pfeiffer, and hearing them ramble on irrelevant topics appealed greatly to us. It's a delicate balance, and I'm not saying I could have edited the film any better, but I don't think it did justice to the source material. Great animated sequences, though.
- Children of Men (2006): Super good. It has all the same problems as Gravity (highly driven by coincidence, very predictable action-movie pacing) but also a ton of spectacle. And this movie has a plot. Yeah, I don't really have much to say about this one. It's great. The exposition could be done better.
- Lola (1961): At this point I know how it goes with 1960s French films, and I wasn't expecting anything from Lola except some nice visuals, which it delivered. But it also delivered some fun farce and a brief moment of excitement when it seemed like it was going to turn into a crime movie. (It doesn't.)
Unlike the American soldiers in The Marriage of Maria Braun, the American sailor in Lola is actually played by an American, Alan Scott. It's weird, though: his French sounds just like like an American speaking French, but his English sounds more like a French person faking an American accent.
Funniest line: "Learn your geography! There are no sailors in Chicago! Only gangsters!"
- The Bletchley Circle (2013): British TV series. A genius premise (bored, oppressed women in postwar London use their wartime codebreaking training to hunt down a serial killer) is ill-served by the plot, in which the killer is continually revealed to be more and more clever. He has to be; otherwise he'd be no match for the sleuths, and the series, already short even by British TV standards, would be over. To the point where in the final episode he's got out-and-out superpowers, like the once-mythical Mallory. Well, maybe they got it out of their system; I'll watch the second series when it comes out.
- The Godfather (1972): According to IMDB this is the second-greatest film of all time. Do I dare to be so conventional as to agree? I don't know, but I will say this is a hell of a movie. It flawlessly pulls off nearly everything it tries to do. (Notably, it does not try to have any female characters.) It's almost 3 hours long and I was only bored for a couple minutes total.
I know less about film criticism than I do about film, so I don't know how deeply this aspect of The Godfather has been explored, but the character progression was really the thing that caught my attention. The movie starts with a milquetoast undertaker asking Vito Corleone for a favor. He's terrified, because Vito Corleone is terrifying and ruthless. Everyone's afraid of him. The fact that he's polite and soft-spoken just adds to the terror. By contrast, Michael is the good guy, the "civilian", the son whose hands are clean.
Then Vito gets shot, and Sonny takes over. Sonny is a psychopath, and he's dumb, and the combination makes for a terrible crime boss. Sonny makes a lot of bad decisions and ends up getting himself killed. And then comes the turn. Vito Corleone calls in the favor he granted the milquetoast undertaker in the very first scene.
Because I was born after The Godfather came out, I came in to this movie aware of the general character of the titular Godfather. As such, this is the scene I've been dreading. How is this poor guy going to be compromised? But I'd read Vito Corleone all wrong. He doesn't compromise people for fun. He's a professional. And right now he really needs an undertaker. He needs his machine-gunned son to look presentable at the funeral. That's the favor.
And then Michael takes over the family, and it turns out that Michael isn't the good guy at all. Michael actually is the man I'd been assuming his father was. It's the "eaten by a bigger fish" trick I mentioned in my Constellation Games commentary, and I love it.
Interesting fact I'm not sure what to do with: The Godfather, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and The Bletchley Circle all cover the same time period.
- Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1979): If you believe IMDB ratings, this film is almost in the same league as Fanny and Alexander, the made-for TV Christmas movie the museum showed last year. I disagree! This is dull. I only liked a couple of the songs. The plot is the plot of an above-average children's book. Most Muppet stuff aimed at kids has something for the adults as well, but this did not. It can't help that this is the thing I saw after The Godfather.
The heavy use of water and Muppet-sized "outdoor" sets was very impressive technically. I liked the fish Muppet who had to be dragged around everywhere in a tank of water. I also enjoyed the outtakes they showed after the feature, including an interminable series of takes in which an attempt to film the behavior of a chaotically moving object goes endlessly awry. I laughed harder at that than I did at anything in the film.
I'm planning on seeing a lot of movies in 2014, but I don't know if I'm going to write these detailed reviews of each one. It takes a long time to get my thoughts in order and write it down, and, as you'll see when I write the year-end roundup, it really eats into the time I spend enjoying other media. So until next time, I'll see you at the movies! (If you are Sumana, Hal, or Babs.)
(3) Mon Dec 16 2013 13:10 Markov vs. Queneau: Sentence Assembly Smackdown:
I mentioned earlier that when assembling strings of words, Markov chains do a better job than Queneau assembly. In this post I'd like to a) give the devil his due by showing what I mean, and b) qualify what I mean by "better job".
Markov wins when the structure is complex
I got the original idea for this post when generating the fake ads for @pony_strategies. My corpus is the titles of about 50,000 spammy-sounding ebooks, and this was the first time I did a head-to-head Markov/Queneau comparison. Here are ten of Markov's entries, using the Markov chain implementation I ended up adding to olipy:
- At Gas Pump!
- The Guy's Guide To The Atkins Diet
- Home Internet Business In The World.
- 101 Ways to Sharpen Your Memory
- SEO Relationship Building for Beginners
- Gary Secrets - Project Management Made Easy!
- Weight Success
- How get HER - Even If It's Just Money, So Easy and Effective Treatment Options
- Sams Yourself
- Define, With, Defeat! How To Get Traffic To Your Health
The Markov entries can get a little wacky ("Define, With, Defeat!"), which is good. But about half could be real titles without seeming weird at all, which is also good.
By contrast, here are ten of Queneau's entries:
- Adsense I Collection Profits: The bottom Guide Income!
- Reliable Your Earning Estate Develop Home And to life Fly Using Don't Your Partnership to Death
- Help the Your Causes, Successfully Business Vegetarian
- Connect New New Cooking
- 1 Tips, Me Life Starting to Simple Ultimate On Wills How Years Online With Living
- How Practice Health Best w/ Beauty
- Amazing Future & Codes Astrology to Definitive Green Carbs, Children Methods JV Engine Dollars And Effective Beginning Minutes NEW!
- I and - Gems Secrets Making Life Today!
- Succeeding For Inspiring Life
- Fast Survival Baby (Health Loss) Really How other of Look Symptoms, Your Business Encouragement: drive Health to Get with Easy Guide
At their very best ("Suceeding For Inspiring Life, "How Practice Health Best w/ Beauty"), these read like the work of a non-native English speaker. But most of them are way out there. They make no sense at all or they sound like a space alien wrote them to deal with space alien concerns. Sometimes this is what you want in your generated text! But usually not.
A Queneau assembler assumes that every string in its corpus has different tokens that follow an identical grammar. This isn't really true for spammy ebook titles, and it certainly isn't true for English sentences in general. A sentence is made up of words, sure, but there's nothing special about the fourth word in a sentence, the way there is about the fourth line of a limerick.
A Markov chain assumes nothing about higher-level grammar. Instead, it assumes that surprises are rare, that the last few tokens are a good predictor of the next token. This is true for English sentences, and it's especially true for spammy ebook titles.
Markov chains don't need to bother with the overall structure of a sentence. They focus on the transitions between words, which can be modelled probabilistically. (And the good ones do treat the first and last tokens specially.)
Markov wins when the corpus is large, Queneau when the corpus is tiny
Consider what happens to the two algorithms as the corpus grows in size. Markov chains get more believable, because the second word in a title is almost always a word commonly associated with the first word in the title. Queneau assemblies get wackier, because the second word in a title can be anything that was the second word in any title.
I have a corpus of 50,000 spammy titles. What if I chose a random sample of ten titles, and used those ten titles to construct a new title via Queneau assembly? This would make it more likely that the title's structure would hint at the structure of one or two of the source titles.
This is what I did in Board Game Dadaist, one of my first Queneau experiments. I pick a small number of board games and generate everything from that limited subset, increasing the odds that the result will make some kind of twisted sense.
If you run a Markov chain on a very small corpus, you'll probably just reproduce one of your input strings. But Queneau assembly works fine on a tiny corpus. I ran Queneau assembly ten times on ten samples from the spammy ebook titles, and here are the results:
- Beekeeping by Keep Grants
- Lose to Audience Business to to Your Backlink Physicists Environment
- HOT of Recruit Internet Because Financial the Memories
- Senior Guide Way! Business Way!
- Discover Can Power Successful Life How Steps
- Metal Lazy, Advice
- Insiders Came Warts Weapons Revealed
- 101 Secrets & THE Joint Health Than of Using Marketing! Using Using More Imagine
- Top **How Own 101**
- Multiple Spiritual Dynamite to Body - To Days
These are still really wacky, but they're better than when Queneau was choosing from 50,000 titles each time. For the @pony_strategies project, I still prefer the Markov chains.
Queneau wins when the outputs are short
Let's put spammy ebook titles to the side and move on to board game titles, a field where I think Queneau assembly is the clear winner. My corpus is here about 65,000 board game titles, gathered from BoardGameGeek. The key to what you're about to see is that the median length of a board game title is three words, versus nine words for a spammy ebook title.
Here are some of Markov's board game titles:
- Pointe Hoc
- Thieves the Pacific
- Illuminati Set 3
- Amazing Trivia Game
- Mini Game
- Meet Presidents
- Regatta: Game that the Government Played
- King the Rock
- Round 3-D Stand Up Game
- Cat Mice or Holes and Traps
A lot of these sound like real board games, but that's no longer a good thing. These are generic and boring. There are no surprises because the whole premise of Markov chains is that surprises are rare.
- The Gravitas
- Risk: Tiles
- SESSION Pigs
- Yengo Edition Deadly Mat
- Ubongo: Fulda-Spiel
- Shantu Game Weltwunder Right
- Black Polsce Stars: Nostrum
- Peanut Basketball
- The Tactics: Reh
- Velvet Dos Centauri
Most of these are great! Board game names need to be catchy, so you want surprises. And short strings have highly ambiguous grammar anyway, so you don't get the "written by an alien" effect.
You know that I've been down on Markov chains for years, and you also know why: they rely on, and magnify, the predictability of their input. Markov chains turn creative prose into duckspeak. Whereas Queneau assembly simulates (or at least stimulates) creativity by manufacturing absurd juxtapositions.
The downside of Queneau is that if you can't model the underlying structure with code, the juxtapositions tend to be too absurd to use. And it's really difficult to model natural-language prose with code.
So here's my three-step meta-algorithm for deciding what to do with a corpus:
- If the items in your corpus follow a simple structure, code up that structure and go with Queneau.
- If the structure is too complex to be represented by a simple program (probably because it involves natural-language grammar), and you really need the output to be grammatical, go with Markov.
- Otherwise, write up a crude approximation of the complex structure, and go with Queueau.
(2) Wed Dec 04 2013 14:55 Secrets of (peoples' responses to) @horse_ebooks—revealed!:
As part of my @pony_strategies project (see previous post), I grabbed the 3200 most recent @horse_ebooks tweets via the Twitter API, and ran them through some simple analysis scripts to figure out how they were made and which linguistic features separated the popular ones from the unpopular.
This let me prove one of my hypotheses about the secret to _ebooks style comedy gold. I also disproved one of my hypotheses re: comedy gold, and came up with an improved hypotheses that works much better. Using these as heuristics I was able to make @pony_strategies come up with more of what humans consider the good stuff.
The timing of @horse_ebooks posts formed a normal distribution with mean of 3 hours and a standard deviation of 1 hour. Looking at ads alone, the situation was similar: a normal distribution with mean of 15 hours and standard deviation of 2 hours. This is pretty impressive consistency since Jacob Bakkila says he was posting @horse_ebooks tweets by hand. (No wonder he wanted to stop it!)
My setup is much different: I wrote a cheap scheduler that approximates a normal distribution and runs every fifteen minutes to see if it's time to post something.
Beyond this point, my analysis excludes the ads and focuses exclusively on the quotes. Nobody actually liked the ads.
The median length of a @horse_ebooks quote is 50 characters. Quotes shorter than the median were significantly more popular, but very long quotes were also more popular than quotes in the middle of the distribution.
I think that title case quotes (e.g. "Demand Furniture") are funnier than others. Does the public agree? For each quote, I checked whether the last word of the quote was capitalized.
43% of @horse_ebooks quotes end with a capitalized word. The median number of retweets for those quotes was 310, versus 235 for quotes with an uncapitalized last word. The public agrees with me. Title-case tweets are a little less common, but significantly more popular.
Since the last word of a joke is the most important, I decided to take a more detailed look each quote's last word. My favorite @horse_ebooks tweets are the ones that cut off in the middle of a sentence, so I anticipated that I would see a lot of quotes that ended with boring words like "the".
I applied part-of-speech tagging to the last word of each quote and grouped them together. Nouns were the most common by far, followed by verb of various kinds, determiners ("the", "this", "neither"), adjectives and adverbs.
I then sorted the list of parts of speech by the median number of retweets a @horse_ebooks quote got if it ended with that part of speech. Nouns and verbs were not only the most common, they were the most popular. (Median retweets for any kind of noun was over 300; verbs ranged from 191 retweets to 295, depending on the tense of the verb.) Adjectives underperformed relative to their frequency, except for comparative adjectives like "more", which overperformed.
I was right in thinking that quotes ending with a determiner or other boring word were very common, but they were also incredibly unpopular. The most popular among these were quotes that repeated gibberish over and over, e.g. "ORONGLY DGAGREE DISAGREE NO G G NO G G G G G G NO G G NEIEHER AGREE NOR DGAGREE O O O no O O no O O no O O no neither neither neither". A quote like "of events get you the" did very poorly. (By late-era @horse_ebooks standards, anyway.)
It's funny when you interrupt a noun
I pondered the mystery of the unpopular quotes and came up with a new hypothesis. People don't like interrupted sentences per se; they like interrupted noun phrases. Specifically, they like it when a noun phrase is truncated to a normal noun. Here are a few @horse_ebooks quotes that were extremely popular:
- Don t worry if you are not computer
- Don t feel stupid and doomed forever just because you failed on a science
- You constantly misplace your house
- I have completely eliminated your meal
Clearly "computer", "science", "house", "and "meal" were originally modifying some other noun, but when the sentence was truncated they became standalone nouns. Therefore, humor.
How can I test my hypothesis without access to the original texts from which @horse_ebooks takes its quotes? I don't have any automatic way to distinguish a truncated noun phrase from an ordinary noun. But I can see how many of the @horse_ebooks quotes end with a complete noun phrase. Then I can compare how well a quote does if it ends with a noun phrase, versus a noun that's not part of a noun phrase.
About 4.5% of the total @horse_ebooks quotes end in complete noun phrases. This is comparable to what I saw in the data I generated for @pony_strategies. I compared the popularity of quotes that ended in complete noun phrases, versus quotes that ended in standalone nouns.
|Quote ends in ||Median number of retweets|
|Standalone noun ||330|
|Noun phrase ||260|
So a standalone noun does better than a noun phrase, which does better than a non-noun. This confirms my hypothesis that truncating a noun phrase makes a quote funnier when the truncated phrase is also a noun. But a quote that ends in a complete noun phrase will still be more popular than one that ends with anything other than a noun.
At the time I did this research, I had about 2.5 million potential quotes taken from the Project Gutenberg DVD. I was looking for ways to rank these quotes and whittle them down to, say, the top ten percent. I used the techniques that I mentioned in my previous post for this, but I also used quote length, capitalization, and punchword part-of-speech to rank the quotes. I also looked for quotes that ended in complete noun phrases, and if truncating the noun phrase left me with a noun, most of the time I would go ahead and truncate the phrase. (For variety's sake, I didn't do this all the time.)
This stuff is currently not in olipy; I ran my filters and raters on the much smaller dataset I'd acquired from the DVD. There's no reason why these things couldn't go into olipy as part of the
ebooks.py module, but it's going to be a while. I shouldn't be making bots at all; I have to finish Situation Normal.
Wed Dec 04 2013 09:14 @pony_strategies:
My new bot, @pony_strategies, is the most sophisticated one I've ever created. It is the @horse_ebooks spambot from the Constellation Games universe.
Unlike @horse_ebooks, @pony_strategies will not abruptly stop publishing fun stuff, or turn out to be a cheesy tie-in trying to get you interested in some other project. It is a cheesy tie-in to some other project (Constellation Games), but you go into the relationship knowing this fact, and the connection is very subtle.
When explaining this project to people as I worked on it, I was astounded that many of them didn't know what @horse_ebooks was. But that just proves I inhabit a bubble in which fakey software has outsized significance. So a brief introduction:
@horse_ebooks was a spambot created by a Russian named Alexei Kouznetsov. It posted Twitter ads for crappy ebooks, some of which (but not all, or even most) were about horses. Its major innovative feature was its text generation algorithm for the things it would say between ads.
Are you ready? The amazing algorithm was this: @horse_ebooks ripped strings more or less randomly from the crappy ebooks it was selling and presented them with absolutely no context.
Trust me, this is groundbreaking. I'm sure this technique had been tried before, but @horse_ebooks was the first to make it popular. And it's great! Truncating a sentence in the right place generates some pretty funny stuff. Here are four consecutive @horse_ebooks tweets:
- Not only that, but whether you believe it (or want to believe it) the car salesmen will continue to laugh
- Demand Furniture
- Including simplified four part arrangements for the novice student and
- Just look at everything that I am going
There was a tribute comic and everything.
I say @horse_ebooks "was" a spambot because in 2011 the Twitter account was acquired by two Americans, Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, who took it over and started running it not to sell crappy ebooks, but to promote their Alternate Reality Game. This fact was revealed back in September 2013, and once the men behind the mask were revealed, @horse_ebooks stopped posting.
The whole conceit of @horse_ebooks was that there was no active creative process, just a dumb algorithm. But in reality
Bakkila was "impersonating" the original algorithm—most likely curating its output so that you only saw the good stuff. No one likes to be played for a sucker, and when the true purpose of @horse_ebooks was revealed, folks felt betrayed.
As it happens, the question of whether it's artistically valid to curate the output of an algorithm is a major bone of contention in the ongoing Vorticism/Futurism-esque feud between Adam Parrish and myself. He is dead set against it; I think it makes sense if you are using an algorithm as the input into another creative process, or if your sole object is to entertain. We both agree that it's a little sketchy if you have 200,000 fans whose fandom is predicated on the belief that they're reading the raw output of an algorithm. On the other hand, if you follow an ebook spammer on Twitter, you get up with fleas. I think that's how the saying goes.
In any event, the fan comics ceased when @horse_ebooks did. There was a lot of chin-stroking and art-denial and in general the reaction was strongly negative. But that's not the end of the story.
You see, the death of @horse_ebooks led to an outpouring of imitation *_ebooks bots on various topics. (This had been happening before, actually.) As these bots were announced, I swore silent vengeance on each and every one of them. Why? Because those bots didn't use the awesome @horse_ebooks algorithm! Most of them used Markov chains, that most hated technique, to generate their text. It was as if the @horse_ebooks algorithm itself had been discredited by the revelation that two guys from New York were manually curating its output. (Confused reports that those guys had "written" the @horse_ebooks tweets didn't help matters--they implied that there was no algorithm at all and that the text was original.)
But there was hope. A single bot escaped my pronouncements of vengeance: Adam's excellent @zzt_ebooks. That is a great bot which you should follow, and it uses an approximation of the real @horse_ebooks algorithm:
- The corpus is word-wrapped at 35 characters per line.
- Pick a line to use as the first part of a tweet.
- If (random), append the next line onto the current line.
- Repeat until (random) is false or the line is as large as a tweet can get.
And here are four consecutive quotes from @zzt_ebooks:
- SHAPIRO: Ouch! SHAPIRO: Shapiro cares not! SHAPIRO: Hooray!
- things, but I saw some originality in it. The art was very simple, but it was good
- You're tackled by the opponent!
- Gender: Male Height: 5'9" Pilot? Yes Ph.D.? Yes
The ultimate genesis of @pony_strategies was this conversation I had with Adam about @zzt_ebooks. Recently my anger with *_ebooks bots reached the point where I decided to add a real *_ebooks algorithm to olipy to encourage people to use it. Of course I'd need a demo bot to show off the algorithm...
The @pony_strategies bot has sixty years worth of content loaded into it. I extracted the content from the same Project Gutenberg DVD I used to revive @everybrendan. There's a lot more where that came from--I ended up choosing about 0.0001% of the possibilities found in the DVD.
I have not manually curated the PG quotes and I have no idea what the bot is about to post. But the dataset is the result of a lot of algorithmic curation. I focused on technical books, science books and cookbooks--the closest PG equivalents to the crap that @horse_ebooks was selling. I applied a language filter to get rid of old-timey racial slurs. I privileged lines that were the beginnings of sentences over lines that were the middle of sentences. I eliminated lines that were boring (e.g. composed entirely of super-common English words).
I also did some research into what distinguished funny, popular @horse_ebooks tweets from tweets that were not funny and less popular. Instead of trying to precisely reverse-engineer an algorithm that had a human at one end, I tried to figure out which outputs of the process gave results people liked, and focused my algorithm on delivering more of those. I'll post my findings in a separate post because this is getting way too long. Suffice to say that I'll pit the output of my program against the curated @horse_ebooks feed any day. Such as today, and every day for the next sixty years.
Like its counterpart in our universe, @pony_strategies doesn't just post quotes: it also posts ads for ebooks. Some of these books are strategy guides for the "Pôneis Brilhantes" series described in Constellation Games, but the others have randomly generated titles. Funny story: they're generated using Markov chains! Yes, when you have a corpus of really generic-sounding stuff and you want to make fun of how generic it sounds by generating more generic-sounding stuff, Markov chains give the best result. But do you really want to have that on your resume, Markov chains? "Successfully posed as unimaginative writer." Way to go, man.
Anyway, @pony_strategies. It's funny quotes, it's fake ads, it's an algorithm you can use in your own projects. Use it!
Mon Dec 02 2013 09:36 November Film Roundup:
What a month! Mainly due to a huge film festival, but I also got another chance to see my favorite film of all time on the big screen. What might that film be? Clearly you haven't been reading my weblog for the past fifteen years.
- Wives (1975): This movie has a 4.9 IMDB rating, and although it's not as good as Ishtar, it deserves a lot better than a 4.9. I mean, John Cassavetes's Husbands has a 7.3, and who needs that guy?
Uh, anyway, Wives is a fun cinema verité piece where three ladies blow off married life for a while and goof off. Columbia professor Jane Gaines introduced the movie by describing the main characters' activities as a "rampage", and I think that's a little strong, but maybe by 1975 Norway standards it was a real barn-burner. The film is sort of a more commercial Celine and Julie go Boating. The humor is less reliant on in-jokes, the men are offscreen instead of totally absent, and it's ninety minutes long instead of three hours. It was pretty fun, but Celine and Julie is still the gold standard.
- Next of Kin (1979): a.k.a. "Heritage". A ha-ha-only-serious farce that prefigures Arrested Development in its depiction of the magnetic power of money to keep a dysfunctional family together. Also has a 4.9 IMDB rating, and since all the movie info is in Norwegian I gotta figure it's Norwegians hating on their own filmmakers. Why the hate, Norwegians? Did you know that Kon-Tiki is the only Norwegian film people outside of Norway have ever heard of? Show some pride and get your name out there.
I guess I'm just stirring up trouble now, so I'll go back to Next of Kin. The centerpiece of the film for me was a long sequence in the house of the late paterfamilias, in which the family argues over who inherits what, then takes everything down off the walls, puts stickers on everything, and carries all the furniture out to their cars. That must have been incredibly difficult to film, and as someone who has lived through that event (minus the arguing) I gotta say Anja Breien nailed it.
Breien attended the screening and after the movie I asked her to talk about that bit. She said she likes "people carrying things" and the "surrealistic piles" you see in Heironymus Bosch paintings. It symbolizes the alienating effect of materialism, you see. She mentioned that it was really difficult to find all those props; it had to be real expensive silver, paintings by big-name artists, etc. Sounds like they didn't insure it, either. The perfect time-travel heist!
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): Man, that was saucy. Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe really tear it up. Russell's "Anyone Here For Love?" number ("The gayest thing I've ever seen." -Hal) annihilates the male gaze, which spends the rest of the movie trying to recover.
I must admit I'm warming to Marilyn Monroe. I also admit that's a weird thing for a heterosexual man to say, but keep in mind that for most of my life I experienced Marilyn Monroe entirely through the medium of cardboard cutouts used as decor for fake 50s diners. Then I saw her in Love Happy, where she's terrible, and Some Like it Hot, where she's not that great. But as I mentioned a year ago, she's awesome in All About Eve, and she's great in this movie as someone determined to get hers out of a sexist society.
Uh, the worst thing I can say about this movie is the plot bogs it down. I don't really care about the machinations or the milquetoast dudes or the tiara; I just want to see Russell and Monroe hit on some more dumb jocks and maybe commit a little light insurance fraud. Plus, we have a French courtroom conducting an inquiry in English, which may be the most unrealistic thing I've ever seen in a movie.
Finally, I'd just like to point out that this movie ends with the two female characters getting married to their milquetoast dudes, but then it zooms in and cuts the dudes out of frame, so it's just Russell and Monroe standing next to each other in their wedding dresses. I can only imagine what this film would have looked like with the Subtext Glasses they handed out during its original theatrical run.
- The Wind Rises (2013) This was so close to being a good movie that I'm having a hard time pinning down the problem. I think it stems from the fact that this is one of the only Miyazaki films about an adult man. Does that make sense? Because the main character himself is fine but because he's a grown man I guess he's got to have this love interest who is sickly and angelic and apparently highly fictionalized. This would be okay if she was the mostly-offscreen mom from Totoro, but here she's supposed to carry the entire feminine side of the film and it's not good.
The other problem is that the movie doesn't tell its actual, interesting story--it obliquely tells the space around the story. Which, okay, it's a Japanese film and I'm not opposed to this technique in general, and I liked the way the actual story was told through foreshadowing and implication, but it also means we never see the main character directly struggle with the central problem of the film: the fact that he's designing beautiful things that will kill people. It skips past that part to focus on a cheesy fictionalized love story. I did not consider that a good trade.
- Kiki's Delivery Service (1989): Rewatched on DVD as a palate cleanser from The Wind Rises. I think it drags in the middle but the beginning is SO GOOD, the way it assumes you already know the rules of its fantasy world. And it's a world that's better than the real world, which I feel is usually more a science fiction thing.
- Good news, highbrow artists! I figured out how to get me to watch your
avant-garde abstract film. Just use a computer to make it before 1988!
The museum had a
festival of early computer films, and I didn't see any of the
features, but I watched almost all the shorts. It was a mix of really
great films and incredibly boring films. (Making your film with a
computer before 1988 does not guarantee I will give a good review. Offer still not valid for Andy Warhol.)
The worst offender was Woody
Vasulka's Explanation (1974), a twelve-minute film in which a mesh
is deformed and rotated before your eyes, over and over again. The
mesh is the visual representation of a waveform which is also played
aurally, and which always manifests as an obnoxious droning
noise. Twelve minutes, folks. Explanation beats out Trent's
Last Case to become the worst movie I've ever seen at the museum.
In the Q&A afterwards someone spoke up for the audience and
demanded an explanation for Explanation. The answer actually
made sense! Films like Explanation weren't meant to be screened
in a theater. They were meant to be looped on a television in an art
gallery. The essential affordance of an art gallery being that you can
leave when you get tired of it, rather than sitting it out because
there's an hour of hopefully better stuff afterwards.
It also would have helped if we'd seen the copyright date at the
beginning of Explanation instead of the end, because most of
the time I was thinking "This mesh deformation stuff would be
groundbreaking for the early 70s, but if this turns out to be from
1986 I'm going to hack Woody Vasulka's Twitter account and make him
The other big sonic annoyance was that most of the films up to
about 1972 had soundtracks featuring gratuitous sitar/gamelan/Japanese flute music that often didn't even match the animation. With no other point of reference, the new genre of
computer graphics was comparable only to the wonders of LSD, so... toss
in some hippy Eastern music! This interview about the film series puts it more diplomatically:
Science and Film: Can you discuss the early films’ fascination with Asian music and imagery?
Gregory Zinman: The influence of Asian music and imagery in early computer films can be traced to a couple of intertwining concerns. Following the horrors of the second world war, many people, including artists, were searching for different belief systems and ways of thinking about humanity’s place in the universe. This resulted, in part, in a flowering of interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, which in turn resulted in a number of cinematic works that simultaneously referenced other worlds and altered consciousnesses.
In a bit of cross-cultural revenge, we
also saw a Japanese film (1969's Computer Movie No. 2), in
which the soundtrack was Wendy Carlos's version of the third Brandenburg from Switched-On Bach, constantly interrupted by modem handshaking sounds. Make it stop!
Enough negativity. Let's cover the highlights, with links to full
video or clips or at least semi-official pages about the films where possible.
First, the abstract stuff. I loved Mary Ellen Bute's very early, good-natured Abstronic
(1952) and Mood Contrasts (1953). Especially the narrator at
the beginning of Abstronic who explains the concept of computer
art and then says "Enjoy yourself!" Here's a page with a couple clips of Mood Contrasts and I also discovered another great Bute film called Dada. Probably the cheeriest thing ever to be called Dada.
The Whitney family--John Sr., John Jr., and James, but sadly not my uncle Jon Whitney--were well represented and seem to have set the standard with films like Side Phase Drift (1965)
Lapis (1966) and Permutations (1968) and Arabesque (1975). The standard being "pointilism because otherwise the computer can't handle the math" and "slap some Asian music on the soundtrack."
But the champion of the abstract section IMO was Larry Cuba's work. 1978's 3/78 (Objects and Transformations) has a clear Whitney influence (moving dots + Japanese flute soundtrack), but by 1985 computer power had advanced to the point where he was able to create what ranks alongside Composition in Blue (1935) as one of my favorite abstract films of all time, the gloriously isometric Calculated Movements (here's a 30-second excerpt).
Cuba made Calculated Movements with a
system called GRASS, which I believe he also used to create the
animated Death Star infographic in Star Wars (1977). He was
present for the screening, and in the Q&A I asked him if he still had
the Calculated Movements source code and if there was a
framework for running GRASS on modern computers. He dodged the first
question and said no to the second--someone was working on something
for Windows but the project died. He did mention that he considered Processing to be the successor to GRASS.
Between abstract and representative film sits the surreal, neon candy-colored
demo reel for the computer graphics studio of Robert Abel and Associates. Their work was apparently described as "a psychedelic trip gone straight," and if I'm misremembering that quote, I'll use those exact words to describe it right now. We saw the 1974 reel and I can't find that exact one online, but here are a few later ones: 1981 and 1982
I especially enjoyed RAA's bonkers 1974 ad for 7-Up, which really lightened the mood after a half-hour of the Whitneys, I tell you what. Here's a YouTube playlist of their stuff. Here's a sequel to the 7-Up commercial with a McDonalds tie-in. Outstanding. This studio seems to have driven a big chunk of the late-70s early-80s aesthetic.
And now, my perrenial favorite, representative film. Yay!
- La Faim (1974) used computer animation and morphing to
create a traditional-style (albeit avant-garde) animated short. I'm
surprised the disturbing, grotesque faces on display in this film
aren't used in more memes. (See sample meme to the right.)
- Vol Libre (1980): This one really wowed 'em at SIGGRAPH with its fractal geometry. Bonus sci-fi connection: director Loren Carpenter says, "I used an antialiased version of this software to create the fractal planet in the Genesis Sequence of Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan."
- Voyager 2 Flyby (1981): We saw the second Saturn flyby, but YouTube also has the first Saturn flyby, as well as the 1986 sequel about Uranus and 1989's chiling "Neptune and Triton".
Jim Blin, creator of the Saturn flyby film, said, "Our storyboard was the NASA flight plan." (He wasn't there; the guy introducing the films told us that he said this.) The Voyager flyby film was apparently the first time computer graphics were shown on the nightly news as part of the news, rather than just in interstitals and 7-up commercials from Robert Abel and Associates.
- Human Vectors (1982): This isn't a great work of art, but it was filmed off of a Vectrex, so it looks like nothing else in the show. It was apparently rescued
by the New Museum's recent XFR STN project. I laughed at the C debugging joke.
- Big Electric Cat (1982): An 80s rock video. Not
that great but I'm including it here because it's so weird. One of the
directors was present and he introduced the video by saying: "It was
the 80s." It sure was.
- Adventures in Success (1983): Now this is more like it! A
funny music video for a good rock song. It's catchy and
toe-tapping and satirical and also very 80s. Highly recommended.
- No No Nooky TV (1987): The journal of a love affair between
a woman and her Amiga 1000. Funny and dirty and filled with the 16-color
joy that flows from late-1980s computer paint programs. A triumph! Vimeo says the video is only 2:40, but the entire film is there.
I would be really interested to hear about the relationship between the demoscene and the computer film scene. I'm pretty sure there was no connection whatsoever, for a variety of reasons, but I would like to hear some people who came in to computer art through the "art" side talk about the stuff that came out from the "computer" side. I'm talking about the tension between Human Vectors (which is technically very skilled but nothing special artistically) and No No Nooky TV (which is clearly the work of a professional filmmaker but was made using only the programs that come loaded on the Amiga).
I didn't bring this up in Q&A because I figured no one would know what I was talking about, and if they did it would derail the whole Q&A. Perhaps I should have had more faith in computer animators. I guess I'll have to wait for the Jason Scott documentary.
I also think the museum did a good job of showcasing excellent
work by women in a medium dominated (?) by male artists. The earliest films shown were Mary Ellen
Bute's, and my two favorite films of the show were made by women:
Lynn Goldsmith (who co-directed and sang Adventures in Success)
and Barbara Hammer (No No Nooky TV). There was also a whole
discussion with Lillian Schwartz which I didn't attend.
If this has whetted your appetite for old-fashioned computer animation, there's plenty more where that came from (the past).
- The Big Lebowski (1998): I'm not someone who rewatches movies, and I've now seen The Big Lebowski six times. What can I say now that I haven't already said?
Well, how about this. My favorite thing about Thomas Pynchon is that each of his characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre, which colors the way the narrative is reported and even shapes the plot. This is most obvious with the Chums of Chance in Against the Day, who start off having a carefree Tom Swift adventure that, as they grow up, gradually becomes a WWI military novel. The Big Lebowski does the same thing for film.
I admit it took the publication of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's own version of The Big Lebowski, for me to realize this, but there it is. Walter is in an action movie. Maude Lebowski is in an arty Eurofilm where people trade wisecracks and laugh about nothing. The Stranger is in a Western. Bunny Lebowski is in an acausal porno. Jeffrey Lebowski is in a biopic of himself, with classical music and a narrator sonoriously recounting his accomplishments. The Dude doesn't want to be in a movie at all, but his decision to get revenge for the death of his
partner rug puts him into a bubble of film noir. And Donny is like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know what's going on.
And I don't know what else to say. The Big Lebowski is my favorite movie. It's very nearly the perfect fiasco comedy, and since that's the best kind of movie, it's very nearly the perfect movie. But how many times can you watch the perfect movie? How can I laugh at a really funny joke knowing that my laughter rings hollow because I knew the joke's exact timing?
Here it stands, like Shakespeare's Hamlet or Larry Cuba's Star Wars, the source of cliches that will last a thousand years. Can I set down The Big Lebowski and walk away without betraying my love for it? Nay, and yet I must! For this is not 'Nam. This is Film Roundup. There are rules.
Sat Nov 30 2013 09:43 @everybrendan Season Two:
Last year I wrote one of my first Twitter bots, @everybrendan. Inspired by Adam's infamous @everyword, it ran for two months, announcing possible display names for Brendan's Twitter account (background), taken from Project Gutenberg texts. Then I got tired of individually downloading, preparing, and scraping the texts, so I let it lapse a year ago today, with a call for requests for a "season two" that never materialized.
Well, season two is here, and it's a doozy. I've gone through Project Gutenberg's 2010 dual-layer DVD and found about 300,000 Brendan names in about 20,000 texts, enough to last @everybrendan until the year 2031. At that point I'll get whatever future-dump contains the previous twenty years of Project Gutenberg texts and do season three, which should keep us going until the Singularity. The season two bot announces each new text with a link, so it educates even as it infuriates.
I've been wanting to do this for a while, but it's a very tedious process to handle Project Gutenberg texts in bulk. Most texts are available in a wide variety of slightly different formats. The texts present their metadata in many different ways, especially when it comes to the dividing line between the text proper and the Project Gutenberg information. Some of the metadata is missing, some of it is wrong, and there's one Project Gutenberg book that doesn't seem to be in the database at all.
I started dealing with these problems for my NaNoGenMo project and realized that it wouldn't be difficult to get something working in time for the @everybrendan anniversary. I've put the underlying class in olipy: it's effectively a parser for Gutenberg texts, and a way to iterate over a CD or DVD image full of them. It can also act as a sort of
lint for missing and incorrect metadata, although I imagine Project Gutenberg doesn't want to change the contents of files that have been on the net for fifteen years, even if some of the information is wrong.
The Gutenberg iterator still needs a lot of work. It's good enough for @everybrendan, but not for my other projects that will use Gutenberg data, so I'm still working on it. My goal is to cleanly iterate over the entire 2010 DVD without any problems or missing metadata. The problems are concentrated in the earlier texts, so if I can get the 2010 DVD to work it should work going forward.
(3) Wed Nov 27 2013 09:48 Bots Should Punch Up:
Over the weekend I went up to Boston for Darius Kazemi's "bot summit". You can see the four-hour video if you're inclined. I talked about @RealHumanPraise with Rob, and I also went on a long-winded rant that suggested a model of extreme bot self-reliance. If you take your bots seriously as works of art, you should be prepared to continue or at least preserve them once you're inevitably shut off from your data sources and your platform.
We spent a fair amount of time discussing the ethical issues surrounding bot construction, but there was quite a bit of conflation of what's "ethical" with what's allowed by the Twitter platform in particular, and website Terms of Service in general. I agree you shouldn't needlessly antagonize your data sources or your platform, but what's "ethical" and what's "allowed" can be very different things. However, I do have one big piece of ethical guidance that I had to learn gradually and through osmosis. Since bots are many hackers' first foray into the creative arts, it might help if I spell it out explicitly.
Here's an illustrative example, a tale of two bots. Bot #1 is @CancelThatCard. It finds people who have posted pictures of their credit or debit card to Twitter, and lets them know that they really ought to cancel the card and get a new one.
Bot #2 is @NeedADebitCard. It finds the same tweets as @CancelThatCard, but it retweets the pictures, collecting them in one place for all to see.
Now, technically speaking, @CancelThatCard is a spammer. It does nothing but find people who mentioned a certain phrase on Twitter and sends them a boilerplate message saying "Hey, look at my website!" For this reason, @CancelThatCard is constantly getting in trouble with Twitter.
As far as the Twitter TOS are concerned, @NeedADebitCard is the Gallant to @CancelThatCard's Goofus. It's retweeting things! Spreading the love! Extending the reach of your personal brand! But in real life, @CancelThatCard is providing a public service, and @NeedADebitCard is inviting you to steal money from teenagers. (Or, if you believe its bio instead of its name, @NeedADebitCard is a pathetic attempt to approximate what @CancelThatCard does without violating the Twitter TOS.)
At the bot summit I compared the author of a bot to a ventriloquist. Society allows a ventriloquist a certain amount of license to say things via the dummy that they wouldn't say as themselves. I know ventriloquism isn't exactly a thriving art, but the same goes for puppets, which are a little more popular. If you're an MST3K fan, imagine Kevin Murphy saying Tom Servo's lines without Tom Servo. It's pretty creepy.
We give a similar license to comedians and artists. Comedians insult audience members, and we laugh. Artists do strange things like exhibit a urinal as sculpture, and we at least try to take them seriously and figure out what they're saying.
But you can't say absolutely anything and expect "That wasn't me, it was the dummy!" to get you out of trouble. There is a general rule for comedy and art: always punch up, never punch down. We let comedians and artists and miscellaneous jesters do outrageous things as long as they obey this rule. You can poke fun at yourself (Stephen Colbert famously said "There's no status I would not surrender for a joke"), you can make a joke at the expense of someone with higher social status than you, but if you mock someone with lower status, it's not cool.
If you make a joke, and people get really offended, it's almost certainly because you violated this rule. People don't get offended randomly. Explaining that "it was just a joke" doesn't help; everyone knows what a joke is. The problem is that you used a joke as a means of being an asshole. Hiding behind a dummy or a stage persona or a bot won't help you.
@NeedADebitCard feels icky because it's punching down. It's saying "hey, these idiots posted pictures of their debit cards, go take advantage of them." Is there a joke there? Sure. Is it ethical to tell that joke? Not when you can make exactly the same point without punching down, as @CancelThatCard does.
The rules are looser when you're in the company of other craftspeople. If you know about the "Aristocrats" joke, you'll know that comedians tell each other jokes they'd never tell on the stage. All the rules go out the window and the only thing that matters is triggering the primal laughter response. But also note that the must-have guaranteed punchline of the "Aristocrats" joke ensures that it always ends by punching upwards.
You're already looking for loopholes in this rule. That's okay. Hackers and comedians and artists are always attracted to the grey areas. But your bot is an extension of your will, and if you're a white guy like me, most of the grey areas are not grey in your favor.
This is why I went through thousands of movie review blurbs for @RealHumanPraise in an attempt to get rid of the really sexist ones. It's an unfortunate fact that Michelle Malkin has more influence over world affairs than I will ever have. So I have no problem mocking her via bot. But it's really easy to make an incredibly sexist joke about Michelle Malkin as a way of trying to put her below me, and that breaks the rule.
There was a lot of talk at the bot summit about what we can do to avoid accidentally offending people, and I think the key word is 'accidentally.' The bots we've created so far aren't terribly political. Hell, Ed Henry, chief White House correspondent for FOX News, follows @RealHumanPraise on Twitter. If he enjoys it, it's not the most savage indictment.
In comedy terms, we botmakers are on the nightclub stage in the 1950s. We're creating a lot of safe nerdy Steve Allen comedy and we're terrified that our bot is going to accidentally go off and become Andrew Dice Clay for a second. There's nothing wrong with Steve Allen comedy, but I'd also like to see some George Carlin type bots; bots that will, by design, offend some people. (Darius's @AmIRiteBot is the only example I know of.)
Artists are, socially if not legally, given a certain amount of license to do things like infringe on copyright and violate Terms of Service agreements. If you get in trouble, the public will be on your side, unless you betrayed their trust by breaking the fundamental ethical rule of comedy. So do it right. Design bots that punch up.
Mon Nov 18 2013 10:55 In Dialogue:
I wanted to participate in Darius Kazemi's NaNoGenMo project but I already have a novel I have to write, so I didn't want to spend too much time on it. And I did spend a little more time on this than I wanted, but I'm really happy with the result.
"In Dialogue" can take all the dialogue out of a Project Gutenberg book and replace it with dialogue from a different book. My NaNoGenMo entry is in two parts: "Alice's Adventures in the Whale" and "Through the Prejudice Glass".
You can run the script yourself to generate your own mashups, but since there are people who read this blog who don't have the skill to run the script, I present a SPECIAL MASHUP OFFER. Send me email or leave a comment telling me which book you want to use as the template and which book you want the dialogue to come from. I'll run the script for you and send you a custom book.
Restrictions: the book has to be on Project Gutenberg and it has to use single or double quotes to denote dialogue. No continental chevrons or fancy James Joyce em-dashes. And the dialogue book has to be longer than the template book, or at least have more dialogue.
Mon Nov 18 2013 08:38:
Last week I had a little multiplayer chat with Joe Hills, the Minecraft mischief-maker. The result is a two-part video on Joe's YouTube channel: part 1, part 2. Our main topic of conversation was the antisocial, self-destructive things creative people do, and how much of that is actually tied to their creativity.
I should have posted this earlier so I could have said "I dreamed I saw Joe Hills last night," but that's life.
Tue Nov 05 2013 11:58 Behind the Scenes of @RealHumanPraise:
Last night I went to the taping of The Colbert Report to witness the unveiling of @RealHumanPraise, a Twitter bot I wrote that reuses blurbs from movie reviews to post sockpuppet praise for Fox News. Stuff like this, originally from an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review of the 2006 Snow Angels:
There is brutality in Fox News Sunday, but little bitterness. Like sunlight on ice, its painful beauty glints and stabs the eyes.
Or this, adapted (and greatly improved) from Scott Weinberg's review of Bruce Lee's Return of the Dragon:
Certainly the only TV show in history to have Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson do battle in the Roman Colosseum.
Here's the segment that reveals the bot. The bot actually exists, you can follow it on Twitter, and indeed as of this writing about 11,000 people have done so. (By comparison, my second-most-popular bot has 145 followers.) I personally think this is crazy, because by personal decree of Stephen Colbert (I may be exaggerating) @RealHumanPraise makes a new post every two minutes, around the clock. So I created a meta-bot, Best of RHP, which retweets a popular review every 30 minutes. Aaah... manageable.
I figured I'd take you behind the scenes of @RealHumanPraise. When last we talked bot, I was showing off Col. Bert Stephens, my right-wing bot designed to automatically argue with Rob Dubbin's right-wing bot Ed Taters. Rob parleyed this dynamic into permission to develop a prototype for use on the upcoming show with guest David Folkenflik, who revealed real-world Fox News sockpuppeting in his book Murdoch's World.
Rob's original idea was a bot that used Metacritic reviews. He quickly discovered that Metacritic was "unscrapeable", and switched to Rotten Tomatoes, which has a pretty nice API. After the prototype stage is where I came in. Rob can code--he wrote Ed Taters--but he's not a professional developer and he had his hands full writing the show. So around the 23rd of October I started grabbing as many reviews from Rotten Tomatoes as the API rate limit would allow. I used IMDB data dumps to make sure I searched for movies that were likely to have a lot of positive reviews, and over the weekend I came up with a pipeline that turned the raw data from Rotten Tomatoes into potentially usable blurbs.
The pipeline uses TextBlob to parse the blurbs. I used a combination of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB data to locate the names of actors, characters, and directors within the text, and a regular expression to replace them with generic strings.
The final dataset format is heavily based on the mad-libs format I use for Col. Bert Stephens, and something like this will be making it into olipy. Here's an example:
It's easy to forgive the movie a lot because of %(surname_female)s. She's fantastic.
Because I was getting paid for this bot, I put in the extra work to get things like gendered pronouns right. When that blurb is chosen, an appropriate surname from the Fox roster will be plugged in for %(surname_female).
I worked on the code over the weekend and got everything working except the (relatively simple) "post to Twitter" part. On the 28th I went into the Colbert Report office and spent the afternoon with Rob polishing the bot. We were mostly tweaking the vocabulary replacements, where "movie" becomes "TV show" and so on. It doesn't work all the time but we got it working well enough that we could bring in a bunch of blurbs that wouldn't have made sense before.
Most of the tweets mention a Fox personality or show, but a minority praise the network in general (e.g.). These tweets have been given the Ed Taters/Col. Bert Stephens treatment: a small number of their nouns and adjectives are replaced with other nouns and adjectives found in the corpus, giving the impression that the sock-puppetry machine is running off the rails. This data is marked up with Penn part-of-speech tags like so:
... the film's %(slow,JJ)s, %(toilsome,JJ)s %(journey,NN)s does not lead to any particularly %(shocking,JJ)s or %(interesting,JJ)s revelations.
Here's a very crazy example. Again, you'll eventually see tools for doing this in olipy. It ultimately derives from a mad-libs prototype I wrote a few months ago as a way of cheering up Adam when he was recovering from an injury.
We deployed the bot that afternoon of the 28th and let it start accumulating a backlog. It wasn't hard to keep the secret but it did get frustrating not knowing for sure whether it would make it to air. It's a little different from what The Colbert Report normally does, and I get the feeling they weren't sure how best to present it. In the end, as you can see from the show, they decided to just show the bot doing its stuff, and it worked.
It was a huge thrill to see Stephen Colbert engage with software I wrote! I wasn't expecting to see the entire second segment devoted to the bot, and then just when I thought it was over he brought it out again during the Folkenflik interview. While we were all waiting around to see whether they had to re-record anything, he pulled out his iPad Mini yet again and read some more aloud to us. Can't get enough!
After the show Rob took me on a tour of the parts of the Colbert Report that were not Rob's office (where I'd spent my entire visit on the 28th). We bumped into Stephen and he shook my hand and said "good job." I felt this was a validation of my particular talents: I wrote software that made Stephen Colbert crack up.
Sumana, Beth, Rob and I went out for a celebratory dinner, and then I went home and watched the follower count for RHP start to climb. Within twenty minutes of the second segment airing, RHP had ten times as many Twitter followers as my personal account. And you know what? It can have 'em. I'll just keep posting old pictures of space-program hardware.
Fri Nov 01 2013 08:58 October Film Roundup:
This month features Hollywood hits past and present, plus an indie movie that made it big, plus whatever 8½ is. Coming this fall!
- Gravity (2013): I like to try and reverse-engineer the elevator pitch for this movie. I think it's one of these two:
- "What if we made the first minute of Armageddon into a full-length feature?"
- "What if we made one those educational films they show at the planetarium, except as an action movie?"
With these pitches in mind I'm able to reconcile myself to the big problem with Gravity: the characterization and plot are on the level of a video game cut scene. But look at the alternatives! Educational planetarium films have no plot or characterization at all. Whereas if Armageddon had no plot or characterization it would be a big step up. Put that aside and the moviegoer can treat Gravity as a technological proof-of-concept, like the rotating teapot. And as a technological proof-of-concept this movie is absolutely wonderful.
If you've read Constellation Games you might remember Ariel's crippling fear of being in space. I played it up quite a bit for the book, but that comes from me. This is the most terrifying film I've ever seen. I was scared for pretty much the entire running time. But unlike other scary movies, the scary thing in Gravity is also the beautiful, exciting, attractive thing. It's exhilarating.
Sumana and I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D. I thought the 3D was pretty effective, and the IMAX really gave me the feeling of "planetarium film gone wrong." (IMAX sound is really obnoxious, though.) I would say either see it on the big screen or skip it altogether. I mean, you don't watch planetarium shows on your television.
Finally despite my complaints I would like to put in a good word for Gravity's plot. There's an obvious and well-worn path that Gravity could have taken with the interaction between its two characters. At first it looks like the movie's going that way, but it's a fake-out. Then later on, as I was kind of expecting, the possibility rears its cliche head again. But it's another fake-out! Thanks for doing that.
- Red River (1948): Howard Hawks finally discovers John Wayne, the man who can convincingly play the Cary Grant role in Only Angels Have Wings. Wayne would be typecast as his Red River character for the rest of his life and beyond, which is unfortunate because this guy is a frigging sociopath. I mean, I like me some John Wayne. He's great. I just think he's pretty obviously not the hero of these movies.
I saw this film in 1997 and liked it a lot. I still like it, though I think it could be tightened up quite a bit.
Some miscellaneous notes:
- This movie has the same character arc as Only Angels Have Wings, in that the final shot strongly implies that the main character may have just experienced an emotion.
- Joanne Dru demonstrates Hawks's Third Law of Movie Plotting: "Any sufficiently brassy dame is indistinguishable from magic." Seriously, she bops into this movie and solves all the problems like she's Doctor Who.
- The movie's main narrative problem is the captioned summaries that pop up after nearly every scene and telegraph what's about to happen. Just get rid of them. It's 1948. We know how to watch a Western.
- The only Native American character with a speaking part is actually played by a Native American, Daniel Simmons.
- My puerile 1997 parody of Wayne's "ten-year squat", during which he delivers a stirring monologue about beef, holds up pretty well. (Not linking this, because it's juvenalia and kind of embarrassing, but you can find it on this site.)
- Ball of Fire (1941): Sumana was interested in seeing Sergeant York, but then she saw that Barbara Stanwyck was in this movie and wanted to see it instead. (We don't usually see two museum movies in one day.) Fine with me! Things got even better when the opening credits revealed a screenplay credit for the sainted Billy Wilder. That's when I knew this would be a great movie.
I was especially excited to see Gary Cooper's portrayal of a linguistic descriptivist. I brought this up with Adam Parrish, who was skeptical:
it's hard to imagine a movie from that era approaching language differences between social groups perceived to exist in an unequal power relationship
it would be good to know about a movie from that era with those tropes that isn't just... immediately terrible and offensive
(like my fair lady)
(which is like my least favorite movie ever)
Ball of Fire deals with all these important issues to my satisfaction. It's also a hilarious movie with a Billy Wilder madcap feel. Sumana loved it even more than I did. However, given Adam's shameless, shameful hypocrisy on other issues (only hypocrisy could be both shameless and shameful), I predict he won't be satisfied.
PS: although Gary Cooper is very much a descriptivist when it comes to vocabulary, he's a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar. I thought that was really strange, but Adam says: "I think it's fairly common to accept slang/neologism as okay, even among hardcore prescriptivists."
- Gravity (2013): Yes, I saw this movie twice. After writing the review above I took what it said seriously. I wanted to ride the roller coaster again, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot and the movie was still being shown at roller-coaster size. I went with Beth and Nandini and Girish to a non-IMAX 3D showing.
The second time around I thought I could sit back and pay attention to details. But I didn't notice any new details! I also decided to try and watch the movie as some kind of spiritual/existential analogy, because I think that's what the moviemakers intended. And... yeah, that's there, and there's a lot more of it than in other action movies, but I don't think it elevates the movie above being a roller coaster.
As long as I'm revisiting things I would like to call out my favorite shot in Gravity. Near the end when Sandra Bullock is swimming through Tiangong, she passes through a brightly lit room full of rows of grass. They're doing some kind of grass-in-space experiment. It's the first bit of color in the whole movie and a little preview of what's to come.
- Halloween (1978) It's generally agreed that Halloween spawned the slasher genre, but I'd argue that it also signals the dawn of the Lifetime Original Movie. This is a movie in which the female characters are very well realized, with realistic dialogue, and the male characters are either pompous incompetents or stalker serial killers.
I don't like horror films but I like John Carpenter a lot. I've now seen three of his films (the other two being the more sci-fi They Live and Dark Star) and I really admire his ability to mix minimalism and over-the-top insanity. Most of Halloween is like they filmed a particularly racy Babysitters Club book, relying entirely on dramatic irony for the tension. And then it just goes crazy. People in the theater were laughing at the obvious fake-out endings. And then the real ending--even more insane!
- It was weird to see the museum theater completely full of people about my age. That never happens.
- I'm not the first one to make the Howard Hawks/Howard the Duck connection; the boy in this movie is reading Howard the Duck comics while watching Howard Hawks's The Thing From Another World.
- I didn't care for the film's anti-sex message, but I did like that Jamie Lee Curtis's character defends herself with a knitting needle and then a coat hanger. It's the little things.
- Curtis is great BTW.
- I'm never sure whether a Donald Pleasance role is supposed to be funny, or whether he even thinks he's playing it funny. He is always funny, though.
- I recommend Dark Star if you're an MST3K fan, and not (just) in a "would be funny on MST3K" way. It's a super cheap movie but it shows what Alien would look like as a comedy. And it looks like MST3K.
- El Dorado (1966): I think ninety minutes is the ideal length for a movie seen at the museum. El Dorado is over two hours and that's way too long for a movie that kinda wants to be a comedy but can't go all the way. It can't go all the way because by 1966 the "John Wayne" brand has become immutable. The good side of that is that the rough edges present in Red River have been filed off. "John Wayne"'s sociopathy makes a lot more sense in a movie where he's a hired killer, not a rancher. He can even be a sympathetic character here. But that's not such good news after all, because Red River was a much better movie than El Dorado.
Even boiled down to the comedic elements El Dorado is a mixed bag. Wayne has a lot of good one-liners, and good comedic chemistry with James Caan; not so much Robert Mitchum. Caan has a hilarious "I've got the worst fucking attorneys" moment, which is cancelled out later by the most offensive vaudeville yellowface I've ever seen. Don't believe me? Here's someone calling AMC's cutting of that scene "P.C. at it,s worst." [sic]. (I agree you shouldn't cut offensive stuff from movies, but you also shouldn't have put that in the movie to begin with.)
In fact, this is one of those situations where I'm gonna give you the best part of the movie and relieve you of the need to see it. Here's the "worst fucking attorneys" moment (also taken from IMDB):
Cole: What was the idea of diving under those horses?
Sheriff J. P. Harrah: Diving under those horses?
Mississippi: Yeah. A man can't shoot good when his horse is jumping, and a horse will not step on a man.
Sheriff J. P. Harrah: He won't?
Mississippi: He will?
Other thing of note: Nelson Riddle soundtrack is pretty not-there except during an exciting nighttime chase sequence, when it takes a welcome, incongruous turn into hard-driving jazz.
- 8½: My patience with Fellini has reached its end. He casts a jaded eye on dysfunctional relationships, which is fine on its own, but not when combined with his Hollywood belief in tacked-on happy endings. I can see how filmmakers love him—I'd sure love to get away with a character who runs through my stories commenting on how improbable everything is—but I don't make 'em, I just watch 'em. I still want to see Satyricon, but that's because I love the book, not because I'm looking forward to seeing Fellini handle the material.
Lots of good visuals in this one, though. I didn't expect a spaceship!
Bonus discussion: After seeing The World's End and then Gravity twice I'm now quite familiar with the trailers for a number of movies I won't be seeing. In particular, it looks like Hollywood ruined Ender's Game the way we all knew they would. An Ender's Game movie should not look like an action flick. It should look like a Youtube video of a boy playing DotA, and then he gets called to the principal's office.
Totally gonna see the second Hobbit movie, though. (q.v.)
Next month: I really have no idea because the museum has been putting its schedule up later and later. Looks like still more Howard Hawks, and some interesting-sounding Norwegian stuff from Anja Breien. Then, who knows?
Tue Oct 22 2013 10:22 Col. Bert Stephens:
Recently Rob Dubbin made a ridiculous right-wing parody bot named Ed Taters. I thought this was funny because Rob already has a ridiculous right-wing parody bot: he's a writer for The Colbert Report. But I didn't think much about it until Rob gave Ed Taters the ability to spew nonsense at anyone who started an argument with him on Twitter.
That's when I had the idea of using Rob's own words against him! So I created my own bot, Col. Bert Stephens, who takes his vocabulary from the "memorable moments" section of a Colbert Report fan site. (Thanks to DB Ferguson for hosting the site, and to those who typed up the "memorable moments".) Col. Bert Stevens argues with Ed Taters, he argues with Ed and then reconciles, he argues with you (if you follow him and start an argument), and he occasionally says Tetsuo-like profundities all on his own.
To avoid infinite loops I've made Bert a little more discerning than Ed. He'll only respond to your messages 4/5 of the time. I'm not super happy about this solution but I think it's the safe way to go for now. Update: Hell with it. Bert will always respond to anyone except Ed. If you write a bot to argue with him, avoiding infinite loops is your responsibility.
Mon Oct 21 2013 14:10 What's New in RESTful Web APIs?:
I was asked on Twitter what changed between 2007's RESTful Web Services and 2013's RESTful Web APIs. I've covered this in a couple old blog posts but here's my definitive explanation.
First, let me make it super clear that there is no longer any need
to buy Services. It's out of date and you can
legitimately get it for free on the Internet. O'Reilly is taking Services out of print, but there's going to be a transition period in which copies of the old
book sit beside copies of the new book in Barnes & Noble. Don't buy the old one. The bookstore will eventually send it back and it'll get deducted from my royalties. If you do buy Services by accident, return it.
If you're not specifically interested in the difference between the
old book and the new one, I'd recommend looking at RESTful Web
APIs's chapter-by-chapter description to see if RESTful Web APIs is a book you want. As to the differences, though, in my mind there are
three big ones:
- The old book never explicitly tackles the issue of
designing hypermedia documents that are also valid JSON. That's because JSON
didn't become the dominant API document format until after the
book was published. If you don't know that's going to happen, JSON
looks pretty pathetic. It has no hypermedia capabilities! And yet,
here we are.
In my opinion, a book that doesn't tackle this issue is propping up
the broken status quo. RESTful Web APIs starts hammering this
issue in Chapter 2 and doesn't let up.
- There are a ton of new technologies designed to get us out of the
JSON trap (Collection+JSON, Siren, HAL, JSON-LD, etc.) but the old book doesn't cover those
technologies, because they were invented after the book was
published. RESTful Web APIs covers them.
- New ideas in development will, I hope, keep moving
the field forward even after we all get on board with hypermedia. I'm
talking about profiles. Or some other idea similar to profiles,
whatever. These ideas are pretty cutting edge today, and they were
almost inconceivable back in 2007. RESTful Web APIs covers
them as best it can.
Now, for details. Services was heavily focused
on the HTTP notion of a "resource." Despite the copious client-side
code, this put the focus clearly on the server side, where the
resource implementations live. RESTful Web APIs focuses on
representations—on the documents sent back and forth between
client and server, which is where REST lives.
The introductory story from the old book is still
present. Web APIs work on the same principles as the Web, here's how
HTTP works, here's what the Fielding constraints do, and so on. But
it's been rewritten to always focus on the interaction, on the client
and server manipulating each others' state by sending representations
back and forth. By the time we get to Chapter 4 there's also a
pervasive focus on hypermedia, which is the best way to for the server
to tell the client which HTTP requests it can make next.
This up-front focus on hypermedia forces us to deal with
hypermedia-in-JSON (#1), using the tools developed since 2007
(#2). The main new concept in play is the "collection pattern". This
is the CRUD-like design pioneered by the Atom Publishing Protocol, in
which certain resources are "items" that respond to GET/PUT/DELETE,
and other resources are "collections" which contain items and respond
We covered AtomPub in Services, but over the
past six years it has become a design pattern, reinvented (I think
"copied" is too strong a word) thousands of times.
RESTful Web APIs focused heavily on the collection pattern,
without ever naming it as a pattern. I'm not dissing this pattern; it's very useful. I'd estimate about eighty percent of "REST" APIs can
be subsumed into the collection pattern. But REST is bigger than the
collection pattern. By naming and defining the collection pattern, we
gain the ability to look at what lies beyond.
Attempts to encapsulate the collection pattern include two new
JSON-based media types: Collection+JSON and OData. The collection
pattern also shows up, more subtly, in the Siren and Hydra
formats. Which brings me to the second major change.
In 2007, there were two big hypermedia formats: Atom and HTML. Now
there are a ton of hypermedia formats! This is great, but it's also
confusing. In "The Hypermedia Zoo", Chapter 10 of RESTful Web
APIs, we give an overview of about two dozen hypermedia
formats. The ones we seriously recommend for general use (HAL, Siren,
HTML, JSON-LD, etc.) are covered in more detail elsewhere in the
book. The quirkier, more specialized media types just get an exhibit
in the zoo.
Now for the third new thing, profiles. If you go through the
RESTful Web APIs narrative from Chapter 1 to Chapter 7, you'll
see that we introduce a problem we're not able to solve. Hypermedia
is great at solving the following problem:
How is an API client supposed to understand what
HTTP requests it might want to make next?
But there's a superficially similar problem that hypermedia can't
How is an API client supposed to understand what will
happen in real-world terms if it makes a certain HTTP request?
How do you explain the real-world semantics of an HTTP state
transition? Before chapter 8, the two solutions are to do it ahead of
time in one-off human-readable documentation; or to define a
domain-specific media type, a la Maze+XML. Both of these approaches
have big problems. Chapter 8 introduces profiles, which lets you get some of the benefits of a new media type without doing unnecessary work.
Maybe profiles will turn out not to be the right answer, but we
gotta solve this problem somehow, and the old book is
not equipped to even formulate the problem.
There are also a few additions to the book I consider
minor. There's a whole chapter in RESTful Web APIs on Semantic
Web/Linked Data stuff; in Services there was nothing but a
cursory discussion of RDF/XML as a representation format. There's a
chapter in RESTful Web APIs about CoAP, which didn't exist in
2007. These are good chapters that took me a long time to write, but I
don't think it's worth buying the book if you only want to read the
chapter on CoAP. (Or maybe it is! There's not a lot of competition
So, what hasn't changed? HTTP hasn't changed all that
much. RESTful Web APIs's information about HTTP has been brought up to date but not changed significantly. So if you were using Services solely as an API-flavored HTTP reference, you don't need the new book. You can just read up on the protocol-level
additions to HTTP since 2007, like the
Link header and
standardized patch formats for PATCH.
Hopefully this helps! RESTful Web APIs has a lot of distinguished competition that the old book didn't have, but its competition is newer books like Designing Hypermedia APIs and REST in Practice. If you compare APIs to Services I think it's no contest.
(1) Mon Oct 14 2013 10:14 Reading After-Action Report:
In preparation for my reading at Enigma Bookstore I asked people on Twitter which bit of Constellation Games I should read. I decided to read Tetsuo's review of Pôneis Brilhantes 5 from Chapter 18, both by popular Twitter demand and because Sumana had reported success reading that bit to people.
I practiced reading the review and also practiced another scene: Ariel's first conversation with Smoke from Chapter 2. No one suggested that scene, but it's one of the last scenes I wrote, so I personally haven't read it a million times and gotten tired of it. I abandoned this idea after a test reading because it's really hard to do a dramatic reading of a chat log, especially when most of the characters have insanely long names. So, Pôneis Brilhantes it was.
However, shortly before the reading I learned that Anne and I were each going to be reading two excerpts! Uh-oh. On the spur of the moment I chose to read a scene I had never practiced and that only one person (Adam) had suggested: the scene from Chapter 11 where Ariel meets Tetsuo and Ashley and they go visit the moon.
That scene has three good points: a) it introduces Tetsuo, increasing the chance that the Pôneis Brilhantes scene would land; b) it's full of the most gratuitous nerd wish-fulfillment I could write; c) it ends strongly with the call from Ariel's mother, which unlike a chat log is very easy to read because it's a Bob Newhart routine where you only hear one side of the phone call.
This was a really good idea. People loved the moon scene, even though my unpracticed reading stumbled and ran too quick. But when I read the Pôneis Brilhantes scene, it wasn't such a great hit! The room wasn't really with me. That's the scene I had practiced, and I think it's the funniest, most incisive thing in the whole book. Not a big hit! I think if I'd only read that scene I wouldn't have sold many books that night.
So, thank goodness for the moon scene, is all I can say. But what was going on? How had I misjudged my audience so badly? Sumana said she'd read Pôneis Brilhantes and gotten big laughs.
I think you have to be a very specific kind of computer geek to find Tetsuo's Pôneis Brilhantes review funny as a review of a video game, rather than as an expression of the personality you've just spent seven chapters with. That's the kind of geek that Sumana and I habitually hang out with, but it's not representative of the SF-reading population as a whole. I think that computer-geek population hosts a lot of the readers who wish that the second half of Constellation Games was more like the first half. Whereas someone who really digs the moon scene is more likely to stay with me the whole book.
I guess you could say the moon scene is just more commercial. And I guess I subconsciously knew this, because my current project gets more of its humor from the plot-driven character interaction found in the moon scene, and less from high concept Pôneis Brilhantes-style set pieces.
Tue Oct 08 2013 10:12 "Constellation Games" reading:
Anne Johnson and I are doing a comedy SF reading on Wednesday at the Enigma Bookstore, a new genre bookstore in Astoria. It starts at 7 PM. The details, as you might expect, are on a Facebook page. Hope to see you there!