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Friday, June 29, 2007

One Friday A Month Is List Day
Apparently I only ever really find time to do a Friday is List Day post once a month. In any case, here you go:

Random Ten:
  • Guster - "One Man Wrecking Machine"
  • Pink Floyd - "Fearless"
  • KMFDM - "Brute"
  • Beastie Boys - "Song for the Man"
  • The Chemical Brothers - "Let Forever Be"
  • Handsome Boy Modeling School (DJ Quest/DJ Shadow) - "Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)"
  • Mike Oldfield - "Ommadawn On Horseback"
  • Eels - "Somebody Loves You"
  • UNKLE - "The Knock (Drums Of Death Part 2)"
  • Isaac Hayes - "Run Fay Run"
5 Unread Books I Own
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon: Just purchased this and want to read it based mostly on the awesome title. I like Chabon too. And the book is getting good reviews.
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell: This has been out for a while, so I'm behind the trend, but I just picked it up recently. I like Gladwell a lot. Even if I don't agree with something, he's usually pretty interesting and thought provoking.
  • Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram: Based on what I've read of OODA loops, I decided to check out this biography. Boyd seems to have lead an interesting life, not to mention that his ideas appear to be playing a major role in current world conflicts.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: This one takes the award for longest on shelf without being read. I've had this book for at least 5 years, but can't bring myself to open it up. Firstly, it's around 1,000 pages, and from what I've heard, it's one of those Pynchon-like post-modern footnotes-within-footnotes type of book. After finishing Gravity's Rainbow, my interest in such works has waned considerably.
  • The Marble Mask by Archer Mayor: My uncle gave me several of Mayor's detective/mystery books for Christmas last year. I've read a couple of them and while I haven't read much in the genre, he seems to be pretty decent (if not especially brilliant). I think this would have made good airplane reading, if I hadn't been engrossed by Neal Stephenson's Interface.
5 Upcoming Movies I Want To See Even Though I Know They'll Suck
  • Hitman (October 2007): After some initial distaste, I've grown to love the video game and even considered just writing a script myself based on the concepts (just for fun). Movies based on video games don't exactly have a good track record though, and I can't say that the no-name makers of this film inspire confidence. Also, there's this quote from IMDB: "he's being groomed as the ... I don't know ... the next Paul Walker?" Still, the trailer is pretty decent and they've retained one of my favorite parts of the game: the Ave Maria.
  • Transformers: God help me.
  • The Simpsons Movie: I stopped watching the show a while ago, as I found myself watching an entire episode without laughing even once. Maybe they'll reignite for the movie, but it will probably suck.
  • I Am Legend: I loved the book (well, the book is a bit of a downer, but it was good), but I'm not too confident that we'll see a good translation here. The book's study of isolation and grim irony doesn't appear to have made it to the screen. I guess there's hope, but previous attempts to bring it to the screen have meddled with the story significantly (infamously and inexplicably, a recent script made no references to Vampires, instead using the term Hemocytes. At least the upcoming release avoided that trap...)
  • The Bourne Ultimatum: This one's cheating, I guess, as I think Greengrass is awesome and I'm pretty sure it won't suck. But the #3 movie in a series is a tough one, as evidenced by other summer sequels, and I'm pretty sure this will disappoint.
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2007 at 08:09 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Dramatic Prairie Dog
I recently came across this silly video, and have since become interested in its evolution. It's strange how these memes progress. Is this really a worthwhile enterprise? It's amusing and fun, but also ephemeral. My initial thoughts are that stuff like this, while not necessarily brilliant in themselves, are a natural byproduct of a system that will produce good content. In other words, if you want to create something great, you'll probably have to endure creating a lot of crap before you cross over into greatness. Same thing with blogs, I think. Everyone tries different things and experiments, but only a few blogs become really good.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2007 at 07:50 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bad Movie Corner
The movie corner feature here at Kaedrin normally features at least a couple of good movies, but sometimes, well, I like to watch bad movies. Particularly ones from my youth. Something about being a youngin' made these movies a lot easier to swallow, I guess because I didn't know any better, and there's a sentimental element that draws me back to them even today. It's strange, but I was much more willing to sit around and watch whatever came on back then. I'm not sure if it's a good thing that I don't do so much anymore... In any case, here are three bad movies that I love. Perhaps you could say that they're so bad they're good...
  • Lone Wolf McQuade: Where to start? Chuck Norris plays the archetypical grimy renegade Texas Ranger who takes on a local drugdealer/karate champion, played with campy glee by David Carradine. Yes, there are roundhouse kicks in this movie, but it doesn't end there. It's got a midget arms dealer, for instance. And McQuade is actually a great hero. This is evidenced by one of the great 80s scenes. Our villains have shot Chuck Norris, shoved him in his truck, and then burried the truck. Norris comes to, evaluates the situation, opens a beer and pours it over his face (he had dirt on it, you know, and it being a car, there was beer readily available), fires up the supercharger (did I mention that his truck is totally badass?) and blasts his way out of there. It's actually somewhat exhilarating. Naturally, the film culminates in a martial arts showdown. Funnily, Carradine is wearing a pastel argyle sweater during this fight. Anyway, if you think I'm nuts, Roger Ebert gave it ***1/2 stars (out of four).
  • Real Men: Buddy comedy starring James Belushi and John Ritter (yes, John Ritter) as... crap, do you really care? They're the same characters they always are. They're on a quest to make sure a deal goes through with aliens for the future of mankind. As payment for the deal, the aliens will give you a choice: a "good package", which will save the Earth's environment, or a "big gun", which could destroy the Earth. The Americans are going for the good package and the Soviets are going for the big gun (heh). It's actually kinda funny, but you know your in trouble when your plot reminds me of Dude, Where's My Car?. Or maybe not. I get the feeling that 20 years from now, someone's going to be writing a "Bad Movie Corner" featuring that masterpiece. Heh.
  • Runaway: Tom Selleck scifi movie. Say no more. What's that? You want more? How about Gene Simmons. Without makeup. Written and directed by Michael Crichton. Notable for it's awesome heat-seeking bullets that follow people around corners and through doors (with an cool POV camera angle). Oh, and homicidal runaway robots, like the little robot spiders that will inject you with poison. And Kirstey Alley! And huge plot holes like the time they strip Kirstey Alley down looking for bugs, then forget to check her handbag. Still, this was actually really neato for the time. Those spider thingys scared the crap out of me.
That's all for now. Back in town, so I should be around more this week...
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2007 at 06:44 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Stephen Bury
Towards the beginning of his career, Neal Stephenson used the pseudonym Stephen Bury to publish straightforward thrillers. In an old interview, he comments thusly:
''I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, 'Let's give this a try.' The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career."
In any case, I've recently picked up both of the Bury books (which have now been published under Stephenson's real name) and I'm about halfway through the second one. They're actually better than I thought they would be, but not particularly great. Part of the reason I had low expectations for the books is that the little blurbs describing the stories on the back of the books sound stupid. So far, though, the execution of said absurd stories isn't so bad. I think this has something to do with uncommon settings and characters, something Stephenson has a knack for. Nothing really approaches Stephenson's popular works, but these are diverting enough thrillers.

As of right now, I prefer The Cobweb to Interface, though I'm only halfway through Interface. I actually quite enjoyed The Cobweb and would recommend it to Stephenson fans. The story follows a midwestern deputy sheriff named Clyde Banks who stumbles upon an Iraqi plot in his hometown to produce chemical weapons during the first Gulf War. Another plotline follows a low-level CIA analyst who "exceeds her task" and makes a lot of folks in Washington look bad by noticing some anomalies in funding. Both characters are somewhat unusual, as are the specifics of their arcs (one is running for sherrif, the other is constantly bewildered by bureaucratic excess, amateur wrestling is often brought up, etc...) - not your steriotypical thriller fare, which is precisely why it's interesting. I can see a lot of Stephenson in the story, though there's clearly something else here (these are collaborations, after all). For instance, the Dhont family bears a likeness to the Shaftoes from Stephenson's recent works and Stephenson's penchant for including actual historical figures into a fictional story comes into play (at one point, the CIA analyst ends up on a boat with George H.W. Bush in an encounter that very much resembles something out of Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle).

Anyway, here's one quote regarding the aforementioned bureaucratic excess as a Washington insider talks to the deputy sheriff:
"You and I know that something is going on in Forks County, and we would like to do something about it," Hennessey said, "but between the two of us are about ten thousand of these people who are too busy looking down their noses at us to actually grasp the problem and take action. You must know that taking action is looked down upon, Clyde. This is the postmodern era. When events come to a cusp, we're supposed to screw our courage to the sticking place and launch a reanalysis of the eleventh draft of the working document. Actually going out and doing stuff in the physical world is simply beyond comprehension of these people. They're never going to do anything about the Iraqis in Forks. Never."
Again, the story is a bit... unlikely... but it's entertaining and approached from a distinct angle that makes it feel fresh. Interface seems even more absurd, and so far it hasn't quite overcome that absurdity, but it's making a valiant effort and I'm enjoying it. Interface follows William Cozzano, a popular Illinois governor, and his run for President. That's not unlikely, but when they start talking about putting biochips into his brain and hooking them up to a computerized polling system, well, I was a little worried. It hasn't been as bad as it sounds so far, and they do a good job building up the technology behind this so that it perhaps doesn't seem so unlikely. They also do a reasonable job setting up why Cozzano would consent to such a risky procedure. Again, I'm only a bout halfway through, so the jury is still out, but so far, it's ok. Not as good as The Cobweb though, and it lacks the idiosyncratic bits that made me enjoy The Cobweb so much. Still, there are some interesting characters and concepts. For instance, the pollsters in the book are interesting. Here's a quote from one of the pollsters, who speculates on what drives politics.
"In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam." ...

"So what's it about now?" Aaron said.

"Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media," Ogle said. "The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under the ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like the Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces, but by groping through the steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidates fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and constructing the use of eye contact, monitoring his gesticulations-- whether his hands are held open or closed, toward or away from the camera, spread open forthcomingly or clenched like grasping claws."
This seems appropriate, given the upcoming election. Interestingly, the same pollster speculates that HDTV will mark the next shift in politics, as people look different on HDTV than they do on regular TV. This may seem like a trivial point, but I guess the idea is that politics these days rely more on trivial stuff like how to position your eyes so that the whites don't make it look like your eyes are bulging out of your head on TV.

I'd say that The Cobweb is definitely worth checking out for Stephenson fans, and probably anyone who likes techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn's stuff (I'm not an authority on the genre though). So far, it seems like Interface would be worth reading for die hard Stephenson fans, and there might be a more limited mainstream audience for this one as well. They both seem a little better than your average thriller.
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2007 at 04:04 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Over the next two weeks, I'll be travelling a lot. This week, I'll be attending UPA 2007 in Austin, TX. Next week, I'll be attending another conference in Boston (insert obligatory Road Trip joke here). I'll have internet access, so I'll be around, but the regularly scheduled Wednesday posts may suffer.

Anyway, in anticipation of Robot Chicken's Star Wars special, here's one of their previous episodes. Hilarious.

This one's pretty good too.
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2007 at 01:01 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how context matters when consuming art. As sometimes happens when writing an entry, that one got away from me and I never got around to the point I originally started with (that entry was originally entitled "Referential" but I changed it when I realized that I wasn't going to write anything about references), which was how much of our entertainment these days references its predecessors. This takes many forms, some overt (homages, parody), some a little more subtle.

I originally started thinking about this while watching an episode of Family Guy. The show is infamous for its random cutaway gags - little vignettes that have no connection to the story, but which often make some obscure reference to pop culture. For some reason, I started thinking about what it would be like to watch an episode of Family Guy with someone from, let's say, the 17th century. Let's further speculate that this person isn't a blithering idiot, but perhaps a member of the Royal Society or something (i.e. a bright fellow).

This would naturally be something of a challenge. There are some technical explanations that would be necessary. For example, we'd have to explain electricty, cable networks, signal processing and how the television works (which at least involves discussions on light and color). The concept of an animated show, at least, would probably be easy to explain (but it would involve a discussion of how the human eye works, to a degree).

There's more to it, of course, but moving past all that, once we start watching the show, we're going to have to explain why we're laughing at pretty much all of the jokes. Again, most of the jokes are simply references and parodies of other pieces of pop culture. Watching an episode of Family Guy with Isaac Newton (to pick a prominent Royal Society member) would necessitate a pause just about every minute to explain what each reference was from and why Family Guy's take on it made me laugh. Then there's the fact that Family Guy rarely has any sort of redeemable lesson and often deliberately skews towards actively encouraging evil (something along the lines of "I think the important thing to remember is that it's ok to lie, so long as you don't get caught." I don't think that exact line is in an episode, but it could be.) This works fine for us, as we're so steeped in popular culture that we get the fact that Family Guy is just lampooning of the notion that we could learn important life lessions via a half-hour sitcom. But I'm sure Isaac Newton would be appalled.

For some reason, I find this fascinating, and try to imagine how I would explain various jokes. For instance, the episode I was watching featured a joke concerning "cool side of the pillow." They cut to a scene in bed where Peter flips over the pillow and sees Billy Dee Williams' face, which proceeds to give a speech about how cool this side of the pillow is, ending with "Works every time." This joke alone would require a whole digression into Star Wars and how most of the stars of that series struggled to overcome their typecasting and couldn't find a lot of good work, so people like Billy Dee Williams ended up doing commercials for a malt liquor named Colt 45, which had these really cheesy commercials where Billy Dee talked like that. And so on. It could probably take an hour before my guest would even come close to understanding the context of the joke (I'm not even touching the tip of the iceberg with this post).

And the irony of this whole thing is that jokes that are explained simply aren't funny. To be honest, I'm not even sure why I find these simple gags funny (that, of course, is the joy of humor - you don't usually have to understand it or think about it, you just laugh). Seriously, why is it funny when Family Guy blatantly references some classic movie or show? Again, I'm not sure, but that sort of humor has been steadily growing over the past 30 years or so.

Not all comedies are that blatant about their referential humor though (indeed, Family Guy itself doesn't solely rely upon such references). A recent example of a good referential film is Shaun of the Dead, which somewhow manages to be both a parody and an example of a good zombie movie. It pays homage to all the classic zombie films and it also makes fun of other genres (notably the romantic comedy), but in doing so, the filmmakers have also made a good zombie movie in itself. The filmmakers have recently released a new film called Hot Fuzz, which attempts the same trick for action movies and buddy comedies. It is, perhaps, not as successful as Shaun, but the sheer number of references in the film is astounding. There are the obvious and explicit ones like Point Break and Bad Boys II, but there are also tons of subtle homages that I'd wager most people wouldn't get. For instance, when Simon Pegg yells in the movie, he's doing a pitch perfect impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. And when he chases after a criminal, he imitates the way Robert Patrick's T-1000 runs from Terminator 2.

References don't need to be part of a comedy either (though comedies seem to make the easiest examples). Hop on IMDB and go to just about any recent movie, and click on the "Movie Connections" link in the left navigation. For instance, did you know that the aformentioned T2 references The Wizard of Oz and The Killing, amongst dozens of other references? Most of the time, these references are really difficult to pick out, especially when you're viewing a foreign film or show that's pulling from a different cultural background. References don't have to be story or character based - they can be the way a scene is composed or the way the lighting is set (i.e. the Venetian blinds in Noir films).

Now, this doesn't just apply to art either. A lot of common knowledge in today's world is referential. Most formal writing includes references and bibliographies, for instance, and a non-fiction book will often assume basic familiarity with a subject. When I was in school, I was always annoyed at the amount of rote memorization they made us do. Why memorize it if I could just look it up? Shouldn't you be focusing on my critical thinking skills instead of making me memorize arbitrary lists of facts? Sometimes this complaining was probably warranted, but most of it wasn't. So much of what we do in today's world requires a well-rounded familiarity with a large number of subjects (including history, science, culture, amongst many other things). There simply isn't any substitute for actual knowledge. Though it was a pain at the time, I'm glad emphasis was put on memorization during my education. A while back, David Foster noted that schools are actually moving away from this, and makes several important distinctions. He takes an example of a song:
Jakob Dylan has a song that includes the following lines:

Cupid, don't draw back your bow
Sam Cooke didn't know what I know

Think of how much you need to know in order to understand these two simple lines:

1)You need to know that, in mythology, Cupid symbolizes love
2)And that Cupid's chosen instrument is the bow and arrow
3)Also that there was a singer/songwriter named Sam Cooke
4)And that he had a song called which included the lines "Cupid, draw back your bow."

... "Progressive" educators, loudly and in large numbers, insist that students should be taught "thinking skills" as opposed to memorization. But consider: If it's not possible to understand a couple of lines from a popular song without knowing by heart the references to which it alludes--without memorizing them--what chance is there for understanding medieval history, or modern physics, without having a ready grasp of the topics which these disciplines reference?

And also consider: in the Dylan case, it's not just what you need to know to appreciate the song. It's what Dylan needed to know to create it in the first place. Had he not already had the reference points--Cupid, the bow and arrow, the Sam Cooke song--in his head, there's no way he would have been able to create his own lines. The idea that he could have just "looked them up," which educators often suggest is the way to deal with factual knowledge, would be ludicrous in this context. And it would also be ludicrous in the context of creating new ideas about history or physics.
As Foster notes, this doesn't mean that "thinking skills" are unimportant, just that knowledge is important too. You need to have a quality data set in order to use those "thinking skills" effectively.

Human beings tend to leverage knowledge to create new knowledge. This has a lot of implications, one of which is intellectual property law. Giving limited copyright to intellectual property is important, because the data in that property eventually becomes available for all to built upon. It's ironic that educators are considering less of a focus on memorization, as this requirement of referential knowledge has been increasing for some time. Students need a base of knowledge to both understand and compose new works. References help you avoid reinventing the wheel everytime you need to create something, which leads to my next point.

I think part of the reason references are becoming more and more common these days is that it makes entertainment a little less passive. Watching TV or a movie is, of course, a passive activity, but if you make lots of references and homages, the viewer is required to think through those references. If the viewer has the appropriate knowledge, such a TV show or movie becomes a little more cognitively engaging. It makes you think, it calls to mind previous work, and it forces you to contextualize what you're watching based on what you know about other works. References are part of the complexity of modern Television and film, and Steven Johnson spends a significant amout of time talking about this subject in his book Everything Bad is Good for You (from page 85 of my edition):
Nearly every extended sequence in Seinfeld or The Simpsons, however, will contain a joke that makes sense only if the viewer fills in the proper supplementary information -- information that is deliberately withheld from the viewer. If you haven't seen the "Mulva" episode, or if the name "Art Vandelay" means nothing to you, then the subsequent references -- many of them arriving years after their original appearance -- will pass on by unappreciated.

At first glance, this looks like the soap opera tradition of plotlines extending past the frame of individual episodes, but in practice the device has a different effect. Knowing that George uses the alias Art Vandelay in awkward social situations doesn't help you understand the plot of the current episode; you don't draw on past narratives to understand the events in the present one. In the 180 Seinfeld episodes that aired, seven contain references to Art Vandelay: in George's actually referring to himself with that alias or invoking the name as part of some elaborate lie. He tells a potential employer at a publishing house that he likes to read the fiction of Art Vandelay, author of Venetian Blinds; in another, he tells an unemployment insurance caseworker that he's applied for a latex salesman job at Vandelay Industries. For storytelling purposes, the only thing that you need to know here is that George is lying in a formal interview; any fictitious author or latex manufacturer would suffice. But the joke arrives through the echo of all those earlier Vandelay references; it's funny because it's making a subtle nod to past events held offscreen. It's what we'd call in a real-world context an "in-joke" -- a joke that's funny only to people who get the reference.
I know some people who hate Family Guy and Seinfeld, but I realized a while ago that they don't hate those shows because of the contents of the shows or because they were offended (though some people certainly are), but rather becaues they simply don't get the references. They didn't grow up watching TV in the 80s and 90s, so many of the references are simply lost on them. Family Guy would be particularly vexing if you didn't have the pop culture knowledge of the writers of that show. These reference heavy shows are also a lot easier to watch and rewatch, over and over again. Why? Because each episode is not self-contained, you often find yourself noticing something new every time you watch. This also sometimes works in reverse. I remember the first time I saw Bill Shatner's campy rendition of Rocket Man, I suddenly understoood a bit on Family Guy which I thought was just a bit based on being random (but was really a reference).

Again, I seem to be focusing on comedy, but it's not necessarily limited to that genre. Eric S. Raymond has written a lot about how science fiction jargon has evolved into a sophisticated code that implicitely references various ideas, conventions and tropes of the genre:
In looking at an SF-jargon term like, say, "groundcar", or "warp drive" there is a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated possible decodings. The most naive is to see a meaningless, uninterpretable wordlike noise and stop there.

The next level up is to recognize that uttering the word "groundcar" or "warp drive" actually signifies something that's important for the story, but to lack the experience to know what that is. The motivated beginning reader of SF is in this position; he must, accordingly, consciously puzzle out the meaning of the term from the context provided by the individual work in which it appears.

The third level is to recognize that "ground car" and "warp drive" are signifiers shared, with a consistent and known meaning, by many works of SF -- but to treat them as isolated stereotypical signs, devoid of meaning save inasmuch as they permit the writer to ratchet forward the plot without requiring imaginative effort from the reader.

Viewed this way, these signs emphasize those respects in which the work in which they appear is merely derivative from previous works in the genre. Many critics (whether through laziness or malice) stop here. As a result they write off all SF, for all its pretensions to imaginative vigor, as a tired jumble of shopworn cliches.

The fourth level, typical of a moderately experienced SF reader, is to recognize that these signifiers function by permitting the writer to quickly establish shared imaginative territory with the reader, so that both parties can concentrate on what is unique about their communication without having to generate or process huge expository lumps. Thus these "stereotypes" actually operate in an anti-stereotypical way -- they permit both writer and reader to focus on novelty.

At this level the reader begins to develop quite analytical habits of reading; to become accustomed to searching the writer's terminology for what is implied (by reference to previous works using the same signifiers) and what kinds of exceptions and novelties convey information about the world and the likely plot twists.

It is at this level, for example, that the reader learns to rely on "groundcar" as a tip-off that the normal transport mode in the writer's world is by personal flyer. At this level, also, the reader begins to analytically compare the author's description of his world with other SFnal worlds featuring personal flyers, and to recognize that different kinds of flyers have very different implications for the rest of the world.

For example, the moderately experienced reader will know that worlds in which the personal fliers use wings or helicopter-like rotors are probably slightly less advanced in other technological ways than worlds in which they use ducted fans -- and way behind any world in which the flyers use antigravity! Once he sees "groundcar" he will be watching for these clues.

The very experienced SF reader, at the fifth level, can see entire worlds in a grain of jargon. When he sees "groundcar" he associates to not only technical questions about flyer propulsion but socio-symbolic ones but about why the culture still uses groundcars at all (and he has a reportoire of possible answers ready to check against the author's reporting). He is automatically aware of a huge range of consequences in areas as apparently far afield as (to name two at random) the architectural style of private buildings, and the ecological consequences of accelerated exploitation of wilderness areas not readily accessible by ground transport.
While comedy makes for convenient examples, I think this better illustrates the cognitive demands of referential art. References require you to be grounded in various subjects, and they'll often require you to think through the implications of those subjects in a new context. References allow writers to pack incredible amounts of information into even the smallest space. This, of course, requires the consumer to decode that information (using available knowledge and critical thinking skills), making the experience less passive and more engaging. Use references will continue to flourish and accellerate in both art and scholarship, and new forms will emerge. One could even argue that aggregation in various weblogs are simply exercises in referential work. Just look at this post, in which I reference several books and movies, in many cases assuming familiarity. Indeed, the whole structure of the internet is based on the concept of links -- essentialy a way to reference other documents. Perhaps this is part of the cause of the rising complexity and information density of modern entertainment. We can cope with it now, because we have such systems to help us out.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2007 at 03:08 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Link Dump: Flashy Edition
As per usual these days, time is short, so just some quick links to various flash oddities and games.
  • Desktop Tower Defense: This addictive, low-intensity game has been out there for a while, but what was new to me was the context of it's creation. Jeff Atwood dives into the history of Tower Defense style games, and makes a surprising observation:
    You'd be surprised how much money you can make by creating a flash game and giving it away for free on the internet. The Tower Defense game mode is a business opportunity for an enterprising programmer. According to a recent interview, Paul Preese, the author of Desktop Tower Defense, is making around $8,000 per month.
    I suppose it can't last, but wow. Making almost $100,000 a year by making such a simple flash game and giving it away for free? That's just amazing, even if it does only last for a year or two. In any case, a good entrepreneur would reinvest that money into new games and enhancements, or any other number of potentially lucrative endeavors.
  • Shuffle: Another simple, low-intensity game that is no less fun for the effort. Good stuff.
  • Starcraft: Flash Action: When did this happen? I haven't played much of this (for fear of falling into black hole of such games), but it seems like, well, a web implementation of Starcraft. Interesting.
  • The Zoomquilt (and Part II): Not really a game, but a mesmerizing pseudo fractal piece of art that you can continually zoom in on (or zoom out from).
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2007 at 10:43 PM .: link :.

Monday, June 04, 2007

I of Newton
So yesterday's entry about obscure works being found via the internet, and specifically Jonathon Delacour's quest to figure out what TV show he was remembering, reminded me of several old TV episodes that I haven't seen since I was very young, but which I still remember vividly. I was curious if the internet could help me figure out which shows or episodes I was thinking of.

The first one had to do with a math teacher who idly mentions he'd sell his soul to complete a problem. The devil appears and they engage in a battle of wits, the stakes being the math teacher's soul. Some of the specifics here elude me, but I distinctly remember a few things. First, the devil had horns and sunglasses and his shirt had text on it that kept changing. Second, the challenge had something to do with the teacher trying to ask a question the devil couldn't answer (I remember the devil giving specific examples of how previous people tried and failed to do so). And finally, I remember the punchline (which I won't spoil).

Now, this could have been on any number of anthology shows. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, one of those old Hitchcock theater thingys... So I searched for "Twighlight Zone devil [punchline]" (where [punchline] represents the punchline I don't want to spoil).

Bingo, the second result in Google is a detailed recounting of the 8 minute episode (spoilers on that page, don't go until you've watched the episode below), which was apparently titled I of Newton. It starred Sherman Hemsley (of The Jeffersons fame) and Ron Glass (of Firefly fame) and there are apparently a bunch of neat references (Dante, for instance). The page also mentions what one of the devil's t-shirts says: "hell is a city much like Newark." Heh.

Update: Knowing the title, finding the episode on YouTube was easy. Enjoy:


We really need more of these anthology shows, but we seem to be moving in the opposite direction of huge, multi-season story arcs rather than anthologies with 8 minute stories (or short story magazines, for that matter). A shame, really, but I could see the format making a comeback someday.
Posted by Mark on June 04, 2007 at 10:35 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Long Tail of Forgotten Works
I'm currently reading Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail, and he relates a story about how some books find an audience long after they've been published.
In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. Though reviews for the book were good, it was only a modest success, and soon was largely forgotten. Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.

Booksellers began promoting it next to their Into Thin Air displays, and sales continued to rise. In early 2004, IFC Films released a docudrama of the story, to good reviews. Shortly thereafter, HarperCollins released a revised paperback, which spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. By mid-2004, Touching the Void was outselling Into Thin Air more than two to one.

What happened? Online word of mouth. When Into Thin Air first came out, a few readers wrote reviews on Amazon.com that pointed out the similarities with the then lesser-known Touching the Void, which they praised effusively. Other shoppers read those reviews, checked out the older book, and added it to their shopping carts. Pretty soon the online bookseller's software noted the patterns in buying behavior--"Readers who bought Into Thin Air also bought Touching the Void"--and started recommending the two as a pair. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote more rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations--and a powerful positive feedback loop kicked in.

Particularly notable is that when Krakauer's book hit shelves, Simpson's was nearly out of print. A decade ago readers of Krakauer would never even have learned about Simpson's book--and if they had, they wouldn't have been able to find it. Online booksellers changed that. By combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion, they created the entire Touching the Void phenomenon. The result: rising demand for an obscure book.
There is something interesting going on here. I'm wondering how many great works of art are simply lost in obscurity. These days, we've got the internet and primitive tools to traverse the long tail, so it seems that a lot of obscure works find a new audience when a new, similar work is released. But what happened before the internet? How many works have simply gone out of print because they never found an audience - how many works suffered the fate Touching the Void narrowly avoided?

Of course, I have no idea (that's kinda the point), but one of the great things about the internet and the emerging infinite shelf space of online retailers is that some of these obscure works are rediscovered and new connections are made. For instance, I once came accross a blog post by Jonathon Delacour about this obscure Japanese horror film called Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People. The description of the film?
After a yacht is damaged in a storm and stranded on a deserted island, the passengers: a psychologist, his girlfriend, a wealthy businessman, a famous singer, a writer, a sailor and his skipper take refuge in a fungus covered boat. While using the mushrooms for sustenance, they find the ship's journal describing the mushrooms to be poisonous, however some members of the shipwrecked party continue to ingest the mysterious fungi transforming them into hideous fungal monsters.
Sound familiar? As Delacour notes, a reviewer on Amazon.com sure thinks so:
Was this the Inspiration for Gilligan's Island? ...and that's a serious question. It predated the premier of Gillian's Island by several years. There's a millionaire who owns a yacht that looks like the Minnow. On board is a professor, the captain, a goofy (though somewhat sinster in the film) first mate, a pretty but shy country girl named Okiko, and a singer/movie star. There are seven castaways in all. "Lovey" is replaced by another male character, a writer named Roy. The boat crashes into an island where they are castaways... Course on Gilligan's Island they didn't all turn into mutated mushrooms monsters. Rent or buy the DVD (one of my favorite films in Japanese cinema, finally getting its due...) and you tell me if Gilligan's Island isn't a complete rip-off of this film.
Several reviewers actually make the Gilligan's Island connection, and one even takes time to refute the claim that Gilligan ripped off Matango:
Actually as stated on this DVD's actor commentary Matango premiered in Japanese theaters in and around mid 1963. The Gilligan's Island first pilot (with different actors as The Professor and Ginger)was made in late 1963 thus the Japanese film does not predate Gilligan by a few years as another poster here thinks.Schwartz could have heard about a Japanese film made with seven castaways (as Hollywood and Tokoyo's Toho were in communication). But he definitely didn't see the Japanese film before he pitched gI to the networks in early 63.
So perhaps this was just a happy coincidence... A commentor on Delacour's post mentions that the movie is loosely based on a 1907 short story by William Hope Hodgson called The Voice in the Night, but while it certainly was the inspiration behind Matango, it probably didn't inspire Gilligan's Island...

I seem to have veered off track here, but it was an interesting diversion: from obscure Japanese horror film to Gilligan's Island to William Hope Hodgson... would anyone have made these connections 20 years ago? It certainly would have been possible, but I doubt it would happen as quickly or efficiently as it did on the internet.
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2007 at 08:35 PM .: link :.

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