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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Words & Worlds
There's an interesting (but woefully short) interview with Neal Stephenson on the Sci Fi Wire. In it, he talks about his decision to include an introduction and glossary of terms (an excerpt of which is available) in his new novel:
People who do read science fiction and fantasy have developed a skill set that other people don't necessarily have. They can pick up a book and begin reading it, and it will have all of these words that they have not seen before and names that they are not familiar with, and it's set in a world whose geography they don't know and whose customs they don't know--and it can be a bit hard to follow at first, but those kinds of people know that if they just keep reading and are patient, over time all of that will be explained, and they will be able to piece it together in their heads. And doing that is actually part of the pleasure of reading such a book for a fantasy or science fiction fan.
This instantly reminded me of Eric Raymond's excellent essay, SF Words and Prototype Worlds, in which he notes the way that SF can use a single word to embed broad and far-reaching implications into a story.
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.
Fascinating stuff. I don't have much to add, except that September 9 can't get here fast enough...
Posted by Mark on August 31, 2008 at 08:32 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Thing Goes Zombie
I generally try to avoid just posting a video, but this is awesome:

Amazing stuff. Has stop-motion animation always been this prevalent? From mainstream (Robot Chicken) to amateur (the vid above, and maybe the Marvel vs. DC stuff), it seems like I'm seing more and more stop-motion these days. [Thanks to Roy for posting the vid on 4k]
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2008 at 08:55 AM .: link :.

SF Book Review, Part 2
The second in a series of short, capsule reviews of SF books I've read recently. Part 1 covered several Heinlein Juveniles and an Arthur C. Clarke novel. This part will cover a miscellaneous selection of old and new novels:
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (1967): My friend Aether has been recommending this to me for years, so I figured I should check it out. I liked it, but I really came away wishing I knew more about the Hindu Pantheon before reading it. I read Siddhartha (which Lord of Light supposedly resembles) in high school... but I remember next to nothing about it. The story follows Sam (aka Siddhartha, Buddha, Lord of Light, Binder of Demons, The Enlightened One, and probably ten other names) in his campaign against the gods. The setting is an Alien planet. When it was first colonized, the humans had to find a way to survive in the hostile environment, which happened to contain unfriendly indigenous races (styled as demons in the story). The humans employed their technology to fight them, often using genetic manipulation to essentially give themselves superpowers (to paraphrase the old saying, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). Over time, a small group of humans become very powerful, and after they had control of the planet, they began to style themselves as gods of the Hindu Pantheon. To maintain their power, they keep the rest of the humans in a medieval state while using reincarnation technologies to stay alive indefinitely. What I'm describing here is actually backstory, and mostly only hinted at during the story. Sam, our hero and a classic trickster, is an accelerationist, someone who thinks the rest of the humans should be able to progress beyond their midieval state (the gods always squashed inventions like the printing press, etc... before they had a chance to have a real impact). The structure of the story is somewhat fractured; each chapter tells of a different battle in the campaign against the gods. It sometimes felt like a travelogue (or battlelogue, as most chapters feature some sort of battle with the gods), and I was reminded at one point of various epic poems (Song of Roland came to mind, but like Siddhartha, I remember very little of that story). It's a very interesting novel, but again, I wish I was more familiar with the Hindu Pantheon before I read it....
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984): I'd actually read this before, just after I had read Snow Crash. But that was a long time ago (about 10-15 years ago) and I didn't have much context for either book (for instance, I realize now that I was reading them in the opposite order). I remember liking it, but not as much as Snow Crash. When I read it this time, distanced from Snow Crash and with more historical context, I enjoyed it a little more. With this novel, Gibson popularized the subgenre known as Cyberpunk. To me, it seemed to be indicative of SF catching up with computers, networks and hacking, which is what I liked most about it. But Cyberpunk is also dark and dystopic, featuring anti-heroes and other unlikeable types. This is generally not my thing, though a good author can pull it off and it works well enough here. Gibson was mixing stuff like traditional hard-boiled noir (shades of Raymond Chandler here) with SF tropes, and again, it works. Here we also see more of an emphasis on literary style and atmosphere than we did with stuff from the Golden Age, which had a more pragmatic storytelling style. Again, I'm not a huge Cyberpunk fan, but I do give a lot of credit to this novel for originating or popularizing a lot of tropes (not just SF ones). It's almost universally considered the finest example of Cyberpunk as well, which, when you consider that it was the first real Cyberpunk novel, tells you what you need to know about Cyberpunk (Snow Crash is often held up as another shining example and perhaps due to the satirical nature of the book, also the last). Still, I liked this book a lot.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (1992): Of the 10 books I'm reviewing this week, this is probably my favorite. This is an exceptional hard SF novel set... well, in the whole galaxy really. A small group of humans stumbles upong an old archive (millions of years old) and accidentally awaken an ancient Power, which immediately begins taking over large portions of the Galaxy. A single family barely manages to escape from ground zero and ends up on an Alien planet. They may be the only ones that can defeat the ancient power, and the race is on to find them. The book is filled with absolutely fascinating ideas and concepts, as well as one of the most intriguing alien species I've seen (I wrote about them in a recent post). Vinge is one of the proponets of the singularity, and is somewhat infamous for making a prediciton that humans will have the technological means to create a superhuman intelligence by 2023. Regardless of what you or I may think of the singularity, it's clear that this would pose something of a challenge to Vinge in writing a novel set in the distant future. Since a superhuman intelligence is almost by definition, incomprehensible to a mere human, it's got to be difficult to write a story that features such "Powers" (as he calls them). Vinge attempts to get around this by dividing the galaxy into "zones of thought," only some of which can support a Power. The other zones contain certain physical limitations to intelligence and technology that make the singularity impossible. Most of the action in the story is set in a place called The Beyond, which is a zone where automation and nanotechnology work much better than is possible on earth (which is deep within "The Slowness"). I'm really only touching the tip of the surface here. Despite my ramblings on the ideas, the story is character-based and excellent. There are a several humans in the book, including an fascinating human named Pham Nuwen who has a special connection to a Power. There's an alien race called The Tines that takes the form of packs of dog-like beings. In some ways, they're very similar to humans, but in other ways, they are dramatically different, and Vinge does a good job extrapolating from those differences. The Tines are stuck in a medieval state that, for physical reasons, they could not transcend until humans land on the planet (and with the humans come technology, though it's not easy for the Tines to discern this at first). It's all very entertaining. The setting in general is just huge and sweeping, often referincing millions of years of galactic history. It's an ambitious novel, and Vinge does a good job hinting at the enormity and wonder of the cosmos. I'm not sure what to make of the ending, but it certainly fits the story and is quite interesting, to say the least. Vinge wrote a prequel to this novel called A Deepness in the Sky (I wrote about this a while ago). It features the character Pham Nuwen and another interesting Alien race (I read that before this), but I think that A Fire Upon the Deep is the superior novel.
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (2007): At first glance, this detective procedural doesn't seem like much of a SF novel until you realize that it's also an alternative history story. Set in the present, the bizarre premise is that during WW II, a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska, and now the lease is about to run out. In this world, Israel doesn't exist, and there seem to be a lot of other subtle differences (particularly in Russia and Poland). The plot starts, like a lot of detective stories start, with a dead body. A down-on-his-luck detective stubbornly decides to investigate, eventually stumbling into a rather large conspiracy. At first, I hated this book. I was intrigued by the premise and the initial story, but Chabon's writing seemed awfully sloppy. After a while I got used to it, though, and the rest of the book was fine. I didn't realize what it was until Alex mentioned that Chabon had intentionally written the novel in third person as if it were the first. I'd have to read it again to really tell, but I'm willing to give Chabon the benefit of the doubt. In any case, while the premise is intriguing and most of the plot proceeds in an interesting fashion, I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. The novel actually won this year's Hugo award, which I found interesting. Worth a read if you're into noir-like mysteries, but it's also quite strange.
  • Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (2008): This is a collection of short stories. Like a lot of short story collections, it's a bit uneven, but there are some bright spots. Here are a few of the stories I enjoyed the most:
    • A Study in Emerald - A fascinating blend of a Sherlock Holmes style story with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. It ends a bit abruptly for my tastes (I want more!) but it was entertaining.
    • Other People - Interesting and very short, this Borges-like circular story is not exactly a feel-good story, but it's well done.
    • Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot - Basically a series of vampire-themed vignettes, it was actually quite funny at times. For instance, this one:
      They asked St. Germain's manservant if his master was truly a thousand years old, as it was rumored he had claimed.

      "How would I know?" the man replied. "I have only been in the master's employ for three hundred years."
    • Goliath - A short, entertaining story set in the Matrix universe (though without explicitely referencing that). I really liked this one.
    • Sunbird - I wasn't really sure what to make of this one until I got to the end and everything clicked into place. Good stuff.
    • The Monarch of the Glen - This is the longest story in the book, and is subtitled "An American Gods Novella." It picks up the story 2 years after the events of American Gods, and follows Shadow as he attends a rather strange party in Scottland. I really enjoyed this one, probably the best in the collection.
    So it started strong and it ended strong. There were several stories I didn't care much for, and a bunch of poems that didn't do much for me either. Still, it was worth reading, though I think there's a reason why I'm attracted to writers like Neal Stephenson, who routinely write 900+ page stories.
And that just about covers what I've read recently. At some point, I'll post the list of books that are up next in the queue.
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2008 at 12:04 AM .: link :.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

SF Book Review, Part 1: The Heinlein Juvenile Edition
In case you can't tell from my recent posting history, I've been reading a lot of science fiction lately. I've always had an affinity for the genre, but I came to realize recently that I've only really explored a rather small portion of what's out there. One area I was notably deficient on was the Heinlein juveniles, a subgenre that seems to be almost universally revered but which I had largely neglected. I'd read several of his later novels (including Starship Troopers, which seems to be the turning point for when Heinlein started writing for adults), but his juveniles seem to hold a special place in SF history, so I wanted to explore them a bit. In a discussion at the 4th Kingdom, I got several recommendations for Heinlein juveniles along with some others. I've also been looking at various best-of lists to get some ideas about the history and best examples of SF. As such, I still have lots of books I want to work through, but I figured what I've covered in the last few months is worth a recap. I have 10 books I want to cover, but today we'll only take the first 5 (most of which are Heinlein juveniles). The next 5 will be posted on Wednesday.
  • Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein (1951): And we start with perhaps my least favorite of the novels covered in this post. It's not especially bad, I just didn't connect with it in a good way. The plot concerns a teenager caught in the middle of a war, yes, between planets. From a storytelling and thematic perspective, it seems to be pure Heinlein, stressing the individualism and implicit distrust of political institutions and social engineering that would become his hallmark. Eric S. Raymond has written a fascinating take on the history of SF from a political perspective, and he describes Heinlein's philosophy as being the core of what's called "Hard SF." Raymond writes:
    There was also a political aura that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by Campbell and right-hand man Robert Heinlein. That tradition was of ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion.
    This is something we'll see in all of the juveniles I'm reviewing today, and Between Planets is no exception. Take, for example, this paragraph from page 91 of my edition (about halfway through the book):
    He had lived in security all his life; he had never experienced emotionally, in his own person, the basic historical fact that mankind lives always by the skin of its teeth, sometimes winning by more often losing -- and dying. ... But never quitting.
    All that said, I found the execution of the story somewhat lacking. Heinlein's prose seemed awkward and stilted (though perhaps that has something to do with reading this book 57 years after it was written). In any case, some of the specifics of the plot also seemed a bit too on-the-nose and coincidental as well. It was an entertaining and short read, but definitely not even close to Heinlein's best.
  • Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953): When Clarke died earlier this year, lots of folks listed their favorite Clarke stories, and this one often topped the list. I've read his 2001 and Rama series (both of which started off excellently, but eventually ran out of steam) and was interested in his other works, so I figured this was a good place to start. The book is short, intriguing, entertaining and it tackles similar themes as Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. To say more would give away too much of the story, but Clarke has always been enamored with the idea of transcendence, and it was interesting to read this story with the knowledge that he was writing this long before concepts like the technological singularity were being thrown around. In that, the book is prescient, though in other things, perhaps not so much. Once again, the book's prose seems a bit on the simplistic side, but it worked fine (it was not awkward at all, but neither was it very literary - this is rather common with Golden Age SF, which seems to be written in a more pragmatic manner that favored clarity over literary flourishes (I remember Asimov writing in a similar fashion)). The plot, concerning a technologically superior alien race appearing in our skies, is something that seems familiar at first (and why not? This book must have influenced the likes of Vand Indepence Day), but plays out differently than you might expect. The structure of the plot was a little strange in that there didn't seem to be any one main character, and we end up following several threads... but not simultaneously. Perhaps it's that I'm so used to multi-threaded stories that a story told from various perspectives in serial form seemed odd. But there's really nothing wrong with that, and it works well. Ultimately, I think I still prefer Rendezvous with Rama and maybe even 2001 to this book, but it's still quite good.
  • Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (1955): Probably the most involving and taut of the juveniles that I've read, this story is more concerned with basic survival techniques more often seen in frontier westerns than science fiction. But from a SF perspective, it does make sense. If we do create something similar to the star gates in the book, we will essentially be expanding into new, uncharted wilderness filled with alien ecologies, and as such, survival skills would be at a premium. The SF ideas are certainly there, but they do take a backseat to the survival elements. The story concerns a group of students sent on a survival test to an uninhabited planet. The test is supposed to last only 2-10 days, but naturally, someting goes horribly wrong and the students must fend for themselves in an unhospitable environment for much longer than anticipated. Thematically similar to Lord of the Flies, Heinlein uses the setting to delve into human nature and politics, as various groups of students must band together and organize themselves to survive. A quote (from page 6 of my edition):
    Man is the one animal that can't be tamed. He goes along for years as peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat.
    Again, this story stresses individualism and especially the veneration of the prototypical Heinleinian "competant man" (and, I should note "competent woman" as well since the story features several, which was apparently something of a rarity at the time). Unlike Between Planets, the prose here is fluid and the pages seem to turn themselves. The story is economical, realistic and thrilling, and is the most consistently good of Heinlein's juveniles that I've read so far. From beginning to end, I loved this one. Perhaps not my favorite Heinlein book, but right up there at the top of the list.
  • Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956): This is technically not an official Heinlein juvenile, but it resembles one in both tone and style. It's another story that seems kinda familar, but it doesn't play out the way I thought it would. An entertaining yarn about an actor hired to impersonate a politician during a critical negotiation. Of course, things don't exactly go as planned, and there are lots of roadblocks that present themselves along the way. Not as thrilling or involving as Tunnel in the Sky, it was still consistently good throughout. An interesting quote from when the actor must confront the Emperor (from page 145 of my edition):
    Like most Americans, I did not understand royalty, did not really approve of the institution in my heart -- and had a sneaking, unadmitted awe of kings. ... Maybe that is a bad thing. Maybe if we were used to royalty we would not be so impressed by them.
    And once again we see Heinlein's implicit politics embedded into the story (though I should say that he's not very preachy about it in these books - at least, not as much as he was in something like Starship Troopers). Overall, a solid read, and apparently very popular at the time as it won a Hugo award.
  • Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (1958): The trademark characteristic of "Hard SF" is the high standard of both scientific rigor and storytelling skill required to make a good novel. Most SF before 1940 was decidedly not realistic and poorly structured. Heinlein and his contemporaries raised the bar in terms of scientific plausibility while retaining an entertaining edge. This is perhaps more difficult than it sounds, as scientific plausibility can easily take the form of boring tedium. But in this book, Heinlein is able to wring a lot of suspense out of seemingly boring details like the amount of oxygenavailable for your trek across the moon (which comprises one of the most intense set pieces in the Heinlein juveniles I've read). Ultimately, this book veers off in a different direction and ends on a different note (including the appearance of a rather interesting Roman centurion). A little uneven compared to Tunnel in the Sky and Double Star, but where it's good, it's really good.
That's all for tonight. Stay tuned. The next 5 books will be posted on Wednesday, and cover books ranging from 1967 to 2008, by the likes of Zelazny, Vinge, and Gaiman.
Posted by Mark on August 24, 2008 at 07:32 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Neal Stephenson's Endings
One complaint frequently aimed at Neal Stephenson is that he can't write an ending. Even the Wikipedia article on Stephenson (which is supposed to be written from a neutral point of view) mentiones that his books have "an abrupt ending with no conventional denouement and many loose ends" and that this pattern holds true for all of Stephenson's books. A couple of advance reviews of Anathem have been posted, and both of them mention that the ending is abrupt, but an improvement over his other endings. Personally, I've never had much of a problem with his endings (minor spoilers ahead):
  • The Big U: Considering that the novel has very little actual plot, the ending fits reasonably well. The book gets a little ridiculous, but as Stephenson himself notes, this is in many ways a juvenile work (it was his first novel, after all). [previous blog posts: Megaversity and The Big U and Journalists]
  • Zodiac: This is a pretty straightforward book with a good ending. The ecological crisis at the heart of the plot is averted through a satisfying set-piece. In a lot of ways, it's one of Stephenson's more accessible efforts, including the ending.
  • The Cobweb (as Stephen Bury with J. Frederick George): One of his pseudonymous novels, this one does begin to stretch plausibility towards the climax, but I thought the ending worked well (and really, it's no more ridiculous than any other techno-thrillers that I've read - indeed, I found both Bury novels to be much more entertaining). [previous blog posts: Stephen Bury]
  • Interface (as Stephen Bury with J. Frederick George): Similar to The Cobweb, the ending of this novel, while perhaps straining believablility, was also quite entertaining and worked reasonably well. [previous blog posts: Stephen Bury]
  • Snow Crash: The novel that made him famous and probably his most popular novel to date, this book has a fine ending. Computer virus crisis averted and all is well. [full review]
  • The Diamond Age: And finally we come to a book that I think has a legitimately unsatisfying ending. It's been a while since I've read it, but I remember it being confusing and very abrupt. A lot of his other stories have abrupt endings, so that alone isn't the issue. There's a quick, disorienting jump in time, followed by a rushed revolutionary-style climax. It didn't quite work for me (and apparently a lot of other folks too). At some point, I will probably reread this book, and maybe it will be less obtuse upon that second reading. In any case, this is one situation where I agree that the ending could use some work (and perhaps it will get a revamping for the upcoming mini-series).
  • Cryptonomicon: Once again, there are parts of this ending which are a little absurd (namely, Andrew Loeb, Jungle Warrior), but I thought the ending was fine. The book is infamous for it's various tangents, but it's got a few core threads, all of which seem to be resolved and tied together nicely. I don't love this ending, but I think a big part of that is that I loved the book so much that I didn't really want it to end. I [full review]
  • Quicksilver: This is the only other book I think has a substandard ending... but, of course, it's also the first book in a series... a series which essentially tells one 2,700 page story. Thus, I think this novel can be forgiven for any loose ends or questions it leaves open (as they are amply addressed in the next two volumes).
  • The Confusion: There are times when this book lives up to its title, but the ending is not one of them, and indeed, I loved the ending to this book. This is especially true when considering that the book is the second in a series of three and that the story isn't anywhere near complete. The ending perfectly sets the stage for the third book in the series. Maybe it's just because I'm a movie guy and the ending seemed kinda cinematic to me. Jack Shaftoe, freed of slavery and thrust into political intrigue, stands in a boat on the Thames and stares at his nemesis, Isaac Newton, who sits silhouetted atop the Tower of the London mint. I can clearly envision the cinematic shot in my head as Jack says, "Enjoy your perch up there, Mister Newton, because Jack the Coiner has come back to London-town, and he aims to knock you down; the game has begun and may the best man win!" Brilliant stuff.
  • The System of the World: The end of a 2,700 page story is perhaps Stephenson's least abrupt ending (there's a whole chapter of epilogue!), and maybe even my favorite of his endings. It's hard to say, because the story is so long. I guess some folks get annoyed at some loose ends that were not really tied up, but that's because these three books were part of an even larger story which also includes Cryptonomicon and really hasn't concluded yet (there is supposedly another book to be written that takes place in the future). Even so, I don't mind some of the loose ends. What's the deal with Enoch Root and that special gold? I don't think I want to know. I like that Stephenson has kept those elements of the story mysterious. Some will call that cheap and manipulative storytelling, but what can I say? I enjoyed it.
In the end, I think it's unfair to say that Stephenson is bad at writing endings. I wouldn't say they're his strength either, but for the most part he does a fine job. They can be abrupt at times and maybe even a little absurd (especially the Stephen Bury books), but neither of those things is necessarily bad, especially when you consider how great Stephenson is at crafting incredibly detailed and wonderfully realized settings, characters and stories. Sure, there are sometimes loose threads, but endings are, by their very nature, arbitrary. There's always more story to tell.

Stephenson himself has addressed the perception of bad endings:
I always write the endings that I want to, and am as satisfied with my endings as I am with any other aspect of my writing. I just have an opinion about what constitutes a good ending that is at variance with some of my readers.
Gretta Cook also talked about Stephenson's response to the question during a talk at Google:
He dislikes pat endings that explain everything and tie everything up with a neat little bow; in real life, there are no convenient termination points.

In other Stephenson news, there's a great article in Wired about some of the themes that drove Stephenson to write Anathem.
Posted by Mark on August 20, 2008 at 11:28 PM .: link :.

Upgrading Movable Type
Something has gone mildy wrong with my Movable Type installation. For the past few weeks, I've apparently been causing MT to do core dumps fairly regularly, to the point where I had built up around 2 gigs of these error files on my server space. I've been composing tonight's regularly scheduled update, but I got to a point where I can't seem to save my changes anymore. I keep getting Internal Server Errors. I noticed a new version of MT is available, so I figured it's about time for an upgrade. See you on the other side.

Update: Upgrade is complete. I hope. I suppose I'll find out soon if there are any unexpected consequences (there often are).

Again Update: As of yet, the upgrade doesn't seem to have broken anything, but if you run into any issues, feel free to email me (or post a comment, as that seems to work fine).

Incidentally, the upgrade didn't seem to fix the problem I was having with the Neal Stephenson post (which I did eventually get working). Once I looked at the core dump files, I noticed something odd - there was a bunch of HTML in the file, and it was all code from Amazon's pages. It turns out that MT was choking on my post because I had linked each Stephenson novel to Amazon. Once I removed those links, all was well in MT-land. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense. The only thing I can think of is that that many Amazon links was setting off some sort of Spam filter (in either MT or my hosting service), but that seems unlikely. Regardless, once I figured out the Amazon problem, I was able to get the post up in relatively short order.

For reference, if you're seeing a lot of core dump files in your MT directory, you might want to check out this thread in the MT community. Apparently this has been an issue for quite some time and it has something to do with MT's memory usage. Or perhaps a couple of other factors. Someone else there had an isssue with links tripping up their hosts' spam filter, so perhaps that's what was causing my problem...
Posted by Mark on August 20, 2008 at 10:56 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dear Netflix User With Disc 4 of Crest of the Stars
Judging from the "Very Long Wait" status on Netflix, you've apparently had this disc for well over a month now. Please return it so the rest of us can watch. Thanks.

Also, if you're the same person who has had the final disc of Banner of the Stars II for the past month, you might want to get going on that too. I haven't started the series yet, so you've got some time, but still.


P.S. - Alternatively, if anyone from Netflix is reading, please increase stock of Crest, Banner, and Banner II. It seems like you only have one copy, and somebody still has the last disc of each series. Thanks.

Update: Crest disc 4 has been upgraded to "Long Wait." Thank you Netflix user.
Posted by Mark on August 17, 2008 at 07:58 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lucas Wars
James Berardinelli's recent blog post is interesting:
It's becoming increasingly difficult to defend George Lucas. It's hard to reconcile the greedy corporate fat cat at the top of Lucasfilm's empire with the hungry filmmaker who transformed cinema and enthralled millions in 1977. Fans who once worshipped Lucas now revile his name. Lucas the god has become Lucas the devil. For those willing to defend Lucas, the release of The Clone Wars may be their undoing.

25 years ago, fans adored Lucas. He could do no wrong. Star Wars was fresh in 1983 and, while it was uncertain how long it would take before Lucas produced more stories in that galaxy far, far away, fans believed. In 1997, when the Special Editions were released, the lovefest was still in full swing. Old fans re-discovered the magic of Star Wars. New fans experienced it on the big screen for the first time. Lucas was 14 years older, with gray peppering his once jet-black hair, but no less an admired figure. Better still, everyone knew there was new Star Wars on the horizon. Then came 1999 and The Phantom Menace, dubbed by many as "the movie event of all time." (Considering the hype and attendant expectations, it seemed that way.) Suddenly, not only could George do no right but, in a hyperbolic statement of unrivaled vitriol, he was being accused of "raping" people's childhoods.
While I don't think I've ever gone so far as to say that Lucas "raped" my childhood, I have to admit that Lucas' involvement in a project is not a good thing in my book. The gratuitous double-dipping on Star Wars VHS tapes and DVDs aside (it's not like he's that much different than any other studio there), I can't think of anything Lucas has worked on in the past 15 years that's really been good. The Star Wars Special Editions weren't very special, and indeed some of the changes were mildly annoying (they were also part of the excuse for double-dipping DVD releases). The Star Wars prequels were entertaining, but severely flawed. Lucas can write a fine story, but his scripts (and especially his dialogue) aren't so great. His direction and ability to pull a good performance out of an actor doesn't seem very impressive either. And unlike the original Star Wars trilogy, he kept the prequels to himself (I think a large part of why we love the original trilogy so much is that other, better writers and directors, were allowed to work on them). The recent Indiana Jones movie was a bit of a mess too, and I tend to blame most of that on Lucas. Is that fair? Spielberg surely deserves some of the blame, but it seemed like all I heard about was how Lucas held up the production for this or that reason, including the rejection of Frank Darabont's script, which was apparently loved by everyone involved in the production except Lucas. Instead of Darabont, we got what appears to be a mixture of about 10 different scripts, and it shows.

I think there's probably a lot of wild, hyperbolic speculation about Lucas and his motives, but it's hard not to engage in that sort of thing. A cursory glance at everything he's done in the past 15 years shows a man in love with special effects... to the detriment of everything else. This even hurt the recent Indiana Jones movie.

How could Lucas get back in people's good graces? Perhaps if he worked on something new instead of constantly revisiting Star Wars and Indy, we might get back on his side. Instead, it seems like he's just run out of ideas.

From what Berardinelli says in his post, it seems the new Clone Wars movie is nothing special. This is a shame, because I really loved the original Clone Wars cartoons (I guess that's one recent thing Lucas worked on that was good). Indeed, I think I enjoyed them just as much if not more than the prequels. I'll probably end up seeing The Clone Wars this weekend, but I don't know how much I'll get out of it.
Posted by Mark on August 13, 2008 at 09:59 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Link Dump
Well, I lost power for a good portion of the day, and it's looking like I might not have much time tonight, so here are a few links:
  • After the Coup by John Scalzi: A short story that takes place in the Old Man's War universe. I haven't read it yet, but it looks interesting.
  • Watching the Watchmen Trailer: A Detailed Analysis: Amazing shot-by-shot breakdown of the Watchmen trailer. While you're at it, might as well check out the Watchmen Video Journals over at Trailer Addict. I've been following the production of Watchmen for some time now, and am really looking forward to the movie.
  • 2008 US Movie Box Office: Interesting chart of 2008 movies, arranged by weekend gross. As you might expect, the first weekend is almost always the largest for any given film. You can see the various spikes as well, notably the Batman spike.
  • Libra: I've been messing around with this application which lets you catalogue your library of books, DVDs, music, etc... It's a neat little program, though it clearly needs some work. For instance, it crashed about 10 times while I entered my DVD library into it, and it also seems to crash every time I search for "Cryptonomicon." The search results were also very strange, and I found myself sometimes having to find the item on Amazon first, then using the ASIN to find it in Libra. It would also be nice if it used a richer data source as well, because you really don't get much meta data with it. You can add tags to each item... but you have to do it manually. Probably not something I'll maintain, but it's interesting, and it provides a neat export functionality - see my DVD collection here (Some DVDs still not entered, but this is a good portion of what I have).)
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 10, 2008 at 03:55 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Keeper Leagues and Unexpected Consequences
It's not a secret that I'm a pretty geeky guy, especially when it comes to certain subjects (movies, SF, etc...). My friends are a different kind of geek though. They're sports geeks. Specifically, they love baseball. About 10 years ago, they started a fantasy baseball league. At the time, the various websites weren't that great, but as the years passed, things started to get more sophisticated... and the league became much more competitive. In true geek fashion, we started getting carried away with various aspects of the league. Every team owner is expected to issue faux-press releases (i.e. pretending to be the Associated Press and faux interviews, etc...) and the league wrote a Constitution. In its current incarnation, the Constitution is 11 pages long. Every year, owners propose amendments in accordance with Article VI of the Constitution, and if 2/3 of the league approves of the amendment, it is ratified and put in the Constitution.

A few years ago, we ratified an amendment that gave each owner "keeper rights." What this basically means is that you can keep three eligible members of your team for the next season. Here's an excerpt from Article IV of the MLF Constitution:
Article IV: Keeper Rights

4. A Keeper Right is defined as the opportunity for a MLF manager to retain the rights of a player for one season
4.1. A player is eligible to be kept if they meet the follow criteria
4.1.1. The player must be on your current MLF roster
4.1.2. The player must have been drafted no earlier than the fourth round of that year’s draft
4.1.3. The player has not been kept in the year prior
4.1.4. The player must have been on a MLF roster by the end of the last game of the MLF playoffs (the end of the MLB regular season)
The rules of keeper eligibility help keep things a little even, meaning that a team that wins the league one year won't necessarily have as big an advantage as anyone else in the next year. You can't keep a player indefinitely and since players drafted in the first three rounds are also ineligible, that ensures that the best players are still open to even the worst team in the following year's draft. And Article IV, section 3 featues an interesting twist: "Trading keeper rights is permitted."

Now, these rules were put into place for many reasons. Some people like the opportunity to take a chance on a young, developing player (in the hopes that they'll be able to keep them for a breakout year in the following season). Some people want to make sure the team has a solid core that can be built upon. And a host of other reasons. However, after three years of keeper rights, some unexpected consequences have presented themselves.

The biggest implication is that team owners who are not doing well will "sell" their keeper ineligible players for more keeper rights and keeper eligible players. Similarly, those who are doing well will "sell" their keeper rights in the hopes of strengthening their team for the playoffs. The reason I'm using scare quotes around the word "sell" is that what this really amounts to are fire sales. Top tier players will often be traded for near scraps because a team that has no hope of winning the league has no use for that top tier player, but they could use a keeper right to help build for the future.

Initially, there was a bit of a learning curve. How much value does a keeper right really have? In the first season, someone traded 3 keeper rights for Albert Pujols, a trade so lopsided that a new constitutional amendment was ratified (titled The Golden Shaft award, it is given to the player who made the worst trade of the season.) However, after a few years, things have changed. Keeper rights have become more valuable, and teams in contention will "mortgage their future" by trading keeper rights for players (this effectively means they can add top tier talent without losing anything that impacts them for the current season). Some people value keeper rights much more than others, and during this season's trade deadline, things got ridiculous.

During the last day before the trade deadline, there were 8 trades involving 36 players and 7 keeps. This is rather obscene. One owner traded his 3 keeps for 8 players (many top tier folks) and made another trade for 5 additional players. In effect, this person replaced most of his team in one day and became an instant league powerhouse (and he is my division rival as well!) Needless to say, this year's "Winter Meetings" will contain much discussion regarding how we can mitigate these fire sales. There are several options available to us:
  • Push the trade deadline up a month. Teams that know they are out of contention on July 31 (the current trade deadline, same as MLB) might not know as much in June.
  • Make two trade deadlines. One deadline for keeper rights to be traded, one for same keeper status to be traded. The strategy here is similar to pushing the trade deadline up.
  • No more keeper rights can be traded. Only players. This option would mean that teams looking to upgrade must give up players to get other players in return.
  • Extend players' keeper eligibility to 2 years. If this was the rule a lot of the players moved at this years deadline would have not been traded since they could have been kept for another year.
  • Expand on keeper system. Add farm system and extend the number of keeper rights per team. But again keeper rights can't be traded.
  • No more keeper rights period.
And I'm sure there are lots of other variants that aren't listed. There will be a heated debate over the winter about all available options, and I'm positive that the Amendments process will be quite interesting this year. On a personal level, I'm not sure where I'll fall. While some of this year's trades were absurd (8 players for 3 keeps is crazy), it wasn't totally unexpected. While it's never been this crazy, there are always a ton of trades right at the deadline. I don't see any way around this sort of volatility in a keeper league. Plus, I kinda like that our trade deadline is 10 times as exciting as Major League Baseball's trade deadline.
Posted by Mark on August 06, 2008 at 09:09 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Movie Podcasts
I watch a lot of movies, and so it follows that I also listen to a lot of movie podcasts. It's an interesting "genre" of podcast in that many of them feature similar segments (i.e. top 5, listener feedback, director spotlight, etc...), and most of them have to walk that fine line between art house and mainstream, obscure and popular. So here's a list of my favorite podcasts... alas, some are now defunct, but are still worth checking out anyway.
  • Filmspotting: The first podcast I ever listened to regularly, and I think it's also the best. It's probably also one of the longest running podcasts and is also one of the best produced (I believe their shows are broadcast on NPR these days). They've got a great format, covering at least one new release a week, sometimes doing a marathon of older films (I've played along with several of these), massacre theater (a contest where they act out a scene from a movie and you have to guess what movie), and a top 5 list. It's a great show, and it's still going strong. I do find that I miss one of the original hosts, Sam Van Hallgren, but the show really hasn't missed a beat since his departure.
  • All Movie Talk: I seem to be in the habit of discovering awesome podcasts that almost immediately stop making new episodes. Nevertheless, every All Movie Talk episode is excellent, and since they chose not to review current releases, most of their shows take on a more timeless quality. The show features Samuel Stoddard (of Rinkworks fame) and Stephen Keller (of, uh, All Movie Talk fame) and a whole host of interchangeable segments like director spotlight, trivia questions, industry trends, how to (where they make fun of certain genres by explaining how to be in one of them, for example, "How to: Be the New Teacher In the Hood"), top 6 (and they do a good job picking more obscure categories for this, like "Plot Holes In Good Movies"), and film buff's dictionary (where they take a film term and explain what it means and how it impacts movies, etc...) They actually have a great mix between the old and the new, and I found myself actually learning a lot about movie history and how movies are made. I highly recommend downloading their episodes and listening to them.
  • Creative Screenwriting Magazine: This podcast basically features Q&A sessions with screenwriters (and sometimes directors). As such, the podcast depends entirely on the screenwriter in question, but when you get a good personality on there, it's great. You also get a nice window into screenwriting, a lesser known side of movie-making.
  • The Treatment: Similar to Creative Screenwring podcast above, this NPR show basically features an interview with a filmmaker or writer, and again, it depends highly on who is being interviewed. Still, it's interesting stuff.
  • Mastercritic: This now long-defunct podcast was one of my favorites when it was on, and probably one of the more fun amateur podcasts out there. Still, it was an interesting podcast, and it featured some great topics, like "the number of zombies it would take to kill all of Tom Cruise’s movie characters" (which I should probably write a blog post about). The podcast was made by a bunch of video game developers, which was actually a pretty interesting perspective. They also had some fun movie-based trivia games, and it was actually pretty well produced (except towards the end, when they stopped playing music behind the show, which actually did change the feel of the show). Like a lot of the now-defunct podcasts, this one turned out to be too much work for those involved, and really, I can't blame them.
  • The Chud Show: This show is... strange. It's probably not for everyone. It's a great movie news site, but once you realize that the name of their site (Cinematic Happenings Under Development - CHUD) is partly an homage to a cheesy 80s horror flick (in which CHUD stands for "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers"), you can see why perhaps not everyone would appreciate the show. Still, if you share their odd (pun-saturated) sense of humor, it's pretty funny.
  • Smodcast: I'm not sure if this actually counts as a "movie" podcast, but it's a podcast by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier (of Clerks., Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, etc... fame). Sometimes they talk about movies, but more often than not, they're just bullshitting about some random topic. As such, it's a little uneven, but almost always worth a listen. I wouldn't have expected this, but the episodes that feature Walt Flanagan as a guest host are actually some of the best ones (the episode where they discuss the comic book action figures is absolutely hilarious)...
  • Hollywood Saloon: They don't release shows that often, but when they do, they're these huge 2 hour opuses. There's no set format for them, but they've done an excellent director spotlight on David Fincher, and series spotlights on James Bond, Halloween, and Indiana Jones. They've also recently started posting commentary tracks... I haven't listened to any of them yet, but I will. The shows are actually rather informal, and they do tend to ramble on and repeat themselves from time to time, but they're still a lot of fun to listen to.
  • Some other podcasts I listen to: MeanDawg Top 5 (rather than have a segment for top 5, they just make a whole show out of it), Outside the Cinema (B-movie and horror focused podcast, also featuring a top 6 segment), Watching the Directors (basically covers individual directos, and they also do something called The Ten Quiz - this is another podcast that depends on who is being covered and if you're familiar with they're films, but it's a decent podcast), and Filmically Perfect (anothe NPR podcast that covers one classic movie per episode)
If I were to ever do a movie podcast, I'd probably feature a lot of the segments mentioned above, but instead of a top 5, I'd want to do something that would allow me to talk about movies I like that aren't necessarily the greatest of their genre. I have a really hard time picking a "top 5" for various genres (as evidenced by listing 20 heist movies in my top 5 recently), so I think I'd be better at just picking a bunch of movies to talk about, perhaps in various categories (i.e. Classic, Contemporary Classic, Obscure/Sleeper, Remake, Sequel, etc...) Not all the categories would match up with every category, but it would be interesting. Of course, this would assume I'd have enough time and motivation to put something like that together, week after week. For now, I'll settle for listening to more podcasts. Anyone have any other great film podcasts?

Update 8.13.08 - Celluloid Geekazoid has taken podcast reviewing to the next level with his multifaceted, weighted ratings. I should try that. He covers a bunch of podcasts I haven't reviewed. I've listened to most of them though and never really cared for them. The only one on his list that's a real discovery for me is the excellent Left Field Cinema. I'm a little different than CG in that I prefer a longer show, but LFC seems to be a good length for what it is.
Posted by Mark on August 03, 2008 at 07:07 PM .: link :.

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