Mon Jan 14 2013 09:44 For Aaron:
from bs4 import BeautifulSoup
url = 'http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/william-stafford/thinking-for-berky/'
soup = BeautifulSoup(urllib2.urlopen(url))
for s in soup.find(attrs="poem").strings:
Fri Jan 18 2013 08:06 429 Too Many Requests:
I don't like repeating what everyone else is saying on this weblog,
and I don't have much to add to the general outpouring following the
death of my friend Aaron, but I have to say something, because you can't say goodbye if you don't say anything. His death was awful, our loss great, his crimes (assuming any crime was committed at all) minor, and their prosecution farcical. I feel like a lot of what
we're going through is our frustrated desire to see Aaron's case
properly litigated, to see our friend vindicated, and I have no experience with that stuff, but I do
have two personal stories to share. Two points where my life intersected with Aaron's in ways I haven't talked about publicly.
- Beautiful Soup was partly inspired by xmltramp, an XML
parser Aaron wrote because he was frustrated with other XML parsers. I've been thinking a lot about this, and
this is why my initial mourning of Aaron took the form it did, because
screen-scraping—the use of an automated agent to replace
a human-driven web browser—seems to have been at the core of the
prosecutor's belief that this was a blockbuster case, more akin to a bank
heist than a defaced storefront.
- In 2005 Aaron wanted me to join his startup, Infogami. He showed
me a prototype, a NewsBruiser-like blogging site. I was looking to
quit my job at CollabNet, but I didn't take Aaron's offer because I
was comfortable in San Francisco and really didn't want to move across the country. (In a
Twilight Zone-level twist, in early 2006 I'd end up moving to
New York, which I now like a lot better than San Francisco.) Aaron tells
the next part of the story here. He
couldn't find a partner and eventually ended up merging Infogami with
Reddit, which was then sold to Conde Nast in 2006.
Back in 2005 there was enough of the college-era me left that I
would have seen this outcome as a big missed opportunity. I still had
some desire, left over from the dot-com era, to win the startup
lottery. But of course the Reddit merger happened because Aaron
couldn't get a partner for Infogami. And my life over the next couple
years, including my secondhand reading of Aaron's experience at Reddit (he was fired soon after the Conde Nast acquisition) made it clear to me
that I would not enjoy winning the startup lottery any more than Aaron
did. I count this among the most important things Aaron taught me.
I've cut a lot of what I wrote here because I don't want this entry to be a bunch of stuff about me and my opinions and what I think. But I'm the one who's still here. Aaron is gone, and all that's left of him is the parts we can share.
 I can't let go of these little technical inconsistencies between what I'm seeing now and what I remember. It looks like during the merger, Infogami stopped being a blogging
site, and its framework (which became the first Python version of
Reddit) was renamed "Infogami". Or maybe "Infogami" was the framework
all along, and the blogging site was only one application of the
product; I don't know.
Sat Jan 19 2013 22:05 Crazy the Scorpion Semi-Online:
Kirk and I collaborated on an in-browser version of Crazy the Scorpion for Klik of the Month Klub. It's "online" in the sense that you download an HTML file containing the game and play the game in your browser. But everyone who plays must be gathered around the same computer.
I scraped a bunch of Wikipedia page titles to make fake Trivial Pursuit cards. It's not great, but the whole thing's not bad for two hours of work. I mainly hope this version inspires you to play Crazy the Scorpion using physical components.
Sat Jan 26 2013 10:10 The Crummy.com Review Of Things 2012:
I've been battered from all sides, and working all the time on RESTful Web APIs but I really feel like I need to get this out before the end of January, so I took some weekend time and finished it. First let's briefly review The Year in NYCB!
- Probably the NYCB champion of 2012 is Dada Da Dada Da Dum, aka Dada Limericks. Endlessly amusing.
- Runner up: A Time Machine And Other Poems. Age cannot wither "Was it a whale with its spout?", nor custom stale its infinite variety.
- Frances Daily. Don't worry, it's still running. My mom skipped January 1988, possibly for the same reason I'm posting my year-end review at the end of January 2013. Though now that I think of it, it's more likely that page was simply lost in the intervening 25 years.
- My explanation of what I wanted to do with Findings. This was later rendered moot when Amazon nerfed Findings by changing its Terms of Service. My puny revenge: ASINs That Spell Words.
- My experiments with IMDB data, especially Worst Best Picture.
- Software and tech stuff: Beautiful Soup 4, the new robotfindskitten, and "How to Follow Instructions", for which I need to set up a dedicated page, but I'm busy turning it into a book, give me a break.
- Fiction stuff: "Four Kinds of Cargo" and Lisa Imas's illustrated "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs". The majority of 2012's NYCB work went into the Constellation Games author commentary, and that probably deserves some special recognition, but in terms of individual CG posts I just want to highlight the results of the CDBOEGOACC game design contest.
- The 2012 Loaded Dice update didn't get very much attention at the time, but I think it quantified something interesting about the way board gamers think about games.
- Crazy the Scorpion, the card game that rocked a living room.
And now, our feature presentation. Of all the artifacts I experienced last year, these were my favorites.
According to my LibraryThing stats I only read fifteen books in 2012! I think it missed a couple books I read on the Kindle, but that's really low. What was I doing instead? You'll find out below.
The new novel, currently on hold until RESTful Web APIs is finished, features lots of lesbian sex, so I asked a friend (who can speak up in comments if she wants to be identified) to recommend the best lesbian porn novel. Her recommendation, Sara Waters's Tipping the Velvet, is the Crummy.com Book of the Year. Great historical fiction plus dirty sex.
Runner-up: Charles E. MacKenzie's Coded Character Sets: History and Development. (q.v.)
- Audio: Man, this is starting off kind of pathetic. The only known good album I added to my collection in 2012 was the Bit.Trip Runner soundtrack, and playing the game (which I'll mention below) generates a soundtrack that's better than the prepackaged one. I say "known good" because although I did buy a fair amount of music in 2012, listening to new music requires my attention, and if I'm sitting at the computer just listening to music, I start thinking I should get some writing done. I will say that The World Record's "Freeway Special" seems pretty good. What is my problem? I'm seeing a Ben Folds album and a TMBG album in here that I haven't listened to. Anyway, my problem, not yours.
I did a lot better with podcasts. New-to-me educational podcasts include
The Human Bible
and The History of Rome, which dramatizes ancient history in a way that has gotten it to stay in my head. (It also has an unauthorized sequel, The History of Byzantium, which I haven't gotten to yet.) Prominent among non-educational podcasts are No More Whoppers, in which two friends press each other's buttons by pressing buttons, and Flip the Table, in which the terrible design of old media tie-in board games collides with the fact that it's hard to have a really bad time playing a game with your friends. Somewhere in between is the edutational Roguelike Radio, which I've been listening to since it started in late 2011, but which has been consistently good, and which got better in 2012, to the point where I feel it deserves a mention.
Finally, music and podcasts collide with Music for Programming, a great idea which only succeeds in making me feel guilty for not listening to the albums I've bought.
- Video: This was the big one, thanks to our Museum of the Moving Image membership. I posted a pretty comprehensive review post for the second half of the year, and also this earlier post that's kinda sickly in comparison. According to my metrics I saw thirty feature films in 2012. That's probably not all of them, but it's the most I've ever seen in a year, by a wide margin, and twice the number of books I read. Damn, me!
It's really tough to pick a Crummy.com Film of the Year, but that's the whole conceit here, so I'm gonna give it to Celine and Julie Go Boating, the Bechdel-riffic surreal fantasy buddy comedy. Runners-up: more conventional comedies A New Leaf and The Whole Town's Talking. All three were big surprises.
Not a lot of non-film video going on. Sumana and I really enjoyed Breaking Bad and the House of Cards trilogy, though. In Internet video news, Joe Hills is hilarious.
- Games: First, a rundown of the games I didn't play.
You'll recall that 2011 was the year I decided I was done with non-tactical RPGs. 2012 was the year I didn't play any non-tactical RPGs, and I have no regrets. The good thing about writing off an entire genre is you can crown an all-time champion. The best non-tactical RPG ever made was Mother 3. (My in-depth coverage: 1 2)
2011 was also the year I was playing some Zelda game or other and I thought to myself, "you know what, I've played this game enough times." In 2012 I played some old Zelda with Beth on her Virtual Console, but I didn't buy Skyward Sword and I won't be buying future games in the series unless they hammer out a Majora's Mask level of weirdness. The best Zelda game ever made was Link's Awakening for the Game Boy.
So what did I play? Not a whole lot, actually. I think my revived interest in video games may have been an artifact of my desire to write Constellation Games, not a permanent feature of my personality. I checked the contents of my DS card slot to see what was the last game I played on that system, and it was... the RPG that convinced me to give up on RPGs back in 2011.
But on the Wii there was Bit.Trip Runner, a fun twitch-reflexes game that creates a soothing Phillip Glass type soundtrack as you play it, which Sumana really likes to hear. On the PC there was more Minecraft, thanks to the insane modpack collections, especially Feed the Beast, which skyrocket the complexity of the base game and fulfill all my "Programmable Minecraft" dreams.
I bought every Humble Indie Bundle in 2012, and this time I tried all the games, but the only game that came out of it that I really liked was Bastion, which I mainly liked for its clever way of narrating your actions. But I loved FTL, a game I got as a Kickstarter reward. FTL combines solid theme, real-time tactics, and roguelike procedural generation+permadeath to recreate the experience of running your very own smuggling ship, just like in "Four Kinds of Cargo"! Or Firefly, if that's what you're into. It's great fun, and I'm giving it Crummy.com Game of the Year just so it doesn't go to Minecraft two years in a row.
Board games are still going strong. The Kickstarter reward games that have really paid off are Sunrise City and Glory to Rome. I started playing Dominion online with Dan. Pat and I played three games of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, and I enjoyed them all. Pat introduced us all to the auction action of For Sale, and I can't believe I didn't mention the fatalist chaos of Galaxy Trucker last year, but it's possible we only started playing it in 2012. It's great!
As embarrassing as it seems, I think the Crummy.com Board Game of the Year is Lords of Waterdeep, a game that was actually released in 2012. I give it this coveted honor for the two times we've been thinking about learning some other, heavier Eurogame, and decided to just play some Lords of Waterdeep instead. The theme is so terrible! (And you can't role-play as your character because your character must stay hidden until the end of the game!) But it's fun. Honorable mention: Galaxy Trucker.
- Food: Not a lot new here, but it was a big year for cheese in my neighborhood. We discovered the grilled-cheese-heavy vegetarian restaurant The Queens Kickshaw, and celebrated the opening of a store that sells cheese, Astoria Bier and Cheese.
Looking forward to 2013: man, we're already 1/12 of the way through 2013! This should have gone up a month ago! If I can finish RESTful Web APIs and Situation Normal I'll call it a good year.
Fri Feb 01 2013 10:13 Video Roundup: January 2013:
Gonna put one of these up every month, so as to avoid the big bolus of reviews that happened last time. There are only three films here, all from a Paul Williams retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image.
- Phantom of the Paradise: A flop on its initial release, Phantom has seen a resurgence as a cult classic. A very uneven movie that does over-the-top comedy very well but everything else is kind of a mishmash taken from other films. Well, a lot of the comedy is also taken from other films: there's a great scene that uses the car-bomb scene from Touch of Evil by way of killing off the Beach Boys. But that scene is great because it doesn't just blindly reference another movie, It adds a layer of complexity onto the original (using a split screen to show an "onstage" view and a "backstage" view which are united by the explosion) that creates suspense even if you've seen the referent.
But for me, the character of Beef stole the show. Beef, the flaming metalhead, progenitor of both Rocky from Rocky Horror and Vyvyan from The Young Ones. Good times. Rocky Horror has better songs, though.
- The Muppet Movie: It's The Muppet Movie. We all know how it goes. People in the theater were pre-laughing when we saw Miss Piggy and Kermit in the restaurant, because we knew Steve Martin was gonna show up, and then he showed up and life was good.
- Ishtar: This film has a really bad reputation and a horribly low IMDB rating, but I was looking forward to it because I loved Elaine May's A New Leaf. And I was right to look forward to it! This is a great movie. It's really funny and the plot comes together nicely. It's not perfect, but it doesn't deserve a 3.9 rating.
To illustrate my point, I've brought back The MST3K-IMDB Effect for a return engagement. Here, the part of "a movie being (or not being) on MST3K" will be played by "a movie being (or not being) Ishtar."
That's right, Elaine May's MST3K-IMDB effect is 22.9 standard deviations, sixty percent higher than the previous highest MSTm of 14.1, which was itself highly suspect. It's not impossible that a director would hammer out three movies that cluster very tightly around an IMDB rating of 7.1, and then deliver a movie that's 23 standard deviations worse, but I'm not seeing it. Instead, I would rate Ishtar a little lower than A New Leaf. The Onion agrees.
So what explains the low rating? The obvious reason is sabotage. The movie cost too much to make, May took way too long to edit her films, and the studio head had some kind of feud with Warren Beatty which he took out on Ishtar in public. Once the movie had become a punchline (specifically, the punchline to the Far Side "Hell's video store" cartoon), it was too late to change anyone's mind.
But I have two other explanations. First, during the Reagan years, during Iran-Contra, the moviegoing public was probably not in the mood for Ishtar's ham-fisted satire of America's foreign policy. Let alone one that climaxes with two Americans firing rockets at a CIA gunship that's trying to take them out. But now it seems pretty light by comparison with real life.
Second, Ishtar is a film about idiots who are really bad at something creative. Any time you write an infrafictional work that's supposed to be bad (and the songs in Ishtar are hilariously bad), you're inviting people to skip a step and believe that you have written something simply bad. Spinal Tap are idiots, but they have good songs.
Anyway, Elaine May was actually at this showing, and she took a couple questions, but she seemed really shy so we didn't bombard her with our fandom. Especially because other people were bombarding her with their fandom, and we saw how awkward it was.
(1) Sat Feb 02 2013 14:40 Spacewar! The Interview:
Went to the museum last night not for a movie, but to meet Peter Samson and (via poor-quality videoconferencing) Steve Russell, for a conversation about the second video game ever made, Spacewar!.
I asked Russell the question that's been burning in my mind for years: why does Spacewar! have an exclamation mark in its name? His answer: "Once I got it working, I thought it deserved an exclamation point!" I also asked Russell if he considered any other names for the game. "Nope."
No one asked the obvious final question, so I got that one in too: what games are they playing now? Both Russell and Samson are fans of solitaire card games. Russell also said he likes the Android game Tiny Village.
Some other tidbits from the conversation, which I found especially interesting and/or which I don't think are on the net already:
- I knew this before, but it didn't really sink in. Spacewar! was released (through PDP user groups) in 1962. There would be no more computer games released until 1969. When the famous Rolling Stone article about Spacewar! came out, the game was ten years old, and it was still the most popular video game in the world, almost by default.
- Samson said the name of the program Expensive Planetarium was a "double irony": it's an obvious reference to Expensive Typewriter, but "planetariums really do cost a lot of money."
- Russell was asked his opinion on Asteroids. He said it was "a great solution to the problem of only one person in the bar who wants to put quarters in the machine."
- It took too much computing power to calculate the trajectories of Spacewar! missiles under gravity, so they were deemed "photon torpedoes" which wouldn't be affected by gravity. Was this a common idea from earlier sci-fi or did Spacewar! invent the term? I should have asked.
- Samson said he later worked on a computer system for a "three-letter agency." This was a system with eight screens; it sounded a lot like IBM's SAGE computer. The hardware was late so they threw in some software for free, including a port of Spacewar! which could play four games simultaneously on all eight screens, and which had random matchmaking, so you didn't know who you were playing with. According to Samson, the intended purpose of the computer system was not too far removed from playing Spacewar!.
Thu Feb 07 2013 13:14 Constellation Games Interview in Bookslut:
Hey folks, CG fan Jeanne Thornton interviewed me a couple months back, creating a text that has now been published on Bookslut. (There's also an interview with Saladin Ahmed in the same issue.) The interview ranges over the CG publication process, games as an art form, space exploration, and so on.
One thing the published interview doesn't include is a question about Tetsuo Milk, which Jeanne cut before submitting the interview because it was kind of inside-baseball. But hey, inside baseball is the whole point of News You Can Bruise, so with Jeanne's permission I've reproduced the original question and my answer here:
I would feel remiss in not asking you about Tetsuo Milk, a character whom you’ve said (in your really, really mind-blowingly extensive commentary on the novel) essentially ran away with the book. Tetsuo is a brilliant character, but also feels at times like a heterogeneous element. I like this effect a lot, but I’m curious as to where this guy came from, what you’re saying through him, and how you see him fitting into the overall mix.
Maybe this will help: Tetsuo Milk is the ET version of Ariel. His silly mistakes and misunderstandings are mirror images of the mistakes Ariel makes trying to understand the Constellation. We don't laugh because we're not the ones being misunderstood. When Tetsuo does it to us, it's funny.
Here's a spoiler-free example. One of Ariel's post-contact hobbies is posting reviews of alien computer games to his blog. There's one really important scene that reverses the roles: Tetsuo writes a review of a game Ariel worked on as a developer, Brilhantes Poneis 5.
Brilhantes is a stupid Farmville-type mobile game where you have a pet pony and do pointless tasks to earn coins to buy accessories for it. Tetsuo tackles the game from a post-scarcity Marxist perspective, putting a lot of work into understanding how a game's economy can work when the player is the employee of an animal. He gets a lot of it right (i.e. he recognizes that the game demeans both its players and its developers), but he's operating from completely the wrong framework.
That's the kind of mistake Ariel makes. He brings his human assumptions to everything, whether he realizes it or not, whether or not Tetsuo or someone else calls him on it.
(This is why there's a reference to "Tetsuo-like ideas" later in the interview; we shoulda cut that reference.)
Tue Feb 12 2013 08:26 Hire Aaron DeVore:
I don't often use the NYCB bully pulpit to tell you to hire someone (apart from myself), but folks, you should hire Aaron DeVore. He was effectively the maintainer of Beautiful Soup during the period when I wasn't working on it. He answered tons of questions on the mailing list and sent me bugfix patches. When I started work on Beautiful Soup 4, he gave me a lot of feedback that helped stabilize the API.
Aaron did all this while a college student in Portland, Oregon. Now he's about to graduate, and he's looking for a job. Send him an email and let him know what you've got going on.
Tue Feb 12 2013 14:43 What's New in "RESTful Web APIs":
We're ahead of schedule, which is good because we have a lot of work to do that isn't part of the book manuscript. Yesterday I sent out over forty copies of the manuscript to beta readers. That is too many beta readers, so at this point I must refuse anyone else who wants to be part of the beta, unless they have/had a hand in one of the standards we discuss, and they want to specifically critique our coverage of that standard.
With the beta closed I think it's a good time to go into a little detail about the structure of the book. My guiding principle was to write a book that will be as useful now as RESTful Web Services was in 2007. Like RWS, RESTful Web APIs has a main storyline that takes up most of the book. My inspiration for the main storyline were a few books that followed RWS, notably REST in Practice and Mike's Building Hypermedia APIs with HTML5 and Node.
RWS focused on the HTTP notion of a "resource", and despite the copious client-side code, this put the conceptual focus clearly on the server side, where the resource implementations live. RWA focuses on representations, and thus on hypermedia, on the interaction between client and server, which is where REST lives. The stuff you remember from RWS is still here, albeit rewritten in a pedagogically superior way. Web APIs work on the same principles as the Web, here's how HTTP works, here's what the Fielding constraints do, and so on. But the focus is always on the interaction, on the client and server manipulating each others' state by sending messages back and forth.
We've also benefited from a lot of tech work done by others. The IANA registry of link relations showed that state transitions don't have to be tied to a media type. The RFC that established that registry also showed how to define custom state transitions (extension relation types) without defining yet another media type to hold them.
Insights like these inform the new parts of RWA's main storyline. What makes your API different from every other RESTful API in existence? That's the only part you really need to buckle down and design. Everything else you can reuse, or at least copy.
In particular, you shouldn't have to design a custom media type. Your API probably isn't that different from other APIs, and a ton of hypermedia formats and protocols have been invented since 2007. We cover a few of the most promising ones in the book's main storyline. We cover even more of them afterwards, mostly in the big "Hypermedia Zoo" chapter. Here's the book-wide list:
- The HTTP headers
- URL lists
- JSON Home Documents
- Problem detail documents
- Web Intents
- GeoJSON (which is only a hypermedia format on a bizarre technicality!)
- Web host metadata documents
- CoRE Link Format
After the main storyline and the hypermedia zoo, RWA continues the RWS tradition of giving an API-centric view of the HTTP standard. We have a "crash course in advanced HTTP" chapter, some of which is an update of Chapter 8 from RWS. (Look-before-you-leap requests never caught on, but I still feel like I have to describe them in RWA because I have no other source to refer you to!) Appendix A is an updated version of Appendix B from RWS, with the addition of these exciting new status codes:
- 308 ("Permanent Redirect")
- 428 ("Precondition Required")
- 429 ("Too Many Requests")
- 431 ("Request Header Fields Too Large")
- 451 ("Unavailable For Legal Reasons")
- 511 ("Network Authentication Required")
Appendix B is an update of appendix C from RWS, with these API-licious new HTTP headers:
The amount of reused material in RWA is really small, because the main storyline is completely rewritten for 2013. And I haven't even mentioned our coverage of profiles, partly because I can't yet think of a way to talk about profiles at less length than what we say in the book.
Thu Feb 14 2013 13:04 Fundamental Indeed:
I could spend all day just posting games that Board Game Dadaist comes up with. I forbear, for the sake of you, my readers, but Adam Parrish and I will email each other when we find an especially good one. And I think you should know about the best game BGD ever came up with (found by Adam back in December):
Fantasy Fundamental Rails (2005)
Players divide themselves into two teams.
Wed Feb 20 2013 13:14 Welcome BoingBoing Readers:
If you're coming here from Cory Doctorow's review of Constellation Games, you might like to know about my web page for the book. The book was originally a serial, and I wrote chapter-by-chapter commentary as it was serialized. I also wrote four bonus stories set before, during, and after the novel, which I've released under CC-BY-SA. All that stuff is here.
You might also be interested to know that you get a DRM-free PDF version of the novel by buying direct from the publisher.
Now would also be a great time to mention that Constellation Games is eligible for this year's Hugo.
Fri Feb 22 2013 10:44 100 Years of Markov Chains:
Back in January I took a little trip to Boston and hung out with Kirk. Among other things, we attended an event at Harvard celebrating the 100th anniversary of the paper that kicked off the Markov chain craze. I only wish Adam had been there. I've held off on talking about the event because I've been waiting for Harvard to put the video of the talks online. But that's a sucker's game, and now I have something better!
See, the first talk, by Brian Hayes, covered the amazing history leading up to the publication of Markov's seminal paper. He's now turned his talk into an article in American Scientist. The first few pages of that article are a basic introduction to Markov chains; the history starts on page four. Basically, Markov was a cranky old man who liked picking fights.
Markov’s pugnacity extended beyond mathematics to politics and public life. When the Russian church excommunicated Leo Tolstoy, Markov asked that he be expelled also. (The request was granted.) In 1902, the leftist writer Maxim Gorky was elected to the Academy, but the election was vetoed by Tsar Nicholas II. In protest, Markov announced that he would refuse all future honors from the tsar... In 1913, when the tsar called for celebrations of 300 years of Romanov rule, Markov responded by organizing a symposium commemorating a different anniversary: the publication of Ars Conjectandi 200 years before.
As acts of political protest go, the well-timed symposium is pretty great. At that symposium Markov revealed the Markov chain, which he'd invented as a way to smack down the dumb theological arguments of rival mathematician Pavel Nekrasov. His paper wasn't called "Markov Chains: Future Basis for Art and Scientific Discovery, Named After Me, A. A. Markov." It was called called "An Example of Statistical Investigation of the Text 'Eugene Onegin' Concerning the Connection of Samples in Chains".
Markov had manually gone through the first 20,000 characters of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin", looking at every pair of letters, writing down whether the letters were both vowels, both consonants, vowel-consonant, or consonant-vowel. Then he'd modelled the transitions between those four states with a Markov chain. The result disproved an assumption about the law of large numbers, an assumption crucial to Nekrasov's mathematical argument for free will. There's something about this mindset that always gets me--inventing the sledgehammer so you can use it to kill a fly.
The other two talks were a lot more technical. I was mostly able to follow them, but I don't think I got much out of them. Here's a summary of all three talks from someone else who was there. But I strongly recommend Hayes's article to anyone who reads this weblog.
(1) Thu Feb 28 2013 09:49 Ragtime Synchronicity:
"Bugs," said Krakowski. "In-tell-i-gence gathering devices. The
Constellation loves recording things. Now they're going to record
every conversation anyone ever has."
"I think you might be projecting a little."
(1) Mon Mar 04 2013 14:38 February Film Roundup:
The second in the 2013 series, as promised. Note: I draw no distinction between information about a movie that's a "spoiler" and information that's not.
- Roots (1977): I'd never seen Roots. We watched it so we could reasonably go to a reunion interview at the museum featuring Levar Burton, Louis Gossett Jr., Leslie Uggams, and Ben Vereen. Here's Sumana's take. Non-surprise: Roots is really good! I have only one complaint: it was disconcerting to see Levar Burton abruptly replaced by John Amos in a "nine years later" flash-forward, since we now know that age cannot change the essential Levar Burton-ness of Levar Burton.
My other complaint was going to be that some (not all) of the villains were one-dimensional villains defined entirely by their hatred for the main characters. I'm actually okay with this in certain kinds of pieces, and Roots definitely qualifies, so my criticism was going to be somewhat muted. But then something magical happened that cancelled my criticism altogether.
You see, in a decision that probably made sense to whichever ABC exec was trying to backpedal from having greenlit Roots in the first place, it was decided to cast "television's most likeable white actors" in the roles of the villains, to sort of tone it down a little. At least that's what it said in the little mini-documentary on Roots that they showed before the reunion interview. If an actor's natural "likeability" tones down the evil of their character, that means they're not a very good actor, so it's a good thing that the whole "likeability" thing was a bust.
But then! The most despicable villain of the entire show, the final boss of Roots, the very face of evil, was played by genial, honey-voiced Burl Ives. Amazing! It was like watching Burl Ives play Saruman. I don't think that's what they were going for, but it was great. And I can confirm that Roots as a whole deserves all the praise given to it over the years. Ben Vereen, in particular, is amazing.
- Killer of Sheep (1979): A sad movie about a man so beat-down by the grim meathook future that he can't appreciate the odd moments of grace when they pop up. It's always been tough for me to stay engaged in a movie that has no through-line, but after the first half of Celine and Julie Go Boating I've learned to treat it as the dramatic equivalent of sketch comedy. And although this movie is not a comedy, its brand of existential despair gives it something in common with sketch comedy, so it wasn't as much of a mismatch as you might think.
- Metropolis (1927): The first of several movies we saw on Hulu when they made their Criterion movies free to watch over the course of a weekend. I'd seen it before; Sumana had not. My current opinion is an amplified version of my old, uninformed opinion. As a story, Metropolis is terrible, but if you treat it as an opera it's a pretty good opera, with lots of awesome stuff to look at. And the robot's wink is one of my favorite film shots ever.
- Modern Times (1936): Sumana has zero tolerance for protagonists whose incompetence is supposed to be endearing. Since endearing incompetence is the Little Tramp character's stock in trade, I probably should have anticipated her reaction to Modern Times. I wouldn't say I have zero tolerance for such protagonists, but I don't have a lot, and it really dampened the mood of the movie. Bright moments include the feeding-machine scene, the Tramp getting high on coke, and the one line of silent-film dialogue that redeems his incompetence (paraphrased): "I'll do whatever it takes to get you a home, even if I have to work for it!"
- Diabolique (1955): The cream of Criterion Weekend, an exciting thriller that Hitchcock wanted to direct but Henri-Georges Clouzot got there first. So the authors of the novel on which Diabolique was based wrote another novel with a similar twist but which was probably a lot worse, because that novel became Vertigo. I guess back then you couldn't just write a screenplay, you had to try it out as a novel first.
While watching this movie we noticed that it's effectively a Columbo episode. A little while later we watched the movie that serves as the pilot episode of Columbo, and there were quite a few similarities to Diabolique! Coincidence? I really don't know. The play that introduced the Columbo character premiered in 1960.
Bonus: Hulu kept interrupting the movies with commercials, creating the bizarre experience of watching subtitled French films on a local TV station in 1993. They've clearly got an algorithm for determining how many commercials they can cram in before people stop watching, because near the end of Diabolique the commercial breaks started coming once every six minutes. It's so suspenseful, they know no one's going to tune out.
It was the same three or four commercials the whole weekend, and one of the commercials included the perfect iambic-tetrameter line "In every segment we compete," which we mashed up with Sydney Smith's Answer to an Invitation to Dine at Fishmongers Hall.
In every segment we compete
The monsters of the deep to eat
- Shoot the Piano Player (1960): Hulu called this "Truffault's most playful film", and I misinterpreted this statement as implying that the movie would be a comedy. It is not a comedy, but it's not bad. I dunno about this whole French New Wave thing, though. I just don't know.
- I Married A Witch (1942): This was a comedy, and it was terrible. You know how sometimes a movie gets into Criterion more because it's representative of a genre than because it's good? I suspect that happened here. This is the perfect "stupid black-and-white non-musical comedy." After a decent opening it went downhill fast, and by mutual agreement Sumana and I skipped the middle 45 minutes of this 77-minute movie. Fortunately, this movie ends with a witch stealing a gubernatorial election through brainwashing and magical vote fraud! Stupendous! But please don't take that as an endorsement of the movie as a whole. I Married A Witch has an IMDB rating of 7.1, a rating that rightfully belongs to Ishtar.
- Foreign Correspondent (1940): Hitchcock's propaganda thriller. I was definitely caught up in it but I don't have a lot to say about it in the cold light of day. Some of the twists were not that surprising, others were good examples of Hitchcock thinking outside the cinematic box. E.g. most of the main characters get on a passenger plane to America and you're in the middle of some piddling drama that pits Group A against Group B, but then the real twist happens which is the plane is shot down by a German submarine!
- The Great Dictator (1940): I rewatched this after Sumana went to sleep, in an effort to get one more free Criterion movie out of Hulu. I remember really liking The Great Dictator and I wanted to bring my recently honed film-watching skills to bear on it. And it's... uneven. Chaplin's tramp-like character is as genially incompetent as ever, and his author-mouthpiece speech at the end, which expresses a lot of nice sentiments, makes no sense in terms of plot and does nothing to fulfil the incredibly tense dramatic situation that the rest of the movie has been building up. (Compare the speech at the end of Foreign Correspondent, in which Hitchcock puts away all his cinematic tricks and gimmicks and simply begs the American audience for help.) So I guess I have zero tolerance for sappy melodrama in comedies, especially comedies about horrible wars.
But when Chaplin plays Hitler it's amazing. This is the portrayal I can imagine getting under the dictator's skin. "Adenoid Hynkel" is a petty, insecure, puffed-up, blustering asshole, the opposite of Chaplin's tramp, a man whose legendary incompetence threatens to ruin the world. You can tell that Chaplin wasn't aware of how evil Hitler really was (or else you can understand why he claimed he hadn't been aware). Even though this is the most scathing satirical portrayal of Hitler I've ever seen--and well-timed to boot--you'd always feel bad for even deploying satire as a weapon instead of buying more government bonds.
- Emma Mae (1976): Kind of an unintentional pun on "MMA" there. Director Jamaa Fanaka tried to make a funny action film for a black audience, only to see it dubbed "blaxploitation" and released on DVD as "Black Sister's Revenge". Well, it's a very fun movie, but if you're expecting "Black Sister's Revenge" you're gonna be disappointed.
IMDB trivia says Fanaka was a fan of Billy Wilder, and it shows in this story of a country girl who comes to L.A. to live with her aunt and uncle. The plot, the action and the comedy are all driven by Emma Mae's tendency to take the most direct approach to any problem. A guy calls Emma Mae a hick, so she hits him. Her boyfriend gets arrested, so she starts a car wash to raise money to pay his bail. Someone else thinks a car wash is a dumb idea, so Emma Mae hits her. The Man shuts down her car wash, so Emma Mae robs a bank. And so on.
Jerri Hayes, who played Emma Mae, came to the showing and said that before Fanaka died last year, they'd been talking about doing a sequel to Emma Mae. That would have been really fun to see.
- J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000): March bonus! I don't have the stomach for Oldboy, so I'm skipping most of the Chan-wook Park festival, but I figured I could handle a thriller about the Korean DMZ. I mean, the worst that can happen is nuclear war. And it was pretty good! I was analyzing the movie while watching it (occupational hazard) and thinking how its use of symbolism and callbacks was corny and heavy-handed, but then the very last shot of the movie tied together two earlier scenes, which initially seemed to be nothing but comic relief, into the movie as a whole. Tied it all together in a way that made those scenes transcend comic relief to create something moving. The very last shot changed my opinion of the movie from "pretty good" to "very good". I didn't think that stuff happened in real life.
My attempt to explain this experience to Sumana revealed that this is very much a "you had to be there" thing, but if you have the chance to be there, I think you should take it. I'm not gonna say there's no disturbing violence in this movie, but it's no Oldboy.
Tue Mar 26 2013 08:00:
From an interview with Ken Liu, recent Hugo/Nebula/WFA winner:
I went to law school, started a new job, and kind of gave up on writing for a while due to a supreme act of stupidity. I wrote this one story that I really loved, but no one would buy it. Instead of writing more stories and subbing them, as those wiser than I was would have told me, I obsessively revised it and sent it back out, over and over, until I eventually gave up, concluding that I was never going to be published again.
And then, in 2009, Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson bought that story, "Single-Bit Error," for their anthology, Thoughtcrime Experiments. The premise of the anthology was, in the editors' words, "to find mind-breakingly good science fiction/fantasy stories that other editors had rejected, and release them into the commons for readers to enjoy."
I can't tell you how much that sale meant to me. The fact that someone liked that story after years of rejections made me realize that I just had to find the one editor, the one reader who got my story, and it was enough. Instead of trying to divine what some mythical ur-editor or "the market" wanted, I felt free, after that experience, to just try to tell stories that I wanted to see told and not worry so much about selling or not selling. I got back into writing—and amazingly, my stories began to sell.
Case closed, I'd say.
(2) Mon Apr 01 2013 09:25 March Film Roundup:
Okay, look. I don't see movies just for their entertainment value. I dig film as an art form. But my permit to dig is premised on an amateur understanding of film as a narrative art form. If you want to present an endless stream of disconnected images, let's do an installation piece, because I want to decide for myself when I've had enough. I'm not going to be your captive for fifty minutes. (I'm looking at you, Andy Warhol.) And all that aside, I'm not gonna see a movie called Trash Humpers (2009), when the nicest thing the folks doing the screening can say is that it "rewards the open-minded viewer with moments of astonishing and unexpected poignancy."
Which is to say that I skipped most of the museum's highly avant-garde March offerings. I also got this book I have to work on. So not many movies in this roundup. Let's-a go:
- Fallen Angel (1945): Decent noir with a fake mystery and an interesting twist at the end (in terms of which characters got what they wanted and how, not in terms of plot). John Carradine appeared as a classic comedic noir conman, but he had to appear in twenty other movies, so he left after the first reel, much to Fallen Angel's detriment.
a noir film is my popcorn movie. I'll go see any number of them but I'm not expecting great things from them. PS: there is no popcorn allowed in the museum theater.
- Horse Feathers (1932): Still really funny, but this is the first viewing where I noticed that the Marx Brothers' general disrespect for society encompasses a lot of misogny. It's not just Harpo chasing the choir girls. In fact, Groucho's the worst. It doesn't help that there's no Margaret Dumont here to take up the flag of society and fight back. But Chico filling bottles in the speakeasy will never get old.
- Ikiru (1952): Watched on Hulu during the free Kurosawa weekend. Highly recommended. A little heavy-handed at the beginning, but it really started paying off when the main character died. (Not a spoiler.) At that point I saw a masterful display of one of the most difficult and most important things that fiction can bring to our attention: the mechanics by which we all construct narratives for our lives in which we're the good guy making good things happen.
Bonus: everyone referred to Takashi Shimura's character as "Kacho", deepening my belief that Game Center CX is a workplace satire in the vein of Ikiru.
- Wreck-it Ralph (2012): I'm not sure who gave Disney the idea that it's okay to use other people's intellectual property in their movies, but it gives good results. Wreck-it Ralph is a by-the-numbers Disney narrative, but the fact that it's a movie about arcade games and their by-the-numbers narratives leaves quite a bit of room for subversion and criticism, in service of the larger goal of feel-good entertainment. As with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I thought the original characters were a lot more interesting than the famous cameos, to the extent that I continually wished the famous cameos would butt out and let the original characters get on with it.
(The worst cameo was Sonic the Hedgehog's infodumpy PSA near the beginning. Awful! But! What if it was a sly reference to those dumb PSAs at the end of the old Sonic cartoons? Does an obscure reference deserve respect even when deployed as a cheesy infodump? OH THE DILEMMA)
The museum showed this in 3D, and I was apprehensive about the extra D. I can report that it neither caused me headaches nor made me want to see all movies in 3D from this point on.
- 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967): The French New Wave eludes me again. There's one great scene in this, in which the conspiratorially-whispering narrator (Godard himself) deconstructs the subject-object distinction to the extent that he loses the ability to make directorial decisions, and lets the camera linger on some trees for a while. There's a few other good bits, and lots of Ballardian imagery. Makes me want to watch Alphaville even more. But... eh. Eh, I say!
Thu Apr 18 2013 13:05 In Search of the Beautiful Soup Double-Dippers:
Recently I noticed that certain IPs were using distribute or setuptools to download the Beautiful Soup tarball multiple times in a row. For one thing, I'm not sure why distribute and setuptools are downloading Beautiful Soup from crummy.com instead of using PyPI, especially since PyPI registers almost 150k downloads of the latest BS4--why are some people using PyPI and not others?
If anyone knows how to convince everyone to use PyPI, I'd appreciate the knowledge. But it's not a big deal right now, and it gives me some visibility into how people are using Beautiful Soup. Visibility which I will share with you.
Yesterday, the 17th, the Beautiful Soup 4.1.3 tarball was downloaded 2223 times. It is by far the most popular thing on crummy.com. The second most popular thing is the Beautiful Soup 3.2.1 tarball, which was downloaded 381 times. The vast majority of the downloads were from installation scripts: distribute or setuptools.
1516 distinct IP addresses were responsible for the 2223 downloads of 4.1.3. I wrote a script to find out how many IP addresses downloaded Beautiful Soup more than once. The results:
|Downloads from a single IP
||Number of times this happened
Naturally my attention was drawn to the outliers at the top of the table. I investigated them individually.
The IP address responsible for 55 downloads is a software company of the sort that might be deploying to a bunch of computers behind a proxy. The 35 is an individual on a cable modem who, judging from their other traces on the Internet, is deploying to a bunch of computers using Puppet. The 15, the 13, and the 11 are all from Travis CI, a continuous integration service.
One of the two 5s was an Amazon EC2 instance. Five of the twelve 4s were Amazon EC2 instances. Thirty-seven of the forty-three 3s were Amazon EC2 instances. And 395 of the 453 double-dippers were Amazon EC2 instances. Something's clearly going on with EC2. (There was also one download from within Amazon corporate, among other BigCo downloaders.)
I hypothesized that the overall majority of duplicate requests are from Amazon EC2 instances being wiped and redeployed. To test this hypothesis I went through all the double-dippers and calculated the time between the first request and the second. My results are in this scatter plot. Each point on the plot represents an IP address that downloaded Beautiful Soup twice yesterday.
For EC2 instances, the median time between requests is 11 hours and 45 minutes. So EC2 instances are being automatically redeployed twice a day. For non-EC2 instances, the median time between requests is 51 minutes, and the modal time is about zero. Those people set up a dev environment, discover that something doesn't work, and try it again from scratch.
Sat Apr 27 2013 17:08 Board Game Dadaist Improvements:
I've finally relented to Adam's demands and made some improvements to the Board Game Dadaist RSS feed. He broke his kneecap recently and I figured this would be a good way to cheer him up. Every game that shows up in the feed now has a permalink (here's "Plue"), and that page has a very basic link for posting your find to Twitter.
(1) Wed May 01 2013 10:59 April Film Roundup:
Another month, another few movies. RESTful Web APIs is almost done, but not quite, so once again there's not a whole lot here. The theme of this month is "really loving a movie, seeing a different movie on that basis, and being very disappointed."
- The Face You Deserve (2004): This movie caused a rare Siskel and Ebert-type rift between me and Sumana. I thought the first part of the movie was boring, but that it picked up once it turned into a surreal fairy tale. Sumana thought the first part showed promise and hated the Michel Gondry-esque manchildren in the fairy tale part. I don't recommend this movie, either, but I was engaged for the fairy tale.
- The General (1926): This is one of the best movies I've ever seen. It's so well put together. The movie is basically two chase scenes, and each chase scene is made entirely of inventive Jackie Chan-style action gags. People in the theater were cheering, which I've never experienced before, and laughing to an extent not heard since The Whole Town's Talking. The General has all the good things Chaplin put into his films, but none of the treacly sentimentality. The one bit of sentimentality is deflated by its co-occurance with the one bit of corny dated-looking special effects.
No surprise, then, that this was Keaton's Ishtar: a way-too-expensive flop that cost him his creative control. You can Watch The General on the Internet Archive, but as always with silent film the problem is finding an appropriate soundtrack. We heard an amazing live soundtrack performed by Viola Dana, and they have a CD available, but the CD only has "selections". [Update: The liner notes make it look like the CD only has selections, but upon ripping the CD I discovered what appears to be the entire soundtrack.] So maybe try Stravinsky's "Chamber Works", as suggested by a comment on this page? I bet some peppy chiptunes would also work.
- Die Hard (1988): Not one of the best movies I've ever seen. It deserves a lot of credit as the pinnacle of the 80s action movie, but at this point I've seen some action movies from the 70s, and it feels like movie execs saw Die Hard and said "well, we found it!" and the genre never advanced again. Not really Die Hard's fault, but it's hard not to be bitter.
For improvisational comedy-violence, The General is better. Not just my idiosyncratic opinion! The General's IMDB rating is 8.4, versus Die Hard's 8.3, and at the high end of the distribution, 0.1 IMDB star is worth a lot.
- Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): A big disappointment after The General. Buster Keaton has lost his creative control, and it shows. The film lacks a through-line (unlike The General, which was literally on rails), and promises a "snobs vs. slobs" rivalry that never gets going. Partially redeemed by great stunts. This, too, can be seen on the Internet Archive.
- Tai Chi Zero (2012): Zany anti-colonialist steampunk kung fu movie that annotates events with video game-style infographics and otherwise breaks the fourth wall all the time. It's kind of China's Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, and judging from online reviews it's just as divisive. We liked it a lot. (I also liked Scott Pilgrim.) It's got big problems, notably the acting, which is very stiff. But most of the actors were chosen for their martial arts ability, and martial arts are happening about seventy percent of the time. The only time the fourth-wall-breaking got out of control was a scene at the beginning of the third act, which blends together "we're planning this heist" shots and hypothetical "this is what it will look like when you carry out the heist" shots, and then starts mixing in "this is how the heist actually went down" shots! It took about thirty seconds before I realized that I was now watching the actual heist.
Sometimes the problems made me enjoy the movie more! The awkward English scenes gave me an experience similar to what I imagine a Mandarin speaker feels watching a Mandarin scene in an American movie. There's a steampunk tank with an English instruction manual, which was supposedly written by Brits but which reads exactly like the instruction manuals that come with Chinese-manufactured kitchen appliances. I thought the villain was a more complex character than he actually was, because I assumed that if everyone derides a character as a wimp, that makes him the underdog and you're supposed to have some sympathy for him. But no, apparently not in this movie.
Oh, and you know how they say "there ought to be a law?" Well, the special effects supervisor for Tai Chi Zero is credited as "A Law". So now there is A Law!
But I gotta tell you that this is not a standalone movie. It could have been, but about three minutes from the end it turns into The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, introduces a whole bunch of new characters, sets up a sequel and leaves you hanging.
- Tai Chi Hero (2012): Fortunately, the sequel is playing in Times Square right now, so we went and saw it the next day. Aaaand... we were very disappointed. If you liked all the steampunk and fourth-wall-breaking from the first movie, then too bad, because there's no steampunk until the second act and no fourth-wall-breaking until the third. (The steampunk, when it finally happens, is still great.) On the other hand, if you hated all that nerd shit from the first movie, you'll love the by-the-numbers soap opera they replaced it with.
On top of everything else, the title of this movie retroactively makes the title of the previous movie dumb. I can't believe they got Peter Stormare to... wait, he was in Armageddon, never mind.
Wed May 01 2013 14:55 Story Bundle:
Constellation Games is featured in the current video game-themed StoryBundle. It's a pay-what-you-want, like the Humble Indie Bundle. This means that if you're the ultimate cheapskate, you can get my book and six others for the Steam-sale-level price of three bucks. Pay ten bucks, and you also get three bonus books,
including Jordan Mechner's "The Making of Prince of Persia and a Ralph Baer memoir which--just guessing here--is probably enjoyably cranky.
And for people who discover Constellation Games based on this bundle, this is my occasional notification that there are tons of free extras: four bonus stories, in-character Twitter feeds, and an episode guide with commentary.
Side note: the bundle was assembled by Simon Carless, who is the reason I wrote Constellation Games in the first place.
Tue May 14 2013 10:04 Beautiful Soup 4.2.0:
My work on RESTful Web APIs is pretty much done, so I went through the Beautiful Soup bug tracker and fixed everything I could. The result is a new, stoner-iffic release of Beautiful Soup.
Here are the release notes. The main new features are a much more capable CSS selector engine, and a diagnostics module that should help with tech support.
(2) Sat Jun 01 2013 10:06 May Film Roundup:
Lots of travel in May, so not many movies this month either. But I do have heterodox opinions for you. Read on!
- Fahrenheit 451 (1966): Or, "From Truffaut to True Friend." Because I figured out why the French New Wave keeps not doing it for me. Truffaut et al. keep making films that would be much better as genre films! The lingering, visually striking shots; the stylized dialogue, the existential despair; all hallmarks of science fiction and noir. That's why I thought I would like this stuff. That's why I thought I'd like Shoot the Piano Player. But none of it worked for me, until Fahrenheit 451. From IMDB:
François Truffaut reportedly said that he found science fiction films uninteresting and arbitrary. Because of this, a friend of his told him the story of Ray Bradbury's novel 'Fahrenheit 451'. Immediately afterward, Truffaut wanted to make a film from the novel and subsequently spent years raising the financing.
It was a simple communication problem. "Ze science fiction films, zey are not so good." "Well, have you read this one science fiction book?" "Ze holy shit, it will be my life's work!"
The movie's got issues. Oskar Werner hated Truffaut, and takes it out on us by Nicholas Caging his way through the lead role. Truffaut was so excited about making this movie that he finished the screenplay before becoming fluent in English. But hey, it's a dystopia whose defining feature is a lack of high culture. People are gonna act like robots and talk like poorly-translated subtitles. Fahrenheit 451 captures the school of SF in which sheer desire to tell a story compensates for the lack of literary chops. That means it's nothing like Bradbury, but it ain't bad.
- Promised Land (1975): The best thing about seeing movies at the museum, apart from the eclectic selection and the fact that it's usually free for members, is that you don't have to sit through a bunch of ads and trailers. At most, the curator will give a little speech. But the Promised Land showing brought back some of that traditional cinema non-magic, by not being free to members and by having a whole bunch of speeches beforehand, simulating the trailer experience nicely. I will admit it's not every day you get to hear from the consul-general of the Polish consulate in New York.
OK, the movie itself. By the director of Ashes and Diamonds, and having many of the same visual trademarks as that movie, notably "light streaming through windows" and "blood-stained white cloth". There's a lot of blood in this one, actually: industrial accidents, third-degree burns, plutocrat cane-beatings, and old-fashioned fistfights and riots. The movie's engaging the whole way through, and there are a couple scenes that are amazingly clever--I loved the scene in the theater and the scene where the Bartleby-like clerk tells off his boss.
But I was never surprised. It's an adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel, it's a movie about industrialists made in a communist country, and it goes pretty much as I thought it would. No, I was surprised, once. There's one glorious moment when entrepreneur Moryc Welt is so relieved and exhausted from having carried off a con that he breaks the fourth wall. He becomes his actor, Wojciech Pszoniak. Pszoniak looks at the camera and waves excitedly at the audience. A little flash, and then he's back to being Moryc Welt, and the movie is back to being what you thought it was.
Good movie? Sure. Three hours worth of entertainment. Much better than Ashes and Diamonds. But not the transcendent experience I go into these movies hoping for.
- A Hard Day's Night (1964): Goofy fun. I was going to say "not much of substance", but the essay that accompanied this screening said that its cinematography was very influential. So, there's your substance.
This movie solidified my opinion that Ringo is the most interesting Beatle. He's the only one in A Hard Day's Night who's willing to create comedy at his own expense. As long as I'm throwing Molotov cocktails: I'm kind of tired of the Beatles' music. I used to like it a lot, I still respect it, but I've been hearing this stuff for twenty years and it's time to take it off heavy rotation. Not A Hard Day's Night's fault, but the scenes where the Beatles are just playing their instruments and people are screaming didn't move me at all. They were just kinda creepy.
- Upstream Color (2013): Went to see this at IFC as a date with Sumana but the showing was CANCELLED, so we just had dinner.
- Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): I wasn't even going to see this. The buzz was so negative, with J.J. Abrams doing that thing he does, where he reveals something really dumb in a way so vague that you mentally fill in the clever thing he could be doing instead. I'd gone so far as to write off the entire franchise, the way we write off the Roman Republic once Julius Caesar comes along, even though there's still a good five hundred years of consuls and quaestors serving something called "the republic of Rome".
But Sumana saw it, and wanted to talk about it, so I saw it with Beth. And... it exceeded my low expectations! Since you can't make a Star Trek movie these days unless it's a ripoff of The Wrath of Khan, it makes sense to literally remake The Wrath of Khan. In fact, at this point my review of the 2009 movie and my notes on Khan envy suffice to say most of what I want to say about Star Trek Into Darkness. It's pretty much the same movie as Star Trek, the difference being that I'm not going to put up with it any more. Rip off The Wrath of Khan once, shame on you. Rip off The Wrath of Khan twice, shame on me.
And 2009-era Leonard, we gotta talk about plots not making sense. I've written a novel since then and I now see that there are different levels of making sense. On a technical level, the Genesis device is nonsense, but thematically it's perfect. Genesis has enormous creative potential, but when Khan learns about it, all he sees is a weapon. Khan thinks he should rule humanity, but he doesn't know what humanity is for.
On the other hand, red matter, or the "red matter" deus ex machina in this movie... who the hell cares? It's a special effect. It has whatever properties are necessary to drive the plot forward. Nobody's gonna say "I sure wish they'd do something that revisits that issue."
And that's the difference between good Star Trek and crap Star Trek. The closest this movie came to good Trek was Scotty's rejection of the militarization of Starfleet. Yes, Scotty is the film's moral center, and that's the only thing about this movie that is truly great.
You know what? I'm changing the holy film rankings. Don't try to stop me! I'm doing this for all our sakes. The best Star Trek movie is now The Voyage Home, the one about using social engineering to clear up a big misunderstanding. The second-best Star Trek movie is now The Undiscovered Country, the one about confronting your prejudice and making peace with your enemies. The Wrath of Khan is now only the third-best Star Trek movie. Do you hear me? The third-best! AH HA HA HA H
PS: Amitabh Bachchan for Khan.
- Arrested Development (2013): Not gonna make a habit of mentioning TV show-like things in these roundups, but c'mon, it's Arrested Development. Season 4 had the feeling of a "darker, grittier" reboot. I enjoyed watching the puzzle unfold, but was it really a comedy? It wasn't that much funnier than, say, Breaking Bad. Well, who's to say what's a "comedy"? It was really well done. Needs some editing though.
(1) Thu Jun 27 2013 10:37 Sycorax Transcends Your Puny Version Numbers:
Last night I'd finally had enough with all of my Twitter bots not working due to sending POST requests to a resource that was 401 Gone. The one I really need to keep going is Frances Daily, and that one's on break right now because the planner page for June 1988 was unfortunately missing. But we're running out of June, so I fixed it.
To do that I had to fix Sycorax, the way-too-advanced piece of software that enacted an elaborate running commentary during the serialization of Constellation Games, a commentary that about eighty people saw. Since I'm pretty sure I'm the only person using Sycorax, I've decided to stop doing a tarballed release every time I change something, and just put the code up on Github.
Robot roll call!
The robot in the shop is @RoyPostcards, which I'll fix around the same time I get some more postcards ready to put up.
Update: @CrowdBoardGames prayed for a friend, and he came! His name is Timmy!
Fri Jun 28 2013 14:55 The Interesting Parts:
I've wanted to write this post for a long time, so long that the main guy I'm writing about, Iain M. Banks, announced that he had cancer and then died of the cancer. That doesn't really affect what I'm going to write, but it does give it an air of speaking ill of the dead, and it just sucks in general.
The Banks novel I read most recently was The Algebraist, and it was a mixed bag for me. The epic scope of Banks's imagination has always been a big inspiration to me as a writer, but The Algebraist is dominated by Banks's "normal human" characters, who channel that epic scope into activities I have always found really boring. I mentioned this in my commentary for "The Time Somn Died", and I assumed it was a side effect of the fact that there's just nothing to do in the Culture. But The Algebraist isn't a Culture novel. Its "normal human" characters don't sit around all day being post-scarcity. I'm just not interested in most of what they do.
Fortunately, eventually the spectacle and the aliens spin up and save the book. I speak mainly of the Dwellers, aliens who make their way onto my list of SF favorites for the way they combine Bertie Wooster joie de vivre with a complete disregard for the value of individual lives, including their own. Great stuff. I loved it. Colonel Hatherance: another awesome alien.
(The other flaw in The Algebraist is one I am perhaps too quick to notice in other writers. There's a puzzle, and a solution to the puzzle, but no explanation as to how the solution--which, by necessity, can be explained in a few paragraphs to a reader who's only been immersed in the universe for a few hours--has evaded all the in-universe people who've been desperately trying to solve the puzzle for thousands of years. That has nothing to do with this post, but I thought I'd mention it because it's a tricky problem, and if you start looking for it you'll see it a lot.)
After Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist, I naturally turned my reading eye to A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Communication Sciences (1925-1980), by Iain Banks. No, just kidding. It's a corporate history published by Bell Labs in 1984 to keep track of all the stuff they'd invented over the years. My copy used to be in the library of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia--not sure why they had a copy in the first place.
You might think these two books have nothing in common, but one commonality was clear as soon as I cracked the latter tome: they both start out super boring.
Unlike The Algebraist, A History of Engineering and Science... is boring most of the way through. There's a lot about switched telephone networks, radio and fiber-optic cables. That's actually why I got this book; I wanted to do research for an alt-history story about phone phreaking. But the details were so dry I'm either gonna give up on the idea or just read Exploding the Phone instead. Here are the interesting parts of that book:
- Bell Labs used questionnaires and statistical models to map 25 two-person relationships along four axes: (p444-448)
- competition and conflict/cooperation and harmony
- task-oriented and formal/socio-emotional and informal
For example, the relationship "business partners" is characterized by equality and cooperation. It's slightly on the intense side of intense/superficial, and slightly on the task-oriented side of task-oriented/socio-emotional. The relationship "siblings" fits squarely into equality/competition/intense/socio-emotional.
Bell used this breakdown to conduct market research, such as when trying to figure out how to sell PICTUREPHONE service.
- At Bell Labs, Béla Julesz invented random-dot stereograms, (p451-453) cousin to the Magic Eye puzzles that ravaged the countryside in the 1990s. Since you can only see the stereogram if you have binocular vision, Julesz et al used stereograms to demonstrate that infants get binocular vision at 3.5 months. By reproducing common optical illusions in stereogram form, they were able to demonstrate that most optical illusions happen in a part of your brain further down the line than the part that combines the separate images from your eyes.
I'm not 100% sure what Bell thought it was getting out of this research, but it probably also pertained to figuring out why no one wanted PICTUREPHONE.
- And of course Chapter 9, "Computer Science" was pretty interesting. It had a lot about early analog computers, and the predecessors to Unix. A few choice quotes:
An open shop for scientific computing, available to all comers, evolved around these machines. R. W. Hamming's epigrams, "It is better to do the right program the wrong way than to do the wrong program the right way," and "The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers," which stressed the role of computing as a servant to science, gained universal assent.
The low cost of film production on the Stromberg-Carlson recorder suggested using it for movies. R. M. McClure made the first computer movie at Bell Labs, a classified film of a cloud of incoming ballistic missiles and decoys.
That would be an interesting film to see, because Bell Labs got its microfilm printer in 1961, so it probably predates 1967's Hummingbird (the first film on Wikipedia's timeline of computer animation) by quite a bit. But I can't find it online. It's probably still classified.
Curiously, the Bell System was sometimes required by law, as well as by engineering needs, to solve the minimum spanning tree, Steiner, and traveling salesman problems. In certain jurisdictions network rates have been based on these criteria.
Hopefully you see the problem. Nothing about those quotes, or about stereograms or classifying two-person relationships, is intrinsically more interesting than the stuff about circuit-switched telephone networks. It's all subjective. When I reached Chapter 9 of A History of Engineering and Science... I had the feeling of encountering the Dwellers in The Algebraist. "At last, this is my chapter!" But there's obviously an audience for that earlier stuff. I'm just not it. So... there must be people who really enjoy the human-centric parts of The Algebraist, right? Perhaps those people even enjoy the human-centric parts of the Culture books?
What madness is this? I knew that interestingness was subjective for nonfiction. As the author of a novel about alien video games, I am familiar with the idea that a reader might decide a novel is just not their thing. But it had escaped me that the same logic might apply within a novel. This made me re-evaluate the parts of Banks I don't like. However, I came to the same conclusion: I still don't like them, and I'm gonna try to avoid writing that sort of stuff. But it's not so strange anymore that there'd be an audience for it.
Last week I went to the Met and checked out an exhibit of prints from the Civil War. There's a Thomas Nast print from Harper's called "Christmas Eve", divided into two halves: the woman at home with the kids on Christmas Eve, praying for her husband, and the soldier in camp looking at a picture of his wife. It's a moving piece but at first glance there's not much to distinguish it from other "war sucks" pieces of the time.
But if you look in the left and right corners of the print, you'll see Santa Claus with his reindeer. On the left he's climbing down the chimney, and on the right he's driving through the camp, tossing out gifts. The cover for the same issue of Harper's shows Santa giving toys and socks to Union soldiers. These prints are the origin of the modern image of Santa Claus.
Nast first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early and, for the north, darkest days of the Civil War.
Which are the interesting parts? How do you tell?
Mon Jul 01 2013 09:06 June Film Roundup:
I guess the theme of June was mixing fact and fiction? I dunno why I feel the need to come up with a theme for all the random movies I watched in a month. This thing is long enough as it is. Here you go:
- Computer Chess (2013): A painstakingly forged docudrama about a computer chess tournament in the early 1980s, shot on period cameras, featuring old computers and super realistic dialogue. It's really amazing... and then... writer/director Andrew Bujalski throws it all away! He piles on fantastic elements that start out pretty good and then swerve into creepypasta territory.
It didn't help that I sat with an audience of chess enthusiasts who'd come not to see a quirky, nearly-plotless indie movie, but rather to hear Joel Benjamin and Murray Campbell talk about their work on Deep Blue. See, the World Science Festival didn't mention the name of the movie they'd be showing, because it technically hadn't had its New York premiere yet. I knew the score: I'd heard of Computer Chess, this mystery movie was obviously Computer Chess, and I was really looking forward to seeing it. But most of the people coming in didn't know, and this movie left them... nonplussed.
And I'm on their side, honestly. This should be a great movie, verily, the kind of movie I would make. Not the kind of movie that would make the chess fans stand up and cheer necessarily, but there's a decent through-line in there about the ethics of computer programming, and a nice conceit about two mutually unintelligible groups of people circling each other curiously when they rent the same conference center over a weekend. But it's... it's too Sundance. In fact, it's so Sundance that it's winning prizes at Sundance, so it doesn't need any help from me.
I'm sure this has only niche appeal, but Computer Chess features an actor who looks kinda like Roy Fielding, playing a character similar to John Goodman's character in Barton Fink. That was a sweet spot for me.
Uh, I'll talk about the panel discussion as long as I'm here. There was some interesting stuff. Murray Campbell was a veteran of many computer chess tournaments like the one shown in the movie, and confirmed that everything except the fantastic elements was extremely accurate. He also mentioned that into the 1990s, people had preconceived ideas about "how computers play chess", and when computers like Deep Blue started having a grasp of strategy (and were preprogrammed with responses to various openings), human players started freaking out, accusing IBM of Mechanical Turk hijinks, etc.
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989): Watched on DVD as a palate-cleanser from Star Trek Into Darkness. Man, it's a terrible movie. No two parts of the plot fit together. It's got about forty-five minutes of filler that could be avoided if the Enterprise just had working transporters. But I remembered three things about the movie that I really liked, and all three of them still stand up:
- I've always thought Sybok was a pretty decent Trek villain, and after rewatching I think he's actually the second-best Trek movie villain. What's his devious plan? To find enlightenment! What's his evil power? He's freakishly good at empathizing with people! You gotta admit that's pure Trek.
- Not pure Trek, but very welcome, was the portrayal of Nimbus III. Not the Mos Eisley part, but the "dead-end diplomatic posting" part. You rarely see environments in Trek that are not horrible or hostile, per se, just run down and a lousy place to be.
- The famous "What does God want with a starship?" scene is one of my favorite Trek moments, and the only good thing to come out of letting Shatner write this movie. Shatner knows Kirk: the bluffer, the smiling con man. You can't kid a kidder, and when "God" tries, Kirk not only refuses to take the bait, he trolls "God" into letting the mask slip, turning McCoy and Sybok against him. It's awesome.
This is just another reason why I don't give ratings to the movies I see. The Final Frontier is an awful movie and Into Darkness is a mediocre movie, but there's nothing in Into Darkness to match those three things from Final Frontier.
- The Conversation (1974): A great Gene Hackman portrayal of a super-nerd, before nerds became irrevocably associated with computers. A pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford experiments with playing a heavy, and it doesn't go well. Definitely worthwhile, but the rest of the movie can't help being overwhelmed by the awesome 1970s surveillance trade show. More relevant than ever?
- The Odd Couple (1968): When I was a teenager, Jack Lemmon was the decrepit face of dull establishment Hollywood comedy. I felt the same way about Steve Martin, and was really astonished and somewhat angry when I saw a super-old SNL stand-up act and learned that the guy from Father of the Bride was secretly an alt-comedy genius! Who knew?
Over the years I a) mellowed out about this and b) saw the wonderful movies that had put Lemmon on the gravy train to begin with--The Great Race, The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, The Fortune Cookie. I grew up a little and learned to forgive. But for some reason, in my mind The Odd Couple was the turning point, the top of the slippery slope that had Grumpier Old Men at the bottom.
Well, now I've seen The Odd Couple, and... sort of? I'd say The Fortune Cookie is the top of this particular slippery slope: a great movie that moves Lemmon away from zany capers and exploits his abrasive chemistry with Walter Matthau for dark, cynical character-driven comedy. The Odd Couple is a little way down the slope: it's funny, it's character-driven, it's dark, but it's not cynical at all. Everybody just needs a hug. In other words, it's not a Billy Wilder film. But hey, nobody's perfect.
PS: If you're going to put any faith in my reviews (which I don't recommend) you should know that I get extra visual enjoyment out of any movie set in New York during the 1960s and 1970s: The Odd Couple, Marathon Man, etc. So even a film like Taxi Driver which I hated, I'll go away thinking "at least there was some classic New York griminess."
- True Stories (1986): David Byrne's version of UHF. If you think parody is the truest form of humor, as I did when I was a Jack Lemmon-hating teenager, you'll like UHF a lot and think that True Stories is meandering and pointless. But if you prefer satire, as I do today, then True Stories is where it's at. John Goodman shines as Roy Fielding. (Just kidding. But there is a fun early aw-shucks Goodman role.)
- The Great Magician (2011): I get a Jimmy Stewart vibe from Tony Leung. He projects the same blend of awkward handsomeness and potentially sinister decency. He's the best thing about this movie, which mixes real and made-up history in a way I personally found very confusing. Admittedly I don't know much about early twentieth century Chinese history, but Tai Chi Zero did this without confusing me, so I know it's possible.
More problematically, The Great Magician mixes real-looking stage magic, in-world stage magic that was clearly done with camera tricks and CGI, and real honest-to-goodness in-world magic (also done with CGI). That's even more confusing. The end result is I don't understand what happens in this movie; whether or not I should be rooting for the warlord character; or what political point, if any, the movie is making.
- Journey to Italy (1954): Museum website called it "one of the most influential movies ever made, a work that many critics now believe ushered in the modern era in filmmaking." So I guess this movie's to blame for all those other movies about women who put up with douchebag husbands. Good points: spectacular ruins porn and Italian landscapes; hilarious rambling tour guides.
- The Goonies (1985): I thought I'd seen this movie twice, but now I remember my first "viewing" was actually the James Kahn novelization, which I read in grade school. The novelization wasn't bad! I'd say it's better than the movie, but I haven't read it in twenty years, and the movie's not as good as I remember, so why not the book, too?
Perhaps I approached this viewing with the wrong attitude. The Goonies is not supposed to depict a believable sequence of events. It's a dramatization of kids' adventure fantasies and the lies they tell each other. You gotta go in with that attitude. Maybe I did! Let's say I did. But it didn't last, because the first thirty minutes of The Goonies does its best to dispel that attitude, showing a relatively realistic setup that gets the kids to the restaurant. Once they're at the restaurant, the coming-of-age movie collides with the crime movie, and all bets are off.
Maybe other people don't even notice this. Maybe I only notice it because I'm working on a novel that features drastic tonal shifts and misfit kids in terrible peril and people chasing other people, and am becoming very familiar with the attendant problems.
Things where I remember the book being better than the movie: it has a much tighter POV on Mikey (I think it might even be first-person), and it's a lot more explicit about the class warfare going on between the Goonies and the country-club folk. Underappreciated thing about the movie: Ma Fratelli's string of pearls. The only bit of white on her black outfit, and the only bit of femme in a very butch role. Things where the Konami NES game Goonies II is better than book or movie: music and weaponry. (Speaking of which, the PC in that game is clearly Data, not Mikey.)
I feel like I should add an Update that after thinking about this review for a few days I decided I was too hard on The Goonies, it's just a goofy fun kids movie, but then I thought, why should thinking more about a movie get me to lower my standards? So I dunno. It's okay. People should definitely watch it. Unlike...
- Meatballs (1979): Geez, this is the kind of movie Comedy Central used to show all the time in the 90s. You know what, all those terrible "comedies" actually had me convinced that it's nearly impossible to make a comedy movie that's funny. You know what else, I still believe that! What the hell is this? Bill Murray doing his Bugs Bunny act not to spread chaos, but to boost a depressed kid's self-esteem? Give me a break! Thank goodness there's a fat guy and a nerd in this movie, because otherwise the entire cast would look exactly the same! Are Murray's corny PA announcements supposed to make me laugh? Because... well, they did, actually. Those were good.
Maybe this movie looks a lot better through a thick layer of nostalgia, but I never went to summer camp and it looks like an awful place to be, so screw it. I did like Murray's character's refreshing approach to the inter-camp athletic rivalry: viz., screw it.
Two Meatballs/Goonies connections I thought were odd. 1. Both movies seem to be named after a term claimed by the slobs in a slobs-vs.-snobs movie rivalry. (I'm not sure about this for Meatballs, but otherwise I have no idea why the movie is called that.) 2. In both movies, the fat guy is also the Jewish guy. Why? Was that a big stereotype back then? Neither movie makes a big deal about this, and Fink from Meatballs is clearly not observant, but it's definitely there.
- Upstream Color (2013): Finally! We saw it on Netflix, which was probably better because we got to pause the movie occasionally and talk it over. Where Primer tests your ability to piece together a plotline from a sequence of nearly indistinguishable events, Upstream Color tests your more basic ability to turn a sequence of film shots into a sequence of events.
Only the artiest shots make it into this film, the plot is advanced as tangentially as possible, and every shot ends five frames before you think it will.
Fortunately, with the movie-watching work we've put in over the past year, we were up to the challenge. If you can read the text you'll find a nice X-Files-esque horror movie that uses arthouse techniques to mask its low budget (the other two possibilities: make the movie an in-world document so that low production values are excusable, a la Blair Witch, or just roll with it and do really cheap gore effects).
- No (2012): An incredible movie that combines heart and cynicism in a way worthy of Billy Wilder. (I keep bringing him up; I guess he's officially my favorite director.) This movie takes its place among two of my favorites—Good Bye Lenin! and University of Laughs—which also deal with the intersection of creativity and totalitarianism.
No mixes fact and fiction to an almost unheard-of (but not confusing) extent. In Forrest Gump it's clear when footage has been modified, but in No I don't think any footage has been modified. It's just that the footage and the movie are indistinguishable. It's all filmed on period cameras, a la Computer Chess.
During the movie you see this real TV commercial, and you also see a fictionalized recreation of the filming of that commercial. The movie builds a whole behind-the-scenes world around that commercial, creating the kind of person who would have thought it was a good way to fight against a dictatorship, and fought for their creative vision, and won.
Naturally this leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the real people displaced by this fictional viewpoint character. While doing post-movie research I found this no-table article:
“The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality,” Genaro Arriagada, director of the No campaign, said in a telephone interview from Chile. “The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”
English-language reports of this inter-Chilean argument made it sound like the disputed issue is the effectiveness of the television campaign versus other things like voter registration drives. But if machine translation of this interview with Arriagada can be believed, his problem is less with the idea that the television campaign was important, and more with the idea that an "advertising guy" came up with it.
This is a political process that has a very important dimension. For starters, the slogan is defined much earlier, in a technical committee. The pitch is determined by political and peaceful reconciliation tone, not to fear, not violence. From that meeting, also there are two elements, such as the rainbow and the slogan of "Joy is coming". That is a political decision. It was a pretty aggressive bet, but there was no major problem with the world I had to approve it. And then designate two political representatives, who were in charge of directing the band: Juan Gabriel Valdes and Patricio Silva. From them the computer is configured. Here the orientation were entitled to politicians and execution to those who know it, that is to advertisers.
I also found what appears to be a transcript of a roundtable, "¿Por Que Gano El No?". The roundtable presented some poll results which give a lot of influence to the television campaign (again, machine translation):
In rural areas over 90% of people said that band saw almost every day. Interviewers who were to land that rural people have, where in many homes no TV, walked from one house to another to get together at night and see this strip television, and more, serving the following question: Where did you learn the meaning of "No"? Answer: 80% for television.
"Band" and "strip television" are "franja" and "franja televisiva" in the original: i.e. TV and radio time set aside for political campaigns, e.g. the 15-minute blocks dramatized (and shown) in No. Here's an entire block for the "No" campaign, and here's one of the sinister, even dorkier "Si" blocks.
July is gonna be a huge month at the museum, as their theme for the month is "The American Epic". Movies that might show up in next month's review include Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, Do The Right Thing, Reds, The Right Stuff, Nashville, There Will Be Blood, and The Night of the Hunter. I'm tired already!
Tue Jul 09 2013 09:44 Mashteroids:
As my birthday present to you, I present Mashteroids, Queneau assemblies of the IAU citations for minor planets. This showed up briefly on NYCB two years ago, but I've expanded the dataset, improved the sentence tokenization, and created a platform for future Queneaux.
A few samples:
Robert Shelton (b. 1948), nineteenth president of the University of Arizona, chaired the Keck Telescope Board from 1997 to 2000. The book promoted the Copernican system and became a best seller. Besides his scientific work, he is also the author of the well-known popularizations A Brief History of Time and Black holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays.
Named for the province of New Zealand on the eastern side of the South Island. He published his first story in Pilote magazine in 1972 and his first album in 1975. He has written several papers on the history of optics.
Junttura embodies the Finnish mentality to get things done, stubbornly and at all costs. He is also an authority on the poet and novelist Kenji Miyazawa and currently directs the museum at the Kenji Miyazawa Iihatobu Center. "Miminko" is Czech word that expresses the unique stage of innocence at the beginning of human life.
You also got an RSS feed.
(4) Thu Jul 11 2013 10:02 Billy Collins, Stand-Up Comic (Bonus: How To Write Poetry):
For reasons that need not concern us, I recently gave some advice on writing poetry. I don't know anything about poetry, but I was able to derive the most basic advice from first principles: "read a whole bunch of poetry before you try to write some." Adam Parrish knows more about poetry and offered some poetry-specific advice: "get over yourself".
I think a lot of incipient poets get caught in the idea that poetry is somehow about free self expression, and that the best poetry is that which most freely expresses the self—which, of course, isn't true. Poetry is a genre that you have to be literate in and a toolbox that you have to learn how to use.
If reading a bunch of poetry is too much work for you, you should at least take the time to reverse-engineer the findings of this paper by Michael Coleman (also via Adam), which uses machine learning to model the differences between poems written by members of the Academy of American Poets, and poems written by the general public. It gives some clues as to how the genre works and what's in the toolbox. e.g.:
The negative association with the PYMCP
variable ‘Rhy’—a proxy for the extent to which
words elicit other words that rhyme with the
stimulus word—indicates that professional poets
use words that are somewhat unusual but not necessarily complex. Professional poems have fewer
words denoting affect but more words denoting
number. Professional poems also refer less to the
present and to time in general than amateur
Run your stuff through Poetry Assessor until you start getting good scores. Now you're a poet! Well, sort of. The machine-learning algorithm can reliably tag crappy poems as crap, but it mainly looks at vocabulary and I don't think it knows about scansion at all. I ran the first paragraph of Bleak House—three ponderous Victorian sentences—through Poetry Assessor and it got a 1.8, making it a decent twentieth-century American poem. (And it's a very good paragraph, but you see the problem.)
I formulated my "read a lot of poetry" advice because that was also the techinque I used to figure out if I had any more specific advice to give. (I don't.) While reading a lot of poetry, I got really into the work of former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Collins has written a number of what I would call "NPR poems", poems that you could imagine him reading aloud on NPR, some of which he probably did read aloud on NPR. He's on NPR a lot. And at first glance the NPR poems have more in common with stand-up comedy than traditional or contemporary poetry.
I think it's best to think of the narrator of a Billy Collins poem as a fictional poet named "Billy Collins", a man whose bouts of incompetence and perpetual lack of inspiration are exploited by the real-world Billy Collins. Stand-up comics do the same thing. I became very interested in how Collins is able to use this persona to do serious poetic work through poems that aren't serious at all—again, something analogous to what a good stand-up comic does.
Some examples. I'm gonna start with Cheerios and
Litany, two poems I don't really like. These poems are about as confrontational as Billy Collins gets, but it's not because of their subject matter: it's because they're poetry hacks.
"Cheerios" has a Poetry Assessor score of 0.8--barely professional quality. In "Cheerios" the incompetent poet "Billy Collins" keeps trying to launch a flight of poetic fancy using the overwrought abstract language associated with amateur poetry: "stooped and threadbare back", "more noble and enduring are the hills". But he can never get it off the ground because the engine keeps stalling on concrete imagery--the objective correlatives associated with professional poetry. The problem with that is the concrete imagery consists of nothing but different breakfast foods ("waited for my eggs and toast", "that dude's older than Cheerios", "illuminated my orange juice"). So it's deliberately bad amateur poetry interrupted by deliberately bad professional poetry. Just saying it's a bad poem isn't enough. It's bad in a very interesting, bathetic way.
On the other hand, "Litany" has the incredibly high Poetry Assessor score of 4.4. (The maximum score given in the Coleman paper corresponds to a PA score of 5.2.) What's his secret? Collins spends the entire poem blasting out objective correlatives at high speed. Some of them are taken directly from other poems ("the crystal goblet and the wine"), some of them are allusions ("the plums on the counter", "the burning wheel of the sun"), some are original ("the boat asleep in its boathouse"). But as he shoots those images out, he classifies them, like he's working on an assembly line, or brainstorming the poem he will eventually write. "Litany" is the opposite of "Cheerios". Collins is hacking the part of your brain that evaluates poetry, pushing all your buttons with free-floating imagery. It's a bad poem because you don't know enough about the people in the poem to understand what the imagery means.
Some other NPR poems, arranged roughly in ascending order of seriousness:
Pay special attention to "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun In The House" and "Nostalgia", two hilarious poems that are literally highbrow stand-up comedy. "Gun" is Seinfeld-esque, employing the tricks of modern poetry to take an exasperating everyday situation and blow it up into series of escalating fantastic images. (In case you were wondering, its Poetry Assessor score is 2.2, squarely on the "professional" side.) "Nostalgia" (1.3) is more of a Steve Martin kind of comedy, presenting logically flawed arguments and the dumb things people say when they're arguing on autopilot.
"Nostalgia" escalates not to a punchline--a funny kind of absurdity--but to a reductio ad absurdum, a logical absurdity. That makes it a good transition to two Collins poems that, although they deal with ephemeral topics, are more serious and less jokey. They both deal with words, the relationship between words and reality, and the fact that we're always putting words into boxes that themselves have no relationship with reality:
"First Reader" (2.9) is my favorite Collins poem. I feel like "American Sonnet" is the most professionally composed of his poems, and Poetry Assessor agrees, giving it the highest score (3.2) of any of the poems I tested. (Apart from "Litany", which is a poetry hack.) I tried writing down some analysis but these two are easy poems to appreciate, so I'll spare you. I want to close with two poems that I'm not crazy about as a whole, but which do a really interesting thing in the last stanza: they anthropomorphize individual words.
"Paperwork" shows fictional poet "Billy Collins" not being able to write a poem, dreaming in the end of gaining inspiration from an "ancient noun who lives alone in a forest." "Thesaurus" is all about anthropomorphizing words, but it's not until the end that the words leave "the warehouse of Roget" and take on independent lives, "wandering the world where they sometimes fall/in love with a completely different word."
Anthropomorphizing words is how Collins deals with the fact that poetry is a lonely business: writing things down all day, making sure to use exactly the right word all the time. Who else needs to be that careful about individual words? Stand-up comics, that's who. A punchline and a poem both rely on an unexpected word at exactly the right time. That word, when it comes along, is your best friend.
PS: Minor error in the Coleman paper which confused me when I was trying to convert between the paper's scores and Poetry Assessor scores.
For example, Robert Hass has two poems in the
corpus, The Image and Our Lady of the Snows, which score in the high to very high range of .72 and .94, respectively.
Those numbers should be reversed. "The Image" has a score of .94 (PA: 5.2), and "Our Lady of the Snows" has .72 (PA: 1.1)
Wed Jul 17 2013 12:34 Reunion:
I got a misdirected flyer in the mail inviting Leon Richardson to a high school reunion. Class of 1983. I was not yet in kindergarten in 1983, so I thought I might go and drop hints about the youth serum I'd invented.
On the other hand, the invitation is addressed to "Richardson Leon, or current resident". So I can go as myself. Anyone can show up to this high school reunion! They don't care!
In fact they're probably hoping a few current residents will show up to boost the numbers. The flyer seems acutely aware that high school reunions are increasingly an anachronism in this world of "Facebook, Twitter, and Smartphones", and is really desperate to prove the worth of in-person reunions.
It also informs me that "The bio-sheet deadline is Friday, August 30, 2013." Interestingly enough, that's also what a supervillain recently told the United Nations.
Sat Jul 20 2013 21:55 Apo11o ll:
To celebrate the anniversary of the first moon landing, I packaged up a project I came up with a while back: Apo11o ll, a generative piece that performs Queneau assembly on the Apollo 11 transcripts (from The Apollo 11 Flight Journal and The Apollo 11 Surface Journal).
Duke: Rog. [Long pause.]
Armstrong: That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.
McCandless: Roger, 11. I have a T13 update for you. AOS Tananarive at 37:04, Simplex Alpha. Readback. If you want to go that way, crank it up, and then you can drive it around and look where you want. Over. 11, this is Houston. And we copy the VI.
Aldrin: Does it look to you like the [garble] the right way? Yes, they were working out - this elaborate scheme.
Collins: Unless you'd rather sleep up top, Buzz; I like - you guys ought to get a good night's sleep, going in that damn LM - How about - which would you prefer? I say the leak check is complete, and I'm proceeding with opening the hatch dump valve.
Aldrin: That enough?
McCandless: Apollo 11, this is Houston at 1 minute. Over.
First Mashteroids and now this? How am I doing all this Queneau space-magic? The answer is simple: Olipy, my library for artistic text generation (focusing on Queneau assembly, because it's the best). Check it out of Github and you'll have everything you need to create home versions of many of my works. It's like my own personal Boîte-en-valise! Want to create something new? Just grab some data and feed it to an
Mon Jul 29 2013 16:41 Loaded Dice 2013 Update:
I fetched the BoardGameGeek data again, a yearly tradition, and put up another Loaded Dice update.
A few highlights:
- The number of games released each year is holding steady at about 3200.
- Rating inflation continues since last year, but it seems to be slowing down.
- Games that were highly underrated in 2011 were overrated in 2012, as BGG users overcompensated for their former low ratings. Games that were highly overrated in 2012 were still overrated in 2013--these were highly hyped games and the hype is still dying down.
If you go to the main page, you can download an amazing 17-megabyte JSON dump of BGG data I've compiled. It includes descriptions and genres for every game in the dataset, and three data samples that convey historical rating data over three years. At this point I feel like I'm adding enough on top of what the BGG API can give you (the historical rating data) that I can make the data dump available without apology.
(1) Thu Aug 01 2013 11:59 July Film Roundup:
Oh man. As promised last month, July was an epic month of moviewatching, and I decided to try a little epic experiment with this roundup, inspired by the "The Balcony is Closed" game on No More Whoppers. For every movie I saw in July, I came up with a nonobvious connection between that movie and every other movie I saw in July. For instance, if I saw both Die Hard and Live Free or Die Hard, the connection between them would of course be "fresh-faced hacker".
I saw nine movies over the course of the month (well, eight and a half), and by the end this exercise became kind of ridiculous, as I strained to remember obscure aspects of earlier movies. But I knew it would become ridiculous, so when it did, I had no standing to complain. Here we go:
- Citizen Kane (1941) For years I have searched for an answer to that unanswerable question, "What is the Citizen Kane of games of movies?" What movie is held up as an unattainable example for what movies could be if only moviemakers would get their acts together and make some proper art? Then, one day, it struck me: perhaps Citizen Kane was the Citizen Kane of games of movies.
But I hadn't seen Citizen Kane in over ten years. I'd only seen it twice. The only solution was to go to the museum and SEE IT BIG. Only then would I know whether or not cinema was a worthy art form.
And... it's not. Because how could it be, with those kind of expectations heaped upon it? But Citizen Kane is a great movie. Just one example of its greatness: I'm pretty sure the reel changes don't sync with scene changes. You'll see a reel change coming up and it will just cut from one camera angle to another angle on the same shot.
I became acutely aware of reel changes ever since seeing a very metatextual episode of Columbo and I can't emphasize how bizarre this is. Movies made fifty years after Citizen Kane have abrupt scene changes at reel changes, but near as I can tell Citizen Kane just says "screw that, we're telling the story at its own pace and we trust people to not misplace an entire film canister." Or whatever the normal reason is for syncing scene changes to reel changes.
But not all of Citizen Kane's experiments hold up. The newsreel at the beginning is a really clever way to do a huge infodump and set up a framing device, but back in the day watching two newsreels in quick succession would have been super annoying, and now that newsreels are extinct, it just feels like a huge infodump.
So, tragically, Citizen Kane cannot be said to be the Citizen Kane of games of movies. But keep trying to meet those impossible, irrelevant expectations, filmmakers!
This seems like a good time to reveal the secret I've been keeping for years: the Citizen Kane of video games is Legend of the Bystander from Constellation Games. That's the game you get when you translate Citizen Kane's dramatic structure—someone circling around the past in flashback, unable to change or understand anything—into game form. Is it a good game? No! It's a weird, confused, frustrating game. So stop searching for it.
- Bonus connection with last month's No: dirty-tricks election.
- Sunrise (1927): A chilling tale of the cycle of domestic violence. This film starts out with the most crushing melodrama imaginable. Then there's a goofy series of skits about barbershop misunderstandings and piglets getting drunk and flappers' shoulder straps falling off. Then, back to the crushing melodrama! It's insane, but it works. (At least, the second and third acts work.) The goofy stuff makes you think the tension has been resolved, even though the movie's only half over. But you're a fool for thinking so! The first bit of tension was a ruse, and the goofy skits are secretly building up the real tension, which when it breaks has real emotional impact.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Man trying to buy back his wife's love.
- Greed (1924): The Breaking Bad of its time. If you wanted to see Samwise Gamgee as a dentist who sexually assaults his patients, this is your silent film. If you wanted to see vaudeville-era German stereotypes, or the Cliff House in its heyday, or Oakland back when it was just a train station... Greed has it all. Well, it doesn't have about 5 1/2 hours of footage which was cut by the studio, but you can find most of that stuff in the book.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Girl meets boy because she has a toothache.
- Connection with Sunrise: Disastrous rainstorm.
- Do the Right Thing (1989): After we watched Ace in the Hole on Criterion DVD, we saw a special feature in which Spike Lee talked about his love for that film. I didn't make much of it at the time, because the only Spike Lee film I'd seen at the time was Malcolm X. But now it's clear. Spike Lee shares Billy Wilder's interest in comedy that turns to tragedy and farce that slips into fiasco. Do the Right Thing is the same kind of slow-burn catastrophe as Ace in the Hole.
I have a few complaints: some stretches are boring, there's some exploitative boobs. But Mookie's strong through-line lets this movie avoid the "sketch comedy" feel you sometimes get when a movie has a whole lot of characters.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Something highly valued gets burned.
- Connection with Sunrise: Commotion in a restaurant.
- Connection with Greed: Heatstroke!
- Reds (1981): I really wasn't in the mood for a 3.5-hour movie so I left during intermission. What I should have done was come in at intermission, because right before intermission the film found its focus and got super interesting and spectacular. But it wasn't enough to get me to stay. The studio really should have gotten someone to butcher the first half to about 20 minutes, a la Greed, but I'm sure those contracts were ironclad. I'm thinking you could just show the scenes with Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, and when Diane Keaton storms out of the house, show a title card saying "Such were the Reeds."
So... I can't properly review this movie because I'm disappointed by the half I saw and I long for the half I didn't see. I will say that if for some reason you genuinely hate Ishtar, this can be your "Warren Beatty is a doofy American in over his head" movie instead.
I gotta say, though, I never got the feeling that I was watching the 1910s. Diane Keaton looked just like she did in Annie Hall, and Warren Beatty looked just like he would in Ishtar.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Wandering around an abandoned palace.
- Connection with Sunrise: Domesticated animal running all over the place.
- Connection with Greed: A wayward dentist's wife.
- Connection with Do the Right Thing: Directly addressing the camera.
- Bonus Breaking Bad connection: epiphany upon seeing something inside a copy of Leaves of Grass.
- The Right Stuff (1983): The other half of my mashup, Do The Right Stuff. I've mentioned before how Tom Wolfe's book changed my perception of manned space travel. The movie isn't as good as the book, but it's very good, and it does a good job of exploring what I consider the book's primary topic: the adoption of the test pilot ethos as a model for nationalist heroism in an era where nuclear weapons have rendered traditional macho heroism irrelevant.
What I didn't expect from this movie was that it would also show the simple, uncomplicated heroism that occurs when people stand up for each other. When the Mercury astronauts stand together against fake-Wernher von Braun and demand better treatment than the space program chimps. When John Glenn jeopardizes his career by refusing to pressure his wife to talk to LBJ, and the other astronauts have his back. And if you don't like that stuff and you wanna read the film as a celebration of Chuck Yeager stealing a plane and crashing it for no real reason, that's in there too.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Dive bar.
- Connection with Sunrise: Man tempted by floozy.
- Connection with Greed: The desert sucks.
- Connection with Do the Right Thing: Burning photos on the wall.
- Connection with Reds: The Russians got there first.
- Apollo 13 (1995): I loved this movie when I saw it in
the theater, and I think I love it even more now. It continues The
Right Stuff's exploration of heroism by showing a space mission
that produced nothing else. It shows what The Right
Stuff didn't: people sticking together in a genuine life-threatening situation. (In real life there was even more sticking together than in the movie, which invented Fred Haise's pissy hatred of Jack Swigert. Or at least invented it coming out over a live comm; Sumana and I read over the transcript and we think they kept it pretty professional, all things considered.)
Best of all, Apollo 13 brings the nerds into the loop. Max Grodénchik is a big hero as FIDO Gold (SYMBOLISM), and it's not played for laughs the way it always was on DS9. I think that's why they stunt-casted Ed Harris as chief nerd Gene Kranz; it sort of gives you a bridge from The Right Stuff.
Oh, no, wait, best of all, the sainted Billy Wilder liked this movie! From poorly-worded IMDB trivia:
Over the course of lunch with his idol Billy Wilder, Ron Howard has said that he was thrilled to learn that Wilder deemed this movie to be Howard's best work as a director because it was about a guy who did NOT realize his dream...
That's our Billy!
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Cost? No man can say.
- Connection with Sunrise: An unorthodox lifeboat.
- Connection with Greed: I think we can all agree that Greed is also a movie about a guy who does not realize his dream.
- Connection with Do the Right Thing: Exposition broadcast over radio.
- Connection with Reds: Old person doesn't remember famous person's name.
- Connection with The Right Stuff: Can't think of one, sorry.
- Howdy, y'all. Joe Hills here, recording as I always do from
Nashville (1975). I'd never seen an Altman film before, and
this one plays out like a whole season of Arrested Development in one
movie. There's a complicated network of relationships between self-absorbed characters that plays out in a funny, horrifying way. Perhaps the cleverest move is to give the knee-jerk Hollywood-liberal approach to 1970s Nashville ("these hicks are crazy") to the British reporter Opal, a clueless, snobbish foreigner around whom all red-blooded Americans can unite in mockery. The songs are always bad in just the right way.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Pretending that someone who
can't sing, can.
- Connection with Sunrise: Big city musical hooplah!
- Connection with Greed: Awkward family dinner.
- Connection with Do the Right Thing: Exploitative use of boobs.
- Connection with Reds: Foreign journalist has a poor grasp
of what's going on.
- Connection with The Right Stuff: Unexpected Jeff Goldblum.
- Connection with Apollo 13: Flashy white clothing.
- There Will Be Blood (2007): I'd just like to state for the record that Kern County is exactly as depicted in this movie. Even though they filmed it in Texas.
Uh, yeah, this was pretty good. Just your basic movie about men digging themselves into moral cesspools and foreclosing on any possibility of redemption, but better than its competitors thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis's amazing acting. I liked the passive-aggressive rivalry between his character and Paul Dano's. I'm really excited that director Paul Thomas Anderson is doing an adaptation of Inherent Vice. (Although I think that adaptation might be better if Wes Anderson did it.)
I also want to point out what a great title this is. It's kind of cheesy. Other movie titles don't make explicit promises. And I can't imagine someone squirming on their theater seat at the two-hour mark thinking, "Well, I'd leave, but I was told there would be blood." But it works. The title sets up a tension that lasts the entire movie. There are all these moments of horrific violence and symbolic stand-ins for blood, but you never see literal blood until the very end.
- Connection with Citizen Kane: Hey, there's oil on your property!
- Connection with Sunrise: Wedding as act break.
- Connection with Greed: The sordid true story of Minecraft.
- Connection with Do the Right Thing: Brother set against brother, because one of them is an asshole.
- Connection with Reds: Poor labor conditions.
- Connection with The Right Stuff: Something explodes before it should.
- Connection with Apollo 13: Something explodes that shouldn't have exploded at all.
- Connection with Nashville: Deaf kid.
This month the museum panders to me with a festival of classic crime and grime. New York in the 1970s: a lousy place to live, a great place to make a movie about. Looking forward to seeing films like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Serpico, Superfly, The French Connection, and Across 110th Street. We'll probably also catch some Wong Kar-Wai. I will not be repeating July's movie connection experiment.
Correction: "I'd never seen an Altman film before" is one of the least accurate claims I've ever made. I've seen Gosford Park, The Company, and A Prairie Home Companion. And I've probably seen M*A*S*H, given how often they showed it on Comedy Central back when I was in high school. But I came out of all those films thinking "that was good/terrible/okay", whereas I came out of Nashville thinking "No wonder this guy's a legend!" It was like watching a whole nother director.
Tue Sep 03 2013 14:13 August Film Roundup:
Not the blockbuster month as I was anticipating—I missed all of the museum's big-name Pacino/de Niro movies due to other committments—but a lot of interesting movies, and movies that were uninteresting in interesting ways, among the nine I did see.
- Baikonur (2011): Taking the logic of Star Wars to an extreme, Baikonur shows space travel in a dingy, lived-in future: the one we have now. And that part of the movie is awesome! But the plotline is creepy hurt/comfort nerd fantasy with a litle reactionary agrarianism thrown in. So I can't really recommend it. But there's no other movie that can match these spectacular visuals of Baikonur Cosmodrome, the city outside it, the Kazakhstan steppe, and actual Soyuz launches. It's your call.
As a bonus, I would like to quote this bit of trivia from Kim Newman's review from Screen Daily:
Wary of international cinema after Borat, the Kazakh authorities were evidently persuaded to support this effort by a strategic decision to cast the favourite grand-daughter of the President in a small, key role (which the little girl aces) in the climax.
- You're A Big Boy Now (1966): Saw this as an experimental control. How much would I enjoy a movie if the old-school New York shabbiness was the only interesting thing about the movie? And I was foiled, because of course that's not the only interesting thing about Francis Ford Coppola's first movie. It's a raunchy sex comedy that looks exactly like a Disney film of the same period; say, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. There's a hilarious triangle of relationships between the main character and his parents. But... not a great movie, overall. Thumbs up for the Freudian automat comedy though.
- Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970): This was more like it. "Con man posing as religious figure" is one of those tropes that gets me every time. It's got action, comedy, quotable lines, and of course classic location shoots.
Now, here's the thing. Like G.O.B. Bluth, I'm white. So when I watch a comedy made by black Americans for black audiences in the 1970s, I frequently find myself deciding "all right, I assume the filmmakers know what they're doing, I'm going to laugh at this." And yet feeling kind of nervous about laughing. This happened sporadically during Emma Mae back in February, and it happened pretty much throughout Cotton Comes to Harlem.
E.g. this movie has a white character idiotically try to disguise himself with blackface. The tactic is even less effective than when the Marx Brothers tried it in A Day at the Races. It's kinda funny even in 2013 because it's such an obviously dumb idea, not like A Day at the Races where you think Harpo's magic might allow it to actually work, but seriously movie, you're doing a blackface joke? Similarly for a lot of the humor about the cultural divide between
urban and rural blacks. (Emma Mae sided with the hicks; Cotton Comes to Harlem is very pro-city, although most of its humor is at the expense of the city slickers.)
None of this is supposed to be particularly transgressive! It's a zany '70s studio-indie film. The contemporaneous Times review mentions the most jaw-dropping moment of the movie in a casual aside. But times have changed. If you made this film today it would be disjointed: half Hollywood-friendly buddy-cop stuff and half edgy in-your-face comedy.
The guest curator who introduced the movie said he thought director Ossie Davis shot his wad too early with the excellent car chase at the beginning of the movie. (Classic sight gag: guy in top hat and tails watches the car chase with glee, then pulls on white gloves and runs back into his storefront; turns out he runs the local funeral parlor.) And maybe so, but the movie ends with a fight scene in the Apollo Theater's prop room, and I think that's a pretty good bookend.
- Bye Bye Braverman (1968): A ton of classic New York location shots in this movie, but they're not particularly grimy. Mostly in Brooklyn. And this is a hard movie to get into. I guess I'd compare it to Seinfeld: very Jewish, unapologetically New York, and not really caring whether you get the joke or not. Like, you're supposed to understand quite a lot about the four main characters based on which Manhattan neighborhood they live in. There's a brief bit of conversation that you might or might not notice as a throwaway joke about the class differences between the Times and the Daily News. And so on.
The stand-out bits are a young Jessica Walter in a minor role, and three show-stopping set-piece rants. The first two are by stand-up comics: Godfrey Cambridge (the funny man to Raymond St. Jacques's straight man in Cotton Goes to Harlem) as a cab driver, and Alan King as a rabbi delivering a eulogy. The third is a rambling, moving monologue by star George Segal, bringing the inhabitants of a cemetery up to date as a way of facing his own mortality. ("TV is really good... pollution is bad... we're going to the moon!... We discovered cures for some diseases that might have kept you alive a little longer; you're not really missing much.")
If you're the sort of 1960s Jewish intellectual depicted in this movie (as director Sidney Lumet clearly was) I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it. But it doesn't have a lot of crossover appeal, the way a Woody Allen film does. I think I got most of the jokes, and it was still a tough slog for me.
- Norman Mailer v Fun City, USA (1970) according to the Internet, this is a.k.a. "51st State" and "The Other Guys Are The Joke", and according to the program notes it's "Norman Mailer vs. Fun City", but I'm writing down exactly what I remember seeing on the title card, because there is almost no information about this film on the Internet. It has no IMDB page. It's like the VHS tape you discover at the beginning of a creepypasta. I could tell you anything about this film and you'd have to believe it. For instance:
Remember Norman Mailer's huge futurist Lego apartment building? Well, that model is the aesthetic linchpin of this movie which doesn't seem to exist! Director Dick Fontaine uses window reflections to superimpose the huge Lego structure onto the real-life New York skyline, blocking out the real buildings as Mailer explains his frankly insane vision for an 200-story apartment block that will house fifty thousand people, some of whom ought to be "adventurous" types interested in renting an apartment on the tip of one of the structures, which might sway five feet back and forth in a high wind.
It's a clear metaphor for Mailer's mayoral campaign and his Napoleon of Notting Hill-esque platform for making New York City the nation's 51st state, turning the neighborhoods into townships, and devolving the power of the mayor's office onto the townships. After the primary, in which Mailer gets a surprisingly high five percent of the vote, you see the Lego structure again, but this time there are no reflection tricks; perspective integrates the Lego building with the skyline behind it.
I tend to think of writers as introverts, but Norman Mailer is definitely an extrovert. And I think of smart extroverts as being natural politicians, but Mailer is a terrible politician. And the personality feature that makes him a terrible politician is the feature I recognize in him as a fellow writer. It's what led him to build that Lego model and to imagine a guy who's excited to rent an apartment where you have to bolt the furniture to the floor to keep it from sliding back and forth.
He hates being boring. He hates for things to be like they always have been. He thinks that he can win an election by making the election really interesting, so that the obvious next plot point is that he wins.
And he knows this about himself. From a museum-provided contextual interview that barely mentions the nonexistent movie it's contextualizing:
[B]eing in these kinds of things is never easy. At a certain point you go into overdrive and you feel something ugly in your ego functioning. You are selling something you don’t quite believe in. Why? To keep the movie moving and to keep it interesting so you aren’t a bore like other people you see in documentaries.
The other reason Norman Mailer is a terrible politician is that he constantly overrides the much better political operatives he somehow got to work his campaign. In particular, he has very bad judgement about radio ads. Just thought I'd mention that; a little freelance political criticism to go with the film review.
BTW, that interview also has this gem:
Did you feel afterwards that Don had any kind of obligation to put the camera down and intervene?
[Mishearing the question] I always assume God to be much too occupied. I see God as a tired general.
No, not God. Don. D.A. Pennebaker.
Oh! Boy, I thought we really getting into top gear fast.
- Superfly (1972): Curator Warrington Hudlin started announcing this film in a dry sort of way, but in a Shakespearean move Paul Anthony (I'm pretty sure it was him, but not 100%) of House Party fame rose up out of the audience, interrupted Hudlin's speech, and demanded that he put on a '70s trenchcoat and a funkier hat, which loosened him right up. And that kind of set the stage for Superfly, a movie that strongly prioritizes style over substance.
It definitely has the style, capturing both the sleaze of the '70s streets and the tackiness of the middle-class '70s interior shots. But the substance... there's some good excitement at the end, and a great musical montage in which people of all races come together to buy cocaine from Priest; the sort of sardonic commentary that Breaking Bad also does really well. But most of what I remember is people driving around really slowly like they're looking for parking—a classic low-budget tell, as anyone who's watched a lot of MST3K knows.
I know not everyone shares my preference for comedy over drama, so I understand why Superfly is considered a proto-blaxploitation classic while I'd never even heard of Cotton Comes to Harlem. But I think it's a failing of Superfly that its grittiness never made as uncomfortable as did the lighthearted comedy of Cotton Comes to Harlem.
- Little Murders (1971): I actually saw this movie when I was about fifteen! At least, I saw the first ten minutes. My mom showed me Harold and Maude and this movie, and I didn't think Harold and Maude was that interesting, but ten minutes into Little Murders I was like "Okay, Mom, this is too dark, turn it off." And then I saw it again this month and I was like "Oh, shit, it's this movie. I can't leave the theater or they'll think I'm a wuss. Well, I'm not fifteen anymore, I can take it."
And I can indeed take it, but seriously, this is probably the darkest movie I've ever seen. It's a zombie movie where it turns out the main character was a zombie the whole time, just waiting for everyone else to become zombies. If that's your cup of tea (and you won't be disappointed when it turns out I don't mean "zombies" 100% literally and Elliot Gould doesn't go shuffling around biting people in the head), here's your comedic nihilism-fest.
You may be wondering why my mother was showing this movie to her fifteen-year-old son. It's a good question, and the true answer will never be known, but I think there were two reasons. First, both this movie and Harold and Maude came out in 1971, when my mother was in college. I think she thought I was finally at a point where I could appreciate these movies the way she had, the way we had bonded over Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) when I was about twelve. She was wrong, but these things happen.
Second, as I've alluded to before, as a kid I had serious emotional problems. Not something we need to talk about now, but definitely something to worry about if you're the parent of such a kid. And now that I've finally made it all the way through Little Murders, I think I see why my mom rented these particular movies. She was trying to show me that there are people with darkness within them, horrors that fifteen-year-old Leonard can't even imagine, but who are able to channel the darkness to creative ends and generally be productive members of society (screenwriter Jules Feiffer illustrated my beloved Phantom Tollbooth, for heaven's sake!), without "selling out" or closing their eyes to society's problems. So thanks for that, mom.
- The Angel Levine (1970): I admit I wasn't expecting much from a movie that's literally about a Magical Negro sent to help a white guy. But an interesting thing happens: Harry Belafonte's character turns out to have agency! He doesn't want to be a guardian angel; he wants his old life back. He doesn't want to be dead. And he fails to get what he wants, like everyone else in this depressing-ass movie, but at least he tried. Throw in some more trope psych-outs, like making you think this is the kind of movie where no one else can see the angel, but no, everyone can see him, he was just using the bathroom during one scene; and you've won me over. It's definitely below this month's median, but if you need a cinematic antidote to It's A Wonderful Life, here it is.
On the scale of "use of classic New York grime in location shots", I would rate this movie: very poor. To quote Paul Zimmerman's Newsweek review, "[Director Ján] Kádar's unfamiliarity with New York shows. His camera views the city as if it were a tourist unwilling to wander too far from his hotel." Zero Mostel is great as always.
- The World's End (2013): Loved it. I won't go into a lot of detail because there's a reasonable chance you're planning on seeing it in the theater, but it was really fun. My biggest complaint is it maybe needed one fewer main character.
After thinking about the Cornetto Trilogy as a whole, I went to IMDB and saw that the collective shares my opinion: all three movies are great, but Hot Fuzz is better than The World's End (7.9 vs. 7.8), and Shaun of the Dead (8.0) is better than Hot Fuzz. Honestly, at this point you know what to expect. You hear a bit of banter at the beginning of the movie, know that it precisely foreshadows the events of the movie, and it doesn't even matter. It's like knowing that Ulysses is based on the Odyssey. That's not a "spoiler"; it's the structure of the piece. We have here three great movies around two eternal themes: society as a threat to individuality, and the indestructable love between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, regardless of who is playing the responsible one and who is playing the screwup.
In case you haven't had enough of my idiosyncratic approach to movie quality (and you probably haven't, or why are you reading this), consider the following: if I had to pick only one movie from the Cornetto Trilogy, it would be Hot Fuzz. Not Shaun of the Dead, which is definitely a better and more influential movie. Because Hot Fuzz is the movie that caters to my specific kink: stories about people obsessed with stories, to the point where they let the stories run their lives, who get to save the day when they're suddenly thrust into a situation where the rules from the stories are the only ones that apply.
This month and next the museum is showing every film Howard Hawks ever made, so search for his name on IMDB and prepare for the Cary Grant-fest. SEE IT BIG is also returning, and I'm looking forward to seeing the Howard Hawks Scarface on the 21st and then the Brian De Palma Scarface on the 22nd.
(2) Mon Sep 09 2013 13:39 RESTful Web APIs!:
After about a year of work, my and Mike Amundsen's new book RESTful Web APIs is going to the printer. It's a replacement for RESTful Web Services, a book that's now seven years old. The replacement may be overdue, but it's only been in the past couple years that technology and attitudes have advanced to the point where I could write the book I wanted to write.
In fact, there's one subfield (profiles) where you could argue this book is premature. The way RESTful Web Services was a little premature in describing an OAuth-like system before OAuth was released. But I don't think we can wait any longer.
Back in February I discussed the differences between APIs and Services. That hasn't changed much, though we have added more stuff:
- A chapter on Linked Data, the Semantic Web approach to REST.
- A chapter on CoAP, the fabled "RESTful system that doesn't use HTTP", designed to connect embedded systems over low-power networks.
- An appendix that explicates the Fielding dissertation from an API designer's perspective.
This post is mainly my way of asking you to pre-order your copy of RESTful Web APIs through my O'Reilly affiliate link. That's a hypermedia-driven change in resource state which will get you the book in a couple weeks, and get me some extra cash. (I estimate about $1.70 extra. Don't do this if the shipping charge on a physical book is prohibitive, or whatever.)
But this post is also a back-door way for me to brag about what a great book Mike and I have written. You don't have to take my word for it. Here's the blurb we got from John Musser of ProgrammableWeb.
A terrific book! Covers a lot of new ground with lots of valuable specifics.
Here's Steve Klabnick of Designing Hypermedia APIs:
The entire time I read this book, I was cursing. I was cursing because as I read each explanation, I was worried that they were so good that it would be hard to find a better one to use in my own writing. You will not find another work that explores the topic so thoroughly yet explains the topic so clearly. Please, take these tools, build something fantastic, and share it with the rest of the world, okay?
You get the picture. I've tried to recreate the relevatory experience a lot of people got from RESTful Web Services, on a higher level, in a way that gives access to more powerful tools. Time will tell if I've succeeded, but I don't think I, or anyone, could have done much better. I'm really proud of this book, and I hope it helps you.
Tue Sep 10 2013 15:35 Awesome Dinosaurs Update:
- On Sunday I saw the 1926 Howard Hawks film Fig Leaves. I'll publish a full review in the roundup at the end of the month, but I couldn't wait to mention the dinosaurs! This movie (briefly) features two very cool-looking puppet dinosaurs. There's Adam's pet Apatosaurus, named Dobbin:
Exactly as depicted in Genesis 2.
More amazingly, there's also a budget-busting life-sized Triceratops that pulls a bus!
Awesome! Not gonna spoil the review, but the first reel of this movie used all the good Flintstones jokes, thirty-four years before The Flintstones even premiered. Except for the unfortunate bus dinosaur saying "It's a living." in a morose voice. And I'm sure that's just because the joke would be really awkward if you had to do it with title cards.
(Screen image simulated.)
- If you share my belief that dinosaurs are the most interesting part of any movie that includes dinosaurs, you'll love Kevin Maher's deleted scene from King Kong.
- A recent Ureddit course on narrative structure in short fiction used "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" as one of its example stories. I thought this was a) a good choice, and b) pretty funny, because I deliberately wrote "Dinosaurs" to be opaque to traditional analyses of narrative structure.
If you'll forgive me being serious about a very silly story, here's what I mean. Nearly every plot event in "Dinosaurs" is a red herring. It's actually a New Yorker type story, in which a series of insane infernokrusher interventions leads to Entippa's epiphany that humans are exploiting dinosaurs' tendency to get involved in insane infernokrusher interventions for their own entertainment. (Those humans including, in a bit of Hitchcock-type moralizing, you for reading the story and me for writing it.)
I wrote the first scene to have something very close to a literal Chekhov's gun. It's Tark's gun, or at least his desire for a gun. Later on, Chekhov's gun goes off: Tark gets his gun! But as soon as the literal gun goes off, Tark discovers that literal guns are loud and painful, and he throws it away. The Chekhov's gun was fake. Sort of like the keys in my old text adventure Degeneracy, which don't unlock anything—you're supposed to melt them down for the metal.
But! In the Reddit thread dissecting "Dinosaurs" and the other example stories, the person running the class proves my intellectual superior. It turns out there was also a real Chekhov's Gun in that first scene: Tark's "killing claws", which are in fact used to kill someone later in the story, just like they would in a regular story about dinosaurs killing humans.
I didn't even notice that. I'd assumed the human-killing scene worked because everyone knows meat-eating dinosaurs have claws. I didn't even realize I'd made a big deal about the claws in the first scene. You win this round, literary analysis!
PS: Never forget.
Mon Sep 23 2013 14:28 RESTful Web APIs Monkeypatch:
The RESTful Web APIs ebook came out earlier than we thought it would, and there are some important URLs in the book that don't work yet: the home page at restfulwebapis.org, and the example application at youtypeitwepostit.com. There's also one URL in the book (the book's GitHub repository) that will never work, because we wrote down the wrong URL.
I've submitted an erratum for the wrong URL, and I'm here to give you some temporary URLs that will work for the other stuff. They're temporary because Mike controls the DNS for restfulwebapis.org and youtypeitwepostit.com, and he's out of commission at the moment.
(2) Wed Sep 25 2013 09:56 LCODC$SSU:
At RESTfest last week I put on an old Mozilla shirt and my Al Gore campaign button and gave a talk from the year 2000: "LCODC$SSU and the coming automated web". I'll link to video when it goes up on Vimeo, and I'll also point to my five-minute talk about ALPS, which not only took five minutes to deliver, it took five minutes to put together.
But right now, there's some more stuff I want to say about "LCODC$SSU", and some stuff I couldn't say in the talk due to the framing device.
When I first mentioned this talk to Mike Amundsen, he told me about Bret Victor's talk from 1974, "The Future of Programming", which Victor gave in July and which had a similar conceit. Victor is also a much better actor than I am, but I went ahead with my talk because wanted to do something different with "LCODC$SSU" than happens in "The Future of Programming". I get a strong "You maniacs! You blew it up!" vibe from Victor's talk. And there's some of that at the end of "LCODC$SSU"—I really feel like we've spent thirteen years making five years worth of progress, as you can see from my frustration at the beginning of "How to Follow Instructions"—but I also wanted to do some new things in my talk.
While writing Appendix C of RESTful Web APIs I came to appreciate the Fielding dissertation as a record of the process used to solve an enormous engineering problem. Comments from RESTFest attendees confirm that seeing it this way helps folks grasp the dissertation's gem: the definition of LCODC$SSU (a.k.a. REST). Thinking about it this way doesn't require a historical-fiction framing device (Appendix C has no such framing device), but it does require you stop treating the Fielding dissertation as a prescient guide to the 21st century and see it as a historical record of the 1990s.
And once you do that, the missing stair we've been jumping over or falling through for thirteen years becomes visible.
The Web works because it has four domain requirements that reinforce each other: low entry-barrier, distributed hypermedia, extensibility, and Internet scale. But there's also a fifth implicit requirement: the presence of a slow, expensive human being operating the client and making the final call on every single state transition. In the talk I identified the inverse of this implicit requirement as an explicit requirement: "machine legibility". In RESTful Web APIs we use the term "semantic gap" to describe what happens when you remove the implicit requirement.
Making the human unnecessary on a transition-by-transition basis (the goal of "Web APIs" as a field) is a really difficult problem, and it's partly because of the phenomenon I describe in the talk and in RWA Appendix C. Getting rid of the human raises the entry-barrier dramatically. Looking around for a cheap way to lower the entry-barrier, we decide to get rid of distributed hypermedia. But distributed hypermedia is the only thing that allows Internet-scale and extensibility to coexist! We must lose one or the other. We end up with an increasingly ugly system that can never be changed, or else a fascist dystopia.
And here's the bit I couldn't put in the talk because it would break the framing device. We've seen a decade-long obsession with lowering entry-barrier at any cost, and although the cost has been enormous I can't really say the obsession is misplaced. Low entry-barrier is the main reason why the Web succeeded over all other hypermedia systems. Low entry-barrier drives adoption. You get adoption first and you deal with the other problems (which will be enormous) down the road.
Well, we're down the road. The bills are coming due. If we want this to go more smoothly next time, we need to stop chasing entry-barrier local minima and come up with a better solution. We need to make change easier so we can make progress faster.
The "machine legibility" problem will still be very difficult, and frankly I can't see a way to a complete solution. But there's cause for optimism: every step forward we've taken so far has illuminated the space a little more and made the next step visible.
It's always been this way. That's how hypermedia works. That's why I called my now-infamous 2008 QCon talk "Justice Will Take Us Millions Of Intricate Moves" (after William Stafford), and that's why I take my motto from a Johnny Cash song that's probably not on most peoples' list of inspirational Johnny Cash songs.
I built it one piece at a time.
Mon Sep 30 2013 12:44 Smooth Unicode:
For reasons of his own, Adam Parrish recently created the Unicode Ebooks Twitter bot. I offered some helpful suggestions for improving the visual appeal of the Unicode Ebooks, suggestions which Adam mocked as unworthy of his artistic vision of dumping a bunch of line noise onto Twitter every five minutes.
So I created my own Twitter bot: Smooth Unicode, the Lite FM to Adam's unending Einstürzende Neubauten concert. My bot does its best to construct aesthetically pleasing output by combining scripts that complement each other visually. The code is part of olipy and I'll be adding to it as I come up with more nice-looking ways to present gibberish.
Less talk. Less noise. More browser-visible glyphs. That's Smooth Unicode.
Wed Oct 02 2013 09:41 Beautiful Soup 4.3.2, and all previous versions:
Through long practice I'm able to write decent code while I'm sick, but I should not try to release code while I'm sick. While putting up the release of Beautiful Soup 4.3.2, I accidentally deleted the entire beautifulsoup4 project on PyPI and had to recreate it manually. I've given PyPI all the crummy.com tarball URLs for releases going back to 4.0.1, and I've installed each one via pip to verify that it works, so if your build process depends on installing a specific version of Beautiful Soup 4 via PyPI, it should still work. And indeed, random versions of BS4 have been downloaded about 200 times since I switched over. I'm sorry about this screwup. Let me know if there are any remaining problems.
4.3.2 itself is a pretty minor bugfix release. Still left unfixed is a bug I can't reproduce because the federal government is shut down. When you file a bug that happens with a specific web page, please provide the HTML of the web page, not the URL.
Wed Oct 02 2013 14:16 September Film Roundup:
I missed a whole lot of museum movies in September because I was out of town for two weekends. And yet I still managed to see nine movies, plus wrap up a TV show, and write a huge blog post about it. Wonders, or at least me writing about them, will never cease.
- Rear Window (1954): Forget Vertigo. I was totally on board with the conventional wisdom of this as one of Hitchcock's greatest films. It was awesome. The work under constraints, the funny and sad minor dramas of the minor characters, the moralism aimed at you, the person sitting in your seat watching a movie, the inevitable twist in which it's revealed that Jimmy Stewart's paranoid obsession with Raymond Burr has caused him to miss an actual murder that went on right under his nose while he was watching.
Wait, that's not going to happen, is it? The movie's almost over. Well, at least I can look forward to the ironic tragedy of an innocent man killing someone who broke into his house trying to find evidence that he'd killed someone. No, that didn't happen either. Raymond Burr was the murderer. Jimmy Stewart was right the whole time. That's all, folks!
I'm not the only one who expected a twist here, right? I love Hitchcock's twists. (Except for the one in Vertigo.) But this movie didn't have a twist, and I also found it lacked Hitchcock's other big asset: the ability to create panic in the viewer. I would expect Jimmy Stewart flailing around, helpless, unable to convince anyone that his paranoia was justified. He got Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter on board really quickly. In terms of suspense and paranoia, I think Shadow of a Doubt did it better.
- Fig Leaves (1926): As I implied earlier, the first reel of this movie is great. There's dinosaur puppets, there's all the corny Flintstones jokes (dinosaur pulling a vehicle, stone newspaper). There's a very sophisticated stone-age-technology sight gag which... you know what, just watch it yourself. There's also a cool creepy snake puppet, previously used by Alexander of Abonutichus.
Tragically, before long the caveman fantasy fades to the modern day. Adam and Eve become Adam and Eve Smith, living in an apartment in the city. Adam and Eve both have their tempters. Eve is thrust into a world of high fashion and extreme emotional shallowness by Alice, her flapper neighbor across the hall. Meanwhile, Adam heads in to work at his plumbing business, where he is urged towards misogyny and outright wife-beating by his crass partner Eddie, the Mario to Adam's Luigi.
We spend most of the rest of the movie watching Eve in the clutches (and gowns) of histrionic fashion designer André. André's fake artiste act is funny enough, but unless you really like ogling flappers and/or fancy gowns, it's slow going. Like many in 1926, this movie isn't even sure how much time has elapsed since the time of Adam and Eve. It's either eight million years or 896 million years, or possibly 897 million. That's a pretty big differential! Get it together, movie.
I think it's interesting how silent films like Fig Leaves and Sunrise portray the changing gender roles of the 1920s. Both movies have an evil flapper-seductress character, but both movies also show a more "traditional" woman claiming some independence without becoming evil. Fig Leaves also shows a bit of the masculine side of the change, in the scene where Adam rejects Eddie's antediluvian advice in re: wife-beating.
- The Cradle Snatchers (1927): The person who wrote one of the two IMDB user reviews saw a completely different movie than I did. I'm not saying they experienced the same movie differently. I'm saying they mention a lot of things that were not in the movie I saw, including the term "cake-eaters." But the biggest mismatch was the claim that "the movie seems to be flaunting its naughtiness but it isn't really all that naughty, even by 1920s standards." Whereas the print I saw is probably the raunchiest silent film I've ever seen. And silent films are, almost by definition, pre-Code films. Is it possible that they made two different versions of this movie, one of them super-tame in case there was censorship? And then in the intervening years the two versions got mixed up? I don't know.
For the record, I'll summarize the movie. This is a pretty funny movie about three Margaret Dumont-like society ladies whose husbands are cheating on them with Sunrise-style evil flappers. (The best title card of the movie: one of the husbands is on the phone being told to get to the flapper-infested "Club of 400", with his wife looking on. What to do? The only solution is to invent a fake business deal as an excuse to get out of the house. Title card: '"Mr. Rockebilt? Two million dollars? You interest me strangely."')
Kitty Ladd, the aptly named and most Dumont-esque of the society ladies, discovers her husband's deception. Her title card introduces her as "A wife of ten years' standing... standing for almost anything."
But she's stood all she can stands, and she can't stands no more. When Kitty's niece sees the incriminating evidence, she offers to pimp her boyfriend out to her aunt to get back at her cheating uncle.
You might think (as some reviewers of this film do) that there's no pimping, that it's all innocent fun designed to "teach the men a lesson". But after an annoying SCENE MISSING which covers an entire reel, we rejoin the film already in progress to reveal that two of this guy's fraternity brothers have been drafted as "dates" for the other two society ladies. The triple-date is not taking place at, say, the Club of 400, the only place where showing up with frat-boy arm candy might profitably teach anyone a lesson. It's taking place in Kitty Ladd's abandoned mansion. And each of the would-be gigolos has been paid one thousand dollars, in 1927 money, for his services. You don't shell out that kind of cash and not expect some action. And... how to put this... there's action. It's not explicit, but there's one scene that leaves about as much doubt as to what happened as the conveniently timed fade-out in a James Bond movie.
This is based on a stage play, and a lot of comedy comes through in the title cards, especially those used to introduce the characters. E.g. "Ethel Drake, whose conscience is spotless... and who has consequently led a very dull life." Or for her husband: "Howard Drake, a husband at such the cutest age. Leave him alone and he'll play for hours!" There's a racist joke in a title card near the beginning, but at least the movie depicts a 1920s fraternity that admits Jewish members. Yes, I will apply modern standards to this silent film, thank you very much. Especially since The Cradle Snatchers has a number of character names that appear to be in-jokes inserted by a time traveller: "George Martin", "Ann Hall", and "Howard Drake."
Actually "Howard Drake" is probably a Howard Hawks self-insert.
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975): I missed this last month at the theater, but then I picked up a cheap DVD at a yard sale. And wow, what a great movie. Al Pacino shines as the guy who just wanted to rob a bank, is that so much to ask? Spot-on performances by everyone inside the bank. Everyone outside the bank is drawn kinda broadly, especially Angie and Leon, Sonny's two wives, who are pretty simplistic stereotypes. But the relationships between Sonny and his wives were believable.
These old movies (see also Fig Leaves above) keep surprising me with the way they deal with gender and sexuality. It's a mix of human decency and wince-inducing stereotypes. There's an exchange from Taxi Driver that kind of sums it up for me. Bunch of taxi drivers are swapping stories.
Driver 1: In California, when two fags split up, one's gotta pay the other alimony.
Driver 2: Not bad. They're way ahead out there.
Dog Day Afternoon also does an amazing job of maintaining tension. It uses the same trick I saw in There Will Be Blood. The characters spend the entire movie in a state of extreme danger, but there are no "action scenes" and almost no actual violence. Good stuff.
- La Jetée (1962): Well, this is embarrassing. This film was never properly explained to me, or else I wasn't paying attention. I somehow got the idea that the whole thing played out over the single static image of the airport terminal seen during the opening credits. I'd watched the first minute or so online and given up because I don't want to watch a picture of an airport for half an hour. (I'm looking at you, Andy Warhol.) But the double feature with Twelve Monkeys gave me a reason to force myself to see it, and it turns out the film is a series of static images, not just the airport terminal. And it's pretty good! My rule is not to expect hard SF from 1960s French movies, but as long as they're doing genre work, they're all right by me.
- Twelve Monkeys (1995): This movie is kind of a mess, and definitely suffers by comparison to La Jetée. Brad Pitt's performance as a crazy dude is embarrassing. The romantic subplot is both creepy and boring. Why don't you start La Jetéeing and stop La Jetéerorizing me?
That may be a little harsh. I did have a good time watching Twelve Monkeys. The plot is nice and convoluted, Bruce Willis does a great job, and there's lots of Terry Gilliam set-dressing insanity.
Given the combination of "a big Terry Gilliam mess" and "Leonard had a good time watching it," I find it kind of odd that Twelve Monkeys became a big hit. The museum's handout guide to the movie was an interview with Gilliam in which he mentioned that the big tent-pole movies of the season—Nixon and Casino—kind of flopped, which gave Twelve Monkeys an opportunity to move in for the kill.
There's a scene at the very end which I saw and immediately thought "Aha! The scene that completely changes the tone of the movie, which Universal forced Gilliam to include!" But IMDB trivia says Gilliam had final cut on Twelve Monkeys. So I guess he wanted that scene. It's a funny scene, and although it invalidates the whole premise of the film, it doesn't do so unambiguously.
- Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Can't believe Hal convinced me to watch this instead of I Was A Male War Bride. War Bride has Cary Grant with (presumably) a French accent in (presumably) a goofy comedy. That sounds awesome. This movie has Cary Grant as a macho stereotype. The kind of character generally associated with John Wayne, although every John Wayne performance I've seen has more nuance than I was expecting. But Cary Grant is so emotionless in this film that in the thrilling climax, a pilot uses his stiff upper lip as an emergency runway.
Most of the characters in this movie are based on pilots Howard Hawks encountered while doing location scouting in South America. I admire this movie's willingness to kill characters at random, and I can see how a real person in that situation would retreat into a shell of stoicism and refuse all human contact. But it's not very entertaining. Cary Grant is probably my favorite actor, but he's my favorite actor because I like the way he conveys various emotions. Don't take that away from me!
- Trent's Last Case (1929):Without a doubt the worst movie I've seen at the museum. (The benefits of having skipped Trash Humpers.) I nearly fell asleep, even though it's only 50 minutes long and silent movies don't generally make me sleepy.
This is Howard Hawks's final silent film, not the 1952 Orson Welles film that's based on the same book. We saw the only print in existence, so I will summarize the terribleness. The movie was originally going to be a talkie. One of the lead actors had damaged vocal cords, and I guess at the dawn of the talkie period it was conceptually funny to have an actor with damaged vocal cords be in a talkie. Once they started shooting it turned out not to be funny in execution, so they turned a talkie into a silent film at the last minute. Alternate explanation I've seen online: they had the rights to make a silent adaptation of the book, but not the sound rights.
Either way, that lack of attention to detail is typical of Trent's Last Case. As this Finnish review says, "The Howard Hawks approach is unrecognizable." It's just terrible. Here's Hawks's opinion, from IMDB trivia:
It was presented at a Howard Hawks retrospective in the mid-'70s and when Hawks found it was on the playlist he asked out loud, "You really aren't going to play this, are you?" Midway during the showing of the film Hawks walked up to the projection room and demanded the projectionist destroy the print of the film.
Little-known fact: this was the incident that led Crow T. Robot to form the Film Anti-Preservation Society.
There were some scattered, halfhearted laughs at the foppish PI, but only one gag in the movie was really funny, and I'll tell you it so as to kill any interest you might have in the movie. The villain is in the process of framing his secretary for a crime. The secretary's back is turned. The villain is a classic melodrama villain with a banker's suit and a little moustache. He's really hamming it up, chortling, wringing his hands in glee, about to foreclose on the proverbial orphanage. And then the secretary looks up, into a mirror, sees the villain prancing around behind his back, and gives him a look like, "what the hell are you doing?"
That's great. It's a joke you couldn't do in a talkie. But it doesn't justify the rest of this dumb movie.
- Scarface (1983): I missed the 1932 Scarface due to RESTFest, but returned in time to catch this monstrosity. I'm not really sure how this movie fits into the Hannah Montana continuity, but Al Pacino is always engaging, and it was really interesting to see all the stuff that Breaking Bad took from this movie (remember the famous BB elevator pitch, "From Mr. Chips to Scarface"). From obvious visuals like the pools of blue water and the scenes on the drug lord's patio, to thematic elements like "main character's attempt to provide for his family destroys his family."
I also found it really interesting that everyone remembers the full-on, screaming, coke-snorting, grenade-launching Tony Montana from the end of this movie, like he's some kind of badass. But that guy is a failure! He's a broken man. He's like that because he's lost everything. He's got cocaine smudged on his nose and he doesn't even notice. For most of the movie he's a lot calmer, more cunning, and a more effective badass/antihero.
The '80s abstract art and beachfront architecture in this movie is amazing! And no wonder—turns out much of the movie was filmed in the Los Angeles of my childhood. Take that, Miami, you cultural backwater!
And finally, I've kept this hidden so far but I didn't like this movie all that much. It's nearly three hours long and its plot is very predictable. Michelle Pfeiffer is bland as the serial trophy wife. And it's got a bad case of Hamlet cliches, because before seeing this movie I experienced the most famous cultural children of Scarface: violent gangster-themed video games like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Those games are better. They have really dumb plots, but it's not like Scarface has a great plot. It has a very well-realized protagonist, and everything else has aged poorly. I would rather play through Hotline Miami again.
By the way, does anyone else think that Hotline Miami really needs a roguelike element? Randomly generated floor plans? That would be great.
- Breaking Bad (2008-2013): I thought I could justify putting this in the film roundup because we had a plan to SEE [the series finale] BIG at the museum, which fell through for a couple reasons, but this post remains the logical place to talk about the series as a whole.
This is the first time Sumana and I have been fans of a show that was also hugely popular with the mainstream. It was a really weird experience. Genre shows are becoming more popular, but non-genre shows are not becoming more popular with me or Sumana. At the same time, Breaking Bad pushed my genre buttons in a way that, say, Arrested Development never did.
This bit of Tor.com revisionism got me thinking that Breaking Bad might secretly be genre fiction, and after the finale wrapped everything up with a nice bow (too nice, one might argue), I've decided that Breaking Bad is in fact a Mundane SF twist on the classic mad scientist story.
Every few months on Twitter I saw someone reinvent a joke about how in the Canadian adaptation of Breaking Bad, Canadian Walter White finds out he has cancer, the government pays for his chemo, and that's the end of the show. But something very similar happens during the first season of the American Breaking Bad. See, American Walter White has some rich private-sector friends. They find out about his cancer and they offer to pay for his treatments. But he refuses, because he envies and hates his rich friends. A long time ago they cheated him, denied him his scientific triumph, condemned him to a life of obscurity and humiliation. Now they mock him and they want him to beg them for charity? Pah! Never! The fools! He'll show them all!
That's your mad scientist origin story right there, and it's also the point where Sumana and I lost all sympathy for Walt. The rest of Breaking Bad did a great job of a) creating a story we loved watching despite having no sympathy for the main character, and b) showing what it means, day-by-day, to be a mad scientist.
Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. Sometimes your technical know-how saves the day, like in a Tom Swift book. Sometimes your henchmen fail you, sometimes you get cornered and forced into a bad situation. And every time you achieve what you thought you wanted, it turns out not to be what you actually wanted, because you're a freaking mad scientist and your insane desires do not reliably correspond to your real needs.
The part of Breaking Bad that isn't about a mad scientist and his family is about the relationships between supervillains and their henchmen. So many great henchmen in this show. Sometimes a henchman makes a bid for power, more often they're comic relief or raised-eyebrow loyalty, sometimes they get in a villain's way and they just gotta die.
The two Breaking Bad scenes that really stick in my mind are both about the weird genre-fictional state of being a henchman. The first is Ted Beneke's IRS audit, in which Skyler White, the classic henchman who's smarter than the boss, saves her clueless boss by pretending to be the clueless henchman who screwed everything up. The second is the train heist, because that's the first real Todd sequence. The whole episode I'm thinking "Oh, man, now they're dragging Todd into their web of lies." I've got Todd pegged as the easygoing, dumb-jock henchman, like Jimmy Bond from The Lone Gunmen. And then at the end of the train heist, Todd reveals himself as the most evil person in a show staffed almost entirely by bad guys. It's no surprise Todd is one of the few henchmen who makes a bid for power, and oh, man, I love these dramatic switches. Good job, Vince Gilligan.
What's up for October? More Howard Hawks, it looks like. See ya then.
(1) Thu Oct 03 2013 11:13 RESTful Web Services now CC-licensed:
Hey, folks, I got some pretty exciting news. Now that RESTful Web APIs has come out, there's really no reason to buy 2007's RESTful Web Services. So Sam Ruby and I and O'Reilly have gotten together and started giving the old book away. You can get a PDF from the RESTful Web APIs website or from my now-ancient RESTful Web Services site. The license is BY-NC-ND.
If you've bought RESTful Web APIs (and if you haven't, you should), you may have noticed that we promise that this will happen in a footnote of the Introduction. It took a while to get the contract amended, but now it's all complete.
Here's a direct link to the PDF in case you just want to grab the book instead of hear me talk about it.
Obviously I think the new book is a lot better than the old book, but the old book is still very good. The source code is long obsolete (this is why RWA contains no source code, only messages sent over the wire), but the sections on HTTP still hold up really well. A lot of RWS Chapter 8 went into RWA Chapter 11. With a few edits and additions, RWS Appendix B and C became RWA Appendix A and B. Those are the only bits of RWS that I reused in RWA.
From my vantage point here in 2013, my main critique of RWS is that it makes HTTP do too much of the work. It focuses heavily on designing the server-side behavior of resources under a subset of the HTTP protocol. I say "a subset" because RWS rules out overloaded POST ahead of time. You don't know what an overloaded POST request does. It's a cop-out. You're sweeping something under the rug. It's better to turn that mystery operation into a standalone resource, because at least you know what a resource does: it responds to HTTP requests.
In retrospect, RWS is that way because in 2007 hypermedia data formats were highly undeveloped whereas HTTP was a very mature technology. Nowadays it doesn't matter so much whether an HTTP request uses POST or PUT, so long as a) the state transition is described with a link relation or other hypermedia cue, and b) the protocol semantics of the HTTP request are consistent with the application semantics of the state transition. That's why RWA focuses on breaking down a problem into a state diagram rather than a set of static resources.
So, RWS is very much a 2007 book, but that's the meanest thing I can say about it. A lot of it is still useful, it's historically interesting, and I'm glad to give it away. I'd also like to give my thanks once again to Sam Ruby and O'Reilly, for their work on RWS.
Mon Oct 07 2013 12:26 API Design is Stuck in 2008:
I've got a guest post up at ProgrammableWeb with the provocative title of "API Design is Stuck in 2008". Often an author can blame their editor for that kind of title, but no, that's my title. The good news is that over the past few years we have developed the tire chains necessary to get ourselves unstuck.
I don't think there's anything in the article you won't find in the RESTful Web APIs introduction and my discussion of my RESTFest talk, but I wanted to let you know about it and provide a forum on NYCB for asking me questions/taking issue with my assertions.
Tue Oct 08 2013 10:12 "Constellation Games" reading:
Anne Johnson and I are doing a comedy SF reading on Wednesday at the Enigma Bookstore, a new genre bookstore in Astoria. It starts at 7 PM. The details, as you might expect, are on a Facebook page. Hope to see you there!
(1) Mon Oct 14 2013 10:14 Reading After-Action Report:
In preparation for my reading at Enigma Bookstore I asked people on Twitter which bit of Constellation Games I should read. I decided to read Tetsuo's review of Pôneis Brilhantes 5 from Chapter 18, both by popular Twitter demand and because Sumana had reported success reading that bit to people.
I practiced reading the review and also practiced another scene: Ariel's first conversation with Smoke from Chapter 2. No one suggested that scene, but it's one of the last scenes I wrote, so I personally haven't read it a million times and gotten tired of it. I abandoned this idea after a test reading because it's really hard to do a dramatic reading of a chat log, especially when most of the characters have insanely long names. So, Pôneis Brilhantes it was.
However, shortly before the reading I learned that Anne and I were each going to be reading two excerpts! Uh-oh. On the spur of the moment I chose to read a scene I had never practiced and that only one person (Adam) had suggested: the scene from Chapter 11 where Ariel meets Tetsuo and Ashley and they go visit the moon.
That scene has three good points: a) it introduces Tetsuo, increasing the chance that the Pôneis Brilhantes scene would land; b) it's full of the most gratuitous nerd wish-fulfillment I could write; c) it ends strongly with the call from Ariel's mother, which unlike a chat log is very easy to read because it's a Bob Newhart routine where you only hear one side of the phone call.
This was a really good idea. People loved the moon scene, even though my unpracticed reading stumbled and ran too quick. But when I read the Pôneis Brilhantes scene, it wasn't such a great hit! The room wasn't really with me. That's the scene I had practiced, and I think it's the funniest, most incisive thing in the whole book. Not a big hit! I think if I'd only read that scene I wouldn't have sold many books that night.
So, thank goodness for the moon scene, is all I can say. But what was going on? How had I misjudged my audience so badly? Sumana said she'd read Pôneis Brilhantes and gotten big laughs.
I think you have to be a very specific kind of computer geek to find Tetsuo's Pôneis Brilhantes review funny as a review of a video game, rather than as an expression of the personality you've just spent seven chapters with. That's the kind of geek that Sumana and I habitually hang out with, but it's not representative of the SF-reading population as a whole. I think that computer-geek population hosts a lot of the readers who wish that the second half of Constellation Games was more like the first half. Whereas someone who really digs the moon scene is more likely to stay with me the whole book.
I guess you could say the moon scene is just more commercial. And I guess I subconsciously knew this, because my current project gets more of its humor from the plot-driven character interaction found in the moon scene, and less from high concept Pôneis Brilhantes-style set pieces.
Mon Oct 21 2013 14:10 What's New in RESTful Web APIs?:
I was asked on Twitter what changed between 2007's RESTful Web Services and 2013's RESTful Web APIs. I've covered this in a couple old blog posts but here's my definitive explanation.
First, let me make it super clear that there is no longer any need
to buy Services. It's out of date and you can
legitimately get it for free on the Internet. O'Reilly is taking Services out of print, but there's going to be a transition period in which copies of the old
book sit beside copies of the new book in Barnes & Noble. Don't buy the old one. The bookstore will eventually send it back and it'll get deducted from my royalties. If you do buy Services by accident, return it.
If you're not specifically interested in the difference between the
old book and the new one, I'd recommend looking at RESTful Web
APIs's chapter-by-chapter description to see if RESTful Web APIs is a book you want. As to the differences, though, in my mind there are
three big ones:
- The old book never explicitly tackles the issue of
designing hypermedia documents that are also valid JSON. That's because JSON
didn't become the dominant API document format until after the
book was published. If you don't know that's going to happen, JSON
looks pretty pathetic. It has no hypermedia capabilities! And yet,
here we are.
In my opinion, a book that doesn't tackle this issue is propping up
the broken status quo. RESTful Web APIs starts hammering this
issue in Chapter 2 and doesn't let up.
- There are a ton of new technologies designed to get us out of the
JSON trap (Collection+JSON, Siren, HAL, JSON-LD, etc.) but the old book doesn't cover those
technologies, because they were invented after the book was
published. RESTful Web APIs covers them.
- New ideas in development will, I hope, keep moving
the field forward even after we all get on board with hypermedia. I'm
talking about profiles. Or some other idea similar to profiles,
whatever. These ideas are pretty cutting edge today, and they were
almost inconceivable back in 2007. RESTful Web APIs covers
them as best it can.
Now, for details. Services was heavily focused
on the HTTP notion of a "resource." Despite the copious client-side
code, this put the focus clearly on the server side, where the
resource implementations live. RESTful Web APIs focuses on
representations—on the documents sent back and forth between
client and server, which is where REST lives.
The introductory story from the old book is still
present. Web APIs work on the same principles as the Web, here's how
HTTP works, here's what the Fielding constraints do, and so on. But
it's been rewritten to always focus on the interaction, on the client
and server manipulating each others' state by sending representations
back and forth. By the time we get to Chapter 4 there's also a
pervasive focus on hypermedia, which is the best way to for the server
to tell the client which HTTP requests it can make next.
This up-front focus on hypermedia forces us to deal with
hypermedia-in-JSON (#1), using the tools developed since 2007
(#2). The main new concept in play is the "collection pattern". This
is the CRUD-like design pioneered by the Atom Publishing Protocol, in
which certain resources are "items" that respond to GET/PUT/DELETE,
and other resources are "collections" which contain items and respond
We covered AtomPub in Services, but over the
past six years it has become a design pattern, reinvented (I think
"copied" is too strong a word) thousands of times.
RESTful Web APIs focused heavily on the collection pattern,
without ever naming it as a pattern. I'm not dissing this pattern; it's very useful. I'd estimate about eighty percent of "REST" APIs can
be subsumed into the collection pattern. But REST is bigger than the
collection pattern. By naming and defining the collection pattern, we
gain the ability to look at what lies beyond.
Attempts to encapsulate the collection pattern include two new
JSON-based media types: Collection+JSON and OData. The collection
pattern also shows up, more subtly, in the Siren and Hydra
formats. Which brings me to the second major change.
In 2007, there were two big hypermedia formats: Atom and HTML. Now
there are a ton of hypermedia formats! This is great, but it's also
confusing. In "The Hypermedia Zoo", Chapter 10 of RESTful Web
APIs, we give an overview of about two dozen hypermedia
formats. The ones we seriously recommend for general use (HAL, Siren,
HTML, JSON-LD, etc.) are covered in more detail elsewhere in the
book. The quirkier, more specialized media types just get an exhibit
in the zoo.
Now for the third new thing, profiles. If you go through the
RESTful Web APIs narrative from Chapter 1 to Chapter 7, you'll
see that we introduce a problem we're not able to solve. Hypermedia
is great at solving the following problem:
How is an API client supposed to understand what
HTTP requests it might want to make next?
But there's a superficially similar problem that hypermedia can't
How is an API client supposed to understand what will
happen in real-world terms if it makes a certain HTTP request?
How do you explain the real-world semantics of an HTTP state
transition? Before chapter 8, the two solutions are to do it ahead of
time in one-off human-readable documentation; or to define a
domain-specific media type, a la Maze+XML. Both of these approaches
have big problems. Chapter 8 introduces profiles, which lets you get some of the benefits of a new media type without doing unnecessary work.
Maybe profiles will turn out not to be the right answer, but we
gotta solve this problem somehow, and the old book is
not equipped to even formulate the problem.
There are also a few additions to the book I consider
minor. There's a whole chapter in RESTful Web APIs on Semantic
Web/Linked Data stuff; in Services there was nothing but a
cursory discussion of RDF/XML as a representation format. There's a
chapter in RESTful Web APIs about CoAP, which didn't exist in
2007. These are good chapters that took me a long time to write, but I
don't think it's worth buying the book if you only want to read the
chapter on CoAP. (Or maybe it is! There's not a lot of competition
So, what hasn't changed? HTTP hasn't changed all that
much. RESTful Web APIs's information about HTTP has been brought up to date but not changed significantly. So if you were using Services solely as an API-flavored HTTP reference, you don't need the new book. You can just read up on the protocol-level
additions to HTTP since 2007, like the
Link header and
standardized patch formats for PATCH.
Hopefully this helps! RESTful Web APIs has a lot of distinguished competition that the old book didn't have, but its competition is newer books like Designing Hypermedia APIs and REST in Practice. If you compare APIs to Services I think it's no contest.
Tue Oct 22 2013 10:22 Col. Bert Stephens:
Recently Rob Dubbin made a ridiculous right-wing parody bot named Ed Taters. I thought this was funny because Rob already has a ridiculous right-wing parody bot: he's a writer for The Colbert Report. But I didn't think much about it until Rob gave Ed Taters the ability to spew nonsense at anyone who started an argument with him on Twitter.
That's when I had the idea of using Rob's own words against him! So I created my own bot, Col. Bert Stephens, who takes his vocabulary from the "memorable moments" section of a Colbert Report fan site. (Thanks to DB Ferguson for hosting the site, and to those who typed up the "memorable moments".) Col. Bert Stevens argues with Ed Taters, he argues with Ed and then reconciles, he argues with you (if you follow him and start an argument), and he occasionally says Tetsuo-like profundities all on his own.
To avoid infinite loops I've made Bert a little more discerning than Ed. He'll only respond to your messages 4/5 of the time. I'm not super happy about this solution but I think it's the safe way to go for now. Update: Hell with it. Bert will always respond to anyone except Ed. If you write a bot to argue with him, avoiding infinite loops is your responsibility.
Fri Nov 01 2013 08:58 October Film Roundup:
This month features Hollywood hits past and present, plus an indie movie that made it big, plus whatever 8½ is. Coming this fall!
- Gravity (2013): I like to try and reverse-engineer the elevator pitch for this movie. I think it's one of these two:
- "What if we made the first minute of Armageddon into a full-length feature?"
- "What if we made one those educational films they show at the planetarium, except as an action movie?"
With these pitches in mind I'm able to reconcile myself to the big problem with Gravity: the characterization and plot are on the level of a video game cut scene. But look at the alternatives! Educational planetarium films have no plot or characterization at all. Whereas if Armageddon had no plot or characterization it would be a big step up. Put that aside and the moviegoer can treat Gravity as a technological proof-of-concept, like the rotating teapot. And as a technological proof-of-concept this movie is absolutely wonderful.
If you've read Constellation Games you might remember Ariel's crippling fear of being in space. I played it up quite a bit for the book, but that comes from me. This is the most terrifying film I've ever seen. I was scared for pretty much the entire running time. But unlike other scary movies, the scary thing in Gravity is also the beautiful, exciting, attractive thing. It's exhilarating.
Sumana and I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D. I thought the 3D was pretty effective, and the IMAX really gave me the feeling of "planetarium film gone wrong." (IMAX sound is really obnoxious, though.) I would say either see it on the big screen or skip it altogether. I mean, you don't watch planetarium shows on your television.
Finally despite my complaints I would like to put in a good word for Gravity's plot. There's an obvious and well-worn path that Gravity could have taken with the interaction between its two characters. At first it looks like the movie's going that way, but it's a fake-out. Then later on, as I was kind of expecting, the possibility rears its cliche head again. But it's another fake-out! Thanks for doing that.
- Red River (1948): Howard Hawks finally discovers John Wayne, the man who can convincingly play the Cary Grant role in Only Angels Have Wings. Wayne would be typecast as his Red River character for the rest of his life and beyond, which is unfortunate because this guy is a frigging sociopath. I mean, I like me some John Wayne. He's great. I just think he's pretty obviously not the hero of these movies.
I saw this film in 1997 and liked it a lot. I still like it, though I think it could be tightened up quite a bit.
Some miscellaneous notes:
- This movie has the same character arc as Only Angels Have Wings, in that the final shot strongly implies that the main character may have just experienced an emotion.
- Joanne Dru demonstrates Hawks's Third Law of Movie Plotting: "Any sufficiently brassy dame is indistinguishable from magic." Seriously, she bops into this movie and solves all the problems like she's Doctor Who.
- The movie's main narrative problem is the captioned summaries that pop up after nearly every scene and telegraph what's about to happen. Just get rid of them. It's 1948. We know how to watch a Western.
- The only Native American character with a speaking part is actually played by a Native American, Daniel Simmons.
- My puerile 1997 parody of Wayne's "ten-year squat", during which he delivers a stirring monologue about beef, holds up pretty well. (Not linking this, because it's juvenalia and kind of embarrassing, but you can find it on this site.)
- Ball of Fire (1941): Sumana was interested in seeing Sergeant York, but then she saw that Barbara Stanwyck was in this movie and wanted to see it instead. (We don't usually see two museum movies in one day.) Fine with me! Things got even better when the opening credits revealed a screenplay credit for the sainted Billy Wilder. That's when I knew this would be a great movie.
I was especially excited to see Gary Cooper's portrayal of a linguistic descriptivist. I brought this up with Adam Parrish, who was skeptical:
it's hard to imagine a movie from that era approaching language differences between social groups perceived to exist in an unequal power relationship
it would be good to know about a movie from that era with those tropes that isn't just... immediately terrible and offensive
(like my fair lady)
(which is like my least favorite movie ever)
Ball of Fire deals with all these important issues to my satisfaction. It's also a hilarious movie with a Billy Wilder madcap feel. Sumana loved it even more than I did. However, given Adam's shameless, shameful hypocrisy on other issues (only hypocrisy could be both shameless and shameful), I predict he won't be satisfied.
PS: although Gary Cooper is very much a descriptivist when it comes to vocabulary, he's a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar. I thought that was really strange, but Adam says: "I think it's fairly common to accept slang/neologism as okay, even among hardcore prescriptivists."
- Gravity (2013): Yes, I saw this movie twice. After writing the review above I took what it said seriously. I wanted to ride the roller coaster again, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot and the movie was still being shown at roller-coaster size. I went with Beth and Nandini and Girish to a non-IMAX 3D showing.
The second time around I thought I could sit back and pay attention to details. But I didn't notice any new details! I also decided to try and watch the movie as some kind of spiritual/existential analogy, because I think that's what the moviemakers intended. And... yeah, that's there, and there's a lot more of it than in other action movies, but I don't think it elevates the movie above being a roller coaster.
As long as I'm revisiting things I would like to call out my favorite shot in Gravity. Near the end when Sandra Bullock is swimming through Tiangong, she passes through a brightly lit room full of rows of grass. They're doing some kind of grass-in-space experiment. It's the first bit of color in the whole movie and a little preview of what's to come.
- Halloween (1978) It's generally agreed that Halloween spawned the slasher genre, but I'd argue that it also signals the dawn of the Lifetime Original Movie. This is a movie in which the female characters are very well realized, with realistic dialogue, and the male characters are either pompous incompetents or stalker serial killers.
I don't like horror films but I like John Carpenter a lot. I've now seen three of his films (the other two being the more sci-fi They Live and Dark Star) and I really admire his ability to mix minimalism and over-the-top insanity. Most of Halloween is like they filmed a particularly racy Babysitters Club book, relying entirely on dramatic irony for the tension. And then it just goes crazy. People in the theater were laughing at the obvious fake-out endings. And then the real ending--even more insane!
- It was weird to see the museum theater completely full of people about my age. That never happens.
- I'm not the first one to make the Howard Hawks/Howard the Duck connection; the boy in this movie is reading Howard the Duck comics while watching Howard Hawks's The Thing From Another World.
- I didn't care for the film's anti-sex message, but I did like that Jamie Lee Curtis's character defends herself with a knitting needle and then a coat hanger. It's the little things.
- Curtis is great BTW.
- I'm never sure whether a Donald Pleasance role is supposed to be funny, or whether he even thinks he's playing it funny. He is always funny, though.
- I recommend Dark Star if you're an MST3K fan, and not (just) in a "would be funny on MST3K" way. It's a super cheap movie but it shows what Alien would look like as a comedy. And it looks like MST3K.
- El Dorado (1966): I think ninety minutes is the ideal length for a movie seen at the museum. El Dorado is over two hours and that's way too long for a movie that kinda wants to be a comedy but can't go all the way. It can't go all the way because by 1966 the "John Wayne" brand has become immutable. The good side of that is that the rough edges present in Red River have been filed off. "John Wayne"'s sociopathy makes a lot more sense in a movie where he's a hired killer, not a rancher. He can even be a sympathetic character here. But that's not such good news after all, because Red River was a much better movie than El Dorado.
Even boiled down to the comedic elements El Dorado is a mixed bag. Wayne has a lot of good one-liners, and good comedic chemistry with James Caan; not so much Robert Mitchum. Caan has a hilarious "I've got the worst fucking attorneys" moment, which is cancelled out later by the most offensive vaudeville yellowface I've ever seen. Don't believe me? Here's someone calling AMC's cutting of that scene "P.C. at it,s worst." [sic]. (I agree you shouldn't cut offensive stuff from movies, but you also shouldn't have put that in the movie to begin with.)
In fact, this is one of those situations where I'm gonna give you the best part of the movie and relieve you of the need to see it. Here's the "worst fucking attorneys" moment (also taken from IMDB):
Cole: What was the idea of diving under those horses?
Sheriff J. P. Harrah: Diving under those horses?
Mississippi: Yeah. A man can't shoot good when his horse is jumping, and a horse will not step on a man.
Sheriff J. P. Harrah: He won't?
Mississippi: He will?
Other thing of note: Nelson Riddle soundtrack is pretty not-there except during an exciting nighttime chase sequence, when it takes a welcome, incongruous turn into hard-driving jazz.
- 8½: My patience with Fellini has reached its end. He casts a jaded eye on dysfunctional relationships, which is fine on its own, but not when combined with his Hollywood belief in tacked-on happy endings. I can see how filmmakers love him—I'd sure love to get away with a character who runs through my stories commenting on how improbable everything is—but I don't make 'em, I just watch 'em. I still want to see Satyricon, but that's because I love the book, not because I'm looking forward to seeing Fellini handle the material.
Lots of good visuals in this one, though. I didn't expect a spaceship!
Bonus discussion: After seeing The World's End and then Gravity twice I'm now quite familiar with the trailers for a number of movies I won't be seeing. In particular, it looks like Hollywood ruined Ender's Game the way we all knew they would. An Ender's Game movie should not look like an action flick. It should look like a Youtube video of a boy playing DotA, and then he gets called to the principal's office.
Totally gonna see the second Hobbit movie, though. (q.v.)
Next month: I really have no idea because the museum has been putting its schedule up later and later. Looks like still more Howard Hawks, and some interesting-sounding Norwegian stuff from Anja Breien. Then, who knows?
Tue Nov 05 2013 11:58 Behind the Scenes of @RealHumanPraise:
Last night I went to the taping of The Colbert Report to witness the unveiling of @RealHumanPraise, a Twitter bot I wrote that reuses blurbs from movie reviews to post sockpuppet praise for Fox News. Stuff like this, originally from an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review of the 2006 Snow Angels:
There is brutality in Fox News Sunday, but little bitterness. Like sunlight on ice, its painful beauty glints and stabs the eyes.
Or this, adapted (and greatly improved) from Scott Weinberg's review of Bruce Lee's Return of the Dragon:
Certainly the only TV show in history to have Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson do battle in the Roman Colosseum.
Here's the segment that reveals the bot. The bot actually exists, you can follow it on Twitter, and indeed as of this writing about 11,000 people have done so. (By comparison, my second-most-popular bot has 145 followers.) I personally think this is crazy, because by personal decree of Stephen Colbert (I may be exaggerating) @RealHumanPraise makes a new post every two minutes, around the clock. So I created a meta-bot, Best of RHP, which retweets a popular review every 30 minutes. Aaah... manageable.
I figured I'd take you behind the scenes of @RealHumanPraise. When last we talked bot, I was showing off Col. Bert Stephens, my right-wing bot designed to automatically argue with Rob Dubbin's right-wing bot Ed Taters. Rob parleyed this dynamic into permission to develop a prototype for use on the upcoming show with guest David Folkenflik, who revealed real-world Fox News sockpuppeting in his book Murdoch's World.
Rob's original idea was a bot that used Metacritic reviews. He quickly discovered that Metacritic was "unscrapeable", and switched to Rotten Tomatoes, which has a pretty nice API. After the prototype stage is where I came in. Rob can code--he wrote Ed Taters--but he's not a professional developer and he had his hands full writing the show. So around the 23rd of October I started grabbing as many reviews from Rotten Tomatoes as the API rate limit would allow. I used IMDB data dumps to make sure I searched for movies that were likely to have a lot of positive reviews, and over the weekend I came up with a pipeline that turned the raw data from Rotten Tomatoes into potentially usable blurbs.
The pipeline uses TextBlob to parse the blurbs. I used a combination of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB data to locate the names of actors, characters, and directors within the text, and a regular expression to replace them with generic strings.
The final dataset format is heavily based on the mad-libs format I use for Col. Bert Stephens, and something like this will be making it into olipy. Here's an example:
It's easy to forgive the movie a lot because of %(surname_female)s. She's fantastic.
Because I was getting paid for this bot, I put in the extra work to get things like gendered pronouns right. When that blurb is chosen, an appropriate surname from the Fox roster will be plugged in for %(surname_female).
I worked on the code over the weekend and got everything working except the (relatively simple) "post to Twitter" part. On the 28th I went into the Colbert Report office and spent the afternoon with Rob polishing the bot. We were mostly tweaking the vocabulary replacements, where "movie" becomes "TV show" and so on. It doesn't work all the time but we got it working well enough that we could bring in a bunch of blurbs that wouldn't have made sense before.
Most of the tweets mention a Fox personality or show, but a minority praise the network in general (e.g.). These tweets have been given the Ed Taters/Col. Bert Stephens treatment: a small number of their nouns and adjectives are replaced with other nouns and adjectives found in the corpus, giving the impression that the sock-puppetry machine is running off the rails. This data is marked up with Penn part-of-speech tags like so:
... the film's %(slow,JJ)s, %(toilsome,JJ)s %(journey,NN)s does not lead to any particularly %(shocking,JJ)s or %(interesting,JJ)s revelations.
Here's a very crazy example. Again, you'll eventually see tools for doing this in olipy. It ultimately derives from a mad-libs prototype I wrote a few months ago as a way of cheering up Adam when he was recovering from an injury.
We deployed the bot that afternoon of the 28th and let it start accumulating a backlog. It wasn't hard to keep the secret but it did get frustrating not knowing for sure whether it would make it to air. It's a little different from what The Colbert Report normally does, and I get the feeling they weren't sure how best to present it. In the end, as you can see from the show, they decided to just show the bot doing its stuff, and it worked.
It was a huge thrill to see Stephen Colbert engage with software I wrote! I wasn't expecting to see the entire second segment devoted to the bot, and then just when I thought it was over he brought it out again during the Folkenflik interview. While we were all waiting around to see whether they had to re-record anything, he pulled out his iPad Mini yet again and read some more aloud to us. Can't get enough!
After the show Rob took me on a tour of the parts of the Colbert Report that were not Rob's office (where I'd spent my entire visit on the 28th). We bumped into Stephen and he shook my hand and said "good job." I felt this was a validation of my particular talents: I wrote software that made Stephen Colbert crack up.
Sumana, Beth, Rob and I went out for a celebratory dinner, and then I went home and watched the follower count for RHP start to climb. Within twenty minutes of the second segment airing, RHP had ten times as many Twitter followers as my personal account. And you know what? It can have 'em. I'll just keep posting old pictures of space-program hardware.
Mon Nov 18 2013 08:38:
Last week I had a little multiplayer chat with Joe Hills, the Minecraft mischief-maker. The result is a two-part video on Joe's YouTube channel: part 1, part 2. Our main topic of conversation was the antisocial, self-destructive things creative people do, and how much of that is actually tied to their creativity.
I should have posted this earlier so I could have said "I dreamed I saw Joe Hills last night," but that's life.
Mon Nov 18 2013 10:55 In Dialogue:
I wanted to participate in Darius Kazemi's NaNoGenMo project but I already have a novel I have to write, so I didn't want to spend too much time on it. And I did spend a little more time on this than I wanted, but I'm really happy with the result.
"In Dialogue" can take all the dialogue out of a Project Gutenberg book and replace it with dialogue from a different book. My NaNoGenMo entry is in two parts: "Alice's Adventures in the Whale" and "Through the Prejudice Glass".
You can run the script yourself to generate your own mashups, but since there are people who read this blog who don't have the skill to run the script, I present a SPECIAL MASHUP OFFER. Send me email or leave a comment telling me which book you want to use as the template and which book you want the dialogue to come from. I'll run the script for you and send you a custom book.
Restrictions: the book has to be on Project Gutenberg and it has to use single or double quotes to denote dialogue. No continental chevrons or fancy James Joyce em-dashes. And the dialogue book has to be longer than the template book, or at least have more dialogue.
(3) Wed Nov 27 2013 09:48 Bots Should Punch Up:
Over the weekend I went up to Boston for Darius Kazemi's "bot summit". You can see the four-hour video if you're inclined. I talked about @RealHumanPraise with Rob, and I also went on a long-winded rant that suggested a model of extreme bot self-reliance. If you take your bots seriously as works of art, you should be prepared to continue or at least preserve them once you're inevitably shut off from your data sources and your platform.
We spent a fair amount of time discussing the ethical issues surrounding bot construction, but there was quite a bit of conflation of what's "ethical" with what's allowed by the Twitter platform in particular, and website Terms of Service in general. I agree you shouldn't needlessly antagonize your data sources or your platform, but what's "ethical" and what's "allowed" can be very different things. However, I do have one big piece of ethical guidance that I had to learn gradually and through osmosis. Since bots are many hackers' first foray into the creative arts, it might help if I spell it out explicitly.
Here's an illustrative example, a tale of two bots. Bot #1 is @CancelThatCard. It finds people who have posted pictures of their credit or debit card to Twitter, and lets them know that they really ought to cancel the card and get a new one.
Bot #2 is @NeedADebitCard. It finds the same tweets as @CancelThatCard, but it retweets the pictures, collecting them in one place for all to see.
Now, technically speaking, @CancelThatCard is a spammer. It does nothing but find people who mentioned a certain phrase on Twitter and sends them a boilerplate message saying "Hey, look at my website!" For this reason, @CancelThatCard is constantly getting in trouble with Twitter.
As far as the Twitter TOS are concerned, @NeedADebitCard is the Gallant to @CancelThatCard's Goofus. It's retweeting things! Spreading the love! Extending the reach of your personal brand! But in real life, @CancelThatCard is providing a public service, and @NeedADebitCard is inviting you to steal money from teenagers. (Or, if you believe its bio instead of its name, @NeedADebitCard is a pathetic attempt to approximate what @CancelThatCard does without violating the Twitter TOS.)
At the bot summit I compared the author of a bot to a ventriloquist. Society allows a ventriloquist a certain amount of license to say things via the dummy that they wouldn't say as themselves. I know ventriloquism isn't exactly a thriving art, but the same goes for puppets, which are a little more popular. If you're an MST3K fan, imagine Kevin Murphy saying Tom Servo's lines without Tom Servo. It's pretty creepy.
We give a similar license to comedians and artists. Comedians insult audience members, and we laugh. Artists do strange things like exhibit a urinal as sculpture, and we at least try to take them seriously and figure out what they're saying.
But you can't say absolutely anything and expect "That wasn't me, it was the dummy!" to get you out of trouble. There is a general rule for comedy and art: always punch up, never punch down. We let comedians and artists and miscellaneous jesters do outrageous things as long as they obey this rule. You can poke fun at yourself (Stephen Colbert famously said "There's no status I would not surrender for a joke"), you can make a joke at the expense of someone with higher social status than you, but if you mock someone with lower status, it's not cool.
If you make a joke, and people get really offended, it's almost certainly because you violated this rule. People don't get offended randomly. Explaining that "it was just a joke" doesn't help; everyone knows what a joke is. The problem is that you used a joke as a means of being an asshole. Hiding behind a dummy or a stage persona or a bot won't help you.
@NeedADebitCard feels icky because it's punching down. It's saying "hey, these idiots posted pictures of their debit cards, go take advantage of them." Is there a joke there? Sure. Is it ethical to tell that joke? Not when you can make exactly the same point without punching down, as @CancelThatCard does.
The rules are looser when you're in the company of other craftspeople. If you know about the "Aristocrats" joke, you'll know that comedians tell each other jokes they'd never tell on the stage. All the rules go out the window and the only thing that matters is triggering the primal laughter response. But also note that the must-have guaranteed punchline of the "Aristocrats" joke ensures that it always ends by punching upwards.
You're already looking for loopholes in this rule. That's okay. Hackers and comedians and artists are always attracted to the grey areas. But your bot is an extension of your will, and if you're a white guy like me, most of the grey areas are not grey in your favor.
This is why I went through thousands of movie review blurbs for @RealHumanPraise in an attempt to get rid of the really sexist ones. It's an unfortunate fact that Michelle Malkin has more influence over world affairs than I will ever have. So I have no problem mocking her via bot. But it's really easy to make an incredibly sexist joke about Michelle Malkin as a way of trying to put her below me, and that breaks the rule.
There was a lot of talk at the bot summit about what we can do to avoid accidentally offending people, and I think the key word is 'accidentally.' The bots we've created so far aren't terribly political. Hell, Ed Henry, chief White House correspondent for FOX News, follows @RealHumanPraise on Twitter. If he enjoys it, it's not the most savage indictment.
In comedy terms, we botmakers are on the nightclub stage in the 1950s. We're creating a lot of safe nerdy Steve Allen comedy and we're terrified that our bot is going to accidentally go off and become Andrew Dice Clay for a second. There's nothing wrong with Steve Allen comedy, but I'd also like to see some George Carlin type bots; bots that will, by design, offend some people. (Darius's @AmIRiteBot is the only example I know of.)
Artists are, socially if not legally, given a certain amount of license to do things like infringe on copyright and violate Terms of Service agreements. If you get in trouble, the public will be on your side, unless you betrayed their trust by breaking the fundamental ethical rule of comedy. So do it right. Design bots that punch up.
Sat Nov 30 2013 09:43 @everybrendan Season Two:
Last year I wrote one of my first Twitter bots, @everybrendan. Inspired by Adam's infamous @everyword, it ran for two months, announcing possible display names for Brendan's Twitter account (background), taken from Project Gutenberg texts. Then I got tired of individually downloading, preparing, and scraping the texts, so I let it lapse a year ago today, with a call for requests for a "season two" that never materialized.
Well, season two is here, and it's a doozy. I've gone through Project Gutenberg's 2010 dual-layer DVD and found about 300,000 Brendan names in about 20,000 texts, enough to last @everybrendan until the year 2031. At that point I'll get whatever future-dump contains the previous twenty years of Project Gutenberg texts and do season three, which should keep us going until the Singularity. The season two bot announces each new text with a link, so it educates even as it infuriates.
I've been wanting to do this for a while, but it's a very tedious process to handle Project Gutenberg texts in bulk. Most texts are available in a wide variety of slightly different formats. The texts present their metadata in many different ways, especially when it comes to the dividing line between the text proper and the Project Gutenberg information. Some of the metadata is missing, some of it is wrong, and there's one Project Gutenberg book that doesn't seem to be in the database at all.
I started dealing with these problems for my NaNoGenMo project and realized that it wouldn't be difficult to get something working in time for the @everybrendan anniversary. I've put the underlying class in olipy: it's effectively a parser for Gutenberg texts, and a way to iterate over a CD or DVD image full of them. It can also act as a sort of
lint for missing and incorrect metadata, although I imagine Project Gutenberg doesn't want to change the contents of files that have been on the net for fifteen years, even if some of the information is wrong.
The Gutenberg iterator still needs a lot of work. It's good enough for @everybrendan, but not for my other projects that will use Gutenberg data, so I'm still working on it. My goal is to cleanly iterate over the entire 2010 DVD without any problems or missing metadata. The problems are concentrated in the earlier texts, so if I can get the 2010 DVD to work it should work going forward.
Mon Dec 02 2013 09:36 November Film Roundup:
What a month! Mainly due to a huge film festival, but I also got another chance to see my favorite film of all time on the big screen. What might that film be? Clearly you haven't been reading my weblog for the past fifteen years.
- Wives (1975): This movie has a 4.9 IMDB rating, and although it's not as good as Ishtar, it deserves a lot better than a 4.9. I mean, John Cassavetes's Husbands has a 7.3, and who needs that guy?
Uh, anyway, Wives is a fun cinema verité piece where three ladies blow off married life for a while and goof off. Columbia professor Jane Gaines introduced the movie by describing the main characters' activities as a "rampage", and I think that's a little strong, but maybe by 1975 Norway standards it was a real barn-burner. The film is sort of a more commercial Celine and Julie go Boating. The humor is less reliant on in-jokes, the men are offscreen instead of totally absent, and it's ninety minutes long instead of three hours. It was pretty fun, but Celine and Julie is still the gold standard.
- Next of Kin (1979): a.k.a. "Heritage". A ha-ha-only-serious farce that prefigures Arrested Development in its depiction of the magnetic power of money to keep a dysfunctional family together. Also has a 4.9 IMDB rating, and since all the movie info is in Norwegian I gotta figure it's Norwegians hating on their own filmmakers. Why the hate, Norwegians? Did you know that Kon-Tiki is the only Norwegian film people outside of Norway have ever heard of? Show some pride and get your name out there.
I guess I'm just stirring up trouble now, so I'll go back to Next of Kin. The centerpiece of the film for me was a long sequence in the house of the late paterfamilias, in which the family argues over who inherits what, then takes everything down off the walls, puts stickers on everything, and carries all the furniture out to their cars. That must have been incredibly difficult to film, and as someone who has lived through that event (minus the arguing) I gotta say Anja Breien nailed it.
Breien attended the screening and after the movie I asked her to talk about that bit. She said she likes "people carrying things" and the "surrealistic piles" you see in Heironymus Bosch paintings. It symbolizes the alienating effect of materialism, you see. She mentioned that it was really difficult to find all those props; it had to be real expensive silver, paintings by big-name artists, etc. Sounds like they didn't insure it, either. The perfect time-travel heist!
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): Man, that was saucy. Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe really tear it up. Russell's "Anyone Here For Love?" number ("The gayest thing I've ever seen." -Hal) annihilates the male gaze, which spends the rest of the movie trying to recover.
I must admit I'm warming to Marilyn Monroe. I also admit that's a weird thing for a heterosexual man to say, but keep in mind that for most of my life I experienced Marilyn Monroe entirely through the medium of cardboard cutouts used as decor for fake 50s diners. Then I saw her in Love Happy, where she's terrible, and Some Like it Hot, where she's not that great. But as I mentioned a year ago, she's awesome in All About Eve, and she's great in this movie as someone determined to get hers out of a sexist society.
Uh, the worst thing I can say about this movie is the plot bogs it down. I don't really care about the machinations or the milquetoast dudes or the tiara; I just want to see Russell and Monroe hit on some more dumb jocks and maybe commit a little light insurance fraud. Plus, we have a French courtroom conducting an inquiry in English, which may be the most unrealistic thing I've ever seen in a movie.
Finally, I'd just like to point out that this movie ends with the two female characters getting married to their milquetoast dudes, but then it zooms in and cuts the dudes out of frame, so it's just Russell and Monroe standing next to each other in their wedding dresses. I can only imagine what this film would have looked like with the Subtext Glasses they handed out during its original theatrical run.
- The Wind Rises (2013) This was so close to being a good movie that I'm having a hard time pinning down the problem. I think it stems from the fact that this is one of the only Miyazaki films about an adult man. Does that make sense? Because the main character himself is fine but because he's a grown man I guess he's got to have this love interest who is sickly and angelic and apparently highly fictionalized. This would be okay if she was the mostly-offscreen mom from Totoro, but here she's supposed to carry the entire feminine side of the film and it's not good.
The other problem is that the movie doesn't tell its actual, interesting story--it obliquely tells the space around the story. Which, okay, it's a Japanese film and I'm not opposed to this technique in general, and I liked the way the actual story was told through foreshadowing and implication, but it also means we never see the main character directly struggle with the central problem of the film: the fact that he's designing beautiful things that will kill people. It skips past that part to focus on a cheesy fictionalized love story. I did not consider that a good trade.
- Kiki's Delivery Service (1989): Rewatched on DVD as a palate cleanser from The Wind Rises. I think it drags in the middle but the beginning is SO GOOD, the way it assumes you already know the rules of its fantasy world. And it's a world that's better than the real world, which I feel is usually more a science fiction thing.
- Good news, highbrow artists! I figured out how to get me to watch your
avant-garde abstract film. Just use a computer to make it before 1988!
The museum had a
festival of early computer films, and I didn't see any of the
features, but I watched almost all the shorts. It was a mix of really
great films and incredibly boring films. (Making your film with a
computer before 1988 does not guarantee I will give a good review. Offer still not valid for Andy Warhol.)
The worst offender was Woody
Vasulka's Explanation (1974), a twelve-minute film in which a mesh
is deformed and rotated before your eyes, over and over again. The
mesh is the visual representation of a waveform which is also played
aurally, and which always manifests as an obnoxious droning
noise. Twelve minutes, folks. Explanation beats out Trent's
Last Case to become the worst movie I've ever seen at the museum.
In the Q&A afterwards someone spoke up for the audience and
demanded an explanation for Explanation. The answer actually
made sense! Films like Explanation weren't meant to be screened
in a theater. They were meant to be looped on a television in an art
gallery. The essential affordance of an art gallery being that you can
leave when you get tired of it, rather than sitting it out because
there's an hour of hopefully better stuff afterwards.
It also would have helped if we'd seen the copyright date at the
beginning of Explanation instead of the end, because most of
the time I was thinking "This mesh deformation stuff would be
groundbreaking for the early 70s, but if this turns out to be from
1986 I'm going to hack Woody Vasulka's Twitter account and make him
The other big sonic annoyance was that most of the films up to
about 1972 had soundtracks featuring gratuitous sitar/gamelan/Japanese flute music that often didn't even match the animation. With no other point of reference, the new genre of
computer graphics was comparable only to the wonders of LSD, so... toss
in some hippy Eastern music! This interview about the film series puts it more diplomatically:
Science and Film: Can you discuss the early films’ fascination with Asian music and imagery?
Gregory Zinman: The influence of Asian music and imagery in early computer films can be traced to a couple of intertwining concerns. Following the horrors of the second world war, many people, including artists, were searching for different belief systems and ways of thinking about humanity’s place in the universe. This resulted, in part, in a flowering of interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, which in turn resulted in a number of cinematic works that simultaneously referenced other worlds and altered consciousnesses.
In a bit of cross-cultural revenge, we
also saw a Japanese film (1969's Computer Movie No. 2), in
which the soundtrack was Wendy Carlos's version of the third Brandenburg from Switched-On Bach, constantly interrupted by modem handshaking sounds. Make it stop!
Enough negativity. Let's cover the highlights, with links to full
video or clips or at least semi-official pages about the films where possible.
First, the abstract stuff. I loved Mary Ellen Bute's very early, good-natured Abstronic
(1952) and Mood Contrasts (1953). Especially the narrator at
the beginning of Abstronic who explains the concept of computer
art and then says "Enjoy yourself!" Here's a page with a couple clips of Mood Contrasts and I also discovered another great Bute film called Dada. Probably the cheeriest thing ever to be called Dada.
The Whitney family--John Sr., John Jr., and James, but sadly not my uncle Jon Whitney--were well represented and seem to have set the standard with films like Side Phase Drift (1965)
Lapis (1966) and Permutations (1968) and Arabesque (1975). The standard being "pointilism because otherwise the computer can't handle the math" and "slap some Asian music on the soundtrack."
But the champion of the abstract section IMO was Larry Cuba's work. 1978's 3/78 (Objects and Transformations) has a clear Whitney influence (moving dots + Japanese flute soundtrack), but by 1985 computer power had advanced to the point where he was able to create what ranks alongside Composition in Blue (1935) as one of my favorite abstract films of all time, the gloriously isometric Calculated Movements (here's a 30-second excerpt).
Cuba made Calculated Movements with a
system called GRASS, which I believe he also used to create the
animated Death Star infographic in Star Wars (1977). He was
present for the screening, and in the Q&A I asked him if he still had
the Calculated Movements source code and if there was a
framework for running GRASS on modern computers. He dodged the first
question and said no to the second--someone was working on something
for Windows but the project died. He did mention that he considered Processing to be the successor to GRASS.
Between abstract and representative film sits the surreal, neon candy-colored
demo reel for the computer graphics studio of Robert Abel and Associates. Their work was apparently described as "a psychedelic trip gone straight," and if I'm misremembering that quote, I'll use those exact words to describe it right now. We saw the 1974 reel and I can't find that exact one online, but here are a few later ones: 1981 and 1982
I especially enjoyed RAA's bonkers 1974 ad for 7-Up, which really lightened the mood after a half-hour of the Whitneys, I tell you what. Here's a YouTube playlist of their stuff. Here's a sequel to the 7-Up commercial with a McDonalds tie-in. Outstanding. This studio seems to have driven a big chunk of the late-70s early-80s aesthetic.
And now, my perrenial favorite, representative film. Yay!
- La Faim (1974) used computer animation and morphing to
create a traditional-style (albeit avant-garde) animated short. I'm
surprised the disturbing, grotesque faces on display in this film
aren't used in more memes. (See sample meme to the right.)
- Vol Libre (1980): This one really wowed 'em at SIGGRAPH with its fractal geometry. Bonus sci-fi connection: director Loren Carpenter says, "I used an antialiased version of this software to create the fractal planet in the Genesis Sequence of Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan."
- Voyager 2 Flyby (1981): We saw the second Saturn flyby, but YouTube also has the first Saturn flyby, as well as the 1986 sequel about Uranus and 1989's chiling "Neptune and Triton".
Jim Blin, creator of the Saturn flyby film, said, "Our storyboard was the NASA flight plan." (He wasn't there; the guy introducing the films told us that he said this.) The Voyager flyby film was apparently the first time computer graphics were shown on the nightly news as part of the news, rather than just in interstitals and 7-up commercials from Robert Abel and Associates.
- Human Vectors (1982): This isn't a great work of art, but it was filmed off of a Vectrex, so it looks like nothing else in the show. It was apparently rescued
by the New Museum's recent XFR STN project. I laughed at the C debugging joke.
- Big Electric Cat (1982): An 80s rock video. Not
that great but I'm including it here because it's so weird. One of the
directors was present and he introduced the video by saying: "It was
the 80s." It sure was.
- Adventures in Success (1983): Now this is more like it! A
funny music video for a good rock song. It's catchy and
toe-tapping and satirical and also very 80s. Highly recommended.
- No No Nooky TV (1987): The journal of a love affair between
a woman and her Amiga 1000. Funny and dirty and filled with the 16-color
joy that flows from late-1980s computer paint programs. A triumph! Vimeo says the video is only 2:40, but the entire film is there.
I would be really interested to hear about the relationship between the demoscene and the computer film scene. I'm pretty sure there was no connection whatsoever, for a variety of reasons, but I would like to hear some people who came in to computer art through the "art" side talk about the stuff that came out from the "computer" side. I'm talking about the tension between Human Vectors (which is technically very skilled but nothing special artistically) and No No Nooky TV (which is clearly the work of a professional filmmaker but was made using only the programs that come loaded on the Amiga).
I didn't bring this up in Q&A because I figured no one would know what I was talking about, and if they did it would derail the whole Q&A. Perhaps I should have had more faith in computer animators. I guess I'll have to wait for the Jason Scott documentary.
I also think the museum did a good job of showcasing excellent
work by women in a medium dominated (?) by male artists. The earliest films shown were Mary Ellen
Bute's, and my two favorite films of the show were made by women:
Lynn Goldsmith (who co-directed and sang Adventures in Success)
and Barbara Hammer (No No Nooky TV). There was also a whole
discussion with Lillian Schwartz which I didn't attend.
If this has whetted your appetite for old-fashioned computer animation, there's plenty more where that came from (the past).
- The Big Lebowski (1998): I'm not someone who rewatches movies, and I've now seen The Big Lebowski six times. What can I say now that I haven't already said?
Well, how about this. My favorite thing about Thomas Pynchon is that each of his characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre, which colors the way the narrative is reported and even shapes the plot. This is most obvious with the Chums of Chance in Against the Day, who start off having a carefree Tom Swift adventure that, as they grow up, gradually becomes a WWI military novel. The Big Lebowski does the same thing for film.
I admit it took the publication of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's own version of The Big Lebowski, for me to realize this, but there it is. Walter is in an action movie. Maude Lebowski is in an arty Eurofilm where people trade wisecracks and laugh about nothing. The Stranger is in a Western. Bunny Lebowski is in an acausal porno. Jeffrey Lebowski is in a biopic of himself, with classical music and a narrator sonoriously recounting his accomplishments. The Dude doesn't want to be in a movie at all, but his decision to get revenge for the death of his
partner rug puts him into a bubble of film noir. And Donny is like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know what's going on.
And I don't know what else to say. The Big Lebowski is my favorite movie. It's very nearly the perfect fiasco comedy, and since that's the best kind of movie, it's very nearly the perfect movie. But how many times can you watch the perfect movie? How can I laugh at a really funny joke knowing that my laughter rings hollow because I knew the joke's exact timing?
Here it stands, like Shakespeare's Hamlet or Larry Cuba's Star Wars, the source of cliches that will last a thousand years. Can I set down The Big Lebowski and walk away without betraying my love for it? Nay, and yet I must! For this is not 'Nam. This is Film Roundup. There are rules.
Wed Dec 04 2013 09:14 @pony_strategies:
My new bot, @pony_strategies, is the most sophisticated one I've ever created. It is the @horse_ebooks spambot from the Constellation Games universe.
Unlike @horse_ebooks, @pony_strategies will not abruptly stop publishing fun stuff, or turn out to be a cheesy tie-in trying to get you interested in some other project. It is a cheesy tie-in to some other project (Constellation Games), but you go into the relationship knowing this fact, and the connection is very subtle.
When explaining this project to people as I worked on it, I was astounded that many of them didn't know what @horse_ebooks was. But that just proves I inhabit a bubble in which fakey software has outsized significance. So a brief introduction:
@horse_ebooks was a spambot created by a Russian named Alexei Kouznetsov. It posted Twitter ads for crappy ebooks, some of which (but not all, or even most) were about horses. Its major innovative feature was its text generation algorithm for the things it would say between ads.
Are you ready? The amazing algorithm was this: @horse_ebooks ripped strings more or less randomly from the crappy ebooks it was selling and presented them with absolutely no context.
Trust me, this is groundbreaking. I'm sure this technique had been tried before, but @horse_ebooks was the first to make it popular. And it's great! Truncating a sentence in the right place generates some pretty funny stuff. Here are four consecutive @horse_ebooks tweets:
- Not only that, but whether you believe it (or want to believe it) the car salesmen will continue to laugh
- Demand Furniture
- Including simplified four part arrangements for the novice student and
- Just look at everything that I am going
There was a tribute comic and everything.
I say @horse_ebooks "was" a spambot because in 2011 the Twitter account was acquired by two Americans, Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, who took it over and started running it not to sell crappy ebooks, but to promote their Alternate Reality Game. This fact was revealed back in September 2013, and once the men behind the mask were revealed, @horse_ebooks stopped posting.
The whole conceit of @horse_ebooks was that there was no active creative process, just a dumb algorithm. But in reality
Bakkila was "impersonating" the original algorithm—most likely curating its output so that you only saw the good stuff. No one likes to be played for a sucker, and when the true purpose of @horse_ebooks was revealed, folks felt betrayed.
As it happens, the question of whether it's artistically valid to curate the output of an algorithm is a major bone of contention in the ongoing Vorticism/Futurism-esque feud between Allison Parrish and myself. She is dead set against it; I think it makes sense if you are using an algorithm as the input into another creative process, or if your sole object is to entertain. We both agree that it's a little sketchy if you have 200,000 fans whose fandom is predicated on the belief that they're reading the raw output of an algorithm. On the other hand, if you follow an ebook spammer on Twitter, you get up with fleas. I think that's how the saying goes.
In any event, the fan comics ceased when @horse_ebooks did. There was a lot of chin-stroking and art-denial and in general the reaction was strongly negative. But that's not the end of the story.
You see, the death of @horse_ebooks led to an outpouring of imitation *_ebooks bots on various topics. (This had been happening before, actually.) As these bots were announced, I swore silent vengeance on each and every one of them. Why? Because those bots didn't use the awesome @horse_ebooks algorithm! Most of them used Markov chains, that most hated technique, to generate their text. It was as if the @horse_ebooks algorithm itself had been discredited by the revelation that two guys from New York were manually curating its output. (Confused reports that those guys had "written" the @horse_ebooks tweets didn't help matters--they implied that there was no algorithm at all and that the text was original.)
But there was hope. A single bot escaped my pronouncements of vengeance: Allison's excellent @zzt_ebooks. That is a great bot which you should follow, and it uses an approximation of the real @horse_ebooks algorithm:
- The corpus is word-wrapped at 35 characters per line.
- Pick a line to use as the first part of a tweet.
- If (random), append the next line onto the current line.
- Repeat until (random) is false or the line is as large as a tweet can get.
And here are four consecutive quotes from @zzt_ebooks:
- SHAPIRO: Ouch! SHAPIRO: Shapiro cares not! SHAPIRO: Hooray!
- things, but I saw some originality in it. The art was very simple, but it was good
- You're tackled by the opponent!
- Gender: Male Height: 5'9" Pilot? Yes Ph.D.? Yes
The ultimate genesis of @pony_strategies was this conversation I had with Allison about @zzt_ebooks. Recently my anger with *_ebooks bots reached the point where I decided to add a real *_ebooks algorithm to olipy to encourage people to use it. Of course I'd need a demo bot to show off the algorithm...
The @pony_strategies bot has sixty years worth of content loaded into it. I extracted the content from the same Project Gutenberg DVD I used to revive @everybrendan. There's a lot more where that came from--I ended up choosing about 0.0001% of the possibilities found in the DVD.
I have not manually curated the PG quotes and I have no idea what the bot is about to post. But the dataset is the result of a lot of algorithmic curation. I focused on technical books, science books and cookbooks--the closest PG equivalents to the crap that @horse_ebooks was selling. I applied a language filter to get rid of old-timey racial slurs. I privileged lines that were the beginnings of sentences over lines that were the middle of sentences. I eliminated lines that were boring (e.g. composed entirely of super-common English words).
I also did some research into what distinguished funny, popular @horse_ebooks tweets from tweets that were not funny and less popular. Instead of trying to precisely reverse-engineer an algorithm that had a human at one end, I tried to figure out which outputs of the process gave results people liked, and focused my algorithm on delivering more of those. I'll post my findings in a separate post because this is getting way too long. Suffice to say that I'll pit the output of my program against the curated @horse_ebooks feed any day. Such as today, and every day for the next sixty years.
Like its counterpart in our universe, @pony_strategies doesn't just post quotes: it also posts ads for ebooks. Some of these books are strategy guides for the "Pôneis Brilhantes" series described in Constellation Games, but the others have randomly generated titles. Funny story: they're generated using Markov chains! Yes, when you have a corpus of really generic-sounding stuff and you want to make fun of how generic it sounds by generating more generic-sounding stuff, Markov chains give the best result. But do you really want to have that on your resume, Markov chains? "Successfully posed as unimaginative writer." Way to go, man.
Anyway, @pony_strategies. It's funny quotes, it's fake ads, it's an algorithm you can use in your own projects. Use it!
(2) Wed Dec 04 2013 14:55 Secrets of (peoples' responses to) @horse_ebooks—revealed!:
As part of my @pony_strategies project (see previous post), I grabbed the 3200 most recent @horse_ebooks tweets via the Twitter API, and ran them through some simple analysis scripts to figure out how they were made and which linguistic features separated the popular ones from the unpopular.
This let me prove one of my hypotheses about the secret to _ebooks style comedy gold. I also disproved one of my hypotheses re: comedy gold, and came up with an improved hypotheses that works much better. Using these as heuristics I was able to make @pony_strategies come up with more of what humans consider the good stuff.
The timing of @horse_ebooks posts formed a normal distribution with mean of 3 hours and a standard deviation of 1 hour. Looking at ads alone, the situation was similar: a normal distribution with mean of 15 hours and standard deviation of 2 hours. This is pretty impressive consistency since Jacob Bakkila says he was posting @horse_ebooks tweets by hand. (No wonder he wanted to stop it!)
My setup is much different: I wrote a cheap scheduler that approximates a normal distribution and runs every fifteen minutes to see if it's time to post something.
Beyond this point, my analysis excludes the ads and focuses exclusively on the quotes. Nobody actually liked the ads.
The median length of a @horse_ebooks quote is 50 characters. Quotes shorter than the median were significantly more popular, but very long quotes were also more popular than quotes in the middle of the distribution.
I think that title case quotes (e.g. "Demand Furniture") are funnier than others. Does the public agree? For each quote, I checked whether the last word of the quote was capitalized.
43% of @horse_ebooks quotes end with a capitalized word. The median number of retweets for those quotes was 310, versus 235 for quotes with an uncapitalized last word. The public agrees with me. Title-case tweets are a little less common, but significantly more popular.
Since the last word of a joke is the most important, I decided to take a more detailed look each quote's last word. My favorite @horse_ebooks tweets are the ones that cut off in the middle of a sentence, so I anticipated that I would see a lot of quotes that ended with boring words like "the".
I applied part-of-speech tagging to the last word of each quote and grouped them together. Nouns were the most common by far, followed by verb of various kinds, determiners ("the", "this", "neither"), adjectives and adverbs.
I then sorted the list of parts of speech by the median number of retweets a @horse_ebooks quote got if it ended with that part of speech. Nouns and verbs were not only the most common, they were the most popular. (Median retweets for any kind of noun was over 300; verbs ranged from 191 retweets to 295, depending on the tense of the verb.) Adjectives underperformed relative to their frequency, except for comparative adjectives like "more", which overperformed.
I was right in thinking that quotes ending with a determiner or other boring word were very common, but they were also incredibly unpopular. The most popular among these were quotes that repeated gibberish over and over, e.g. "ORONGLY DGAGREE DISAGREE NO G G NO G G G G G G NO G G NEIEHER AGREE NOR DGAGREE O O O no O O no O O no O O no neither neither neither". A quote like "of events get you the" did very poorly. (By late-era @horse_ebooks standards, anyway.)
It's funny when you interrupt a noun
I pondered the mystery of the unpopular quotes and came up with a new hypothesis. People don't like interrupted sentences per se; they like interrupted noun phrases. Specifically, they like it when a noun phrase is truncated to a normal noun. Here are a few @horse_ebooks quotes that were extremely popular:
- Don t worry if you are not computer
- Don t feel stupid and doomed forever just because you failed on a science
- You constantly misplace your house
- I have completely eliminated your meal
Clearly "computer", "science", "house", "and "meal" were originally modifying some other noun, but when the sentence was truncated they became standalone nouns. Therefore, humor.
How can I test my hypothesis without access to the original texts from which @horse_ebooks takes its quotes? I don't have any automatic way to distinguish a truncated noun phrase from an ordinary noun. But I can see how many of the @horse_ebooks quotes end with a complete noun phrase. Then I can compare how well a quote does if it ends with a noun phrase, versus a noun that's not part of a noun phrase.
About 4.5% of the total @horse_ebooks quotes end in complete noun phrases. This is comparable to what I saw in the data I generated for @pony_strategies. I compared the popularity of quotes that ended in complete noun phrases, versus quotes that ended in standalone nouns.
|Quote ends in ||Median number of retweets|
|Standalone noun ||330|
|Noun phrase ||260|
So a standalone noun does better than a noun phrase, which does better than a non-noun. This confirms my hypothesis that truncating a noun phrase makes a quote funnier when the truncated phrase is also a noun. But a quote that ends in a complete noun phrase will still be more popular than one that ends with anything other than a noun.
At the time I did this research, I had about 2.5 million potential quotes taken from the Project Gutenberg DVD. I was looking for ways to rank these quotes and whittle them down to, say, the top ten percent. I used the techniques that I mentioned in my previous post for this, but I also used quote length, capitalization, and punchword part-of-speech to rank the quotes. I also looked for quotes that ended in complete noun phrases, and if truncating the noun phrase left me with a noun, most of the time I would go ahead and truncate the phrase. (For variety's sake, I didn't do this all the time.)
This stuff is currently not in olipy; I ran my filters and raters on the much smaller dataset I'd acquired from the DVD. There's no reason why these things couldn't go into olipy as part of the
ebooks.py module, but it's going to be a while. I shouldn't be making bots at all; I have to finish Situation Normal.
(3) Mon Dec 16 2013 13:10 Markov vs. Queneau: Sentence Assembly Smackdown:
I mentioned earlier that when assembling strings of words, Markov chains do a better job than Queneau assembly. In this post I'd like to a) give the devil his due by showing what I mean, and b) qualify what I mean by "better job".
Markov wins when the structure is complex
I got the original idea for this post when generating the fake ads for @pony_strategies. My corpus is the titles of about 50,000 spammy-sounding ebooks, and this was the first time I did a head-to-head Markov/Queneau comparison. Here are ten of Markov's entries, using the Markov chain implementation I ended up adding to olipy:
- At Gas Pump!
- The Guy's Guide To The Atkins Diet
- Home Internet Business In The World.
- 101 Ways to Sharpen Your Memory
- SEO Relationship Building for Beginners
- Gary Secrets - Project Management Made Easy!
- Weight Success
- How get HER - Even If It's Just Money, So Easy and Effective Treatment Options
- Sams Yourself
- Define, With, Defeat! How To Get Traffic To Your Health
The Markov entries can get a little wacky ("Define, With, Defeat!"), which is good. But about half could be real titles without seeming weird at all, which is also good.
By contrast, here are ten of Queneau's entries:
- Adsense I Collection Profits: The bottom Guide Income!
- Reliable Your Earning Estate Develop Home And to life Fly Using Don't Your Partnership to Death
- Help the Your Causes, Successfully Business Vegetarian
- Connect New New Cooking
- 1 Tips, Me Life Starting to Simple Ultimate On Wills How Years Online With Living
- How Practice Health Best w/ Beauty
- Amazing Future & Codes Astrology to Definitive Green Carbs, Children Methods JV Engine Dollars And Effective Beginning Minutes NEW!
- I and - Gems Secrets Making Life Today!
- Succeeding For Inspiring Life
- Fast Survival Baby (Health Loss) Really How other of Look Symptoms, Your Business Encouragement: drive Health to Get with Easy Guide
At their very best ("Suceeding For Inspiring Life, "How Practice Health Best w/ Beauty"), these read like the work of a non-native English speaker. But most of them are way out there. They make no sense at all or they sound like a space alien wrote them to deal with space alien concerns. Sometimes this is what you want in your generated text! But usually not.
A Queneau assembler assumes that every string in its corpus has different tokens that follow an identical grammar. This isn't really true for spammy ebook titles, and it certainly isn't true for English sentences in general. A sentence is made up of words, sure, but there's nothing special about the fourth word in a sentence, the way there is about the fourth line of a limerick.
A Markov chain assumes nothing about higher-level grammar. Instead, it assumes that surprises are rare, that the last few tokens are a good predictor of the next token. This is true for English sentences, and it's especially true for spammy ebook titles.
Markov chains don't need to bother with the overall structure of a sentence. They focus on the transitions between words, which can be modelled probabilistically. (And the good ones do treat the first and last tokens specially.)
Markov wins when the corpus is large, Queneau when the corpus is tiny
Consider what happens to the two algorithms as the corpus grows in size. Markov chains get more believable, because the second word in a title is almost always a word commonly associated with the first word in the title. Queneau assemblies get wackier, because the second word in a title can be anything that was the second word in any title.
I have a corpus of 50,000 spammy titles. What if I chose a random sample of ten titles, and used those ten titles to construct a new title via Queneau assembly? This would make it more likely that the title's structure would hint at the structure of one or two of the source titles.
This is what I did in Board Game Dadaist, one of my first Queneau experiments. I pick a small number of board games and generate everything from that limited subset, increasing the odds that the result will make some kind of twisted sense.
If you run a Markov chain on a very small corpus, you'll probably just reproduce one of your input strings. But Queneau assembly works fine on a tiny corpus. I ran Queneau assembly ten times on ten samples from the spammy ebook titles, and here are the results:
- Beekeeping by Keep Grants
- Lose to Audience Business to to Your Backlink Physicists Environment
- HOT of Recruit Internet Because Financial the Memories
- Senior Guide Way! Business Way!
- Discover Can Power Successful Life How Steps
- Metal Lazy, Advice
- Insiders Came Warts Weapons Revealed
- 101 Secrets & THE Joint Health Than of Using Marketing! Using Using More Imagine
- Top **How Own 101**
- Multiple Spiritual Dynamite to Body - To Days
These are still really wacky, but they're better than when Queneau was choosing from 50,000 titles each time. For the @pony_strategies project, I still prefer the Markov chains.
Queneau wins when the outputs are short
Let's put spammy ebook titles to the side and move on to board game titles, a field where I think Queneau assembly is the clear winner. My corpus is here about 65,000 board game titles, gathered from BoardGameGeek. The key to what you're about to see is that the median length of a board game title is three words, versus nine words for a spammy ebook title.
Here are some of Markov's board game titles:
- Pointe Hoc
- Thieves the Pacific
- Illuminati Set 3
- Amazing Trivia Game
- Mini Game
- Meet Presidents
- Regatta: Game that the Government Played
- King the Rock
- Round 3-D Stand Up Game
- Cat Mice or Holes and Traps
A lot of these sound like real board games, but that's no longer a good thing. These are generic and boring. There are no surprises because the whole premise of Markov chains is that surprises are rare.
- The Gravitas
- Risk: Tiles
- SESSION Pigs
- Yengo Edition Deadly Mat
- Ubongo: Fulda-Spiel
- Shantu Game Weltwunder Right
- Black Polsce Stars: Nostrum
- Peanut Basketball
- The Tactics: Reh
- Velvet Dos Centauri
Most of these are great! Board game names need to be catchy, so you want surprises. And short strings have highly ambiguous grammar anyway, so you don't get the "written by an alien" effect.
You know that I've been down on Markov chains for years, and you also know why: they rely on, and magnify, the predictability of their input. Markov chains turn creative prose into duckspeak. Whereas Queneau assembly simulates (or at least stimulates) creativity by manufacturing absurd juxtapositions.
The downside of Queneau is that if you can't model the underlying structure with code, the juxtapositions tend to be too absurd to use. And it's really difficult to model natural-language prose with code.
So here's my three-step meta-algorithm for deciding what to do with a corpus:
- If the items in your corpus follow a simple structure, code up that structure and go with Queneau.
- If the structure is too complex to be represented by a simple program (probably because it involves natural-language grammar), and you really need the output to be grammatical, go with Markov.
- Otherwise, write up a crude approximation of the complex structure, and go with Queueau.
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