Sat Jan 24 2015 11:11More Dice Fun:
A while back I wrote about a maddening but interesting book called Scarne on Dice. It's a really huge book which I intend to get rid of ASAP, but before I do there's a couple things about dice, and cheating at dice, I wanted to quote.
In perhaps the most entertaining section of the book Scarne takes on the sleaziest parties in this whole wretched business, "the crooked gambling supply houses", who sell outdated cheating devices at huge markups.
According to The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, another book I read recently, the mailing lists of these supply houses were coveted by con artists, because by definition, everyone on those lists "liked the best of it." One catalog's advice to buyers, according to HoyleScarne:
When telegraphing use the following code: PAINT for cards and CUBE for dice.
I feel like this led to a lot of telegrams like "DESIRE FIVE PAIR LOADED CUBE AND TWO DECKS MARKED PAINT FOR CHEATING AT CUBE AND PAINT STOP."
This head-slapping entry from Scarne's inventory of trick dice needs to be quoted in full:
These are a very brazen brand of mis-spotted dice that show 7 or 11 every roll. Since the catalog lists them, there apparently are buyers, but they are strictly for use on very soft marks and then only on dark nights. One die bears only the numbers 6 and 2; the other nothing but 5's! Since anyone but a blind man would tag these cubes as mis-spots, the moment they rolled out, they are of no use except for night play under an overhead light when the chumps can't see anything but the top surfaces of the dice. Strictly for use by cheats who don't know what a real set of Tops is.
There's a a couple entertaining but long stories of specific cheats which I won't transcribe. The best is the story of "the mouth switch". Seems there was a craps hustler in the 30s who kept a trick die in his mouth and introduced into the game it by cupping the dice in his hands and "blowing" on them. They called him "Mononucleosis Joe". Actually they called him "The Spitter," but they only started calling him that after he tried this trick while drunk and ended up rolling all three dice onto the craps table.
Finally, a tale of collegiality which I feel gets really boring if you explain what the numbers mean:
Several years ago the Harvard Computation Laboratory put a battery of calculating machines to work and came up with a whole book full of answers. Since the binomial formula is used in many problems and so often requires staggering amounts of arithmetic, they constructed a set of Cumulative Binomial Probability Distribution Tables which give provability fractions for a wide range of values of n, r, and P. And because Dr. Frederick Mosteller, Chairman of the Department of Statistics, had seen a copy of Scarne on Dice and was aware of the 26 game problem, he saw to it that the calculating machienes were asked to provide figures for the terms n = 130 and P = 1/6.
It's easy to read this book and feel superior to the people who get fooled by seemingly rudimentary tricks (David Maurer, author of The Big Con, specifically points this out in his book), but I'm sure someone who knew their stuff could take my entire roll in a crooked dice game. Why am I so sure? Because you could take my entire roll in a completely fair dice game.
2014's big project was The Minecraft Archive project, which led into
The Minecraft Geologic Survey, which led into the Reef series and two huge bots. I'm planning on doing a refresh of the data this year to get maps created in 2014--hopefully it'll be easier the second time.
I also finished Situation Normal, edited it and have now sent it out to editors and agents. I'm cautiously optimistic. I finished two short stories, "The Process Repeats" and "The Barrel of Yuks Rule", and like many of my stories they're a rewrite away from being sellable and who knows when I'll get the time.
Subcategory: Bots. You won't believe how many autonomous agents I created in 2014! I'm not even going to show you all of them, only the ones I'm really proud of. I'm going to order them by how much I like them, but I'll also include their current Twitter follower count--the only measurement that really matters in this post-apocalyptic world.
My secret goal for 2014 was to have a bot whose follower count was greater than my own. Minecraft Signs (probably my favorite bot of all time) came close but didn't quite make it.
I also created a bot that's so annoying I didn't release it. Maybe this year.
I scaled back my film watching versus 2013, but still saw about fifty features. Here's my 2014 must-watch list. As always, only films I saw for the first time are eligible for this prestigeless nonor.
Pom Poko (1994)
My Love Has Been Burning (1949)
Seven Chances (1925)
A Town Called Panic (2009)
The King of Comedy (1982)
The Women (1939)
These are more or less the films I would watch again (a very high bar to clear), although The King of Comedy should be watched once and only once. I'm kind of surprised that Playtime got on here since I wasn't wild about it, but I really can see how it'll be better the second time.
The runners-up: films I recommend, but will probably not see again, and if you're like "aah, it's three hours long" or "aah, David Bowie alien penis", I'll understand:
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Queen Christina (1933)
Didn't read a lot of books this year, but I made them count. The Crummy.com Books of the Year are Dispatches, Michael Herr's Vietnam reporting memoir, and Phil Lapsley's phone-phreak history Exploding the Phone, which covers about the same time period. Both awesome.
Since I started commuting again it was a decent year for discovering new podcasts. Sumana and I love Just One More Thing, a deep-dive Columbo podcast. I also really like Omega Tau, a podcast that will do a two-part series on shipping container logistics, or a five-parter on the hardware and operation of the space shuttle. Honorable mention to the guilty pleasure-ish Laser Time, which is more or less random nostalgia but which brings out a lot of interesting deep cuts.
Didn't play a lot of video games because a) Minecraft Archive Project took up all the time I used to spend playing Minecraft, and b) my desktop developed a weird problem where it abruptly powers off if I stress it too much, e.g. by playing a modern computer game. I should really address this problem, but I have not, because it does prevent me from spending too much time on games.
Played a lot of board games with friends as usual. The Crummy.com Board Game of the Year is 2014's The Castles of Mad King Ludwig, a building game that captures the true thrill of interior design. Runner-up: Hanabi, the cooperative game that magically turns passive-agressiveness into an asset that benefits all. Dishonorable mention to 1989's Sniglets, a party game where having fun requires not that you disregard the scoring system (a common thing for party games) but that you deliberately play to lose.
That reminds me, I should have mentioned in 2014's review of 2013 that Encore is a party game from 1989 that's really, really good. You have to have the right group though.
That's it! How we doin' in 2015? I'm getting a lot done. In fact I just wrote this big blog post talking about the best of 2014... oh, but you're probably not interested. See ya!
The Big Kahuna (1994): Saw this in November with Sumana but forgot to review it. Now it's December and I don't have much to say about it. I liked it fine, good performances, just not much to say.
Pom Poko (1994): You know I like a movie like Godzilla that takes a really silly idea and treats it with the seriousness it would deserve if that stuff was really happening. This movie is the opposite: it treats a deadly serious topic (anti-colonial resistance) in the silliest way imaginable. I can't think of another movie like this. It's not a "dark comedy" because in a "dark comedy" a lot of the humor is awkward, derived from situational irony and the audience's distance from the suffering characters. In Pom Poko you totally empathize with the tanuki, all their arguments and compromises and weaknesses; but the whole movie they're goofing off, all their plans are slapstick, etc. There's even a little chibi-meter on each character that tells you how silly that character is being right now. (A Pynchon-esque touch, if I may say so.) I love it. Crummy.com Film of the Year.
IMDB says: "The English dubbed version censors all references to testicles." That explains why the English dubbed version is only twelve minutes long.
A Town Called Panic (2009): a.k.a. "Panique au Village". It was like living in a town of panic... I just wanted out of that town. This movie goes into the other quadrant that I like: it treats a really silly idea (Gumby, basically) in a really silly way. It's old-timey injected-plastic childrens' toys in a ridiculous stop-motion comedy that has enough Belgian surrealism cred to be a hit with the festival crowd. It's the feature-film extension of a bunch of Belgian TV shorts, and you can watch the shorts online. High-school French is enough to understand them. Or even no French, it's almost all sight gags.
Anyway, love this movie. Total rave. Except I'm a little uncomfortable with the cowboy-and-Indian thing. (The main character-toys are Horse, Cowboy, and Indian.) I wouldn't say there's any offensive content or even any subtext here. The relationship between Cowboy and Indian is basically the relationship between Crow and Tom Servo, and the connotations of these particular roles are completely ignored except that Cowboy has a rifle and Indian has a bow-and-arrow and Horse is a horse. And they're childrens' toys and this isn't even an American film so it's doubly removed from real-world history. But I gotta judge this movie by 2009 standards, and I think there's a reason why Toy Story has Cowboy and Horse but not Indian. They didn't want to go there. And that's not really honest either, so I guess I'm saying it's... problematic.
The Love of a Woman (1953): a.k.a. "L'amour d'une femme," speaking of high-school French. Sort of like Lady Oyu in that everyone would be a lot happier if they could just let go of their culturally-constructed hangups. But Lady Oyu felt like nothing changed the whole way through whereas the stasis in this movie is achieved by a shifting equilibrium.
I feel like this movie was filmed in the same seaside town as Lola, but I wouldn't place a big bet on that assertion.
Hot Fuzz (2007): Feel-good rewatch with Sumana. It's still great, but upon rewatching it I want to take back what I said in 2013 and say that I think The World's End is the best of the Cornetto Trilogy. There are a lot of confounding variables: maybe these movies play much better on the big screen or maybe they're always a little worse the second time through. But the reason I say this now is that The World's End does a better job introducing the fantastic element. You expect people to die in a cop action movie, so the fact that there's something really weird about the deaths in Hot Fuzz doesn't become clear until pretty late in the movie. Whereas the first time The World's End gets violent you know something's going on.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) I hoped against hope that my ticket stub would say "HOBBIT 3", but it just said "Hobbit". I did however take this picture of a motto suitable for putting on mugs and selling throughout Middle-Earth:
This movie was 100% adequate and satisfied my desire for a Hobbit movie to watch with Susanna. My main complaint (and I think this can apply to the second movie as well) is there's way too much of a focus on hand-to-hand combat. The hand-to-hand set pieces in LoTR worked and were true to the book, but The Hobbit is all about the triumph of cunning over brute force, and although there was a lot of cunning on display, it wasn't 150 minutes worth or however long this movie was. Cut the hand-to-hand combat from all three movies and you've got two super fun movies, which (my final verdict) was what they should have made in the first place.
One advantage of the Hobbit series over LoTR is, the ending was properly dramatized. The only time I was really happy to be watching Five Armies (as opposed to satisfied) was when Lobelia Sackville-Baggins showed up. And that made me realize that what I want from Tolkien dramatizations isn't big battles, it's, like, Real Housewives of the Shire. I love Bilbo's goodbye party in LoTR, how it's his one passive-aggressive opportunity to strike back against a community that still resents him for having gone off on an adventure and come back.
I saw a ton of animated movies over Christmas with my niblings, but I don't want to give them full reviews since I saw little snippets of the movies as I dashed around helping my sister make dinner and dealing with household emergencies, rather than my admittedly snooty technique of sitting down and watching the whole movie. So I'll just rank them from "really good" to "awful":
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Despicable Me 2 (2013)
It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992)
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)
These aren't movies at all, but as long as I'm ranking Disney things, over Christmas we also went to Disney California Adventure ("It's everything Walt Disney hated, turned into a Disney theme park."—Susanna), so I thought I'd rank the rides we went on, on the same "really good" to "awful" scale:
California Screamin' (also my niece's favorite)
Toy Story Midway Mania!
Animation Academy (would be higher, but I wasn't a big fan of the way Disney sued us all for copyright infringement as we left)
Soarin' Over California
Radiator Springs Racers
Mickey's Fun Wheel
Goofy's Sky School
Ariel's Undersea Adventure
The last time I went to Disney-anything was in high school, and I could do a whole post about how weird it is to be in one of these things with a general knowledge of design and semiotics and the ability to see how it works, but I believe this ground has been well-covered elsewhere. So I'll just mention that during Ariel's Undersea Adventure I found myself thinking "Man, this must be the worst job in the park, sitting there in a Prince Eric outfit all day waving... wait, they're not sentient."
And I'll close this section with words of wisdom from a random kid my nephew instantly made friends with while in line for a rope swing, and then immediately forgot about post-rope swing: "Do you know why they call it Disneyland? Because it's Disney, and you're in a LAND!"
The Ref (1994): Fun Christmas-noir movie seen with Sumana on her recommendation. Sumana is a big Kevin Spacey fan from way back and I'm pretty sure the first time I ever saw him was on Broadway in 2007, but I've come around. (See The Big Kahuna passim.) More personal than The Ice Harvest and really getting into the mechanics of dysfunctional relationships. I really liked the main plotline, was indifferent to the bumbling-cops B-plot and the Santa C-plot, didn't like the third act's abrupt twist into "heartwarming" territory. Overall, a good movie with a great title.
Paprika (2006): Probably would have blown me away, except I was already away from Pom Poko, a much better movie with over-the-top visuals that are nearly as wild. It's still good, it's got a decent critique going, at its best its spectable is superb and totally original where Pom Poko takes everything from folklore. But it's literally got a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (part of the critique?) and if it has any guerilla tanuki they're way in the back. So, just "good".
Thu Jan 01 2015 01:55Conceptual Crossovers:
Over my Christmas break I read Glen David Gold's Sunnyside, a great novel, a little literary for my taste, but really solid. It's one of those novels with interweaving plots, and Charlie Chaplin is the main character of one of the strands. Around the middle of the book, Chaplin is at a rally in San Francisco, giving a speech trying to sell government bonds for WWI. His rhetoric starts to falter, and we go from a transcript of the speech into a pretty believable interior monologue:
He felt abandoned. He hated the war. He hated that the country was in
it, that there was no place to go but forward, that more atrocities
were to come. He felt people were never intentionally beastly or
malicious, but they were pompous and foolish; awful decisions were
made by men divorced from their own humanity. He thought that
universal peace was within reach if only people ceased to be stupid.
When he had pretended to be Trotsky, he had spoken well. But now that
he was trying to be both himself and a servant of the world, he was
failing. He persevered, believing that the simple act of faith, the
spirit of talking with the audience, would lead to a kind of
I thought this was really amazing because Gold's monologue, juxtaposed with his Chaplin character is doing at this point, explained the ending of The Great Dictator for me. Why real-life Chaplin is willing to turn the intense climax of his scathing film into a soppy train wreck: that's how he thinks he can actually make a difference. This is the only time you will listen. I still don't like the ending, but I have some sympathy in my Grinch-scale heart for the decision.
Over the break I also experienced a literature/film epiphany in the opposite direction. In my Constellation Games author commentary I say that I "reuse some of the character of Ariel from The Tempest, the guy with magic powers who gets bossed around all the time." But after rewatching The Little Mermaid I gotta admit that Ariel is also named after the girl who's so obsessed with an alien culture that she fills a cave with their incomprehensible stuff.
(2) Tue Dec 30 2014 20:442014 Scrapbook, Part 2: That Belongs In A Museum:
Welcome back, let's check out some cool stuff I can't afford.
In March, before starting my job at NYPL, I took a trip to Providence to hang
out with Jake (still an awesome guy after nearly twenty years of friendship). Jake introduced me to
the Retro-Computing Society of Rhode
Island, who have an amazing museum. I say "museum", it's just
one big room, and it looks like this:
I believe that all museums have a room that looks like this; it's just that at RCSRI that room is coextant with the display portion of the museum.
RCSRI has an open house once a month, but we got a private tour
because Jake is a close personal friend of the proprietor.
I took several detailed photos of the famous "space cadet"
keyboard for the Symbolics LISP machine, because although this
computer is famous in hacker lore, at the time there were no good
close-ups online. (I dunno about now. Well, there are now,
because I'm putting these up, but as I'm writing this draft, I don't
Along with my uncle Leonard I visited
the Worshipful Company of
Clockmakers, who have a museum of clockmaking in the back of
the London Guild Hall. The Guild Hall is still an active
government building, so make sure you go all the way round the
back for the museum, though I'm not sure why I'm even giving this
advice because apparently the Clockmakers' Museum has all been
packed up to be moved to the Science Museum. Anyway, I'm really
glad I got to see this little museum because it was full of tons
of amazing old clocks (many of which still run), and equipment for
building and repairing them.
Another new favorite: the Tring tiles from the British
Museum. Two-panel comic strips show Jesus as a little kid getting
into trouble. "Left: A boy playfully leaps onto Jesus's back
and then falls dead. Right: Two women complain to
Joseph... while Jesus restores the boy to life."
And the parents
don't take this lying down! On another tile, "Parents shut their
children in an oven, to prevent them playing with Jesus." A
From the Sidewalk Museum of Discarded Art, a picture of the New
York skyline made of Cheetos.
The Met had a fabulous exhibit with a lot of Xu Bing. I got my
chance to get some good photos of An Introduction to Square Word
Calligraphy, a set of rules for writing English words like they're
And of course there was his masterpiece of eaten meaning, Book
From The Sky.
I also saw these assembly instructions for an Alexander Calder
Finally, on a trip to Portland I indulged in some Mondrian candy.
(1) Mon Dec 29 2014 22:012014 Scrapbook, Part 1:
As I'm sure you've noticed, the direction of NYCB has trended away in recent years from me journaling and putting up photos of everything I do shortly after I do it. With so many large companies encouraging millions of people to do this and mining the data to create more annoying ads, it doesn't seem as fun. Call me contrarian!
But before the end of the year I wanted to sort of catch you up with a little scrapbook
of some of the good times from 2014. This is mostly tourist and family
stuff; I've kept all the cool museum finds for a separate post.
I took a brief trip to the Bay Area, where I sorted out a ton of
stuff in Kevin Maples's garage that we left with him when we moved
from San Francisco in 2005.
Sumana and I met up in Seattle for the Foolscap conference, where I
was a guest of honor along with Brooks Peck. It was my first con and
I had a great time! Thanks to Ron Hale-Evans for inviting me.
In a pretty amazing development I got an email from Doug, a fan
of Constellation Games who keeps a private plane at a New
Jersey airport. We hung out one Saturday and he and his wife took me
and Sumana on a flight up the Hudson River.
Really fun random experience. Thanks, Doug.
In the summer I brought my acquired-on-the-cheap tuxedo to London for Rachel's wedding.
We went with the kids to Warwick Castle in... Warwickshire.
The Year In Stone Lions
The Year In Reusable Orbiters
The Year In Signage
All of these are from the UK, because foreign signs are just funnier.
Nine to Five (19820): Perhaps the final thrust of American social democracy against the Reagan eighties. I saw this movie when I was young, it came up in conversation with Sumana (probably because of Lily Tomlin's great Snow White parody), so we watched it. It definitely holds up. I couldn't remember what happened after the initial setup, and maybe that's because it goes all over the place, with car chases and dead bodies and whatnot. Or maybe it's because when I was young I only watched the first act of this movie.
Anyway, it's a fun comedy with a good amount of action. Lily Tomlin is hilarious, Dolly Parton is pretty funny, Jane Fonda is... the Zeppo of the group, I guess. She's fine for the part but it's not very comedic, although her "I'm into everything!" speech is great. Dabney Coleman is as slimy as when he was pursuing Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper. (Correction: that wasn't him, he was the villain in The Muppets Take Manhattan.)
Bonus (IMDB-confirmed) connection to Unfaithfully Yours in that Lily Tomlin's character freaks out when her fantasy happens in real life.
Queen Christina (1933): Saw this with Sumana and Elisa and we really enjoyed it! Wikipedia claims the movie "depict[s] a heroine whose life diverged considerably from that of the real Christina", and that's true, but the aspects I thought were most likely to be Hollywood interpolations (Christina being super butch all the time, dressing in men's clothing, more interested in literature than warfare) are based in reality.
The best scene IMO was one where Christina lays down the feudalism to disperse an angry mob of peasants, saying basically, "I don't tell you how to carry out your inherited trade, don't tell me how to rule Sweden." From a character whose other attitudes are so modern as to seem anachronistic, that was really satisfying. Also the scene where Christina's in disguise and is given a tip: a coin with her face on it. A classic royalty gag!
Blind Chance (1987): Actually made in 1981 but not released until 1987 what with the censorship and all. I like to imagine this as a cross-Iron-Curtain double feature along with Nine to Five. It's sort of the opposite of J.S.A. in that I was pretty happy with Blind Chance until the very last shot, when my opinion soured. I'd compare it to the polarizing ending of Lem's The Chain of Chance.
Sumana is a big fan of Kieslowski, and we bought the Three Colors trilogy during one of those Criterion flash sales, so more is in my future. I will say I like his general style where characters who are very important in one storyline will show up tangentially in another.
Escape from the Liberty Cinema (1990): a.k.a Ucieczka z kina 'Wolnosc': Andrzej Krakowski, a colleague of director Wojciech Marczewski, introduced the film. He told a story of when they were in film school together: their instructor told them that in every film they should have a long shot of a street with a round trash can in the foreground. You should paint "DOWN WITH" on the trash can and position it so that it looks like there's more painted on the other side. The censorship board will tell you to cut this scene, and then you raise a big stink about your artistic integrity, and they'll be so busy fighting you on this dumb trash can that they'll miss the point of your movie.
There's no missing the point of this movie: censorship is a farce and creative freedom rulez. It's not up there with University of Laughs or Goodbye, Lenin! because its message is way too simplistic, but those movies were made long after the fact, where this movie wrapped the same day Poland's censorship regime shut down.
Nota bene: this film includes a clip and a crossover from Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, which might conflict with whatever Woody Allen boycott you've got going on. I'm just letting you know, the way I'd let you know that a salad contains peanuts.
Birdman (2014): I was in a bad mood when I saw this and I'm sure that colored my view of the film. I understand what it's doing—the endless take gives the feel of live theater, a claustrophobic feel that becomes more oppressive over time as the film jumps forward and forward in time, never relieving the tension by showing a cut. My problem is that the film posits only two stories you can tell with the Birdman character: the cheesy CGI-fest mocked by Birdman and the meta-fictional midlife crisis that is Birdman itself. But there's a way out of this dilemma: a midlife crisis movie about a superhero whose powers are useless for what he really wants to do. I didn't come up with this third story! This is the actual story at the beginning of the movie Birdman! This is what I thought I was getting! And IMO it's a better story. But no, just kidding, it's the second one.
The Awful Truth (1938): I think I saw this movie in 2005 but I forgot all the jokes, so it was fresh and hilarious. The prototype for many lesser sparring-couple movies, but you can't blame quality for its imitators. Ends with some "DOWN WITH"-type trolling of the Hays Office which I didn't think was funny, not that the Hays Office didn't deserve to be trolled.
Playtime (1967): This is the rare film on which I'm not comfortable passing judgement. It's a comedy that's really long and not all that funny, a satire with the searing force of a soap bubble. But it's so damn beautiful, and it's not not funny. It's like Brazil with all the nastiness taken out. (I think an orchestra plays "Brazil" at one point.) It's a world where nothing works right and everything is falling apart but we all muddle through and have a good time. Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing?
Over Thanksgiving I also saw a bunch of Phineas and Ferb with kids, and it's a fun kids' show, but not gonna review it. Okay, fine: it's a fun kids' show. The characterization is pretty bad and based on stereotypes but the multi-layered plots are very clever. There's your review.
Interstellar (2014): I'm doing a special edition of Film Roundup before the end of the month to stop innocent people from seeing Interstellar under the impression that it's a film like Gravity where the cheesy plot is redeemed by great space visuals. That's what I thought going in, but it turns out that the plot isn't just cheesy, it's really awful, and the space visuals don't in fact redeem it.
Those who have been reading Crummy since 1998 (so, basically, Kris) will be shocked at me saying this, but... this movie is worse than Armageddon. Armageddon is a dumb movie that thinks it's fun. Interstellar is a dumb movie that thinks it's smart. In Armageddon the horrible science was plastered over with an attitude of "You eggheads don't know anything about the real world of asteroid mining, let some working stiffs show you how it's done!" I found this offensive, but I admit it works cinematically. Interstellar has a worshipful attitude towards scientists who constantly make rookie mistakes and have no way of solving problems beyond squinting at blackboards real hard. It's ridiculous.
I saw this movie with Sarah and afterwards we considered the possibility that we were seeing an Idiocracy-style scenario, in which society has so denigrated science that anyone with an undergraduate-level understanding of physics is considered a genius. (There's an astronaut who's always referred to as "Dr. Mann", even his nameplate says "Dr. Mann" instead of giving his first name, because it's unheard of for an astronaut to also have a Ph.D.) And that reading would work, except for one minor detail: these bumbling fools are somehow able to develop advanced space flight and cryosleep without any support from the outside society.
I bring up the Armageddon comparison because there are just so many problems with this movie, not problems with sci-fi cliches like someone going through a black hole's event horizon without getting smushed, but huge plot-wreckers that the movie tries to address and fails.
The space visuals definitely deliver, but they're used sparingly, and to my surprise I lost a lot of interest when the action moved to space. I thought the first act's portrayal of a dying Earth was really good. I also think that's because its emotional tone is copied from Children of Men. Which brings me to Interstellar's second meta-problem: it's an anthology of movies that are better than it, most notably Children of Men, 2001, and Tarkovsky's Solaris. (Sarah also mentioned Sunshine, which I haven't seen.) I admit that 2001 and Solaris are long, slow movies, and there's something to be said for adapting those ideas and visuals to a blockbuster, but Interstellar is about the same length as either of those movies (it has a longer running time but a 21st-century credit roll) and not exactly action-packed.
The one bright spot in this movie: the robots. Their design initially appears clunky, but they prove very versatile, and it's never made clear whether they're intelligent (which would be kind of disturbing given how they're treated) or just highly anthropomorphized.
Part of my work on Library Simplified is to integrate Project Gutenberg books into our ebook catalog. This sounds easy, and it is, so long as you're willing to treat Gutenberg books as second-class citizens that live in their own poorly-documented area. I'm trying to do something more like what Amazon did with its free Kindle books (BTW I recently discovered that they're selling the newer ones)—turn the Gutenberg texts into no-frills derivative editions that are nonetheless fully integrated into the storefront.
Second, there's a new Reef map, Reef #4: The Timeline, a cross-section of Minecraft history going from late 2010 to mid-2014. I think it's the most accessible of the Reef maps—it's small and it's obvious what's going on.
As is tradition, I introduced Reef #4 with a video, in which I compelled Lapis Lauri and Ron Smalec to race to the end of the Timeline for my own amusement (and theirs).
As you can tell I'm working on all kinds of stuff, notably something you will probably never see—the pitch document for Situation Normal. I really hate writing this stuff and it's a huge pain, but why write a book if you're not going to try to sell it?
Mon Nov 03 2014 08:44October Film Roundup:
Pretty slim pickings this month. (Damn, shoulda used that line back in April after I saw 1941. Oh well, no one will even know—wait, am I typing this? Computer, end program.)
Paul (2012): Seen on the flight to San Francisco for Books in Browsers. Let this film serve as a test case for what Edgar Wright brings to the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost trio. Paul has tons of intertextuality and nerd references and stunt casting. It's got fun slapstick, good one-liners, and even that elusive element known as "heart". But "heart", while necessary, is not sufficient. There's some other element, let's call it "heart-prime", which is required to take a big nerdy self-referential heartfelt mess and make it into a tight narrative with non-cheap emotional payoffs. That element is missing here, and the most obvious variable that got changed is the director, so that's the conclusion I'm gonna draw.
It was nice to see Jesse Plemons as a vengeful hick, in a bit of prescient stunt casting.
How To Train Your Dragon (2010): I didn't see this movie, the person next to me was watching it while I was watching Paul, but I wanted to mention that I thought the newt-cat black dragon was cute.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012): I saw this on the return flight! Nothing works like a Wes Anderson movie for letting me forget I'm on a plane for two hours. It looks great, the story is meh, I won't complain. I will admit that I fast-forwarded some of the slow dialogue-free scenes to make sure I'd get through the film before my plane landed. I wonder if Wes Anderson has ever looked into doing site-specific installation pieces.
Gonna throw in the matinee of Chuck Jones cartoons I saw at the museum on November 2. I won't review every single cartoon, but I do want to single out "Deduce, You Say" (a Daffy Duck/Porky Pig Sherlock Holmes spoof) as an especially clever and funny entry. I loved the way it lets Porky, a character I always found dull, play a dry-witted straight man. In general I think Looney Tunes cartoons are more interesting when the main characters face an external threat rather than spending the whole cartoon trying to kill each other. (With "Rabbit Fire" you get both, of course.)
It may appear that I wouldn't have seen any movies in October were it not for my trip to San Francisco. What you don't know is that by taking the trip to San Francisco I missed out on a weekend of cool old horror movies at the museum. So it was probably two movies either way.
Sat Nov 01 2014 23:23Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF October/November 1991:
I bet you thought this Crummy mini-feature was dead! That's because it was! When I started making pro sales I decided it wasn't a good idea to be constantly badmouthing my colleagues and the venues I was trying to sell to. So I stopped posting reviews. But a while ago Sumana and I were asked to pick a story to reprint in Strange Horizons, and I really had no idea, because these reviews are the only records I have of which short stories I've read. (We ended up choosing Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike".) And then I took this 1991 magazine on my most recent plane trip and pretty much everything in the magazine was fun. So I thought I'd mention some of the fun and keep a record for posterity.
There will still be some badmouthing, notably of the ad at the beginning of the magazine for a dorky "sexpunk" book. It's a two-page spread that includes some quotes from the stories, two of which are dramatizations of urban legends. Then it shows you the book's I-missed-the-80s cover, and then it brings on the hard sell: "Eleven Short Stories, Two Novelettes, One Novella—256 pages on acid-free paper." I gotta say, I was on the fence until I heard the book was printed on acid-free paper! I'll paste my scrapbook photos into it!
OK, on to the positivity! Carolyn Ives Gilman's "The Honeycrafters" is a Nebula award nominee-to-be that works its one basic idea from all angles and captures the thrill of Minecraft's Forestry mod. A super, super fun read. Bradley Denton has a great Breaking Bad-esque story in "Rerun Roy, Donna, and the Freak", complete with drugs cooked in an RV. Jane Yolen's "Dear Ms. Lonelylegs" is silly and only four pages long.
There's a weird subplot in the book review columns (one by Algis Budrys, one by Orson Scott Card) about how books that come out in paperback first are considered second-class citizens of the book world. Books that come out in hardcover first and then paperback are the upper-crust of 1990s science fiction society, living the high life while "paperback originals" are left to toil in the sweat mines. It's a fascinating glimpse of a distant culture.
Harlan Ellison, O.G. hipster, waxes about the thrill of introducing someone to something great and then the anti-thrill of not being able to be a snob after everyone knows about the great thing. In this film review column he kind-of-but-not-really passes the torch to Kathi Maio. By which I mean Ellison's column will still be printed whenever he sends one in, but Maio is able to review three films in six pages, where Ellison writes twelve pages in this issue and encounters only one film, The Rocketeer (he luvs it). So we're not really looking at two film review columns, we're looking at one film review column plus Harlan Ellison's blog. A wise editorial decision on the part of F&SF.
In Isaac Asimov's science column, Isaac Asimov bemoans the downsides that come along with being as smart as Isaac Asimov. Fortunately, the mighty brain of Isaac Asimov is able to cope with such petty inconveniences. I like how Asimov's column (the topic is energy) gives respect to underappreciated scientists, not just once but repeatedly.
Back to stories. Mike Resnik's "Winter Solstice" is a sad story of Merlin that really highlights how the concept of someone living backwards in time is incoherent—one of Dan Simmons's Hyperion books covered some of the same ground and I had the same problem there. Lois Tilton's "A Just and Lasting Peace" is nice and creepy alt-history that does more character development than a lot of alt-history. (With a title like that, you know it's creepy alt-history!) Marc Laidlaw's "Gasoline Lake" had too many plot twists to keep my interest but I loved the setting and the setup.
There's a cartoon of a starfield where one star says "We're the star that inspired the verse 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'" and another star says "Yeah? Well we're the star that inspired the song: "When You Wish Upon A Star". I may be overthinking this, but... why does each star speak of itself in the plural? Is there an unspoken SFnal twist in which stars are collective intelligences? How did the stars discover these facts? Did Jane Taylor and Leigh Harline use long-range transmission to inform the stars that inspired them? Or is this the opposite of the "lunar real estate" scam, where stars pay for certificates that lay claim to certain human songs?
If you were a star, and you communicated with another star over a distance of hundreds of light-years, is this really what you would talk about? Would it be fair to say that these stars are so vain they think this song is about them?
Unaccountably, the cartoon does not answer these questions. I will say that this issue contains a "Dr. Quark, Low-Tech Physicist" cartoon that I liked.
You know, looking over this it's clear that mostly what I want to do is make note of the stories I liked and then snark on the columns, so maybe I'll rev this feature back up. Anyway, this issue was really fun. Pick up a copy 23 years ago!
(4) Thu Oct 16 2014 07:35The Bot of Mormon:
I don't usually do in-depth analyses of my bots, especially one that's probably not gonna break ten followers, but my most recent bot is very personal to me, and the making of it turned out to be much stranger than I expected. It's The Bot of Mormon, "the most correct bot", a text-generating process with a very niche audience but the niche audience includes me, so I'm happy. A few of my recent favorites:
And again I say unto you, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.
A note: In a bid for more followers, as well as not alienating all my relatives, I designed the Bot of Mormon to be a bit of harmless humor for believing LDS folk (early versions could be pretty offensive, and I chose not to go that route). However, Saints might take offense at this blog post about how and why I made the bot. So, fair warning. Here we go.
It's not much of an exaggeration to trace my interest in generative text back to my experience growing up in Mormonism. Mark Twain famously called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print", and I believe the reason it's so boring is that it was produced by a process similar to automatic writing. It's full of stalling and retreats to stock phrases. But what starts with the Book of Mormon sure doesn't end there. When I was a kid, church every week was a three-hour festival of stock phrases and repetition.
See, in the LDS church the task of coming up with things to say every week rotates around the general membership. Topics are assigned, and there are only about fifty topics total. Since every acceptable topic has been covered a million times before, the simplest way to make a new talk is to remember bits of old talks and mash them together.
When I was a kid I experienced this from both ends, and writing the talks was especially intense for me because despite my best efforts, I didn't actually believe. My talks were literally constructed by assembling meaningless symbols into patterns that matched what I saw other people doing. Naturally, ever since I caught the botmaking bug I've wanted to recreate this experience with a bot. I registered @TheBotOfMormon quite a while ago. But I couldn't figure out what to do until recently, when I hit upon the idea of taking as my corpus not the Book of Mormon itself, but the General Conference talks.
General Conference is a big twice-yearly event in Salt Lake where the top brass show y'all how it's done. These guys used to be lawyers and corporate executives, and their talks are all vetted by committee, so the result is... well, sometimes someone will say something offensive, but even that I wouldn't call "interesting". What is interesting is that Conference is where Mormonism meets the twenty-first century. By which I mean that's where you can see the pros use nineteenth-century language and rhetoric to talk about same-sex marriage (undesirable!) and the Internet (a mixed bag!) That's the kind of juxtaposition I thought would make a good bot. As it turns out, I was right... sort of. Eventually.
To give you a picture of what goes on in General Conference, here's a table I made of the top ten topics by decade, according to the keywords in the <meta> tags for each talk.
plan of salvation
You can see the shape of the fifty acceptable topics there. Anyway, I downloaded the Conference talks and set about applying my usual bag of tricks to the corpus to come up with an interesting transformation. Imagine my surprise when none of my techniques worked!
The _ebooks algorithm, up to this point an unending generator of hilarity from any corpus, failed miserably. The word-frequency filter I used to find the interesting signs for Minecraft Signs, also failed. Markov chains were useless, big surprise. I had a dim idea that the key to bot gold here was the subordinate clauses: the sentences that run on and on in a lawyerly way, embroidering themselves with their own Talmudic interpretations. I tried Queneau assembly of sentences at the clause level. This was good enough to get the bot launched, but it wasn't great. Each individual clause is very likely to be boring, its boringness has no relationship to word frequency, and combining clauses doesn't help. The corpus is fractally boring.
"Here you will find happiness, we know that the rejoicing, or anything else, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness."
Okay, I thought, time to break out the big guns. I incorporated the Book of Mormon into my corpus, the Doctrine & Covenants; even the Pearl of Great Price, the bizarro crown jewel of the LDS canon. None of it helped. (The Pearl of Great Price helped a little—it's really weird—but it's also very short.)
Behold, and began to put heavy burdens upon their backs, and prayers of faith.
But legend told of a secret weapon: the Journal of Discourses. Basically a large collection of General Conference talks from the late 19th century, during the polygamy era, containing a ton of fiery rhetoric and juicy doctrines downplayed or outright disowned by the modern church. Some might consider it dirty pool, but I was desperate to get some interesting content out of my bot. I Queneau-ified every Discourse in the Journal and added it to the corpus... to no avail. It was still dull! On the sentence fragment level, it's tough to even distinguish between the 'scandalous' stuff in the Journal and the dishwater they serve up at Conference nowadays.
And now behold, as it were, most of them in environments very different from their own.
At this point I was so frustrated that I honestly started to question my unbelief. What are the odds that a corpus of text spanning hundreds of authors over nearly 200 years could be so uniformly dull? Was some divine hand at work, keeping things from getting too interesting? With shaking hands I ran my tests against a control sample: the Gutenberg text of a non-Mormon book of sermons. And it turns out nineteenth-century religious language is what's fractally boring. It's nothing to do with Mormonism in particular. The modern stuff is dull because it copies and recombines the nineteenth-century stuff.
And that, finally, was the key to what little success I've achieved with @TheBotOfMormon. When the bot is funny, the funny thing is not the rambling juxtaposition of sentence fragments per se. It's the juxtaposition of modern concepts with nineteenth-century language. To get the bot to work I would have to actually recreate that juxtaposition, not just hope for it.
Enter the Corpus of Historical American English. (Thanks, BYU! Seriously, what a great project.) This has word frequencies for every decade from the 1810s up to 2009. I picked out all the words that were 10x more common between 1930 and 1980 as they were between 1830 and 1880. I tagged all the sentence fragments that were distinctly twentieth-century. Now I can guarantee that every assemblage has an old-timey component and a more modern component, and the chances of humor go way up.
The lesson I want to take from this is that every corpus is different. I thought I could handle the LDS corpus with the same tools I use on Gutenberg, because they're both full of archaic language, but I was totally wrong. Once I engaged with the text this became obvious, but I came into this holding the text at arms' length because it held a lot of bad childhood memories.
There's no generic bot kit that will work on anything. (Well, there is, but it uses Markov chains and I don't like it.) Even my really simple bots like I Like Big Bot and Boat Names required a lot of custom behind-the-scenes work to find the most interesting subset of the data.
Perhaps this can serve as my new rule. A new bot needs to present a different way of being a bot, not just a different corpus. And adding more text to a corpus I don't know how to handle just makes the problem worse.
(2) Mon Oct 13 2014 12:49On Scarne On Dice:
At a book sale where the deal was "$5 for all the books you can fit in a bag" I picked up a book that barely fit in the bag, Scarne on Dice, originally published in 1943 and updated in 1974. The author, John Scarne, combines a ton of genuine gambling expertise with the demeanor of a megalomaniac crackpot. The jacket copy, written by some unknown soul *cough*, describes him as "the man who made the phrase 'Acording to Hoyle' obsolete and replaced it with 'According To Scarne'". He's invented his own kind of dice, Scarney Dice®, which are normal six-sided dice except that the two face and the five face have the word "DEAD" on them.
With Scarney Dice you can play a number of games such as Scarney 3000® ("the favorite dice game of the members of the John Scarne Game Club of my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey"), Scarney Put-and-Take Dice, Scarney Duplicate Jackpots, Scarney 21 Up and Down, Scarney Bingo Dice, and Scarney Black Jack. Many of these games feature dice combinations called "Big Scarney" and "Little Scarney", or require a player to call "Scarney" when exploiting a winning position.
There are also three chapters of the book devoted to card games Scarne has invented, games like Scarney® ("the first really new card game concept of this century"), Scarney Gin, and Scarney Baccarat. These games—stay with me here—are card games, they include no dice, and they have no place in a book called Scarne on Dice, especially since John Scarne also wrote a whole other book called Scarne on Cards. But since we're going down this route, how about the family portrait in the front of the book where John Scarne poses with his wife, his son, his books, and the board games he invented, most notably a checkers-like thing called Teeko. Did I mention that he named his son after his board game? Oh, and after himself, of course. John Teeko Scarne.
But unlike every other person like this I've ever encountered, John Scarne actually knows his stuff. He convincingly debunks parapsychology dice-rolling experiments by contrasting the way the experiment was run with the way casinos handle dice. He explains ludicrous systems for beating the casinos and then explains why they're mathematically impossible. His chapters on how to spot loaded dice, rigged games, steer joints, and general cheating are clearly a light rewrite of the lectures he went around giving on Army bases to stop GIs losing their paychecks to craps hustlers. He has a convincing description of what it would take to run an underground gambling operation, down to a detailed payroll.
What is going on here? My initial guess was that gambling is a field where being a Jeffrey Lebowski-esque blowhard is tolerated and even encouraged. That's still my primary guess, actually. But after reading the most interesting 200 pages of this massive tome and skimming the rest I I wonder if something else is going on. This book is mostly about craps, a folk game with a relatively clear origin in Hazard but no real chain of custody between its origin and the modern day. Maybe Scarne just wants to make damn sure that his contributions to ludology are properly credited. Unfortunately, his habit of naming everything after himself just made it that much easier to ignore his innovations and play the same games people have been playing for hundreds of years.
But there was one game that John Scarne invented whose genius I appreciate, even though I'll never play it. It's a drinking game called Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice and it survives in a modified version called Twenty-One Aces. Scarne describes a couple variants but here's the simplest one: in Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice the players take turns rolling two dice until someone rolls nothing but twos and fives (these are the "DEAD" faces of official Scarney dice). The first person to accomplish this orders a drink. Scarne recommends "a double rye with celery tonic, vodka with chili sauce", or something equally weird. The second person to roll twos and fives drinks the drink, and the third person to roll twos and fives pays for the drink.
That's just great. It creates two types of tension at once—who's going to drink the drink and who's going to pay for it, and it uses creativity from an unrelated field as a game mechanic. Good job.
Mon Oct 06 2014 10:09September Film Roundup:
A whopping two films this month, at best. October's also not looking great. For movies, I mean. Everything else looks pretty good.
Rebecca (1940): I don't even remember when I saw this, it probably wasn't September, but I'm 'reviewing' it here so that there's more than one film in this month's roundup. I was reminded of it when Sumana showed me the Mitchell and Webb parody. The parody will also serve as my review. It's a dull, super-melodramatic movie, and the best part is the scene where the maid is really creepily going through Rebecca's old clothes, a scene that's also in the parody, so why watch the movie?
After this and Vertigo and Rear Window I'm downgrading Hitchcock from "brilliant with occasional lapses" to "above average with extremely high variance". But let's remember the good times. The Strangers on a Train, the Shadow of a Doubt, the Psycho, the North by Northwest, even the The Birds.
The Jerk (1979): I recommend this thoroughly funny movie. Now for the real point of this review. I saw this with Sumana on cable many years ago and I'd always wanted to rewatch it because there were a couple scenes which cut off really abruptly. The only explanation we could come up with was that the movie had been edited for cable. But what had been cut? The question gnawed at me for years without inconveniencing me in any way.
Here's the answer, near as I can tell: they cut every mention of the tattoo on Patty's ass. This movie has sex, racial slurs, every curse word in a slightly abridged edition of "the book", and comic mischief, but whoever edited it for cable thought we couldn't handle discussion of an ass tattoo. Not the tattoo itself, which we never see, but people talking about it. It squiggles the mind.
(1) Sat Sep 27 2014 11:13The Minecraft Geologic Survey:
I've been waiting for all the pieces to go into place before writing about this on NYCB, and now the pieces are in place. The lightning strikes my castle laboratory and the Minecraft Geologic Survey rises! (See Fig. 1.)
Back in May I announced that I'd downloaded 65,000 Minecraft maps from the official Minecraft forum, and used the data to make my @MinecraftSigns bot. Later I took over Allison Parrish's defunct @minecraftebooks and revitalized it with _ebooks-style quotes from the books found in Minecraft worlds. (Plus, as of a few days ago, command block outputs that incorporate the names of followers, Exosaurs-style.)
But all the while, in the background, I was downloading. Worlds, screenshots, mods, player skins, texture packs... everything with a URL. I ended up with about two terabytes of data, an amount that here in 2014 is not difficult for me to store but is very difficult to transfer or process.
To get the signs and the books for my bots, I had to load every Minecraft world into Python and go through every chunk looking for entities. I ended up with about 180,000 worlds, and iterating over them all was a very time-consuming process. Fortunately, I had two more projects that would amortize all that computer time.
Both projects required that I take "core samples" of each world, extracting individual chunks that were likely to be interesting and forming a new world (like the one pictured above) containing only those chunks. The resulting dataset is representative of the full more-than-a-terabyte package of original worlds, but because it's just a very tiny sample, the whole thing weighs in at a comparatively slim 12 gigabytes.
That's small enough to go on the Internet Archive, and small enough for you to download it and use it in your own project. I wrote a detailed guide to the data, which includes not only 170,000 synthetic Minecraft worlds but a big JSON file (also available on its own) containing all the metadata and sign text and other things you'd need to do a text-based project.
The other project is The Reef, a series of Minecraft maps that combine the chunks obtained from the survey into mashup maps that incorporate designs from many different authors. For instance, you've got The Reef #1, which sticks spawn chunks from 10,000 different maps together to form a (mostly) naturally-sprawling terrain. Or maybe you'd prefer the Skyburbs, a thousand Skyblock maps jammed next to each other.
I've got plenty more ideas for Reef maps, but now that the data is available I think this is a good point to put the project on pause for a while. I will be publishing the code I use to make my Twitter bots and the Reef maps, to encourage you to play with the data and do your own thing.
I'm concerned about the Minecraft servers that have been shutting down since Mojang changed their EULA to include strict rules on monetization. People have been giving a lot of attention to the Microsoft buyout, but the EULA change is what's affecting servers right now. I would really like to offer an archive service for Minecraft servers that are being shut down (plus just original worlds that people have lying around on their hard drives), but I don't see a good way to get the word out. It's not like the typical Archive Team project where you can go into a server that's shutting down and download everything. The server owner has to take the initiative. Also bandwidth and storage become a problem for me at this point. So this is more of an open question than something I know how to solve. It may not get solved.
Mon Sep 01 2014 09:49August Film Roundup:
Another month full of major progress on major projects, but I managed to squeeze in four features:
The Women (1939): This was pretty fun! It brings together every single 1930s stock character of women in film and lets them duke it out. Just when you think the film is too classy to feature a Margaret Dumont-esque gold-digger, too middle-aged to feature a showgirl ingenue, and too urban to feature a profane cowgirl, BAM! Gold-digger, ingenue, cowgirl! I did not appreciate how the film started by comparing every major character to a different domesticated animal, but that was over quickly enough. Recommended overall. Oh yeah, the ending is super creepy and so over-the-top that I can only hope we're supposed to read it as the filmic equivalent of sarcasm. "Come back to me, male gaze!" Geez. Gimme a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ending any day. Still recommended.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): The nerd favorite. I had a really good time. The fact that it's based on an established comic book world meant that they crammed in a bunch of cool stuff without really explaining it, which is exactly the right speed for me. It still strains under the weight of its canon--there were a lot of proper nouns I didn't care about, and I thought the main plotline with its supervillains and its revenges was dull. But in the interstitials there is so much great stuff. Cute semi-humanoid aliens! Improvisational violence! Using a mech to control another mech!
As usual, I would have done things differently. This time I did do things differently, and you will eventually be able to read the result as Situation Normal. But just as an example, consider "Four Kinds of Cargo", the acorn that became SN. If the POV character of that story were the Captain, it would be a by-the-numbers space opera, like Guardians of the Galaxy, because that's how the Captain experiences life. So instead the POV character is Kol, the guy who is just trying to survive, who is trying to make the Captain's space-opera fantasy work, simultaneously intrigued and frustrated by her ability to change everyone's minds with an inspirational speech.
In GotG terms, the correct POV character is Rocket. You can have the doofy white guy who brings everyone together, but he shouldn't be the POV character. The American people understand this. I've seen people talking about this movie as if Rocket is the lead, because that's the right way to do it. But that's not the way it happened.
The one place my ignorance of the comic book let me down was when the unaccountable police force/military/governing body led by Glenn Close with her big swoopy hairdo and Peter Serafinowicz with his creepy British accent turned out... not to be evil? Not guilty of anything worse than imposing the bourgeois values of its Federation-type civilization on a band of criminals? That was unexpected, and I'm not sure whether my cognitive dissonance was the intention or if they're just saving the evil for the sequel.
PS: there's a lot of tasing in this movie. I guess that's how horrifying violence becomes comedy violence.
The Phantom Tollbooth (1969): I was pretty sure I'd seen this before. I remember telling my great-aunt Lejeune about the book when I was six or seven, and the next time we went to her place she'd found a VHS copy for me to watch. But now I've actually seen The Phantom Tollbooth and I don't remember one frame of this movie. So I think I've conflated it with the time Lejeune showed me Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings.
I'm not going to accuse this movie of 'ruining my childhood', because it's just a dumb movie, but... it's a dumb movie. I am a fan of Chuck Jones's fluid gag-packed animation, but it's a bad fit with the cerebral subject matter of The Phantom Tollbooth, except in a couple cases like the integration of typography into everything in Dictionopolis, and the ever-shifting bodies of the Demons of Ignorance. The demands of the animated-feature-film medium require changes to the plot that frequently undercut the message of the book. An example will suffice: as Milo sinks into the Doldrums, the Lethargians stop being lethargic and become very enthusiastic indeed about sneaking up on Milo and violently killing him. Why? Because a book may vividly describe procrastination and laziness as perils in themselves, but when you're watching a cartoon all the evil things have to have pointy teeth and nasty Grinch faces.
Other examples: Milo permanently screwing up the sky when he takes over for Chroma (don't experiment, kids, you might destroy the world!), Tock dying and being resurrected for no reason other than that's what happens in the third act. It's obnoxious. One addition I really liked is that the Mathemagician's castle includes a wall of digital computers—something that probably wasn't on Norton Juster's mind when the book came out in 1961.
In the "don't really care" file, movie Milo lives in San Francisco instead of what is almost certainly New York in the book. The only reason I could think of for doing this was ease of obtaining filming permits, but this was after John Lindsay made it really easy to obtain filming permits in New York, so who knows. I guess San Francisco was a more magical, kid-friendly place in 1969 than New York.
Oh yeah, there's songs in this movie, they're all very 1969, and I'm not a big fan of 1969 music.
Popeye (1980): This was one of the movies for which I forever saw promos on Comedy Central in the '90s. Like all the rest of those movies (Meatballs, M.A.S.H.) it looked like a classic 'unfunny 1970s comedy' so I gave it a wide berth. Heh heh, 'berth', get it? Little nautical humor there. You don't think that was funny? Now you see how I feel about these movies!
I decided to watch Popeye after hearing the Laser Time tribute to Robin Williams, where it was mentioned that Popeye was directed by Robert Altman. I thought "I've never seen an Altman film before, I'll give it a shot." I brought it up to Sumana, who was even more skeptical than with Celine and Julie go Boating:
S: Altman does ensemble films. Aren't there like four characters in Popeye? Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and I'm leaving space for one I don't know about. L: Swe'pea. S: Who is Swe'pea? L: A baby. S: Can a baby really be a 'character'? L: How about J. Wellington Wimpy? S: What? L: Poopdeck Pappy? S: Are you just making up names?
I pressed on without Sumana. Imagine my surprise when a screenwriting credit for Jules Feiffer showed up! I knew I was in for a treat. A treat that was not forthcoming.
OK, yeah, honestly, I knew this wasn't going to be a good movie, no matter how many big names were attached. I watched it out of morbid curiosity. I would compare this movie to 1941: an unsuccessful experiment made while Hollywood was figuring out the parameters of the summer blockbuster. It looks great! There are some hilarious sight gags. But the action scenes were overwrought--maybe they should have brought in Steven Spielberg to direct the action scenes in Popeye and had Altman direct the comedy in 1941. There are a lot of characters in Popeye—more than I could have ever made up names for—but they're all pretty shallow and there's not a lot of good character comedy. I'm also disappointed that they never dramatized the time Popeye spent living in a garbage can.
The songs are a big problem. I mentioned to Rob I was going to see Popeye and he went on and on about how great songwriter Harry Nilsson was, so I'm not gonna say they're bad, but they're... really avant-garde for a musical adaptation of a Popeye cartoon? They play fast and loose with meter and rhyme and are generally not catchy. The problem is deepened by the inclusion of the insanely catchy theme from the cartoons, which tosses all the other songs under the bus. I do like that Shelly Duvall sang her songs slightly off-key.
(4) Sat Aug 02 2014 12:37Month of Crowdfunding 2014!:
After taking a break last year because I didn't have a steady paycheck, Month of Crowdfunding (né Month of Kickstarter) has returned! (2011) (2012) Here's how it works: every day in August I will pledge to some crowdfunding project or another. Yes, that's pretty much it.
Unlike previous years, I will not be doing writeups of each project I back, because I am in the middle of novel revisions. I will just edit this post every day with a brief update. I will also not be trawling the crowdfunding sites every day looking for quirky, offbeat projects. That worked in 2011 when Kickstarter was very small, and it worked in 2012 because I created special software tools for making it work. This year, I will rely heavily on a revolutionary new concept I call crowdnepotism.
Here's how it works. If your friend has a crowdfunding project or Patreon that you want me to support, or you've backed a project and you'd like me to back it as well, please let me know through a comment on this post, a message to @leonardr on Twitter, or an email to email@example.com. Please do not tell me about your own project. Tell me about anyone's project but your own. The true meaning of Month of Crowdfunding is found in focusing on other people. That's the only limitation. If you say it's okay, I'll mention you as the person who suggested the project to me in the list below.
Speaking of which, the list below. The projects backed so far:
As with the previous two Months, my daily budget is $25 or whatever it takes to get a cool reward. That corresponds to a $2 monthly Patreon pledge. And don't forget, crowdnepotism is a registered trademark of... what, now there's paperwork for registering trademarks? Screw that.
Final update: As you can tell this was a bit of a disaster, consistency-wise. I would frequently leave MoC for days at a time and have to go back and backfill, and near the end I gave up. So I think I'm done with the MoC "tradition". Not because there's not cool stuff on crowdfunding sites (there's a ton of it) but because I'm busy with other stuff now, and "back a project every day for a month" is no longer the interesting experiment it was in 2011. Even going through the science crowdfunding sites and funding science experiments became a bit of a chore given all the other stuff I have going.
I've also discovered that backing a bunch of projects gets me stuff, and I've already got more stuff in my life than I'd like. So I'm going to keep on with my rest-of-the-year strategy of using crowdfunding sites like a normal person.
(3) Fri Aug 01 2014 17:49July Film Roundup:
I saw most of these movies on airplanes, and I have no regrets. Not about that, anyway.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): A fun and surprisingly violent Wes Anderson quirk-fest, seen on the plane to England. I initially thought the fake Nazis were a weird touch. Like, Wes Anderson's love of typography must accommodate even the most evil Fraktur, but he doesn't actually want to do Nazi graphic design, so he holds off a little bit. Is this unfair? Then I got to thinking: this is supposed to be a 2014 version of a comedy from the 1930s. And The Great Dictator had fake Nazis. There were those Three Stooges shorts with the "Nazties" or whatever, and "Der Fuhrer's Face" featured the "Nutzis". So I guess it makes sense retrohistorically? Not necessarily the choice I would have made.
American Hustle (2013): Seen on the way back from England. I've never been so glad that a film was really long. I'm going to give this film the faintest possible praise: I'm glad I spent 138 minutes of a transatlantic flight watching it. However, it's not as good as a real 70s con-man movie, so I think they should have re-released The Sting instead of making this. That movie was made in the 70s and set in the 30s, so the relative timeline matches.
I dunno, while I was watching I just kept thinking about the logistics of putting together a period piece. "Ah, this dry cleaner scene lets the wardrobe department show off an entire collection of 70s clothes in an unobtrusive way." Not a sign of deep engagement.
The Lego Movie (2014): I only saw about ten minutes of this, because American Hustle tired me out, but it was enough to make me realize that my drawer story about Lego people (in which a family starts reconfiguring their house into a spaceship, to the increasingly violent dismay of their homeowner association) is probably gonna stay in that drawer forever.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974): Oh yeah. Here's my earlier, briefer review. I imported the DVD some time ago to watch it with Sumana, and it finally happened this month. Forty-five minutes in, Sumana was very reluctant to continue, but she stuck it out and ended up appreciating what remains IMO a hell of a film. Not a top ten film, because of that incredibly slow first hour, but really great.
Sumana asked me specifically what I love about this film, and it's this: Celine and Julie discover a world of endless repetition and emotional repression, where women are relegated to subordinate parts in petty melodramas. So they break into that world and destroy it with the power of goofing off. It combines the fun of the Marx Brothers with the simple, satisfying closure of an action movie. Very eristic.
The King of Comedy (1982): The first good Jerry Lewis movie I've seen. Has the Dog Day Afternoon thing going on where there's a lot of peril but almost no violence. Has one of my all-time favorite bits of IMDB trivia: 'Martin Scorsese has stated that he "probably should not have made" the film.' But he did make it, and it's awkward and squirmy from beginning to end, one of those films that I'm really glad I saw but I'm going to try never to see ever again.
Amazingly, I believe this film was the originator of the "Basement Dweller" trope. This is now a supercliche (it showed up again, along with Robert de Niro, in American Hustle), and I can't think of an earlier example than this, complete with nagging offscreen mother. Shatner's "Get a Life" SNL sketch is from 1986 (and written by Bob Odenkirk, apparently). I dared to find the "Basement Dweller" TV Tropes article, even though as I'm writing this I have to leave to go to work, but King of Comedy is not mentioned in the "Film" section, and everything mentioned in that section is post-1982. So... chalk one up for method acting, I guess.
(2) Thu Jul 17 2014 09:23The Average Minecraft Skin:
Currently my two spare-time hobbies are 1) Situation Normal revisions and 2) gathering Minecraft data. Yes, I'm still at it! There's a lot more data than I anticipated! I'm up to about 175,000 maps, and I've branched out into archiving mods and texture packs. There's even more I could do, but pretty soon I'm going to have to put away the data-gathering part of this project for six months or a year so I can get other stuff done.
My reach keeps expanding because whenever I decide that a certain dataset isn't interesting and I won't bother with it, I immediately come up with something really cool to do with the dataset. For instance, Minecraft skins, the little images that are bitmapped onto your character in the game to make you look like a penguin or Jean-Luc Picard. I never really cared much about skins, but in the process of deciding not to bother with them, I discovered that Planet Minecraft, one of the biggest repositories of skins, lets someone who uploads a skin specify a gender ("male", "female", "interchangeable", and "other"), as well as a category classification ("animal", "cartoon", "famous person", etc.). Now I was interested! Skins are data about how people present themselves in the virtual world, data that I could gather and graph.
Here's a simple graph showing the skins available on Planet Minecraft, broken down by category and gender:
In every category male skins are drastically overrepresented, but the discrepancy is smallest in "Other". Why? My guess is that "Other" is where you'd put a skin that you made to represent yourself.
Since there are only two different sizes for skin images, you can average a number of skins together to get a new skin. Here's a skin that is the average of 100 of the most popular "female" skins on Planet Minecraft:
And here's the average of 100 of the most popular "male" skins:
That's a pretty preliminary result, but I think it's interesting. The major sexual dimorphism among Minecraft skins—the shape of the eyes—comes through loud and clear. If you want to use one of these as your actual Minecraft skin, I recommend going in with an image editor and erasing the upper-right part of the image. Otherwise your character's head will be shrouded in a ghostly hat, and it won't look good.
Sun Jun 29 2014 11:03June Film Roundup:
It doesn't get better than this. I liked every single movie I saw this month. Two, maybe three of them are in my top ten. I guess that's what happens when you only see time-honored classics and movies you've already seen and loved. I'm posting this a little early because I'm going on vacation next week. Have fun!
Ghostbusters (1984): When Sumana said she wanted to see Ghostbusters my first thought was "She's going to love the fake Atlantic cover." And she did like that, and she liked the rest of the movie, because Ghostbusters is fabulous. 'Nuff said.
Godzilla (1954): A top-ten movie for me. I'd seen the American version once and the Japanese version once, but never on the big screen. This movie speaks to me because it takes something silly and cheesy and gives it a real emotional core. That's what I always try to do with my work, and when you see a work of fiction that deconstructs the Godzilla mythos, that's what they're trying to do to Godzilla. (I admit I have dabbled in this myself.) But there's no need to deconstruct anything--just strip away the goofy stuff that has accumulated over the past sixty years, and you have the raw power and horror of the original. You leave the theater totally mystified and overwhelmed by Godzilla's invincibility.
The one false step: the first appearance of Godzilla, when it puts its head over the hill, doesn't look good. A hill can be any size, so there's no sense of scale.
The Terminator (1984): Hard for me to believe this came out the same year as Ghostbusters, because I never heard of this movie until 1991 when Terminator II came out. Wasn't it Sylvester Stallone who starred in Terminator? Weird.
Anyway, this movie's... all right. (Sorry, Sukiko.) Definitely my least favorite of the June films, despite being the only one that passes the Bechdel test. I liked the basic concept, and seeing Sarah Connor's transition from harried waitress to seasoned freedom fighter. I liked seeing the sleazy side of the L.A. of my youth. Not a fan of the heavy-handed satire; Robocop (see below) would do it much better. I haven't seen Terminator II but I feel like it's got the material to be a much better movie, and IMDB agrees (8.5 vs. 8.1).
There's a lot of skulls in the future scenes. Like, disproportionately many skulls. I guess the robots invented a weapon that turns a human into a pile of skulls?
Solaris (1972): I was apprehensive about the length of this movie, especially in the context of a brief clip I'd seen a few years back, which was the dialogue-free scene with the car driving on a Japanese highway for several minutes. But I can't say no to a Lem adaptation, and after two years of stretching myself with art films I was up to the challenge. And it was fun! Having read the book definitely helped. This is the earliest filmic use I've seen of my beloved "dingy spaceship" aesthetic. Probably not going to see it again because of the length, but an excellent movie. Next up: Stalker, I guess.
Robocop (1987): What a weird, weird movie. Like Godzilla, it wants to have its B-movie cake and eat it too. And it does! Twenty-five years, later, it's still got that cake in the feezer. But unlike Godzilla, it doesn't do anything to elevate the material. I think enough has been written about the way Robocop managed to simultaneously satirize and embody the blood-lust of the Hollywood blockbuster, so I won't add more, but how about this example: Robocop shows you a fun stop-motion animated effect and then it's embarrassed about it. Stop-motion isn't cool in 1987. So then it shows you a fake commercial with some really cheesy Ray Harryhausen type stop-motion, just so you know Robocop is in on the joke.
I dunno, man. It's like there's two movies here in one package: a totally off-the-wall movie full of wild ideas and a dull Terminator-like cop movie. The satire is a couple levels above Grand Theft Auto, but that's a really low bar to clear. And it's so violent. If they were getting some emotional mileage out of the violence, like Godzilla does, I could see it. But that never happens!
I'm also pissed off at how the movie's critique of capitalism suddenly starts pulling punches in the final scene. But Robocop contains what for me will always be one of the great moments of cinema: the comedic slow-burn of ED-209 encountering stairs for the first time. It's so good. I'm so happy I saw that.
PS: I'm no master criminal, but if I were being hunted by Robocop I'd aim for the mouth.
Silent Running (1972): Unlike most of my reviews this is spoiler-free because I want to watch Silent Running with Sumana. This was my third or fourth time seeing this movie, and the first time on the big screen. I picked up a few details I'd never seen before, and it was fun to see it with Tully Hansen, a known #botALLY, but also in the theater were Hal and Babs, who hated it ("It's so earnest." -Hal), so I feel like I have to defend it.
Silent Running is my second-favorite movie. It's my second favorite in a different sense than The Big Lebowski is my favorite. Lebowski has a good concept that's executed perfectly. It's the movie I wish I could make. But I'm not a filmmaker. Silent Running has a perfect concept that's executed near-perfectly, except the plot makes absolutely no sense. It's the movie I could fix.
All right, so it's earnest. It's okay for a movie to be earnest! Earnestness is the difference between Godzilla and Robocop, and I stand with Godzilla. If I were writing the screenplay I'd give it more nuance, but the core is perfect. The movie starts with an act of redemptive violence—the way movies like Robocop end—and then it turns out that the violence wasn't redemptive at all.
Visually, this film is so beautiful it hurts. The cramped but relatively tidy interiors are the missing link between the roomy jet-set aesthetic of 2001 and the "dingy spaceship" aesthetic of Star Wars and Alien. (Solaris, of course, was ahead of its time). Yeah, great movie all around, but the plot doesn't make sense. You might also try Moon (2009), a more modern take on the idea whose plot also doesn't make sense.
Mon Jun 02 2014 09:37May Film Roundup:
Ready for "Wacky Wednesdays" here at News You Can Bruise? Here's the deal. We got five movies in the May roundup, but only three of them I actually saw in May! One is from April and one I saw yesterday. Also, it's not Wednesday.
THX-1138 (1971 2004!!!) I saw this in April and forgot to write about it, and then I remembered it and I was angry! Because guess what? George Lucas went in to this movie in 2004 and George Lucased it, and that's the version the museum showed us, under the pretense that we'd be seeing a 35mm print of the 1971 original. Fortunately, I don't think there were any substantial changes, because—and this is the official Crummy.com Opinion Of George Lucas—Lucas wouldn't know a substantial change if he made one by accident. He goes in and re-edits his first movie, not because the studio meddled with it, but because he now has the technology to make the car chase look cooler? Gimme a break. I'm sure it was fine.
The thing is, this movie's really edgy and disturbing for a 1971 sci-fi flick! I really liked it while I was watching it, and I would still like it if I weren't so angry about the editing. The plot is awful but, to damn with faint but sincere praise, I consider George Lucas to be one of the world's great art directors. There's a lot of eyeball kicks (I loved the opening scene), deliciously overwrought dialogue, and bizarre details and conundra.
For instance, why are all the holograms played by black actors, and why are they the only black characters in the movie? Is it mere artifice, an allegory that we see but the characters don't? Or is it a horrible reality within the world of the movie? With another director you could debate this point, but with Lucas, why bother? We've seen what he considers an artistic decision, and it's nowhere near this level. We've also seen that he frequently puts super racist stuff in his movies, so maybe it's best to back away slowly.
The Famous Sword Bijomaru (1945): The museum is on a serious Mizoguchi kick (I believe they call it a "retrospective"). I never heard of the guy, but I figured I'd see a sampling. This is a bit of rally-round-the-emperor wartime propaganda that's full of low production values and sword-slashes that clearly don't connect and battles that are choreographed like kids roughhousing in the backyard, and overall it's not very good. But given that the Americans were firebombing the country while it was being made, I'm not in any position to complain.
In an interview Mizoguchi said making this film saved him from being drafted, so yay this film.
Altered States (1980): This movie brings a lot of intellectual firepower (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky!) to a subject that can't support it. It's like if Aaron Sorkin wrote a Godzilla movie. And not one of the tentpole Godzilla movies, but, like, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla. The dialogue is snappy, the scientists talk more like real scientists than movie scientists, and there are quiet moments of yelling between the action scenes where it turns into something really special; the sort of good movie you made up in your mind when I said "Aaron Sorkin wrote a Godzilla movie," just to prove me wrong. But overall it's a mess, too ridiculous to even be pretentious.
Also not a good picture from an animal cruelty perspective. It's my non-expert opinion they actually killed the cute lizard (or a cute lizard, anway) used in the first hallucination sequence. Maybe you think I'm a fool and it's all Hollywood magic, but Cannibal Holocaust also came out in 1980, and William Hurt hits an elephant at one point, so who's gonna stop them killing a lizard?
Lady Oyu (1951) Original title "Oyû-sama". More Mizoguchi. Three people spend their whole lives being miserable because the alternative is... doing something impolite. Just bite the bullet and do the impolite thing! A sad, sad movie.
My Love Has Been Burning (1949) Original title "Waga koi wa moenu". Here's a confession, folks: I didn't originally intend to see Altered States or Lady Oyu. I saw them because twice in a row I showed up at the museum at 6:55 hoping to see My Love Has Been Burning, and twice in a row I'd misread the schedule and the 7:00 movie was something else. It doesn't help that the museum's website illustrates almost every Mizoguchi film with a screenshot of a woman looking unhappy. You think I'm joking? 123456789
and the one happy woman.
Anyway, I kept coming back for this movie because it sounded awesome, and let me tell you, it delivers! Kinuyo Tanaka gives an incredible performance for a character whose emotional options never open up past a) put up with shit, or b) quietly refuse to put up with shit. Much worse things happen in this movie than in Lady Oyu, but because the stakes are so high it feels like a political thriller, not angsty or exploitative (even when at one point it literally becomes a women-in-prison movie). It's preachy and didactic, but when virtue and right are repeatedly trampled, preachiness serves as a rallying cry.
I didn't think much of the first two Mizoguchi films I saw, but My Love Has Been Burning takes him all the way into James Tiptree "are we sure this is by a man?" territory. Like The Famous Sword Bijomaru, this film is propaganda: it was produced during, and to some extent for, the American occupation of Japan. But as Lori Spring wrote in 1983 (courtesy of the museum's handout flyer): "there has not been, to my knowledge, any film produced in the American popular cinema from the 40's to date with nearly as direct and radical a feminist intent as that of this film produced under American supervision."
Wed May 28 2014 11:04@MinecraftSigns, And Minecraft Maps:
I finished a draft of Situation Normal and sent it in to writing group, so I've now got time to reveal the other non-NYPL project that's been taking up all of my time. Ta-da! It's a bot! @MinecraftSigns posts signs that I found in Minecraft maps using the pymclevel library I learned for the Historical Minecraft project.
For a long time, signs were the only form of textual self-expression possible in Minecraft. You get four lines of 15 characters each. In normal play they're generally used as labels or signposts. Custom mapmakers also use them for instructions to the player, dialogue, narration, and hidden messages. They are a medium of communication with more severe character restrictions than Twitter, which makes them a great subject for a Twitter bot. Signs posted so far range from the profound:
To something I think I saw on one of those trendy t-shirts recently:
To the crowd favorite so far:
You will lose.
Oh goodie, you say; another bot from Leonard! What will he come up with next? Yet another bot? The answer is yes. But, before you dismiss @MinecraftSigns as just another window into a beautiful realm of found poetry, ask yourself this: how did I get this data in the first place? Where did all these Minecraft signs come from? Oh, I don't know, maybe from the sixty-five thousand Minecraft maps I've got on my hard drive?
That's right. After the Historical Minecraft project I thought back to late 2011 when I was enjoying the world of custom Minecraft maps. I then thought forward to early 2012, when I was kind of done with custom Minecraft maps, but when I moved all the ZIP files I'd downloaded onto a backup drive rather than deleting them, because these things don't stay on the Internet forever and it would be nice to have a copy, say, twenty years from now. And then, in early 2014, two years into that twenty, I was thinking about that little act of preservation and it hit me: who's archiving the rest of those maps?
The answer was: apparently nobody. And then the answer quickly became: I am. From the middle of April to the middle of May I archived 65,000 maps linked to from the Minecraft maps forum. That's out of about 100,000 maps total. I verified that 25,000 maps are gone, and there are about 10,000 maps I didn't get because they're scattered across a million different file-sharing sites.
So, at least a quarter of the maps put up since 2010 are already gone. I was able to get screenshots for a lot of the missing maps, so it's not a total loss, but that's still really bad, and not only because it's generally bad when interesting things leave the Internet.
Minecraft is the medium used by a lot of accomplished designers and artists. The most obvious examples IMO are Vechs (Super Hostile) and three_two (Vinyl Fantasy). Those two are pretty legendary and their maps are in no danger of being lost, but there's a lot of really great stuff published in 2011-2012 that was lost in the flood. 2011-2012 was the silent-film era of Minecraft custom maps, when the genres were being defined and the first wild experiments were happening, but when the medium was not taken seriously enough to warrant systematic preservation. In the future we'll have tools for finding the overlooked gems, but first those maps have to make it to the future.
Speaking of the future, Minecraft is the training ground for the next generation of game designers, the way ZZT was the training ground for my generation. There's a ZZT archive; it's got about 2,000 ZZT games. How many are lost? Sure would have been nice to save more of them, but all we had back then was BBSes. We didn't have a big official "ZZT forum" with a special place for posting links to your games.
Finally, even a map that's made by a young child who grows up to be an actuary rather than a game designer is valuable. For one, it's valuable to the actuary. I didn't grow up to be a visual artist, but I value this awful, mysterious poster I drew when I was six. That poster would be long gone if someone (my mother) hadn't archived it for me. Second, these maps might be useful in the aggregate as a source of information about period slang or the way children visualize three-dimensional space. Third...
Well, I think one reason Minecraft is so popular with kids is it recreates an experience that American kids generally aren't allowed to have anymore: going outside and playing in a semi-natural environment, on your own or with friends, without parental supervision. There's this infamously bad Minecraft map from 2011 called Quest for Gallell, which turned out to be made by a six-year-old. Presumably this goofy swashbuckling playthrough was made before the players knew they were making fun of a six-year-old's map, but if you watch the video you'll notice that the players understand how to approach the map: like kids playing together in the woods. They're acting out kids acting out adults.
Quest for Gallell is the three-dimensional record of an imaginative play session, which you can play through yourself if you want. It sucks that kids can't play outside anymore, but at least we have some records of what they do instead. Those records are worth saving.
Fri May 09 2014 18:16Crosspost:
Apparently I have a new weblog! It's my NYPL staff weblog and I've put up a post about a project I worked on with Paul Beaudoin on like my second day at NYPL Labs. We turned a historical contour map into a Minecraft world. This is cool on its own, but it also means I now know how to programmatically generate Minecraft maps with Python scripts. The possibilities are endless, and you'll be seeing more of them later. Like, when I'm done with this novel.
(1) Mon May 05 2014 22:57April Film Roundup:
Running late this month because of work on Situation Normal. But I'm sick of writing that tonight, so let's crank out some great reviews of (mostly) great movies.
The Bucharest Experiment (2013): Has kind of a silly creepypasta feel I think Kris might enjoy. There's a funny meta twist at the end, and then this twist is immediately followed by another twist that takes it into real-life horrifying territory and makes this a difficult movie to write about. I don't have the critical skill to critique this movie. I don't know if it "works". I don't know if its final message is diluted or enhanced by basically goofing off for sixty minutes beforehand.
The preceding short, Before the Fall (2011) was creepy in a less complicated way, and I can unabashedly recommend it to the likes of Kris.
Alien (1979): What a wonderful movie. It was engaging even though I knew everything that was going to happen. I read the Alan Dean Foster novelization when I was a kid, and you can't get very far in today's society without learning what happens in Alien.
Things I wasn't prepared for that blew me away: the slow burn at the beginning, the stunning dinginess of the spacecraft. ("Dingy spaceship" is my overall favorite aesthetic.) Unfortunately the second half is not as good as the first. The android and the ship's computer are goofy and unnecessary to the plot. Wouldn't this be a better movie if Ash was an amoral human, and Ripley found out about the secret order by snooping through the crappy 1979 computer? It sure would.
I was also surprised by how humanoid the xenomorph is in this movie. I mean, yeah, it's a man in a rubber suit, but I'm so used to seeing xenomorphs depicted on all fours, like big cats, that seeing the man in the suit sort of took me out of it. It's not like Godzilla where the scale of the shot tricks you into not seeing the man in the suit.
This movie is also responsible for one of the odder bits of IMDB trivia I've encountered:
According to Ridley Scott in the DVD commentary, he had envisioned a moment in the ending scenes of Ripley and the alien in the space shuttle in which the alien would be sexually aroused by Ripley. Scott says that in the scene, after Ripley hides in the closet, the alien would find her and would be staring at her through the glass door. The alien would then start touching itself as if comparing its body to Ripley's. The idea was eventually scrapped.
I like to think the idea was "scrapped" as soon as Ridley Scott woke up and said "Wow, haha, what a weird moment I just envisioned in that dream, I guess there is a lot of sexual subtext in this film I'm making."
Border Incident (1949): Disappointing. I was hoping Ricardo Montalban's Mexican cop would preemptively avenge Charlton Heston's Mexican cop in Touch of Evil, and he's fine, but there's only so much you can do in an earnest-liberal 1940s film. Especially egregious: the framing device narration which effectively says "We feel it is important to inform the public of this terrible problem which has been completely resolved and there's nothing to worry about."
I feel like you could remake this movie without changing much.
Alphaville (1965): I've been wanting to see this movie for years, and yet dreading it. For I knew Alphaville was the movie that would make or break my hypothesis that the unrealized destiny of the French New Wave was to make awesome genre films. And... yep, I was right. Great movie. Everything that's boring and pretentious about French art films is everything that's funny and fresh with this movie.
I posited last year that Fahrenheit 451 is Truffault wanting to make a sci-fi film, despite a history of looking down on the genre, because Bradbury's story is so good. Goddard also thinks American genre films are goofy, but he wants in. He wants to do the fistfights and the secret agents and the evil supercomputers. But he doesn't have any money. So he just appropriates the tropes without changing the visuals. Combine it with high-quality gags and you've got a winner. The one thing I couldn't stand: the computer's voice. So grating, and it went on for what seemed like minutes. (And may have actually been minutes.)
PS: Just gonna start a rumor that Alphaman is set in the same universe as Alphaville.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): Tragically ending my streak of movies whose titles start with "A" or "B", this is the first and lesser-known of the two movies about David Bowie's crotch. It's 139 minutes long, it doesn't drag, and unlike a lot of arty SF movies (Alphaville) its plot has a strong through-line and original (non-borrowed) science-fiction elements.
And David Bowie is really, really good in this. Like, anything I can think of makes it sound like I'm snarking on him being a huge weirdo, but he plays a really good space alien. He's like a less friendly Tetsuo Milk. The human/alien sex scene in particular is really touching. Makes me wonder where Ridley Scott got his idea for a scene where "the alien would find her and would be staring at her through the glass door."
Actually, let me zoom in on the human/alien sex scene, because there was a shot there that creeped me out more than anything in Alien, and more to the point I have no idea why it was so creepy.
A little light-spoiler background: David Bowie is an alien, as I mentioned before. We frequently see him in flashback on his home planet, where he's a typical Star Trek style alien: he's bald, he's got lizard eyes, his nose is maybe a little weird. Just before the sex scene there's a scene where David Bowie's in the bathroom. taking off his human disguise, revealing his alien form. His girlfriend (Candy Clark), who has just found out she's sleeping with an alien, kind of sneaks to the bathroom door and slowly reaches for the handle and opens the door. And there's David Bowie and he's an alien and the girlfriend screams.
Here's the thing I don't understand: I already know what the alien looks like. I've seen alien David Bowie, not in glimpses like the xenomorph in Alien but in big detailed close-ups. So why is it so creepy, that moment when Candy Clark is inching her hand towards the bathroom door? Is it because she doesn't know? Is it because I've seen alien David Bowie on his goofy-looking home planet, but now I'm about to see him in a 1970s bathroom with cheesy wood paneling? Is it because I know it's not just alien David Bowie in there, but naked alien David Bowie, and I'm afraid of what his alien junk looks like? (Good job on the alien junk, BTW, Ellis Burman, Jr.) Am I conditioned to think any inching-towards-the-door scene is creepy? I don't know, but it's probably the first two.
He Walked By Night (1948) Sadly, even though Richard Basehart is in this movie, Gypsy did not show up for the showing. I didn't enjoy the main thrust of this movie but there were so many great set pieces. The killer moving around LA through the storm drains, the oscilliscope con job, the pre-Identikit Identikit scene where the robbery victims collectively converge on a portrait of the suspect. But the best part was early in the movie, when the police dragnet rounded up a number of other noir movies in progress, and we got a little noir sampler.
PS: There's a character in this movie named Chuck Jones.
(1) Tue Apr 01 2014 13:21March 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.
This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, September 09 2013, 18:05:52 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Saturday, January 31 2015, 08:25:01 Nowhere Standard Time.