Mon Jan 02 2017 11:57 December Book Roundup:
Just a few notes on the books I read in December 2016. Books marked with a * are ones I read for free through NYPL's SimplyE mobile app. (Big news on that coming up! Also, I guess I should write a simple explanatory post for people who don't want to read my RESTFest talks.)
- *Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson. This was fun sci-fi spycraft, and just as the concept started to get old there was a MEGA TWIST that kept me interested to the end. The sequel, *Europe at Midnight, went deep into the world of the TWIST. It reminded me of Giles Goat-Boy, except good. Presumably there's a third book... yes, there is. I've requested that it be added to the NYPL collection.
- Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. Combining observational humor and pop science creates a book that reminds me of two of my favorite authors, Susan McCarthy and Mary Roach.
- *The Dead Mountaineer's Inn by the Strugatsky brothers, translated by Josh Billings. The big standout in this book was a wonderfully clueless, desperate alien who doesn't get a lot of page time.
- Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner. Sumana read this book a while back and raved about it. I must agree: it's really, really good. It takes recorded music, something you're already familiar with, and makes it clear how weird it is and how many social constructs surround it. Then it retells what you thought was an artistic history in terms of technological changes and business decisions. A lot of nonfiction books give you the facts, but Perfecting Sound Forever gives you a hidden history of something you've been living with your whole life.
- *Double Entry by Jane Gleeson-White. Not as good as Perfecting Sound Forever but also does a good job of showing that something frequently thought of as an objective record of reality is actually a measurement taken through a mess of social constructs.
Tue Jan 03 2017 20:30 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Film:
Film: Maintaining Film Roundup Roundup (now updated with 150 high-quality films!) makes it pretty easy to come up with a top ten for 2016:
- Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
- Dekalog 10 (1989)
- Tampopo (1985)
- Inquiring Nuns (1968)
- Approaching the Elephant (2014)
- Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004)
- A Short Film about Killing (1988)
- Dekalog 1 (1989)
- Hail, Ceasar! (2016)
- The Defiant Ones (1958)
Look at that list, we got four documentaries on there.
My lower-tier "recommended" list gets longer every year; here's a quick stab at the top ten of my twenty-one recommended movies from 2016:
- Moana (2016)
- Ghostbusters (2016)
- Deadpool (2016)
- Caucus (2013)
- La La Land (2016)
- Avanti! (1972)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
- Three Colors: Blue (1993)
- Synecdoche, New York (2006)
- It (1927)
I'm not really happy with calling that second tier "recommended" because it implies I'll scoff at your decision to see a solid film like Arrival or Kung Fu Hustle that I didn't put on my list. Hopefully no one does the data gathering necessary to deduce (incorrectly) that I'm scoffing at you.
After several years of Film Roundup I think I can now make what to me looks like a normal person's top ten film list, containing only movies from 2016. All of these were worth watching:
- Hail, Ceasar!
- La La Land
- Star Trek: Beyond
- A Beautiful Planet
- Shin Godzilla
- The Last Arcade
Kind of a boring list though! Where are the nuns, the fourth-wall-breaking gangsters, or the convicts handcuffed to each other? Answer: in movies from previous years.
Sat Jan 14 2017 12:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Books:
Nearly all the books I read in 2016 were in electronic format. I either read library books through SimplyE, or I dug through the piles of ZIP files I've accumulated through Simon Carless's video game StoryBundles. Greg Millner's Perfecting Sound Forever was the only paper book I read in 2016 that I recommend; in fact, it's the Crummy.com Book of the Year.
I've got seven more super-recs and I'll give little capsule reviews for them, since they predate the first occurrence of Book Roundup. I read a decent amount of fiction, but you'll notice there's not much fiction on this list. What happens in my head when I read fiction seems highly idiosyncratic, so I'm more comfortable recommending super-detailed nonfiction.
- The four-volume Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, an incredibly broad survey of role-playing game publishing. This is absolutely not for everybody but I loved the uncovering of weird little experiments and the anecdotal gossip.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey. This book is a deep dive into what I would argue is the invention of worldbuilding. It does a great job explaining how the unreadable parts of Tolkien make the readable parts so compelling. Here's the money quote IMO:
[P]eople can tell the genuine from the fake, even when it comes to making up names. Do not make them up, therefore.
There are a series of amazing close reads that show how Tolkien worked, e.g. by finding weird stuff in medieval texts (What is the name "Gandalfr" doing in the middle of "Tally of the Dwarves", when "alfr" means "elf"?) and making up a retcon.
- Digital Apollo by David A. Mindell. Narrative of the computer architecture of the Apollo, the process of designing it with each piece being made by a different contractor, how it performed during each mission and how it was changed after each mission.
- Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. 'Nuff said. Everything I've read by Perlstein is great.
- Starboard Wine by Samuel R. Delany. Like the Tolkien book, a really useful book on the techniques necessary to write fantastic fiction, but written by a practitioner.
- ZZT by Anna Anthropy - Great coverage of an obscure but incredibly important game. Like the cover copy says, "[N]ot everyone has played ZZT, but everyone who played it became a game designer."
- Way Station by Clifford Simak - Introspective prose captures a type of melancholy that science fiction could be doing all the time but doesn't attempt very often.
(2) Sun Jan 15 2017 20:25 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Games:
If you've come for cutting-edge gaming news, I must disabuse you of the notion you've somehow acquired. I buy computer games when they're ported to Linux. Then apparently I only talk about them at the end of the year. Let's get started!
Two excellent tabletop games stick in my mind: the thrilling Pandemic Legacy, about which much has been said elsewhere; and the unassuming Stinker, which once you play it is revealed as an absolute marvel. Stinker cleverly fixes all the problems, large and small, with "spell-something" games and "one-person-judges-everyone-else" games and "come-up-with-something-funny" games. It's not as surefire a hit as Snake Oil, but I love it and it's usually a hit when I introduce it to new players. Stinker is the Crummy.com Board Game of the Year.
Three years ago I closed the book on non-tactical RPGs and declared Mother 3 the all-time winner. Well, now I gotta re-open that book because Undertale improves on the formula. It's clearly based on the Mother series, but it has a solid new combat mechanic, a lot of memorable characters, and a type of humor I like better than the humor in the Mother series (which I do like, quite a bit). I really disliked the climax of Undertale, but a lot of Mother 3 was rambling and unfocused, so it kind of cancels out. Undertale overcomes my prejudices to become Crummy.com Computer Game of the Year.
Runner-up is Duskers, the space exploration game which combines survival horror with system administration. Your typing speed can make the difference! Super creepy, but feels a bit unfinished.
Other computer games I enjoyed a lot in 2016: Mini Metro, Stardew Valley, RimWorld, Beglitched, Brogue, Caves of Qud, Sunless Sea, and XCom: Enemy Unknown.
Mon Jan 16 2017 13:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Accomplishments:
Library Work: In 2016 SimplyE went from a two-developer team with me as backend guy, to a seven-developer team with me as architect. We launched the SimplyE reader for NYPL patrons and started work on rolling it out to other libraries across the country. We also launched the Open Ebooks project, which led to our brush with power.
I'm not comfortable bragging about the SimplyE product because it needs a lot of improvements, and I feel like saying how nice it is will lead to people thinking (or at least asserting) that I'm okay with the status quo. But if you compare it to the status quo ante, it's really damn good. We took checking out an ebook from a 17-step process to a 3-step process. And I'm totally happy bragging about the team, which is incredible. For the first time I ran a bunch of job searches and decided who to hire, and I think the past year's work has proven I made good choices.
At the end of the year, NYPL recognized our team with a Library Leadership Award! To the right is our official team photo (two of the developers are not pictured). I think this is an incredible achievement for a team that basically didn't exist a year ago.
Writing: Late 2015 I pitched a number of novels to my agent and we decided on Mine, a Rendezvous with Rama type political thriller. Lately, though, I'm haunted by the pitch I wrote for Nice Things, a novel about the fascist takeover of the Federation. Sometimes when I sit down to write Mine I feel like I should be writing Nice Things instead, but most of the time I'm glad I'm working on absolutely anything else.
Progress on Mine is slow but steady. But slow. My increased responsibilities at the library haven't been good for writing time.
Short stories I wrote in 2016 include "Quest For Boredom" (which I... supposedly sold??? but haven't heard back), "The Girls Boys Don't Notice" (possibly the best title I will ever come up with), "Fool, Professor, Peasant, King", and the unsellable "Unicode Changelog", which I might self-publish.
Situation Normal is still on the Desks of Editors.
Bots: I've drastically scaled down my use of Twitter because I don't like what it does to my brain. As a corollary, I don't really like that my whimsical software encourages people to spend more time on Twitter. So I've stopped putting bots on Twitter. Also, Twitter randomly suspends my bots without telling me. After the completely innocuous Vintage Groaners was suspended, I decided it wasn't worth the hassle.
I've thought about taking down my bots in a fiery cataclysm, rather than letting Twitter pick them off one by one, but a lot of people get happiness from Minecraft Signs, Hapax Hegemon, and (finally!) Smooth Unicode, so I'll commit to keeping the big ones working at least. I have a solution in mind for my computational creativity going forward, but I'm pretty damn busy so it's going to be a while. I've been doing this stuff since 1998 and it's still something I like, so consider this not a goodbot, but rather au botvoir.
Here's the 2016 robot roll call:
(1) Wed Jan 18 2017 13:20 Jokes For Minecrafters:
The last time I went to California, my nephew told me lots of punny jokes about animals ("Why are cats so vain? Because they're purr-fect.") He'd gotten these jokes from a Pokémon joke book, in which the jokes were about Pokémon ("Why are Meowth so vain? Because they're purr-fect."), and kindly translated the Pokémon into real animals for my benefit. Which worked out well because the jokes had clearly been about real animals to begin with.
This reminded me that I'd been meaning to report back about two other joke books about a common childhood obsession: Jokes for Minecrafters and Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters. I'm really interested in the shady but seemingly profitable world of unlicensed Minecraft books. I've seen Minecraft self-insert fanfic being sold as an 80-page chapter book at Target! I applaud Mojang's lax stance on fan works but that seems a little excessive.
I recall from my own childhood that this sort of obsession-feeding book is usually a big disappointment once obtained. Themed joke books are the worst because they're often a big cash-in on preexisting folk jokes. Plus you have to find someone who's as big a nerd as you, and wants to listen to you tell the jokes instead of reading the book themselves.
I was prepared for disappointment, but I had to find out what Minecraft kids' jokes were like, so I ventured one more time into a world I'd abandoned long ago. Fortunately, this time I didn't have to pay the Troll Book Club to send me two slim paperbacks. I just put the ebooks on hold at NYPL.
And... the best joke in the series is probably the very first one in Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters:
Q: What happens when a creeper walks into a bar?
A: Everyone dies.
It's all downhill from there. Here are the two runners-up:
Q: Why do players shop at Endermen yard sales?
A: To get their stuff back.
Q: Do zombies eat popcorn with their fingers?
A: No, they eat their fingers separately.
I'm not here to make fun of bad jokes, because comedy is hard, but most of the book is more like this:
Q: What did the pig say to the creeper?
A: Nothing. The creeper blew up the pig.
Many entries have the form of jokes, but are actually Minecraft trivia. Here's one I didn't know:
Q: How do zombies and skeletons keep from burning during the day?
A: They stand on soul sand.
This one hasn't aged well:
Alex: "What do you call a polar bear in Minecraft?"
Steve: "I don't know. What?"
Alex: "Lost, because there are no polar bears in Minecraft!"
I need some help on this one:
Q: What happened when it became so cold in the icy biome?
A: The snow golems were holding up pictures of thumbs!
There are also many jokes that require knowledge of the Orespawn mod, which I'd never heard of. One book had a separate chapter dealing with "mods", but a lot of Orespawn jokes were not in that chapter. This seemed unfair to kids who are just trying to understand jokes and maybe laugh a couple times.
This one makes me irrationally angry:
First player: "I heard the End has its own soundtrack."
Second player: "What does it sound like?"
First player: "You can only hear it in the End."
This one has an artifact that makes me think most of the book was copy-and-pasted from an IM conversation:
You might be a Minecraft addict if you forget to give your mom a present for her birthday and instead get her a Minecraft account XD.
Anyway, I'm here to tell you that the terrible Amazon reviews of these books are more or less accurate. In the spirit of reconciliation, I thought I'd close by trying my hand at corny Minecraft jokes:
Q: How does Steve detect if someone is raiding his marijuana stash?
A: He uses a BUD switch.
That one's on the house!
Wed Feb 01 2017 21:44 January Film Roundup:
- Hidden Figures (2017): Loved it! Not much to say. I thought it lost a little focus right near the end, where John Glenn is making his descent and nobody can do anything but hang around and look tense, but overall really solid. I enjoyed the FORTRAN fan service.
- Dangal (2016): A whole movie about copy-protection hardware? I was skeptical. But then I learned that it was spelled "Dangal", and that it was... a sports movie. At this point I was even more skeptical, but I was inside the theater so I figured I'd go with it.
And it's... a sports movie. But it has three things going for it. First, it's also a breaking-down-the-barriers movie. Sumana liked how much screen time was devoted to Indian girls with short hair. Second, this film contains three awesome songs. Third, the hugeness of Dangal magnifies the working parts of a sports movie so that they're impossible to miss, much like the way Plato's republic is designed to make obvious the virtues that go into an individual human being.
Characters are ludicrously fictionalized to make them fit the sports-movie villain roles. Victories that in real life were incredibly lopsided are dramatized as knuckle-biting buzzer-beaters. There's also one place where I detect a shear effect between fiction and reality, but am not sure what the reality is. These girls spend up to the age of about ten training to be wrestlers and wrestling boys on a kind of freak-show circuit. Everyone's attitude is: A girl? Wrestling? Whaaaaa? It really seems like Dad is the first person in India to have the idea that girls can wrestle.
But at the beginning of act two they go into a gymnasium and it's full of girls doing wrestling. Turns out India has a whole wrestling thing going. Girls leagues and everything. So what's with all the incredulity in act one? Even if Dad's neighbors are ignorant hicks, it seems like a former national wrestling champion should know that he didn't invent girls' wrestling.
A similar thing happens at the end where people are saying "If an Indian wins the women's wrestling championship, girls all over the world will know they can do anything!" Was American sports movie exceptionalism ever this bad?
PS: The posters show Aamir Khan with the four actors who play the daughters at different ages, as though they're four different characters in the same timeframe. I love this.
- Taking Off (1971): A fun squares-go-hip comedy from the same Universal Studios indie-director push that gave us Silent Running (1972). The surest way to get me to see a film is to compare it to an Elaine May film, which Metrograph did, and I took the bait. Taking Off delivers with awkwardness, culture clash and bad original songs—it's like a much cheaper Ishtar. When a woman with a lute drops the F-bomb thirty times in the sort of singing voice you associate with "Greensleeves", you know you're in for a good time. Also features New York grime and the glorious tacky interior of a 1970s Catskills lodge.
- New York, New York (1977): With Liza Minnelli and Mickey Rourke. No, that's not right, it was Robert de Niro. Everyone's favorite video... hero. Mickey Rourke isn't in this at all. Don't know what I was thinking.
The all-too-relevant story of a man who can't deal with the fact that his girlfriend is more talented than he is. The museum's handout claims the problem with the relationship is the "two lovers' equal musical talent", but let's go to the tape. Liza Minnelli actually is a world-class singer, whereas Robert de Niro is a Method actor who learned to play the sax for this movie. It's quite clear she is the superior musician.
As such, the balance of power shifts over the course of the movie, and by act three de Niro is nearly out of the picture and Minnelli's character is just lapping up the fame. Basically, everything that's in La La Land that didn't come from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, came from this movie.
Overall I was not crazy about this film. La La Land is more fun and my favorite Scorsese de Niro is still Rupert Pupkin, by a long shot. But those two musical numbers at the end really are amazing. And character actor Lionel Stander is great comic relief as the agent who speaks in inscrutable aphorisms. It was a classic "that guy" moment, where I knew I'd seen him before, but turns out the only place I've seen him before is the introduction to the TV show Hart to Hart. Not the show, just the introduction, which I've only seen once. That's how memorable his face and voice are.
- Pride (2014): As a sidelong way of talking about this movie I'm going to bring back sports movies for a bit and talk about Cool Runnings (1993). It's a film I haven't seen since it first came out, and I'm not sure why I saw it at all—I think a friend's dad took us? But it sticks in my mind as the only sports movie where I think "Maybe I should rewatch that and see if it holds up."
Why? Because Cool Runnings is the only sports movie I've ever seen that dares to violate the ironclad rule. In this shocking film, the underdogs don't win at the sport. It's not a movie about winning; it's about sportsmanship. Other sports movies allege that it's not whether you win or lose, but if you win, who cares whether or not it's whether you win or lose? Cool Runnings strips all of that away and teaches the only lesson a sports movie has to teach, the hard way.
(The basketball sequence in Meatballs (1979) has a more cynical take on this, and IMO is the best part of that lousy movie. One reason I'm iffy on whether Talladega Nights (2006) is a sports movie, is that it mocks the very concept of 'winning'. I admit I haven't seen every damn sports movie, although it sure feels like it, so please tell me about other sports movies that don't end with a win.)
Anyway, I bring this up because Pride is a non-sports example of a movie where it's a matter of historical record that the underdogs lose. Like Cool Runnings, it does much better than a "win" movie would of showing the virtues that can survive a loss: community, solidarity, tolerance and old-fashioned stubbornness. It really goes for the heartstrings, but sometimes that's what you need.
I was sure Bill Nighy was going to bow out after his first scene, having done his bit for low-budget film, but he was gracious enough to stick around for the whole movie—a nice surprise. Also, most of the women in this movie look like one or another of my relatives. The whole time I was thinking e.g. "Wow, Aunt Pat and Aunt Anne are really hating on each other."
Fri Feb 03 2017 18:26 January Book Roundup:
- Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson. Not a super satisfying ending, but I stayed interested through the whole trilogy.
- SPQR by Mary Beard. At one point I swore off reading more books of Roman history, because they all kind of retread the same ground based on the same sources, but Beard brings in lots of archaeological detail that provides glimpses into everyday life. Big recommend from me.
- The History of Nintendo, Vol. 2 by Florent Gorges. My retrogaming interest has gone down somewhat since I finished Constellation Games, but I can't say no to the lovely illustrated books put out by French publisher Pix'n Love Publishing. Volume 2 (which covers Game & Watch) wasn't as colorful as Volume 1 (which covers everything pre-) but the presentation is so good it justifies my paying import prices. They're like coffee table art books, but the size of a regular book! A new volume gets translated into English every few years, so I guess I'll see the NES one in 2020?
Mon Feb 27 2017 09:07:
"Do they have a designated survivor? Like, one celebrity who doesn't attend the Oscars?"
"That's what we have other countries for."
Wed Mar 01 2017 09:32 February Film Roundup:
- Kansas City (1996): I went to Kansas City on a Friday. Then I had to come back to the museum on Saturday, because that's when it was showing. Anyway, I figured a gangster film would be the perfect introduction to the ouvre of Robert Altman. And... there's not nearly enough Steve Buscemi but everything else about this movie is pretty great. There are different levels of corruption in the world, from the government to the mob to the grifter. Kansas City gets a lot of mileage out of a character on one level of corruption interacting or interfering with a character on another level.
- Charlie Varrick (1973): An enjoyable crime caper set in Albuquerque, kind of the opposite of Dog Day Afternoon where there's too much money in the bank. My only complaint is it goes on a little too long. I feel Walter Mattheau's character could have cut a couple steps from his plan, eliminated a lot of the risk, and come out just as well. The dentist office burglary is great, and Joe Don Baker excels as Evil Mitchell.
- Cradle Will Rock (1999): Another self-indulgent Tim Robbins herbal cigarette, but a lot more fun and more interesting than Bob Roberts. Super-random celebrity guests, both as actors and as characters. "Who's that supposed to be, Bertolt Brecht?" Yes, that's who it's supposed to be! I remember this movie came up a while back when we went looking through IMDB for all the times someone has portrayed Nelson Rockefeller on film. Not sure why we did that, I think because I was reading Before the Storm.
Anyway, the movie itself was enjoyable but the musical they're putting on seems, at best, comparable to other musicals of the 1930s.
- Toni Erdmann (2016): Fun, but not the laugh riot I was expecting. There are a lot of movies where a prankster character torments an uptight character, and I generally don't enjoy these, but in Toni Erdmann Ines starts tormenting her father right back in her own uptight way, so that provided some balance. I also liked that the film was almost entirely shot in Romania.
IMDB trivia: "Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig star in a remake of this film." No thanks.
- Get Out (2017): Effective creepy horror. I don't see a ton of horror movies, so I don't know how innovative this is, but I thought the way this movie doled out its gore quotient was great. I really got into this film, in my own nerdy way: near the end I was thinking "I don't want a The Shining ending or a Being John Malkovich ending, just a regular horror-movie ending."
Recommend seeing in the theater for the audience participation factor. There's an audience stand-in in the movie who has clearly seen it before and is trying ineffectually to stop it from happening! Just like real life.
I'm gonna shoehorn Book Roundup into this post because although I started three books on my commute, I lost interest in two of them a fair way in, and the only book I finished in February was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. A great horrifying read with a sinister George Saunders-type feel in places.
I thought I'd also finish The Fortress of Solitude, but that book's a lot longer than I thought! I'm not even halfway through. Stay tuned!
Thu Mar 23 2017 19:56 FRED:
This won't wait for Film Roundup because it's only showing until the end of the month. Last week Sumana and I went to see FRED at Dixon Place in Manhattan and had a good time. It's a short, funny play with a Starship Titanic feel. Check it out!
Fri Mar 24 2017 20:14 Reviews of Semi-Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF January/February 2012:
Hey there. After keeping this magazine in the house for five years, I
finally read it. You see, I only like things that are vintage. Sometimes you gotta age it yourself.
Standout stories for me were Naomi Kritzer's adorable "Scrap
Dragon" and Alexander Jablokov's gross-out "The Comfort of
Strangers". I guess I'm exposing the fact that I haven't read the Rich
Horton anthology that reprinted "Four Kinds of Cargo" (The Year's
Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2013 Edition), since that also
reprinted "Scrap Dragon". I repeat: adorable.
I also liked Ken Liu's "Maxwell's Demon" for the clever way it
combined several very different ideas. I love this issue's Mark Evans
cover art, for John G. McDaid's "Umbrella Men", but I prefer the story
I made up after looking at the cover art for five years. (However it
is the first time the story I made up based on the cover art bears any
resemblance to the real story.)
In the course of an essay on vampire fiction, Elizabeth Hand
mentions the ur-text, John Polidori's The Vampyre, as
well as the 1845-1847 serial "Varney the Vampire"
which ran to 670,000 words (Project Gutenberg has a measley 327,927 of those words). I don't care about vampire stories
but I'm always interested in the first or biggest example of
something. This column also made me aware of Theodore Rozak's
Flicker, in a would-actually-want-to-read-it way.
Man, "Varney the Vampire" makes me think of vampire Jim Varney. How
come they never did an Ernest movie about that? Seems like a natural
fit. Bye for now!
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