Cowboys (2013): a.k.a. "Kauboji". Combines the highbrow downer of Eastern European film (the theater director) with the lowbrow energy of screwball comedy (every other character). Genre fiction—in this case the western—brings them together. I had a good time. There were a lot of really clever jokes, including one I think was added just for the foreign audience. During her audition the female lead starts doing her piece, and there are no subtitles. It sounds like Croatian but the subtitle says:
The camera cuts to the other auditioners, all looking confused.
[It's okay, they don't understand either.]
Good stuff, recommended.
Flying Deuces (1939): I thought this film would save me a lot of time by simultaneously satisfying my idle curiosity about Laurel and Hardy, and the French Foreign Legion. For the French Foreign Legion I should have gone to Beau Geste, or Wikipedia. As for Laurel and Hardy, meh. I don't like when the straight man is the funny man's punching bag, and I only found them funny when they were doing really dark material like Hardy's protracted suicide attempt.
This film either assumes its audience is quite ignorant or demands more suspension of disbelief than a normal 1930s comedy. For instance, there's a stuffed marlin trying to pass for a man-eating shark. If I was bursting with laughter the whole time, I wouldn't care—I don't care when The Muppet Show does something cheesy like that—but despite the name of the movie L&H don't even touch an airplane until the final sequence, and that final sequence isn't too great.
The Shining (1980): Starring Jack Nicholson as The Patriarchy! He really hams it up. Like Alien, a movie where I came in having read the book and well aware of the "spoofed in" scenes. As with Alien I loved the slow burn at the beginning, the long tour of the hotel with its glorious 1970s design. Probably not so fun on television, but that's why I wait to SEE [these films] BIG. It was intense, creepy and fun. It kind of dragged in the middle, possibly because of Hamlet cliches, but I think because none of the characters are that interesting. In the book the hotel slowly drives Jack insane, but in the movie it just gives him an excuse to let his preexisting problems run wild, meaning there's no character progression. And Shelly Duvall is still stuck in her Method acting as Olive Oyl.
The first thing I did after seeing this movie was create a bot. I call it A Dull Bot. It's not the first movie that inspired me to create a bot, but it is the first one where I got the idea while watching the movie. My dadaist heart was touched by how much Jack's manuscript resembles a real typewritten manuscript. It's not preternaturally neat, the way a possessed person would type. It's full of typos, like when your fingers can't keep up with your ideas. Jack really thinks this is great stuff. The manuscript thing is not in the novel, but if you've read On Writing I think you'll agree it's a very Steven King sort of scare.
My original plan was to create a full statistical model of typewriter typos, but once I abandoned this quixotic project I got the bot done in Darius time. I did copy the layout of the Adler typewriter used in the movie, so sometimes you'll see ½ in a typo.
House Party (1990): Turns out Warrington Hudlin, film curator at the museum, also produced House Party. This was a 25th anniversary screening with a Q&A afterwards (including Play, via video chat), and the theater was packed with House Party superfans. There were a lot of good laughs, but after hearing people come up to the mic and saying they'd seen House Party over one hundred times, I wonder if it was the sort of laughter you'll hear from me watching The Big Lebowski.
Anyway, good teen party movie, and because it takes place over a single night the action is a lot tighter and the pacing more intense than other teen movies. Minor characters show up again in different contexts, major characters move around the game board and meet each other in different combinations, creating opportunities for different types of comedy.
Standout performances from Martin Lawrence as the un-smooth DJ, and Robin Harris as the working-class values dad, who's idealized in approximately the same way as the socialist mom in Good Bye Lenin! (2003).
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994): Continuing my new resolution to watch only 90s movies with the initials "H.P.". I really dug this as a parody of classic 50s office movies like The Best of Everything. The main character was more complex than I expected, and it's pretty rare for the Coen brothers to do flat-out parody. And then the ending...? How, why? I don't understand it. It went from a funny parody of good 50s movies to stealing ideas from not-so-good 50s movies. What's going on? Maybe I don't get it, but I think I'm pretty good at figuring out the Coens' film-nerd tricks, and making me think something really clever is awful... not a useful trick. Still a "buy" on balance.
Tragically, this marks the end of Film Roundup, as the resolution I foolishly made late in the month means that the only movies I can see from this point on are the likes of Hocus Pocus (1993), Heaven's Prisoners (1996), Hurt Penguins (1992), and the Tagalog comedy classic Haba-baba-doo! Puti-puti-poo! (1997). We'll miss the magic, the mystery, but most of all... the movies.
Wait, I can just disregard resolutions? They're not legally binding? Amazing! See you next month! I gotta go cancel my Columbia Record Club membership.
(1) Mon Jun 29 2015 09:36Beautiful Soup 4.4.0 beta:
I've found an agent for Situation Normal and the book is out to publishers and I don't have to think about it for a while. As seems to be my tradition after finishing a big project, I went through the accumulated Beautiful Soup backlog and closed it out. I've put out
a beta release which I'd like you to try out and report any problems.
I've fixed 17 bugs, added some minor new features, and changed the implementations of __copy__ and __repr__ to work more like you'd expect from Python objects. But in my mind the major new change is this: I've added a warning that displays when you create a BeautifulSoup object without explicitly specifying a parser:
UserWarning: No parser was explicitly specified, so I'm using the
best available HTML parser for this system ("lxml"). This usually
isn't a problem, but if you run this code on another system, or in a
different virtual environment, it may use a different parser and
To get rid of this warning, change this:
BeautifulSoup([your markup], "lxml")
It's a little annoying to get this message, but it's also annoying to have your code silently behave differently because you copied it to a machine that didn't have lxml installed, and it's also annoying when I have to check pretty much every reported bug to see whether this is the problem. Whenever I think I can eliminate a class of support question with a warning, I put in the warning. It saves everybody time.
The other possibility: now that Python's built-in HTMLParser is decent, I could make it so that it's always the default unless you specify another parser. This would cause a big one-time wrench, as even machines which have lxml installed would start using HTMLParser, but once it shook out the problem would be solved. I might still do that, but I think I'll give everyone about a year to get rid of this annoying warning.
Anyway, try out the beta. Unless there's a big problem I'll be releasing 4.4.0 on Friday.
(1) Sun Jun 21 2015 12:26Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1985/07:
Here it is, the final entry in this series, started seven years ago when I picked up a bunch of old SF magazines at a swap-fest. I've acquired a lot of magazines since then, and those are getting 'old', so it could continue, but this is the last of the original set. And good riddance, because this magazine smells like laundry detergent for some reason.
So what do we got? The cover story (one assumes) is the first part of Timothy Zahn's "Spinneret", which would later be published as a novel. It was good but I kinda see where it's going and don't feel a strong need to read the novel.
Eric G. Iverson's "Noninterference" is a pleasant story whose sole purpose is to dis the Prime Directive. The accompanying artwork seems more appropriate to a story about the mixing of the ultimate prog-rock album.
Charles L. Harness's "George Washington Slept Here" is the cream of this issue: a creative, funny and entertaining story that combines several Analog favorites (aliens, historical figures, and fussy middle-aged hobbies) that you rarely see together. Bonus: no time travel or major alt-history, just a character with a really long lifespan. I really liked the concept of the main character, a lawyer who loses every case he takes, but in a way that's more beneficial to his client than if he'd won. That concept's strong enough to support a series, but it looks like this is the only one.
This month's vague story blurbs:
There are always ethical considerations in dealing with either indivuals or cultures—and the two can't always be kept neatly separated.
Some fictional clichés eventually achieve a sort of reality—but seldom exactly as their creators imagined.
Can a good thing be carried too far?
Now to nonfiction. David Brin's essay "Just How Dangerous Is The Galaxy?" classifies every known potential solution to the Fermi Paradox and puts them in a big table by which term of the Drake Equation they affect. He also introduces his own "Water World" solution, which he deigns to classify in a separate section called "Optimism". This solution posits that "Earth is unusually dry for a water world," and that intelligent life evolves all the time, and thrives for long periods, but very rarely builds spaceships. I'm just riffing on the idea here, and I don't buy the idea that "hands and fire" are prerequisites to advanced technology, but you could imagine a dolphin-type civilization treating a planet's surface and atmosphere the way we treat low-earth orbit.
Tom Easton's book review column includes a review of Ender's Game, which wanders into a long philosophical discussion that I won't reproduce here because it's pretty similar to stuff you can find on the Internet. I was disappointed to read that "Russel M. Griffin's The Timeservers is a pale incarnation of the diplomatic satire that made Laumer's Retief so popular." It was a Phillip K. Dick Award finalist, though, so maybe it's just on a different wavelength from Laumer.
In letters, paleontologist Jack Cohen returns fire at Tom Easton, who in an earlier book review column disputed the evolutionary biology in Harry Harrison's Cohen-collaboration West of Eden. And reader Michael Owens has it out with Ben Bova about the latter's support of the Star Wars program. Summary of Owens: "far from leading to a defense-oriented world, Star Wars leads to another offense-oriented arms race." Bova responds that he wrote a book (Assured Survival) that deals with all this stuff, and then mentions this comforting tidbit:
[T]he new defensive technologies do not apply only to satellites and ballistic missiles. They are already being developed into "smart weapons" that will make the tanks, artillery, planes, and ships of conventional land and sea warfare little more than expensive and very vulnerable targets. "Star Wars" technologies (plural!) can make all forms of aggressive warfare so difficult that an era of worldwide peace is in view—if the nations of the world want peace.
Which leads nicely into the thing I've saved for last because I've got a lot to say about it, in direct violation of my usual "if you can't say anything nice" rule. Previously on Analog, columnist G. Harry Stine asked readers to send in their answers to the following question, which I will quote in full:
What, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should tackle in the next twenty years, and why do you believe this?
The first thing Stine does is disqualify 120 of the 127 replies he got. That may seem extreme, but that's approximately what I'd do if I was running a magazine and accepting fiction submissions. I was kind of laughing along as he disqualified entries for exceeding the word limit or otherwise ignoring the rules, but then I got to this:
49.61% of the replies [63 of 127]... discussed problems that were either (a) not technological problems, but social and political instead; (b) already solved or well along the road to solution; (c) trivial and parochial in their scope; (d) based on incorrect, incomplete, or outmoded data; and/or (e) the result of someone else's telling the respondent that the problem was a problem because the expert said so, whereupon the respondent stated it on faith without checking.
And at this point I gotta call bullshit. You didn't say "most important technological problem", you said "most important problem technologists should tackle." Social and political problems have technical aspects, and vice versa. The impact of a technological development is judged by its effect on society. This is the basis of the science fiction genre! You could replace every vague Analog story blurb with "Social and political problems tend to have technical aspects, and vice versa...", and it would always fit the story!
Half of Analog's readership can follow directions but their opinions are wrong. Let's take a look at the top five disqualified "problems" (all direct quotes, scare quotes in original):
Control of nuclear weapons
the "population explosion"
the "energy shortage"
the "raw materials shortage"
"pollution" in various and sundry forms
I sure am glad technologists didn't waste any more time on these non-problems after 1985! According to Stine, America's ballistic missile defense system is well on its way to solving #1 (if the nations of the world want peace, of course). #2 isn't a problem anymore because the rate of population growth has slowed. #3 and #4 were never real problems. ("The only reason we had an 'energy shortage' was to provide an excuse for politicians and bureaucrats to gain control of natural resources, and thereby gain control over people.") As for #5, who's to say what counts as "pollution"? Like most words, it's a "semantically-loaded term". "Pollution in its many forms may be a localized problem in some areas, but it is not a worldwide problem."
So what are the seven entries that made the cut? I'm glad you asked, previous sentence:
"Making products maintenance-free, i.e. designed for a 100-year life with a 0.0001 probability of maintenance." DISQUALIFIED. Maybe the move from 75 years to 100 would be a technical improvement, but the problem as it exists today is a problem with the way products are sold, and technical improvements won't change that.
"[C]ontrol of the weather" to boost crop yields and prevent famine. SEMI-DISQUALIFIED. Modern famines are political problems, not technical problems. Control of the weather would indeed be great, not for this reason, but because it would let us mitigate the damage caused by our worldwide pollution problem.
"The construction and maintenance of closed ecological systems". Sure, OK.
Here's the shortest quote I could get that explains this one:
Education depends on communication. John points out that communication involves moving information from place to place... which really isn't much of a problem, but... managing the information is. It's possible to download lots of information into a student's mind. But if the student doesn't know how to determine what information is meaningful and relevant... everything stored in the student's memory is useless.
Now that's more like it! Not only is this a real problem, it's one that we made significant progress on between 1985 and 2005!
"The development of the direct link between the human mind and the computer to produce a true intelligence amplifier." Another good one. We got both parts of this (mind-computer link and intelligence amplifier), but in practice they don't have anything to do with each other.
"[T]he construction by machines of very small machines." This also happened but proved not to be a huge deal, and even Stine is kinda skeptical ("he doesn't specify exactly what technological problems can be solved by developing sub-microscopic technology"). I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the real problem is the reader doesn't specify exactly what social or political problems can be solved with this technology.
Del Cain of Augusta, ME presented a technological problem that is as much philosophical as technological... He wants technologists to develop structures and artifacts that tend to support healthy behavior in human beings—i.e. to help people live and rear children so they can develop to their full potential without trauma but not without struggle, difficulty, or drama. To do this, he believes that we should solve the technological problem of determining what are the optimum sizes and structures of healthy communities. In short, he feels that the big problem is developing technology with a life-affirming philosophy behind it.
I don't understand how Del Cain managed to smuggle the concept of Scandanavian social democracy past G. Harry Stine, but good job. No, wait, I figured it out: I'm projecting, and so was he.
I mentioned this game in a 2009 edition but it's just so random. Unfortunately crummy.com is still the only website ever to mention Space Colony Rescue®. It looks like we'll never know if the abandoned fuel depots were as exciting as promised.
The classifieds. Would I dare to call my gay personals service "Bee-Jay Partnerships"? "Oh, we're not serious, it's just a Bee-Jay Partnership."
I'll leave you with this question: what, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should have tackled from 1985 to 2005, and why do you believe this?
Sun May 31 2015 17:55May Film Roundup:
This month features some interesting foreign films, an old-favorite blockbuster, and an awesome new blockbuster with a surprising connection to one of my all-time favorite films. What are these nuggets of cinema gold? I don't know, I'm just the intro paragraph, you'll have to ask the bulleted list:
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): I know this movie pretty well by now, so I watched up to "Fly, you fools!" (my favorite part) and then left the theater and got some dinner. It was interesting to see the expanded editions on the big screen (and in a real digital print, not the DVD projected onto the theater screen like the museum sometimes does). I don't know how often I'll get to see that.
Dunno what else to say, if you've been reading this blog you know my feelings on Tolkien, both book and film. In fact this is one of the few films I reviewed when I first saw it, thirteen years ago, and I stand by everything in there. MinecraftMoria looks good, the elves are limpid, the large creature CGI now looks terrible. Hell, Peter Jackson, go ahead and pull a George Lucas, clean up that motion capture. It was all done on an SGI machine to begin with, you're not disrespecting anyone's craft. Although... to be honest I think the Hobbit movies had the same problems. All the mo-cap characters are constantly milking the giant cow. I don't think it's a solved problem yet.
It was really weird being in a theater seeing a movie that a) has been the basis for major Internet memes but b) the whole movie isn't a meme a la Rocky Horror/The Room. There was a lot of snickering at Boromir saying "One does not simply walk into Mordor" and it felt awkward, like people snickering at Ginger Rogers saying "Aren't we gay?" or Groucho Marx saying "Making love to Mrs. Claypool is my racket." They didn't know how we'd read that line!
The 39 Steps (1935): Sort of a dry run for the much better North by Northwest. To be honest I forgot I even saw this movie until I saw it in my notes. It wasn't bad, the handcuffs conceit was solid, but there were just too many betrayals. It got old after a while. I also think this scenario (ordinary person on the run, in over their heads) demands spectacle, and the budget wasn't there.
Black River (1956): aka "Kuroi kawa". Good drama about the corrupting effects of being under military occupation. It's pretty amazing how visually striking it is for all the signage in a Japanese movie to be in English.
There's a laugh line where the protagonist is confronting a gangster:
Protagonist: "Who are you?"
Gangster [flicking away cigarette]: "Godzilla."
It's funny and topical but also accurate, because the gangster is planning on tearing the protagonist's house down. Within this movie he is, effectively, Godzilla. This is notable as the only cinematic Godzilla joke I can think of that's not a Japanese character in an American disaster movie running away from the disaster screaming "This is worse than my encounter with Godzilla!" Which always struck me as a weird joke to make, because it puts your movie in the Godzilla universe, where the UNGCC exists and governments should be prepared for, or at least accustomed to, large-scale disasters.
Other Japan-specific plot points: obsession with knowing everyone's blood type, the near-uselessness of personal seals as a form of document security.
Max Max: Fury Road (2015): I'm just glad that we as a nation have finally moved beyond Thunderdome. (Actual review starts now.) This was a good movie that became great at the beginning of act three, when it used my favorite action-movie plot twist—"let's turn around and go directly into the danger"— and revealed itself as an update of my third favorite film of all time, The General (1926). Pure infernokrusher fun.
As always, the worldbuilding is incredible (and understated), but expression of character is limited to everyone's individual post-apocalyptic fashion statements. Other downsides: every time there's voiceover or text on the screen it's embarrassing. The whole premise of the series remains silly. But c'mon, it's a canonical Mad Max movie featuring Megaweapon. Best of the year list for sure.
Doubting the The General connection? Here's director George Miller (h/t Sarah): "[T]he best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now." And:
A while after this talk, during a post-film reception, I spoke with Miller about his affinity for that black and white version of Fury Road. He said that he has demanded a black and white version of Fury Road for the blu-ray, and that version of the film will feature an option to hear just the isolated score as the only soundtrack — the purest and most stripped-down version of Fury Road you can imagine.
Maybe you'll believe when you finally see Fury Road as a silent movie. Or just watch The General now. No other movie puts so much work into creating a nonstop thrill ride. Gravity (2013) does a good job keeping the adrenaline pumping, but it's got a totally linear narrative. (I'm guessing you could say the same for Speed (1994), the other big Sandra Bullock vehicle, but I haven't seen it.) Fury Road uses the double-back twist to turn all the ideas used in the first part of the movie on their head. And The General does all that while also being funny as hell.
Rashōmon (1950): My verdict on this movie is that it's done its job and is now mainly of historical importance. I understand what it was doing but it had a really awful message of "gee, the rapist and the rape victim have conflicting testimonies, I guess we'll never know the truth!" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I also don't think the movie wanted me to feel the moment of maximum tension right at the end. What's going to happen to that kid? After all that I'm supposed to believe that kid is going to be okay? Don't you know how foreign films work?
I feel like this is a rare example where the Mel Brooks spoof would convey the appropriate points just as well, and age better than the actual movie.
I Can Quit Whenever I Want (2014): aka "Smetto Quando
Voglio". A decent Italian comedy that's... a huge ripoff of Breaking Bad on every level, from plot to cinematography. I guess the character arcs are different. I'm not really unhappy about this, because there is one major twist in the formula: the drug the disgruntled chemists make in this movie isn't actually illegal. Changing that one variable and leaving everything else the same makes the movie feel more like a scientific experiment than a ripoff. It is in fact still a huge ripoff, but I had fun.
The main source of my fun was watching the non-chemists in the gang of academics bring the mindset of their fields to drug dealing. The one laugh-out-loud moment for me was seeing how they acquired guns for their heist. There was a lot of laughter in the theater, though, even for jokes previously found only on the Buzzfeed list "Only Real Italian Academics Will Get These 25 Jokes About Hyperfragmented Leftist Politics." There's some ethnic stereotyping of Roma which I didn't really pick up on because they used a specific Italian sub-group of Roma I'd never heard of, but I looked it up afterwards and yup. Pretty uneven overall, but if you wanted Breaking Bad to stay a comedy the whole way through, I think this is the current frontrunner.
(3) Tue May 12 2015 07:00The Future Is Prologue:
I'm experimenting with writing a prologue for Situation Normal, to reduce the thrown-into-the-deep-end feeling typical of my fiction. I say 'experimenting with' rather than 'just doing it' because I wrote something and it wasn't a prologue. I'd just turned back the clock to before the book started and written a regular scene.
I don't like prologues for the very reason I'm trying to write one: they're introductory infodumps. I usually skim them, unless they look like the Law and Order style prologues where the POV character dies at the end of the scene. But this book has so many POV characters already, I don't think I should go that route.
I talked it over with Sumana and she gave me the idea of pacing the prologue as though it were the first scene of a short story. That's something I've done before, so I know I can do it again, and it doesn't mean big infodumps, just more internal monologue.
I'd like your suggestions of genre fiction books with effective prologues. Prologues that made you say "yes, I want to read a whole book about this stuff." I can't think of many examples but I admit I'm blinded by prejudice.
Sun May 03 2015 08:43April Film Roundup:
Sumana spent a lot of time out of town this month, so I took the opportunity to clear out a bunch of items on my "movies I want to see but Sumana doesn't" list. But there's also plenty of movies we saw together. How can you tell the difference?... I think you'll be able to tell.
Chappie (2015): Dev Patel lives up to his name in this story of a really poorly run technology company. Tetravaal produces two competing products, each run solely by the lead developer, and the lead developers don't even have offices. Each has a cube right next to the other lead developer, for maximum bad blood. The security policy is terrible, and employee safety is not a priority. I guess this is how the film industry works. I mean, you write what you know, right?
The robot is cute. I was expecting some violence but not Robocop level violence, which maybe made it inappropriate for a date night. I was expecting to see more than two South African actors in this movie from a South African director set in Johannesburg. Seems a little weird?
Speaking of Robocop, there are a couple obvious movies you could compare this to, but I'd like to bring your attention to Robot and Frank (2012), a really wonderful movie we saw shortly before I started Film Roundup. I'm not bringing up Robot and Frank because I think it's better than Chappie (although I do think this), but because it takes a much different approach to the same basic premise. They'd make a great double feature.
Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014) A.k.a. "Kundo: min-ran-eui si-dae". Not to be confused with Transformers 6: Age of the Rampant. This was a fun movie with many of our favorite martial-arts elements: heists, Robin Hood type gangs, women and Buddhist priests kicking ass, etc. I especially liked the Faceman of this particular A-Team, who turned to a life of crime after acing the civil service exam but getting civil service-blocked due to a lack of family connections.
War of the Arrows (2011): The museum's martial arts curator was really psyched about this one, but although archery is technically a "martial art" I don't think it's one of the more cinematically exciting ones. In terms of dramatic structure, I liked how the brutish loot-and-pillage villains of the first act all got killed and were replaced by a squad of cooler-headed villains.
This film is especially un-recommended for fans of doesthewhaledie.com sister sites doesthedogdie.com and doesthehorsedie.com. In a Korean movie, you can kill four dogs in the first scene and not even be the bad guy!
Oh yeah, also, all of these Korean historical action films have a village getting burned. Even The Pirates, which despite some notable missteps is supposed to be a lighthearted romp. Village gets burned in the middle of the film. It's awful! I have a pretty high tolerance for watching film violence, but it has to be coded kind of cartoonish for me to enjoy it, and burning villages I just can't watch. Why is that scene even in the movie? Most of the time it's just to make us hate the villains. C'mon, it's a silly action movie. I'll stipulate hating the villains.
Ed Wood (1994):
As an afficionado of cheesy movies, the worst we can find (la la la), I didn't expect to learn much from this heavily fictionalized biopic. But it surprised me! This movie makes the really interesting argument that Ed Wood wasn't an abnormally bad director; he was an abnormally good producer. Obstacles that would have stopped other people from putting out a bad movie, didn't stop him. Ed Wood looks like the worst director in the world due to survivor bias. He's actually the worst director whose movies were finished and released. (And let's be honest, Coleman Francis is worse.)
If Ed Wood were as good a director as he was a producer he'd be Roger Corman, the SyFy Original of directors, a guy who consistently delivers mediocre B-movies on time and on budget. But the movie Ed Wood, like last month's Bowfinger, is a celebration of the drive to actually get a movie made, damn the quality. And that's the producer's job. The conversation between Wood and Orson Welles really drives this home. They're talking about producing, not directing.
I don't know what to think about Bill Murray's portrayal of Bunny Breckenridge. It's so over the top campy in a way that should have been on its way out in 1994, but after researching Breckenridge's life a bit I'm willing to believe it's an accurate portrayal.
The House of Hate (1918): Another lesson I learned from MST3K is that it's okay not to watch all of a serial. That's why I felt perfectly fine leaving during intermission when the museum showed The House of Hate, long thought totally lost and newly restored from a Soviet print that cut it down to three hours from its original seven—a story more interesting than anything in The House of Hate itself. It has some decent silent-era action, but I didn't get the feeling I got during Reds, that I was leaving just as things were getting good. It's like watching characters bounce around a Markov chain. There's a lot of silent film I love, but the immaturity of the medium + the narrative constraints of a serial = bleh.
The Godfather, Part 3 (1990) The triple threat of movies Sumana doesn't want to see: a really long movie about man-pain that she's already seen. I came in expecting it to be a disaster, and I don't think it needed to be so long, but I liked it. It's a disaster compared to the original Godfather, but I don't like Part 2 as much as everyone else, and this was just one step below that—still pretty good! It was great to finally see some bits of continuity with the New York I know, like the zeppoli stands at the Italian festival. I also loved the machinations in the Vatican.
I suspect part of people's dissatisfaction with this movie vis-a-vis part two is they want to see Michael Corleone acting like a badass, calling in hits, going out like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. Instead the whole movie's about Michael being tired of this shit, which is probably a metaphor for the franchise but is a good topic for a film.
The Wrestler (2008): Another movie Sumana wouldn't want to see, and not one I'd normally choose to see, but I remembered there was a fictional NES game in this movie, and I was in the mood to have something on in the background while I did computer stuff. Probably not what Aronofsky wants to hear, but this movie was great at being on in the background. If I had to give it my full attention I would have been annoyed at the by-the-numbers plot structure, but Mickey Rourke gives a great performance and the NES game is all it's cracked up to be.
According to IMDB trivia, "The film reportedly moved wrestler Roddy Piper so much, he broke down and cried after a screening." Big respect for that.
Gentlemen Broncos (2009): The forgotten response to the surprising success of Napoleon Dynamite, it's as if Jared and Jerusha Hess decided to turn all the quirky nerdy rural Mormon humor sliders as high as they would go until everyone got sick of it. And... this is the point where everyone got sick of it. I didn't even know this film existed until I read about it on Boing Boing. And those sliders are a little high even for me, but overall I liked this movie and I'm really close to saying I really liked it. It presses one of my less-often-activated cinematic buttons of showing multiple adaptations of the same basic idea, a la The Five Obstructions.
This movie went on my no-Sumana list as soon as I saw "The vomit-soaked story..." in the Boing Boing review. It's too bad there's so much gross-out because I think Sumana would like it otherwise. It's got a very strong Garth Marenghi's Darkplace vibe. You've never heard of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace? Great, now I'm the blog telling people about visual experiences they've never heard of. Wait, that's good, because now you know that Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is hilarious and you should check it out.
Night Shift (1982): A not-that-funny romantic comedy about the unionization of sex workers. Some classic Visicalc action doesn't redeem the lack of laughs; it's like they put the primal elements of comedy—sex, death, money—in a beaker and expected comedy to form spontaneously. I guess it's better than Pretty Woman, but I haven't seen Pretty Woman so I'm just going on my mental stereotype of the politics of that movie. Michael Keaton acts like he's in a totally different movie, a movie that also wouldn't be good if you were watching it, but glimpses of it come as a relief.
The Best of Everything (1959): Absolutely amazing office dramedy with snappy banter, glorious NYC location shots, genteel sleaze, struggles of modern women, etc. I didn't like how the movie picked the least sleazy of all the sleazeballs for the heroine to hook up with, when her friend was able to find an actually decent guy, but I guess a girl's got to play the hand she's dealt. Definitely going on my best-of-the-year list.
There seems to be a strong connection to 9 to 5 (1980) in that the newly-minted secretary comes in to her first day of work drastically overdressed wearing a big ridiculous hat, but according to IMDB trivia, Jane Fonda talked to women who'd been in that situation and learned it was a common mistake, so both movies are based on a now-vanished reality.
The Americanization of Emily (1964): Also going on my best-of-the-year list thanks to its almost-perfect script by Paddy Chayefsky. If Billy Wilder had directed this he would have sanded down the rough edges and this would be one of the greatest films of all time. But why look a gift horse in the mouth, it's really really really good. Snappy dialogue, a farce/fiasco/farce double-twist, and a brilliant core concept. And, hell, if Chayefsky had brought this script to Billy Wilder he probably would have said "Yeah, I fled the Nazis, I'm gonna take a pass on mocking D-Day," and that would be totally fair.
One little quibble: despite the title, the movie doesn't really focus on Emily.
Reservoir Dogs (1992): The ultimate showdown, years in the making. I don't like Quentin Tarantino, but I love love love Steve Buscemi. Who will win? And hey, this movie's good! It's more restrained than Pulp Fiction, probably due to the tiny budget, but see above re: gift horses. The nonlinear narrative makes a lot of sense dramatically. The way Mr. Orange's "commode story" is dramatized is damn impressive. I could do without the graphic violence, but I knew what I was in for. The performances are good, but especially noteworthy is America's sweetheart, Steve Buscemi. He's so good he got the part Tarantino wrote for himself, meaning that although Tarantino still acts in the movie he's only got about three lines. Let's lift a glass to Steve Buscemi, savior of Reservoir Dogs.
Thu Apr 02 2015 10:55March Film Roundup:
We saw lots of stuff this month but not a lot of feature films. The upside is that a lot of what I did see is online for free.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946): a.k.a. "Stairway to Heaven" but tragically with no Zeppelin on the soundtrack. I'm really impressed by Roger Livesy. He keeps showing up in propaganda films (previously The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and bringing so much humanity to the role that he subverts the propaganda aspect. This film is no Colonel Blimp (another film that really could have used some Zeppelin on the soundtrack), but it's really weird and worth seeing. Half the film takes place in heaven, specifically a heaven for Allied service members during WWII. A sort of heaven as USO club. There's some great morbid humor where e.g. a squad of American flyboys whose plane has just been blown up come into heaven and head straight for the Coke machine. Ribbing their lieutenant when he asks for officer's quarters, etc.
As with many genre works created by people unaccustomed to genre fiction, the fantasy setting falls apart on the slightest examination. Like, where are the Russians? There are no Russian soldiers in this movie. I don't expect a British propaganda movie to show dead Nazis in heaven, but there's no mention of hell, and one of the main characters is an eighteenth-century French nobleman—certainly an enemy of the British in his day. There are Americans who died in the Revolution. Those guys hate the British. In fact, the postmortem hatred of colonized peoples towards the British underpins the best plot point in the movie. We see Indians, so the issue isn't religion. Where are the Russians?
Sumana proposed that the Axis powers have a separate heaven, to keep fights from breaking out, and they'll be integrated after the war in a divine Marshall Plan. But this means that the paperwork hasn't gone through to transfer all the Soviet soldiers from the Axis heaven to the Allied heaven, so there must be all sorts of post-Molotov-Ribbentrop fights going on in the other heaven, and that's a much more interesting story than the one we have here.
Brotherhood of Blades (2014): OK but not great Chinese period piece. I don't have much to say about this one. I'm gonna keep going to see the museum's martial arts series but they only stand out for me when there's a stylistic twist (Tai Chi Zero) or an unusual plot (The Pirates).
Film festival special! Sumana and I saw two runs of shorts from the International Children's Film Festival. It was really good, thanks to the general conflation of "animation" with "children's film" (only one film we saw had no animated component). You get a ton of animated films that, although kid-friendly, weren't necessarily intended for children, and which can explore some really dark territory. Here are the ones I liked, with links to full video or at least trailers or IMDB pages where possible.
5.80 Meters - Surreal and French, incredibly realistic CGI, my fave.
Me and my Moulton and A Single Life are Oscar nominees, so you know they're too good for full-length online videos. All you get is a trailer! A Single Life is effectively a music video, so that "trailer" includes a good portion of the film.
Eyes on the Stars - From StoryCorps, illustrates the stubborn badassness necessary to become an astronaut.
Giovanni and the Water Ballet (trailer only) - Initially I was upset that the museum tricked me into watching a "sports movie", but I was won over by the hilarity of the relationship between Giovanni and his girlfriend Kim. This film is full of Dutch people being incredibly Dutch in different ways.
Electric Soul - Visually great but nothing really happens.
We also saw the three Wallace and Gromit shorts on the big screen, which are still totally fun and charming.
And, not related to the film festival, but featuring a similar lack of feature-length movies I can review for you, we saw this retrospective on Jim Henson's commercials, which was absolutely hilarious. It started with the Wilkins Coffee ads (plus the many variants used to sell regional brands of bread or bottled water or luncheon meat). It also showed some fake promotional "behind-the-scenes" videos where Henson, Oz, and company get hired to do some Wilkins-style commercials, but spend the whole day goofing off on set instead of filming. Lots of other good stuff. The whole thing was really funny and Karen Falk of the Jim Henson Company did a great job curating.
The Girl Can't Help It (1956): Frank Tashlin's test run for Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, released the following year. I imagine Tashlin telling Jayne Mansfield: "Everyone else looks at you and sees boobs, but I see socially incisive, character-driven comedy! With jokes about your boobs." In any comedy involving the intersection of gangsters with the non-gangster world, the question is whether it's the gangsters or the squares who will steal the show, and here, as usual, the gangsters run away with it. Edmond O'Brien's mob boss quickly reveals hidden depths, and Mansfield's gangster's moll gets a ton of good lines with the stick-up-his-ass male lead acting as straight man. Fun, but not as good as Rock Hunter?, which itself isn't as good as I'm making it sound here.
Europa Report (2013): Every dramatic element in this movie comes from somewhere else, as does much of the footage. But it's effective, and pretty incredible that you can now take those pieces that required blockbuster money to realize back in the 1980s, and do them justice with a budget like that of a SyFy original movie. In fact SyFy should start doing originals like Europa Report.
This film has a bit of the tentacle monster prejudice problem, in that it's very easy to read as a horror movie but I really don't think it is. It generally avoids or subverts viewer expectations regarding the obnoxious found-footage genre. So maybe that's part of the general mood of subversion. Not original on the level of plot or characterization, but a very well-made film, and fun to watch.
Bowfinger (1999): Frank Oz returns, hopefully with a little more professionalism than when he was drinking beer and dancing with girls when he should have been filming those lunch meat commercials with Jim Henson. Sumana really liked this movie when it came out, and I like it too, but not as much as she does, I think. The concept is great but I feel like it's got an indie-movie plot full of Hollywood-movie comedy. At this point I've watched a lot of movies about an absurd situation becoming more and more absurd, and I like it better when the escalation is driven by the characters trying to change strategies and dig themselves out of the absurdity. In Bowfinger the characters never change and the escalation is shown by involving more hardware in each successive scenario.
The only characters in this film who change are Bowfinger's crew, who start off knowing nothing about film but who show the hard-working entrepreneurial spirit traditional to American immigrants and become good enough to get steady work in Hollywood, unlike the rest of the losers in this movie. That's your subtle indie-movie humor there, and I wish the other characters had had real arcs.
The Music Man (1962, 2003): We marathoned both versions of The Music Man. I'm attached to the 1962 original, Sumana to the 2003 remake (which you can see on Youtube). We laughed, we learned, we sang along. It's such a good musical, with the greatest resolution to a con job I've ever seen.
The 2003 version does a couple things better—notably the mayor—
but most of the actors in the 2003 version are too young for the part and look even younger than they are. Matthew Broderick doesn't have the gravitas to play Professor Hill. More like Graduate Student Hill, amirite? There's a line where he tells Marian she's "twenty-six years late" to her Lovers' Lane assignation. Kristin Chenoweth is 35 in this movie and she looks about 28. Some shots had to be redone with a stunt double because Broderick's umbilical cord was visible.
Overall, the 1962 version is still the best. I mean, Cary Grant refused to play Harold Hill because he wanted to see Robert Preston do it like he did on Broadway. That's a hell of an endorsement. And one thing we hadn't noticed before was that Preston isn't afraid to massively camp it up when he's putting the con on River City. I guess what I'm saying is it takes judgement, brains and maturity to play—I say that any fool can fast-talk his way through the Harold Hill part, and I call that sloth.
The Parallax View (1974): This movie was super tense and really freaked Sumana out. I liked the way it would seem like a character was becoming important to the story and then, jump cut, they're dead now. The central concept of the movie is brilliant. The set pieces are pretty good and the final one is incredible. Recommended overall.
Video game watch: there's a scene where a scientist is playing Pong with a chimpanzee.
The Pirates (2014): I was initially very excited about this story of medieval Korean pirates chasing after a renegade whale. And there's a lot of goofy action but all the fun was spoiled for me because the whale dies! Yes, the tragic destiny of this movie's majestic whale is to be graphically killed and become a CGI whalefall. Boooo. Not recommended.
Unaccountably other people don't consider this a deal-breaker. The movie was made, Sumana recommends it, and Sarah scoffed when I mentioned the possibility that a whale's gory death was a reason to dislike the movie. I am alone! I was afraid this would happen so I went online ahead of time looking for a Whale Death Warning, but even with hindsight the best I can find it this vague statement in an Amazon review: "Also, having the movie scenes with the Mother whale and the baby were to raw and disgusting for under aged people to watch.." I'm not even sure whether this is talking about the death scene or the (completely unobjectionable) nursing scene. That's why I'm starting a new website, doesthewhaledie.com, as a public service to whales and whale allies who want to be spared these graphic portrayals. Here's the initial site mockup I used to secure VC funding:
Does the whale die?
Star Trek IV
The Little Mermaid (initial establishing shot)
That National Geographic special from the 80s
Kid-Thing (2012): A modern illustration of my aphorism that the French New Wave directors made films that would be much better as genre films. You can read this film as an unpleasant indie dysfunctional-family dramedy that's mean and only kinda funny, the sort of film that considers Napoleon Dynamite a phony big-budget sell-out. Or you can read it as a really effective horror movie that relies solely on the fact that kids are assholes. Either way, it was refreshing in a Celine and Julie way to see a ten-year-old girl get the sort of screwed-up Huckleberry Finn part that usually goes to boys.
Annie squishes a grub in this movie, and there's a dead cow, so if you feel about grubs or cows the way I feel about whales, don't see this movie. Not recommended in general, except maybe for certain real-life ten-year-olds. I couldn't find an MPAA rating, but if your kid is ready, you'll know.
Video game watch: at one point we see Annie playing Devil World on the family TV using a N64 controller. This may appear to be a ridiculous inaccuracy, since Devil World was a Famicom game and it never even came out in America, but it's actually one of the subtlest, truest portrayals of video games I've ever seen in a movie. The "N64 controller" has AV cables coming out of it, indicating that it's an all-in-one system loaded with pirate ROMs. Specifically, it's the Power Player Super Joy III, which comes with Devil World and displays the flashing "FUN TIME" we see earlier in the scene. So the filmmakers got it absolutely right. Annie's playing Devil World on a crappy pirate Famiclone because that's the only game system her family can afford.
Pennies from Heaven (1981): One of the most cynical movies I've ever seen, not just that its attitude is cynical but that it thinks the audience will swallow gritty 70s cinema if we also get fabulous show-stopping musical numbers where Christopher Walken does a tap-dancing pool table striptease. (Highlight of the film.) Fred Astaire, who's unwillingly in this movie via archive footage, said (courtesy IMDB trivia):
I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They don't realize that the thirties were a very innocent age, and that [the film] should have been set in the eighties - it was just froth; it makes you cry it's so distasteful.
I wasn't there in the 30s, but I think someone who says "it was a very innocent age" is really making a statement about their own mental state. Anyway, this sort of gets at the problem, but it doesn't explain how Paper Moon can be a 70s-cinema movie set in the Depression that's very cynical but also funny and a great movie. Doesn't explain Sullivan's Travels.
The secret ingredient is, again, that vague concept called "heart". Paper Moon and Sullivan's Travels have heart; Pennies from Heaven just hates musicals. But it also has to prove its technical chops to demonstrate that its hate does not spring from jealousy. And the film's technical chops are amazing, absolute first class. So the film is really good at being the thing it hates. It's like a talented lit-fic author writing a novel deconstructing the science fiction genre and then denying the book they've written is, in fact, an exemplar of a school of science fiction that flourished in the 1970s. So how about some heart with your cynicism? That's Dr. Billy Wilder's 100% reliable nostrum.
Thu Feb 26 2015 21:48Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF October 1985:
The first story in this magazine is James Tiptree's "The Only Neat Thing to Do", and the introductory copy introduces the main character as "a green-eyed young woman who happens to be one of the most appealing characters you are likely to encounter in these or any other pages," and my attitude was "Pffft, green eyes, sure, we'll see about that... DAMMIT." This story's so good. It starts out with this perfect wish-fulfillment space adventure but look at the title, folks, it's not gonna end well. Argh, so good.
Harlan Ellison still hates Gremlins, in fact he says he's been getting letters from people who scoffed at his Gremlins hate but now they've seen the movie they're swallowing their pride and sending him "toe-scuffling, red-faced, abnegating appeals for absolution." I'm harboring a doubt or two here, because he's also saying other people who took his advice (and presumably didn't see the movie) are thanking him.
Given that Gremlins has consistently been a well-regarded film since its release, why would someone say "Thanks for warning me off the movie I haven't seen that people still seem to like."?
But all that's in the past. In this issue Ellison doubles down, telling people not to see The Goonies due to "utter emptyheadedness", which, okay, at least it's a critique and not 'the lurkers support me in email.' Also on Ellison's shit list for this month: Rambo: First Blood Part II, A View to a Kill, and The Black Cauldron. He loves Cocoon, Ladyhawke, and Return to Oz, and who's to say he's wrong? Not me, 'cause I haven't seen any of those movies.
There's some really corny back-cover copy in one of the ads for books, but I know from experience that writing back-cover copy is the worst, so as a professional courtesy I'm not going to make fun of it. Kind of weird that most of the stories in this issue are SF or horror, but all the ads are for fantasy books.
Halley's Comet fever strikes the classifieds! There's an ad for Halley's Comet, 1910: Fire in the Sky, sort of a historical recreation by Jerred Metz. Also a "HALLEY'S COMET. TIE TAC or Stick Pin. Four color enamel and beautiful." I'm hyping up the Halley's Comet thing because I happen to own a mint in-box Halley's Comet Hot Wheels car the likes of which are currently going on eBay for a measly $5.32 used including shipping. C'mon! This is my nest egg here! I demand... demand!
Sat Feb 21 2015 21:34Minecraft Archive Project: 201502 Capture:
I've done a new capture of data for the Minecraft Archive Project, my big 2014 project to archive the early history of Minecraft before it disappeared. My goal for the refresh was to capture what has happened in the past year while doing as little work as possible, and I met my goal. The whole thing took about two weeks, and most of that was a matter of letting things run overnight. Most of the actual work was refactoring the code I wrote the first time to make future captures even easier.
Top-line numbers: I've archived another 150 gigabytes of good stuff, including 18k maps and schematics, 1k mods, 11k skins, 7k texture packs (resource packs now, I guess), and 100k screenshots. I was able to archive about 73% of the maps. Four percent of them maps were just gone, and 23% I didn't know how to download.
The 201404 Minecraft Archive Project capture contains data from four sites. The new 201502 capture is limited to two sites: the official Minecraft forum and the huge Planet Minecraft site. I started archiving maps, mods, and textures for Minecraft Pocket Edition, and was able to pick up about 5500 MCPE maps.
Now that I've done this twice without getting into trouble, I'll give a little more detail about the process. I've got scripts that download the archives of the Minecraft forum and Planet Minecraft. I find all the threads/projects modified since the last capture, download the corresponding detail pages (e.g. the first page of a forum thread--I'm only after the original post), and extract all the links.
Then it's a matter of archiving as many of those links as possible. I've written recipes for archiving images and downloads. These six recipes take care of the vast majority of items:
Two file hosts: Mediafire and Dropbox
Four image hosts: imgur, Photobucket, TinyPic, and postimage.org
There's also a general catch-all for people who host things on normal home pages, as Tim Berners-Lee intended. If your URL looks like the URL to an image or a binary archive, I will ask for that URL. If you serve me the image or the binary instead of an HTML file telling me to click on something, then I'll archive the file.
I decode most link shorteners except for the ones that make you click through ads, mainly adfoc.us and adf.ly. The 2014 archive had about 18,000 maps behind adf.ly links, and I spent a lot of time running Selenium clients clicking through the ads to discover the Mediafire links. I think that took a month. This time there were about 3000 new maps behind adf.ly links and I just didn't bother.
There are two big blind spots in my dataset, and they're the same as last time. One is mods. A lot of mods are hosted on Github and CurseForge, two big sites I didn't write recipes for. There's also the issue of mod packs, which have been steadily growing in popularity and complexity as development on core Minecraft winds down. Thanks to things like the Hardcore Questing Mod, modpacks are entering the "custom challenge" territory previously occupied solely by world archives.
There are sites that list mod packs (12) but I don't want to spend the time figuring out how to archive all the mod packs. There's also the problem that mod packs are huge.
The second blind spot is servers. It's theoretically possible to join a public Minecraft server with a modded client and automatically archive the map, but realistically it ain't gonna happen. I complained about this last time, but now I've done an assessment of what's being lost.
Planet Minecraft has a big server list that mentions the last time it was able to ping any particular server. There doesn't seem to be any purging of dead servers, so I'm able to get good measurements of the typical lifecycle.
Of the 136k servers in the list, 12k are "online" (The most recent Planet Minecraft ping was successful). 51k are "offline" (Most recent Planet Minecraft ping failed, but there was a successful ping less than two weeks
ago) and 73k I declare "dead" (last successful ping was more than two weeks ago).
It seems really weird that of the nearly half of the 'offline' servers went offline in the past two weeks, so something's going on there; maybe Planet Minecraft's ping process is unreliable, or it just takes a long time to check every server, or servers go up and down all the time.
Anyway, the median lifetime for a public Minecraft server is 434 days, a little over a year. These things go online, people do a bunch of work on them, and then they disappear. I've kind of gotten to 'acceptance' on this, but it's still obnoxious.
One final thing: I thought I'd check if I could see the result of Mojang's June announcement of rules for how you can make money by hosting servers (and, more importantly, how you can't). I wanted to see if these rules had a chilling effect on the formation of new servers or caused a lot of old servers to shut down.
And... no, not really. Here's a chart showing two sixty-day periods around June 12, the date of the Mojang blog post. For each day I show 'births' (the number of servers first seen on that day) and 'deaths' (the number of servers last seen on that day). There's a drop-off in new servers around the end of July, but then it picks up again stronger than before. I don't have an explanation for it but I don't think there's anything in here you can pin on a blog post. The Mojang rules were probably intended to go after a small number of large obnoxious servers, and everyone else either doesn't care or flies under the radar.
(Screenshot is from World #57 by Art_Fox. I didn't archive the map because it's behind an adf.ly link, but I got the screenshot.)
PS: Congratulations to Anticraft, the oldest public Minecraft server I could find that's still online, added to Planet Minecraft on February 28, 2011.
Update: I fixed up the adf.ly code and let it run for another two weeks (!), saving another 2000 Minecraft maps and 700 MCPE maps. I probably won't do this again because it's a huge pain, but I said that this time and ended up doing it out of some sense of obligation to the future, so maybe obligation will strike again, who knows.
Sun Feb 15 2015 18:23Poems of SCIENCE! I Mean, Science:
I picked up a cheap old poetry anthology called Poems of Science, figuring there'd be some good stuff. And... there was, but I had wait for the modern conception of "science" to come about, and then spot poetry about a hundred years to come to grips with it, and decide that science is interesting and not going to go away. By that time I was more than halfway through the anthology. But around the late nineteenth century some excellent poetry starts happening, and I thought I'd share a couple links.
Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me. Like tall
And painless guillotines they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed—you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.
Wed Feb 04 2015 20:45The Ghost of Ghostbusters Past:
Just a quick semi-technical post on how I made @WeBustedGhosts, my new bot that casts movies from an alternate history where "ghostbusters" is a stock comedy genre, sort of a twentieth-century commedia dell'arte. In particular, I did a lot of work with IMDB data that I want to record for your benefit (and by you, I mean future me).
The bot was inspired by two things: first, this video by Ivan Guerrero which "premakes" Ghostbusters as a 1954 comedy starring Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, and Martin/Lewis. Second, the reaction of fools to the fact that women comedians will bust ghosts in the upcoming Ghostbusters remake. More specifically, Kris'sendlessmockery of the idea that "ghostbuster" is a job with a legitimate gender qualification.
These things got me thinking about the minimal set of things you need to make Ghostbusters. You need the idea of combining a horror movie with a comedy about starting a business. Someone could have come up with that idea in the silent film era. You need a director and four actors who can do comedy. And all those people need to be alive and working at the same time, because ghosts aren't real... OR ARE THEY? Either way, you can describe a point in Ghostbusters space with six pieces of information: four actors, a director, and a year. That's small enough to fit into a tweet, so I made a Twitter bot.
Our journey to botdom starts, as you might expect, with an IMDB data dump. I've dealt with IMDB data before and this time I was excited to learn about IMDbPY, which promised to get a handle on the ancient and not-terribly-consistent flat-file IMDB data format. Unfortunately IMDbPY is designed for looking up facts about specific movies, not for reasoning over the set of all movies. However, it does have a great script called imdbpy2sql.py, which will take the flat-file format and turn it into a SQL database.
There will be SQL in this discussion (because I want to show you/future me how to do semi-complex stuff with the database created by IMDbPY), but unless you're future me, you can skip it. Basically, for each actor in IMDB, I need to calculate that actor's tendency to get high billing in popular comedies for a given year. They don't have to be good comedies, or Ghostbusters-like comedies, they just have to have a lot of IMDB ratings.
I also want to figure out each actor's effective comedy lifespan. If an actor stops doing popular comedy or dies or retires, they should stop showing up in the dataset. If a dramatic actor branches out into comedy they should show up in the dataset as of their first comedic performance. Basically, if you learned that this actor starred in a comedy that came out in a certain year, it shouldn't be a big surprise.
Orson Wells would be great in a Ghostbusters movie, but he never did comedy, so he's not in the dataset. How about... Cameron Diaz? She rarely gets top billing, but she has second or third billing in a lot of very popular comedies. For a year like 1997 she tops the list of potential women Ghostbusters.
How about... Peter Falk? His first comedy role was in 1961's Pocket Full of Miracles, his last in 2005's Checking Out. His acting career stretches from 1957 to 2009, but he's only a potential Ghostbuster between 1961 and 2005. He won't get chosen very often, because he's not primarily known for comedy (i.e. his comedies aren't as popular as other peoples'), but it will happen occasionally.
That's the data I extracted. Not "how famous is this actor" but "how much would you expect this actor to be in a comedy in a given year".
The IMDbPY database is more complicated than I like to deal with, so my strategy was to use SQL get a big table of roles and then process it with Python. Here's SQL to get every major role in a comedy that has more than 1000 votes on IMDB:
select title.title, title.production_year, movie_info_idx.info, name.name, name.gender, cast_info.nr_order, kind_id from title join cast_info on title.id=cast_info.movie_id join name on cast_info.person_id=name.id join movie_info_idx on movie_info_idx.movie_id=title.id join movie_info on movie_info.movie_id=title.id where cast_info.role_id in (1,2) and kind_id in (1,3,4) and movie_info.info_type_id=3 and movie_info.info='Comedy' and cast(movie_info_idx.info as integer) > 1000 and movie_info_idx.info_type_id=100 and cast_info.nr_order <= 7;
Some explanation of numbers and IDs:
movie_info_idx.info_type_id=100 means the join against the movie_info_idx table is looking up the number of votes (id #100 in my info_type table).
cast(movie_info_idx.info as integer) > 1000 means that the number of votes has to be more than 1000.
cast_info.role_id in (1,2) means I'm only considering "actor" and "actress" roles (IDs 1 and 2 in my role_type table). I'm not considering directors, writers, etc.
movie_info.info_type_id=3 means that I'm looking up the genre of the movie ("genre" is ID 3 in my info_type table). Then I use movie_info.info='Comedy' to restrict to 'Comedy'.
kind_id in (1,3,4) means I'm only considering "movie", "tv movie" and "video movie" (items 1, 3, and 4 in my kind_type table) I'm not considering television, video games, etc.
cast_info.nr_order <= 7 means I'm only considering the top seven billed actors for each movie.
I run this on a SQLite database and the output looks like:
So the title of the movie is "#1 Cheerleader Camp", it came out in 2010, it has 2297 votes, and Seth Cassell (a man) was an actor in that movie and got fourth billing.
Why didn't I include television in this query? Because television on IMDB is really complicated. See, actors aren't credited to television shows; they're credited to individual episodes. But nobody rates individual episodes; they rate the show as a whole. So I had to do a separate query to determine who the top actors were on each comedy television show, and then divide up that show's votes between the four top actors. Otherwise actors whose primary comedy career is in television won't get their due.
Here's SQL to get all the roles in TV episodes:
select tv_show.title, episode.title, episode.production_year, votes.info, name.name, name.gender, cast_info.nr_order from title as tv_show join title as episode on tv_show.id=episode.episode_of_id join cast_info on episode.id=cast_info.movie_id join name on cast_info.person_id=name.id join movie_info_idx as votes on votes.movie_id=tv_show.id join movie_info on movie_info.movie_id=tv_show.id where cast_info.role_id in (1,2) and tv_show.kind_id in (2,5) and episode.kind_id=7 and movie_info.info_type_id=3 and movie_info.info='Comedy' and cast(votes.info as integer) > 10000 and votes.info_type_id=100 and cast_info.nr_order < 5;
This is pretty similar to the last query but some of the IDs are different.
tv_show.kind_id in (2,5) means the show "tv series" and "tv mini series", IDs 2 and 5 from my kind_type table.
episode.kind_id=7 is "episode". I'm joining the title table against itself, the first time as "tv_show" and the second time as "episode". The votes come from "tv_show" and the roles come from "episode".
I run this and the output looks like:
'Allo 'Allo!|A Bun in the Oven|1991|14022|Kaye, Gorden|m|1
This means there's an 'Allo 'Allo! episode called "A Bun in the Oven", the episode came out in 1991, 'Allo 'Allo (NOT this specific episode) has 14,022 votes, and Gorden Kaye got top billing for this episode.
I got this data out of a database as quickly as possible and bashed at it to make a TV show look like a movie with four actors--the four actors who appeared in the most episodes of the TV show.
Directors were pretty similar to film actors. for each director who's ever worked in comedy, I measured their tendency towards putting out a popular comedy in any given year. There's a very strong power law here, with a few modern directors overshadowing their contemporaries, and Charlie Chaplin completely obliterating all his contemporaries.
Here's SQL to get all comedies with their directors:
select title.title, title.production_year, movie_info_idx.info, name.name, name.gender from title join cast_info on title.id=cast_info.movie_id join name on cast_info.person_id=name.id join movie_info_idx on movie_info_idx.movie_id=title.id join movie_info on movie_info.movie_id=title.id where cast_info.role_id in (8) and kind_id in (1,3,4) and movie_info.info_type_id=3 and movie_info.info='Comedy' and cast(movie_info_idx.info as integer) > 5000 and movie_info_idx.info_type_id=100;
The only new number here is cast_info.role_id in (8), which means I'm now picking up directors instead of actors.
At this point I was done with the SQL database. I wrote the "Ghostbusters casting office". It chooses a year, picks a cast and a director for that year, and then (15% of the time) it picks a custom title. My stupidly hilarious technique for custom titles is to choose the name of an actual comedy from the given year and replace one of the nouns with "Ghost" or "Ghostbuster". So far this has led to films like "Don't Drink the Ghost" and (I swear this happened during testing) "Ghostbuster Dad".
Here's how I pick a cast for a given year: I line up all the actors for that year by my calculated variable "tendency towards being a Ghostbuster", and then I use random.expovariate to choose from different places near the front of the list (to bias the output towards actors you won't have to look up). This is the same trick I use for Serial Entrepreneur to choose common (but not too common) adjectives and nouns for its inventions. My means are 0.85, 0.8, 0.75, and 0.7, which will, on average, give me someone who's at the 85th percentile, someone at the 80th percentile, 75th percentile and 70th percentile.
This is the best I could do to recreate the dynamic of 1984 Ghostbusters where Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were very well-known actors even before Ghostbusters, where Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis were not. At this point you might object that Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis weren't even 75th or 70th percentile. Ghostbusters was Ramis's second movie ever as an actor; I think there was an oral history that said he gave himself the part of Egon Spengler because no one else was a big enough dork. So for pure accuracy I should be doing, like, 0.90/0.85/0.35/0.30. But that gives you way too many obscure actors and the output isn't as fun. It also doesn't feel accurate, because 1984 Ghostbusters was a real movie, and all by itself it made Hudson and Ramis pretty famous actors. So now we expect "Ghostbuster" to be sort of a prestige comedy role.
A more valid point is that 0.8/0.8/0.75/0.7 also doesn't really capture the dynamic of the 2016 Ghostbusters, where all four actors are well-known but Kristen Wiig has twice the credits of the other three. So I also created an 0.85/0.8/0.8/0.75 mode, which will tend to give you more big-name ensembles.
As always, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes data munging. Going from a bunch of "xth billing in movie with y votes" entries to a single "tendency towards being a Ghostbuster" number required a lot of semi-arbitrary decisions, and I think my algorithm still undercounts television actors. Whenever there was a power law, I smoothed it out a little to increase the variety of the output. I smoothed out the overrepresentation of post-IMDB comedies compared to pre-IMDB comedies; of superstar directors like Chaplin who overshadow everyone else in their time; and of men directors vastly outnumbering women.
Representation of women comedic actors vs. men was not an issue because I followed the lead of the Ghostbusters remake. 45% of the ghostbusting teams are all women, and 45% are all men. (10% of teamups are coed, just to add variety.) There's no code that makes sure all the actors speak the same language or anything like that—I could extract that data from IMDB but it would be a lot of work to make the output of the bot less interesting.
And there you go. It's not source code, but you should be able to see more or less how I took this bot from concept to execution, and how I negotiated the tricky space between "this is an accurate representation of what would happen in an alternate universe where the primary cinematic comedy genre is films about busting ghosts" and "this is a fun output for this bot to have."
Mon Feb 02 2015 09:07January Film Roundup:
January started with three highly anticipated films that all turned out to be duds! What to do for the rest of the month, but stack the deck?
The Strange Little Cat (2013) - a.k.a. "Das merkwürdige Kätzchen". The museum handout said that the sound design really shines in this movie, and maybe if we'd read the handout ahead of time we'd have focused on that and marvelled. But how groundbreaking can sound design be in a slice-of-life film that takes place in a normal house? I admit I don't understand the technical details, but I hear sounds every day, and the sounds in the movie were what I'd expect from a dull movie where someone fixes a washing machine. Is this the curse of the filmmaker? To have recreated the normal soundscape of life so precisely that philistines don't even realize anything special is going on? Anyway, not recommended unless you're a sound engineer and want to explain to me what the deal is here.
Hard to be a God (2013) - a.k.a. "Trudno byt bogom". Okay, look. I love the Strugatsky brothers. I know they're not the cheeriest science fiction writers. Judging from the plot summary Hard to be a God is not their cheeriest book. (As far as my reading goes, their cheeriest book is in fact Monday Begins on Saturday.) I don't mind seeing the occasional Russian sci-fi movie that's nearly three hours long. But I don't know what I did to deserve this film. My only clue, once again, comes from the museum handout. Director Aleksei German said that "[f]ilm has turned into something for people who are bored to read the book," so I guess this film is my punishment for not reading the book.
When I try to describe Hard to be a God I come up with words like "shitshow" and "grueling" which also describe the movie literally--there's a lot of shit in this movie and a fair amount of gruel. And there's pretty much no science fiction element. When there is science fiction on the screen, the film is grim but inventive and bearable. The image of a Will Riker-type medieval baron training his serf to accompany his jazz clarinet riff on a crappy medieval tuba. The woman who wants to have a baby by a demigod, but before they have sex she has to hang up the big religious statue of the demigod she inherited from her mother, and then the statue breaks in half while they're having sex and conks them on the head. It's creative stuff. But most of the film is like the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except it never ends and King Arthur has to also be Denis the Peasant.
As a viewer guide, to help you decide if you want to see this movie I'm gonna rank the top four bodily excreta featured:
Honorable mention to the technically ineligible but omnipresent "mud". If you like Game of Thrones but think it's not yucky enough to be real medieval, you might like this movie. I will admit there is one hilarious buckets-of-blood sight gag, but you could probably say the same for Cannibal Holocaust. There's someone who will read this review and think this movie sounds great and what's my problem, and if you're that person, I think I can guarantee you will like this movie. I'm laying it all out there! Everyone else, read the book, I guess? I'm interested in reading it just to see what exactly happened in this adaptation.
In a weird twist, many of the characters seem aware of the camera, or the audience, but nothing really comes of this. A Russian on IMDB says that "the main character has a camera on his forehead, that is transmitting back to Earth", but that detail is not in the English subtitles and I don't think it makes sense--who is this supposed "character" and why do they fill exactly the same filmic role usually filled by a non-digetic camera? And would people will never see anything displayed on a screen know how to engage with a camera? I don't know.
Inherent Vice (2014) - I'm glad they gave it a shot, I think they did as good a job as possible, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are really good in this... but as the great Russian director Aleksei Germain has noted, "[f]ilm has turned into something for people who are bored to read the book." And in particular you can't act out what happens in a Pynchon book and call it a movie.
It's an especially bad deal when the film ends up very similar to The Big Lebowski, which not only superficially resembles Inherent Vice but which I've argued translates Pynchon's primary sylistic innovation to film. "[E]ach of his characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre, which colors the way the narrative is reported and even shapes the plot." It's not too difficult to pull this off when you have multiple-POV, but it's really really tricky when you have an omniscient narrator. That's why The Big Lebowski starts with a narrator who quickly discovers that he's a lousy narrator, and gives up and becomes a normal character.
The narrator of Inherent Vice the movie is also a character in the movie, but she also never stops also being the godlike omniscient narrator, even showing up hallucination-like in scenes she's not really in. The presence of this strong narrator stops the protective bubbles from forming. Doc Sportello is supposed to focus the classic Pynchon conspiracy through the lens of noir (private eye) and Illuminatus! (hippie pothead), revealing the Golden Fang and the 1970s in general as a grand conspiracy of the square against the hip. It shows up in the film if you know to look for it, but it's super confusing because the dominant voice of the film--the narrator, who again is a specific person in the film--isn't involved in this plotline at all.
The Pynchonness is more visible in Josh Brolin's Bigfoot Bjornson, the cop who thinks he's on a cop show, who actually picks up extra roles in cop shows to preserve this fantasy even as his real-life career stalls. That's what I want to see. My point is that The Big Lebowski is not just a better film, it's a better Pynchon adaptation, because it lets the bubbles form.
What to do? You could film different parts of the movie in different styles, but because of that dang narrator it would never be clear why one bit was filmed in one style versus another. Sumana suggested animation, which could work--the different characters could be drawn in slightly different styles.
Sullivan's Travels (1941) - After those three I had to throw in a ringer. Sumana saw Sullivan's Travels in college and liked it, and it's a movie the Coen brothers ripped off rather than the other way around, so I borrowed it from the library that's conveniently across the street from the library where I work. Oh man, it's great! It's got a really unusual plot structure. I was having a good time for the whole movie, but the third act kicked it up to such a higher level—comedically and politically and emotionally—that I started feeling bad for even liking the goofy butlers and movie producers in the first act. I think Down By Law may have also been ripping this movie off. And why not rip it off? It's funny, it's inventive, and it makes a dark-comedic argument for the value of light comedy.
I thought it was weird that the poster for this movie says "Veronica Lake's On The Take". How is that any way to advertise a movie, accusing your actors of corruption? That statement also has no justification within the movie. Maybe "on the take" meant something different back then.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) - A really unusual, or maybe just uncommon, sort of noir in that it deals with the relationship between the upper crust and the pseudo-riche strivers. Instead of heists and gunplay it's all cutting words and breaking up engagements. Very All About Eve.
Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis are great. The characters who only show up in one scene are great. The secondary cast is kinda meh. Great movie though, a cut above average popcorn noir.
The Italian Job (1969): More shallow fun in the form of light comedy. Breaks the rule of heist movies that if you explain how the heist is going to go down, you need to introduce complications during the heist. The ending is obviously fishing for a sequel, but since there was no sequel I'm quite happy with the ending. Not a fan of the way the movie blatantly shuffles characters offstage once they've played their part in the heist.
I was not expecting Benny Hill as the super hacker. Michael Caine was well-cast—you gotta play Bruce Wayne before you can play Alfred—but his character's a pretty bad heist manager and I'm glad the no-sequel ending gave him his comeuppance in a lighthearted way.
The Godfather, Part II (1974): Bigger, badder, but not better than the original. It's a good movie, it kept my interest despite being long as hell, but at the end the obsession with mirroring the first movie kinda unleashed the Arrested Development farce that underlies the somber seriousness of the Godfather universe. The bit where Connie convinces Michael to forgive Fredo and give him a big hug really needed a Ron Howard "And that's when Michael realized..."
Danny Aiello said that his line "Michael Corleone says hello" was completely ad-libbed. Francis Ford Coppola loved it and asked him to do it again in the retakes.
... ... ...doesn't that ad-lib completely change the main plotline of the movie? Oh well!
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 wanes about 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.
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, July 04 2015, 20:45:01 Nowhere Standard Time.