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Film Roundup Special: Miracle Mile: Way back in June I saw Miracle Mile (1988), and loved it, but didn't really review it because my recommendation is that you go in knowing nothing except that it's a very dark horror movie. Now it's been six months and I'm going to talk about it, so skip this post if you want to try going in cold.

Miracle Mile evokes the fear its protagonist is feeling by making the experience of watching the movie congruent with Harry's plot arc. As he flails around looking for a loophole in the end of the world, you're flailing around trying to figure out what kind of movie this is and how to watch it. The normal plot components from a zombie movie—the vehicles, the weapons, the hyper-competent Denise Crosby—are shown and then taken away. Landa (Crosby) leaves our protagonist in the dust and Harry spends the rest of the movie trying to catch up with her. Of course, it doesn't work, and even if it did, it's far from clear that Landa will live much longer than Harry. This is the nightmare where you try things and none of them work.

It is also my personal nightmare. I grew up in the Los Angeles of this movie and my father's postcards: Wilshire Boulevard, Fairfax, the La Brea Tar Pits. It's a place of bright lights and high contrast: malls frosted in neon, sunsets and fountains. Film noir shows the corruption beneath this bright facade; Miracle Mile allows us to believe the facade, shows the blossoming of love, and then just blows it all up.

This is what to be afraid of in 1988, and now. This thing we've built could just go away, forever, in moments, for no reason at all. The bad things in other movies are just metaphors for this.

The worst part in Miracle Mile isn't even the nuclear explosions; those are the gravestone on a civilization that has already collapsed. It collapses in minutes, like, when Harry's in the bathroom or something. There's a pretty good comic miniseries called "Memetic" which covers the same ground but also introduces a lot of body horror, so YMMV.

In a normal emergency people will band together and help each other, but Miracle Mile says that in the apocalypse all bets are off. This Prisoner's Dilemma will not have any further iterations, so you might as well go out with one last Defect. Despite it all, a few people choose Cooperate. It does no good, but at least they die well. That's what passes for hope in this movie.

The Crummy.com Review of Things: 2017: For many years now I've published a feature titled "The Year in 2017" and come up empty. But I'm happy to report that we've just completed a year that was chock-full of 2017. Enjoy, and here's to a 2017-ful 2018!

Film

I saw fifty-three films in 2017, and twenty-six of them (plus one short) were good enough to be immortalized in Film Roundup Roundup. Of movies I saw for the first time in 2017, here are my top ten:

  1. Get Out (2017)
  2. Miracle Mile (1988)
  3. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
  4. Logan Lucky (2017)
  5. Hidden Figures (2017)
  6. Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)
  7. Coco (2017)
  8. Cops and Robbers (1973)
  9. The Teacher (2016)
  10. Trafic (1971)

In particular, Get Out and Miracle Mile are just what we need right now: rom-coms that turn into horror movies.

Literature

The Crummy.com Book of the Year is Democracy for Realists by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, a survey of the political science literature that aims to figure out what is actually going on in peoples' heads when they vote.

Other highly recommended books I finished this year:

Games

Not a lot of games played this year. I think the only new board game I played in 2017 was season 2 of Pandemic Legacy. We're not even halfway through the year and at the moment I'm really angry at the game, so not the best time to ask me for my opinion.

The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Streets of Rogue", obtained through a Humble Bundle. It combines the combinatoric item explosion of Nethack with the immature mayhem and actual explosions of "Grand Theft Auto". It feels like the best possible VGA DOS game.

Also highly recommended: "Flinthook", "Oxygen Not Included", and "XCOM 2" (but only with the War of the Chosen DLC, which makes it an expensive proposition). I played "Frog Fractions 2" for a few hours, loved the creativity and the ZZT framing device, but when I stopped playing it I didn't pick it up again.

Bots

The 2017 bot situation is complicated. I put all of my bots on botsin.space, a Mastodon instance devoted to bots. (I also moved my main social media presence to botsin.space, using Twitter only for announcements.)

To help me out with the move I wrote a really neat framework called botfriend, which makes it easy to run some bot code on a schedule and publish the result to Mastodon and/or Twitter. I ported all my bots to this new system and got rid of a ton of duplicate code.

I even wrote three new Mastodon-exclusive bots:

I think botfriend is really useful if you manage a lot of bots, and pretty easy to get set up if you're familiar with Python, but I haven't polished it or done a big promotional push, because my big initial impetus was to stop the situation where each new bot I create makes Twitter a more interesting deathtrap. Once I got to that point, I decided all of my spare time should be devoted to finishing Mine. So there haven't been any new bots for a while, and doing a proper rollout of botfriend is a project I'm putting off until after this novel is done, just like other fun things like buying a Switch and playing a bunch of Mario.

Other accomplishments

I gave a couple talks early in the year at Penguicon but I think my best talk of 2017 was Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten... at Roguelike Celebration.

The Library Simplified team and I made a lot of progress towards creating a new library ebook ecosystem, though not as much as I'd hoped. There are now libraries in Maryland and California in the SimplyE system, and we've got code contributions coming in from outside NYPL.

I wrote four short stories in 2017: "Plain Sight", "Two Spacesuits" (probably the best one), "The Unicorn Cleanse", and "Continuity". No sales!

Situation Normal is still out to publishers. Mine is well past the halfway mark and I hope to finish a draft in the next few months, after which, botfriend, Mario, etc.

I saw the solar eclipse from Nashville, which was a lot of fun.

I kept my weight more or less under control in 2017, with the happy result that I recently bought a heavily discounted topcoat to deal with the winter chill, and unlike what happened eleven years ago, the topcoat looks pretty good on me. However, yesterday I wore it with a light-colored sweater and just like in 2006 I looked like a slob who had stolen someone else's topcoat. The difference being that I'm now in my late thirties and I don't care as much.

Dinosaur Space: I've been slowly reading through Issue #2 of Seeds, a zine created for 2017's Procjam, and I just encountered the fabulous page 81, where Elle Sullivan shows off the amazing Dinosaur Generator. It parameterizes dinosaur anatomy to explore the space of plausible dinosaur bodies.

A follow-up project, THE tinySAURUS GENERATOR, brings cute pixel dinosaurs to Twitter. I like the dinos, I like the detailed explanation, and I like the technique of having multiple templates, instead of trying to make one uber-template covering the entire creative space.

Bot Muse: I finished reading through Seeds #2 and the last article was a treat: "Popular Visual Descriptions of Early Generative Systems" by James Ryan, a survey of illustrations used in 1950s and 1960s media to convey the concept of generative art. Lots of botniks taking jobs from beatniks, but the best bit is the wind-up muse of the "computer poet", taken from an old New York Times article:

Bot muse

January Film Roundup: Sorry for the delay! Also sorry that I only saw two movies last month. Here we go!

This (last) month the Television Spotlight turns to "Forged in Fire", the improbable History Channel reality show that is even more relentlessly positive than "The Great British Bake-Off". (Especially as Paul Hollywood has become meaner and meaner, taking on the aspect of an out-of-control death computer from a ST:TOS episode.) "Forged in Fire" is all about creating knives and other instruments of slicy death, but the contestants and judges are all super nice and supportive of each other.

Someone's sword will shatter on a pig carcass and the judge will say "Well, we had a little problem here." We recently saw an episode where a guy sounded like he wanted to start some typical reality-show drama, and either no one took the bait, or they edited it out, or he wasn't able to try anything because the whole time you're on camera you have a physically demanding task to focus on. I don't know how high our tolerance will be for a really formulaic show, but we're not tired of it yet.

February Film Roundup:

Direct Observation of the MST3K-IMDB Effect: The MST3K-IMDB effect, first hypothesized in 2011, is the effect on a movie's IMDB rating caused solely by its having appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A bad movie isn't made any worse by being on MST3K, but MST3K shows movies in the context of a fiction where they're an instrument of torture. You can model an episode of MST3K as a negative advertisement, designed to make the viewer feel negatively about a movie they'd never heard of before. The MST3K-IMDB effect measures the 'success' of the negative ad.

Previously, the MST3K-IMDB effect could only be observed through its gravitational tug on one movie out of a director's oeuvre. But in 2017, Mystery Science Theater: The Return took movies that for years had sat in the dustbin of history and turned them into well-known "MST3K movies". Thanks to my trusty 2015 IMDB data dump, I'm in a position to compare the ratings of all these movies before and after they were on MST3K, providing the first direct images of the MST3K-IMDB effect.

First, here's my control group: a comparison of the 2015 and 2018 ratings for some random movies that weren't on MST3K:TR. As you can see, IMDB ratings for old movies are normally very stable, not changing by more than a couple percent over three years.

Title 2015 rating 2015 votes 2018 rating 2018 votes Percentage change in rating
Night of the Lepus 3.9 2782 4 3484 2%
Embryo 4.9 824 5 1052 2%
The Ninth Configuration 7.3 3486 7.2 4893 -2%
Gorgo 5.5 1846 5.6 2479 1%
O Fantasma (2000) 5.9 1859 5.7 2449 -4%
They’re A Weird Mob 6.6 550 6.6 686 0%

My methodology: the first two movies in that list are the sort of thing you see on MST3K. The Ninth Configuration is a more highbrow obscure film. Gorgo was on MST3K a long time ago, so presumably the MST3K-IMDB effect is already priced in. The last two are movies of MST3K-level obscurity chosen at random. I would love to do this for every single movie in the 2015 data dump and just take an average, but I can't because IMDB doesn't offer full data dumps anymore.

Update: I took another look and this analysis is in fact possible once I write some code to compare the old and new IMDB dump formats. For non-porno feature films, the mean rating change between 2015/01/31 and 2017/12/24 is 0.13 stars. The median is 0.10 stars. Percentage-wise, it's 3% and 1%. So on average, IMDB ratings go very slightly up over time—a phenomenon I also noticed with Board Game Geek ratings.

Now, the moment I've all been waiting for, the experimental group. This table compares the 2015 and 2018 ratings of the movies that appeared in the first season of MST3K:TR. I've also included the rating of the MST3K:TR episode itself, as well as the number of votes IMDB used to calculate each rating.

Here, the percentage change in rating is largely due to the MST3K-IMDB effect. This is the percentage of a movie's previous rating that it lost just by being mocked on MST3K.

Title 2015 rating 2015 votes 2018 rating 2018 votes Percentage change in rating MST3K:TR episode rating MST3K:TR episode votes
Reptilicus 4 1599 3.6 2962 -10% 7.8 498
Cry Wilderness 5.2 37 2 877 -62% 8.3 819
The Time Travelers 6 753 5.1 1682 -15% 7.4 256
Avalanche 4.2 594 3.7 1352 -12% 8 261
The Beast of Hollow Mountain 5 509 4.2 1182 -16% 7.4 230
Starcrash 4 2946 3.9 4699 -3% 7.7 235
The Land Time Forgot 5.7 3085 5.7 4558 0% 7.4 197
The Loves of Hercules 3.2 349 3 787 -7% 7.2 181
Yongary 4.3 592 3.9 1102 -10% 7.8 201
Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2.6 502 2.6 1037 0% 7.8 187
Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II 1.8 297 1.8 716 0% 7.4 168
Carnival Magic 3.8 120 2.4 463 -37% 7.2 167
The Christmas that Almost Wasn't 5.5 204 3.8 541 -31% 7.1 148
At the Earth's Core 5.2 2276 5.2 3410 0% 7.2 134

The MST3K-IMDB effect is real, but it's not a constant. In the control group we saw movie ratings vary up and down, seemingly at random. With MST3K:TR movies the trend is clearly down. But for five of the fourteen movies we see no effect, or an effect so small that it could have been due to chance.

I wasn't expecting this result! I don't see a pattern in the five movies that lack an MST3K-IMDB effect; they aren't the best-rated movies or the worst, they weren't in better- or worse-rated episodes of MST3K, they aren't from a different time period than the others. Sometimes MST3K just doesn't change peoples' opinion about a movie.

But sometimes it does. Take a look at Cry Wilderness, which lost over half of its IMDB rating due to being on by far the highest-rated episode of MST3K:TR. It went from a regular bad movie to being Manos-level. Part of this is just that its pre-MST3K rating of 5.2 was taken from a very small sample of just 37 votes—the kind of super-obscure film I usually omit in IMDB analyses. But two other movies—Carnival Magic and The Christmas that Almost Wasn't—also have very large rating shifts.

Here's the closest I can come to a unified theory of what happened to those three movies. I took the number of post-2015 votes for each MST3K:TR movie and divided the post-2015 change in IMDB rating by that number of votes. This gives a guess at an incremental per-person MST3K-IMDB effect. So, every time someone saw a movie on MST3K and then rated the movie, we can say its rating went down by an average number of stars.

For most of the movies this number is zero (people gave the movie the same rating as if it hadn't been on MST3K at all) or infinitesimal (a lot of people voted and the IMDB rating went down a little bit), on the order of -1.0*10-3 stars. But three stand out. For Cry Wilderness the per-person MST3K-IMDB effect is -3.8*10-3 stars. For Carnival Magic it's -4.1*10-3. And for The Christmas that Almost Wasn't it's an amazing (relatively speaking) -5.0*10-3 stars.

So in a sense the negative ad campaign against The Christmas that Almost Wasn't was the most successful one here. That was the episode that got people the most riled up against the movie they'd just watched. But that movie's IMDB rating didn't go down as much as Cry Wilderness's, because the Cry Wilderness episode got more people to actually go vote the movie down.

But beyond those three movies, the per-person MST3K-IMDB effect is a lot smaller. What's the difference? Are those three movies unusually MST3K-compatible? Are those episodes meaner? It probably has something to do with the content of the movie, since the two Wizards of the Lost Kingdom movies have identical MST3K-IMDB effects of zero. Beyond that, I don't know.

Obviously there is no real propaganda campaign; no one set out to lower these obscure movies' ratings by making fun of them on Netflix. But I think this is a natural experiment showing what can happen to ratings and metrics even when the stakes are very low and no one has malicious intent.

March/April Film Roundup: I skipped a month of roundups because I was head-down finishing Mine, but now the novel is done! Yay. Even so, I had to pad this roundup with a couple of movies I saw earlier, even last year, but forgot to review. Roll film!

May Film Roundup:

This month the Television Spotlight focuses on... a frosty mug of beer? Oh, it's "Sunshine Sento-Sake", which I found about through this 2017 review and then kept in my queue until the perfect moment. That moment is now: I'm dieting and there's a vicarious satisfaction in watching someone enjoying food I myself wouldn't want to eat. I don't like beer and am not big on Japanese food, but watching Takayuki Utsumi ditch his meaningless job, slack off in a bathhouse and then rehydrate with a cold one at a nearby dive is really enjoyable. It's also really repetitive. I don't know if I'll finish the series. Fun stuff, though.

Old Science Fiction Roundup: I've got a bunch of these books of classic SF and you all know the score. I read from them occasionally. It's a mix of still-cool stuff, retro goodness, retro awfulness, and stories that are just plain bad. I write up the stuff I liked, as a way of tracking stories and techniques I think are successful.

First up is The IF Reader of Science Fiction, edited by Frederick Pohl in 1966. Not a lot of memorable stuff here, unfortunately. There's a Retief story ("Trick or Treaty") but it's not one of the better ones. Jonathan Brand's "Long Day in Court" provides more of the civil-service fun of a Retief story, but also has an unhealthy dose of the 1960s sexism that's generally kept on the back burner in Retief. I guess the best thing in this anthology is Fred Saberhagen's "The Life Hater", which is short enough to coast to a pleasant stop on its setup and its twist.

Honorable mention to Fritz Leiber's "The 64-Square Madhouse", a pre-dramatization of the Kasparov-Deep Blue match. This story was probably really fun in the 1960s but not so much today. But check this out. When I hear "3D chess" I think of Tri-D chess, the game Spock plays on hors-d'oeuvre trays. I've never thought of anything else as being "3D chess". But, this story mentions another way to do "3D chess" that's obvious in retrospect: a game with a stack of eight standard chessboards and pieces able to move in three dimensions. This sort of "3D chess" variant has been around since the nineteenth century, so Leiber didn't invent it, but he did come up with a cool detail where astronauts and Air Force pilots play 3D chess to show off their ability to think in three dimensions.

Next up: Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell's first novel (first serialized in 1939). I love Russell's later stuff, Wasp and Next of Kin, and this is... a first novel from twenty years earlier. Not great. But I did really like its dramatization of the difficulty in determining whether someone has been mind-controlled into opposing you, or whether they just disagree with you.

Russell shows up again in Groff Conklin's 1965 anthology Great Stories of Space Travel, with "Allamagoosa", a nice story of bureaucracy. Other highlights of this anthology include Ray Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope", and Isaac Asimov's "Blind Alley", another tale of bureaucracy. Really solid stories, but each is exactly what I would have expected from those three Great Men.

In non-predictable news, Damon Knight's "Cabin Boy" is truly a Great Story of Space Travel. I had no previous opinion of Damon Knight's fiction but this story's way ahead of its time. Knight gets you into the mind of the alien POV character by translating the alien part of the story into a different type of genre fiction, and switching between sci-fi cliches and the cliches of the other genre. These days such postmodern techniques are common, but by 1951 standards it's really damn innovative.

You can read "Cabin Boy" on the Internet Archive. Its original Galaxy blurb was: "If you believe you can write a blurb for this story, go ahead. In all science fiction, it is perhaps the weirdest encounter of alien races!" By coincidence, this was also my proposed back cover copy for Constellation Games. I hate writing blurbs, is what I'm saying.

June Film Roundup: Every movie I saw this month was great, blockbusters and block-ignorers alike.

: Frances Daily has completed its run, 6.5 years after it launched. This was effectively my first social media bot (I don't count Ariel and Tetsuo for reasons you probably don't care about) and it's really meaningful to me to see it completed.

Unlike my other bots, I never ported Frances Daily to Mastodon. It wasn't really worth it; by the time I became disgusted with Twitter, this bot was in the middle of a two-year silent period and only had twelve more posts to make. So Frances Daily kind of acts as a set of bookends on my Twitter creative period.

If you met me recently, you might get something out of reading Jabberwocky, my mother's old blog.

July Film Roundup:

Olipy and Botfriend—a Bot Bonanza!: I'm happy to announce the formal release of two artistic software packages I've been working on for a while. Olipy (PyPI: olipy) is a set of art supplies for manipulating text. It's got sophisticated tools for random selection, a Queneau assembly library, an easy-to-use Python interface to corpora, the *_ebooks algorithm, etc. etc. A lot of my bots are built off the code in here.

Speaking of bots, the second package is Botfriend (PyPI: botfriend). This takes care of all of the boring parts of bot-writing (coding to the Twitter and Mastodon APIs, picking items from a backlog, scheduling posts), allowing you to focus on the fun of creating playful interventions into your friends' depressing social media experiences, bringing joy to all!

I've been using Botfriend to run my personal bots for about a year now. I recently packaged it, improved the docs greatly, and made it really easy to run from within a virtual environment. All you have to do is write the creative bit and put your publishing credentials in a config file. I hope it's useful to you!

Thanks to Allison Parrish for helping me through the realization that I could exploit the pip installation process to install Botfriend's user interface. It feels like an exploit, anyway.

August Film Roundup:

September Film Roundup:

It's busy times for the ol' Television Spotlight. We now follow a number of good shows, and a lot of them just came off their season break, but I already told you that The Good Place and Better Call Saul are fun, and who needs more of the same? So let me tell you about The Dragon Prince, a new Netflix animated series from the makers of Television Spotlight favorite The Legend of Korra. Sumana was not impressed by the ponderous, didactic opening, which I admit was a little bit like the boring half of Thor: Ragnarok. But that's like three minutes long, and the rest of the show is pretty fun, with the cute animals, elemental magic systems, and young people having dangerous adventures we've come to expect.

October Film Roundup:

[Comments] (2) Junk Mail, Yorebooks, Podcast Roulette: I've come back to working on botfriend as a break from writing, and I've got some new stuff to show you. It's all based around code I put in olipy for dealing with the Internet Archive.

The Archive has so much stuff that if you're not looking for something specific, random selection is the best way to experience it. So I've made it really easy to pick a random item from an IA collection, and (if it's a textual collection) pick any page from that item and get it as an image.

Here's Junk Mail Bot, which provides a random-sample view of this collection. Just look at this cool plotter! Every item has a link to the IA web viewer so you can see it in context.

Yorebooks is the exact same bot but for the collection of yearbooks. I'm partial to this jaunty slice of 1940s writing from the Illinois State Normal university.

These bots were inspired by Rob Manuel's excellent YORE COMPUTER, and it's easy to make your own bots of this sort. In botfriend, a "random page from an Internet Archive collection" bot fits comfortably in fifty lines of code.

But maybe my cool Mastodon bots don't impress you. You miss the days when I would put new bots on Twitter, and Twitter would randomly suspend them. Actually maybe it wasn't random; maybe my bots insulted a Nazi or something. Anyway, I'm not coming back to Twitter but I can offer a compromise: how about a podcast?

The Internet Archive has over 150,000 archived episodes of podcasts, and people almost never listen to old episodes. Again, the "random sample" technique is appropriate here.

So I created Podcast Roulette, which picks a random episode of a random podcast every day and puts it into an RSS feed, creating a fun meta-podcast. In a doubly-meta twist, a lot of podcast episodes focus on one specific mostly-forgotten instantiation of something old, like Episode 384 of the Superman Fan Podcast, which covers a single issue of Action Comics.

I've been putting the sampled podcasts on my MP3 player and although I haven't yet found one that I want to put into heavy rotation, it gives me a feeling I haven't had in a while, the feeling of moving across the radio dial. Update: After a few more days, I realize that this also grants the thrill of eavesdropping.

[No comments] November Film Roundup:

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