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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peak Performance
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called How David Beats Goliath, and the internets rose up in nerdy fury. Like a lot of Gladwell's work, the article is filled with anecdotes (whatever you may think of Gladwell, he's a master of anecdotes), most of which surround the notion of a full-court press in basketball. I should note at this point that I absolutely loath the sport of basketball, so I don't really know enough about the mechanics of the game to comment on the merits of this strategy. That being said, the general complaint about the article is that Gladwell chose two examples that aren't really representative of the full-court press. The primary example seems to be a 12 year old girls basketball team, coached by an immigrant unfamiliar with the game:
Ranadive was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A's end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent's attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadive thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent's end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?
The strategy apparently worked well, to the point where they made it to the national championship tournament:
The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn't playing fair - that it wasn't right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable - that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.
Most of the criticism of this missed the forest for the trees. A lot of people nitpicked some specifics, or argued as if Gladwell was advocating for all teams playing a press (when he was really just illustrating a broader point that underdogs don't always need to play by the stronger teams' conventions). One of the most common complaints was that "the press isn't always an advantage" which I'm sure is true, but again, it kinda misses the point that Gladwell was trying to make. Tellingly, most folks didn't argue about Gladwell's wargame anecdote, though you could probably make similar nitpicky arguments.

Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up three years after the fact is not to completely validate Gladwell's article or hate on his critics. As I've already mentioned, I don't care a whit about basketball, but I do think Gladwell has a more general point that's worth exploring. Oddly enough, after recently finishing the novel Redishirts, I got an itch to revisit some Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and rediscovered one of my favorite episodes. Oh sure, it's not one of the celebrated episodes that make top 10 lists or anything, but I like it nonetheless. It's called Peak Performance, and it's got quite a few parallels to Gladwell's article.

The main plot of the episode has to do with a war simulation exercise in which the Enterprise engages in a mock battle with an inferior ship (with a skeleton crew lead by Commander Riker). There's an obvious parallel here between the episode and Gladwell's article (when asked how a hopelessly undermatched ship can compete with the Enterprise, Worf responds "Guile."), but it's the B plot of the episode that is even more relevant (the main plot goes in a bit of a different direction due to some meddling Ferengi).

The B plot concerns the military strategist named Kolrami. He's acting as an observer of the exercise and he's arrogant, smarmy, and condescending. He's also a master at Strategema, one of Star Trek's many fictional (and nonsensical) games. Riker challenges this guy to a match because he's a glutton for punishment (this really is totally consistent with his character) - he just wants to say that he played the master, even if he lost... which, of course, he does. Later, Dr. Pulaski volunteers Data to play a game, with the thought being that the android would easily dispatch Kolrami, thus knocking him down a peg. But even Data loses.

Data is shaken by the loss. He even removes himself from duty. He expected to do better. According to the rules, he "made no mistakes", and yet he still lost. After analyzing his failure and discussing the matter with the captain (who basically tells Data to shut up and get back to work), Data resumes his duty, eventually even challenging Kolrami to a rematch. But this time, Data alters his premise for playing the game. "Working under the assumption that Kolrami was attempting to win, it is reasonable to assume that expected me to play for the same goal." But Data wasn't playing to win. He was playing for a stalemate. Whenever opportunities for advancement appeared, Data held back, attempting to maintain a balance. He estimated that he should be able to keep the game going indefinitely. Frustrated by Data's stalling, Kolrami forfeits in a huff.

There's an interesting parallel here. Many people took Gladwell's article to mean that he thought the press was a strategy that should be employed by all teams, but that's not really the point. The examples he gave were situations in which the press made sense. Similarly, Data's strategy of playing for stalemate was uniquely suited to him. The reason he managed to win was that he is an android without any feelings. He doesn't get frustrated or bored, and his patience is infinite. So while Kolrami may have technically been a better player, he was no match for Data once Data played to his own strengths.

Obviously, quoting fiction does nothing to bolster Gladwell's argument, but I was struck by the parallels. One of the complaints to Gladwell's article that rang at least a little true was that the article's overarching point was "so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all." I don't know that I fully buy that, as a lot of great writing can ultimately be boiled down to something "broad and obvious", but it's a fair point. On the other hand, even if you think that, I do find that there's value in highlighting examples of how it's done, whether it's a 12 year old girls basketball team, or a fictional android playing a nonsensical (but metaphorically apt) game on a TV show. It seems that human beings sometimes need to be reminded that thinking outside the box is an option.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In geek parlance, "red shirt" is a reference to red-uniformed Star Trek officers who frequently die during episodes1. They basically represent the writer's ploy to allow Kirk and McCoy to display grandstanding emotions (and Spock to show a lack thereof). I don't know who coined the notion or where (or if the the show intentionally employed this strategy), but 5 minutes of comprehensive research on the internets reveals a 1985 Star Trek novel called Killing Time, in which a character opines "you don't want to wear a red shirt on landing-party duty" (so sez Wikipedia2). That's the earliest reference I could find, but I'm sure this is something that the show's obsessive fanbase has been remarking on since the 1970s. It's a meme that has been frequently referenced and parodied throughout the years. The most obvious is in the movie Galaxy Quest, where the character of Guy Fleegman, "Crewman Number Six", fears for his life due to his character's expendable nature (fortunately, this parody inverts the meme, allowing him to survive). There is even a grand tradition amongst some SF authors to "reward" fans of their work by naming a character after them, then killing them (for example: David Weber).

All of which is to say that the concept behind John Scalzi's latest novel Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas isn't exactly a new one. It is, perhaps, the most thorough deconstruction of the trope - most others are mere references, homages, or simple skits on the matter - but I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. Fortunately, Scalzi is a talented author who knows how to turn the page. Indeed, I finished the book in a mere two sittings. Not quite a record, but close. And it's a solid story, filled with typical Scalzian characters and their snappy dialogue, with a some clever ideas thrown in for good measure. It didn't take me long to become attached to the characters, at which point my over-analysis of the title faded away and I devoured the rest of the book.

The general premise of the novel is that a bunch of characters on a Star-Trek-like ship recognize that people who get roped into away-missions with high profile members of the crew tend to end up dead. Essentially, the redshirts recognize their role in the show, and try to fight back. This stuff manifests itself in a number of ways. One of my favorites being "the box", a magical device used whenever the characters run into an impossible problem. They simply feed the problem into the box, and then when it's dramatically appropriate, it spits out an answer. It's a pretty funny take on Star Trek writers' tendency to tech the tech.

It's a fun book, perhaps more comedy than SF, though fans of Star Trek will probably enjoy it. I'm not entirely sure how well executed some of the mechanics of this whole premise is... For instance, it's not entirely clear when the characters are "on screen" as it were. One of our redshirts speculates that there's a "narrative", you see, and that if you can avoid the narrative, you can avoid an untimely death. There's even a funny sequences meant to illustrate how ridiculous commercial breaks are, but again, the mechanics of this aren't entirely clear. Of course, in an exercise that is so self-aware and meta, that's sorta the point. The TV show these characters are stuck in is clearly pretty bad, so of course a lot of this stuff doesn't make sense... and that's part of the fun of it all... but you could also argue that it's a bit of a cop out. Personally, I feel like such things are worthwhile if they're done well, and for the most part, everything here works even if it doesn't precisely fit.

The story proper is quite entertaining and fun, but it should be noted that it pretty much ends about 2/3 of the way through the novel. The remaining 100 pages or so consist of the sub-titular Three Codas. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this at first. It wasn't really surprising to see the story end when it did, except insofar as I already knew there was still 100 pages or so left. Scalzi even manages to extend the self-referential meta elements beyond the simple redshirt notion, though it's exactly what you'd think when you think about the premise. Anyway, the three short stories are all related to the main narrative, touching on side characters or concepts here and there. The first coda comes off as a little slight, but it ends up being pretty effective. The second coda is actually pretty meaningful and interesting, adding a depth and seriousness the rest of the novel was missing. The third coda builds on that heft while still managing to end on a clever but positive note. There's something a little gimmicky about the codas - they're written in first, second, and third person, for instance - and I can see how some folks wouldn't appreciate them in general, but I thought they were well done and meaningful.

It's strange. I find that the things I don't like about this book, like the title and the structure, are superficial. These meta aspects (not to be confused with the meta nature of the story itself) trouble me more than the actual contents of the book. I don't quite know what to make of this. The title "Redshirts" does perfectly encapsulate what you're in for, but there's something corny about using a decades-old meme as the title for your book3. Fortunately, the actual contents of the book don't strike me that way, so I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily. I don't know that I would entirely agree with Justin's (very funny and entertaining in itself) review that this is "Spoof Trekkie Fiction: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There is" (an oblique reference to Scalzi's recent controversial and ill-fitting metaphor for life as a video game), but there is a distinct Saturday Night Live skit feeling to the premise of the book. But it's a really well done skit, if that's the case, and I'm generally of the mind that such exercises can be fun if executed well, which this is. In the end, I really enjoyed the book, despite any reservations I may have about the title and structure, and would recommend it to just about anyone.

1 - This appears to impact mostly the original Star Trek series and it should be noted that plenty of blue or gold shirted crewmen die on the series as well. Star Trek: The Next Generation (and later shows) tried to invert the meme by placing its main characters mostly into red shirts themselves. Deaths seem less frequent as well, though there is still the occasional unfortunate mishap, and the poor character is sometimes wearing a red shirt. Star Trek is definitely a show in which The Main Characters Do Everything, so when you see some random dude on the away team, chances are that he's in trouble.

2 - Scalzi actually makes a pretty funny, but obvious, dig at Wikipedia in the book. I don't know why I needed to put this in a footnote, but I always find references to Wikipedia and the internet interesting in works of art.

3 - There appears to be a rash4 of this sort of title. Consider another example: Rule 34 by Charlie Stross (Rule 34 of the internet is: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions. Its awesome, but kinda lame when you name your book after it).

4 - I have recently established that only two examples are needed in order to qualify as a "rash". Which, since I've identified two different rashes in the past week, means that I'm experiencing a rash of rashes. Gross.
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2012 at 03:39 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Promethean Link Dump
I certainly had my issues with Prometheus, but I also must admit that it does strike a nerve. There are isolated sequences of sublime beauty or wrenching tension, but they're not held together by anything substantial. I think the movie is stupid, but it's at least interesting stupid, which is why I think the film has become so divisive. It's got such a well calibrated sense of stupid that it actually makes you want to talk about it, which most dumb movies don't manage. Even if you're just cataloging the movie's many flaws, you're still engaged with it in a way you don't with regular bad movies.

This movie is a special kind of bad, and as such, there's a lot of interesting discussion surrounding the film. As I mentioned in my previous post, it seems like everyone is talking about this movie, even folks I wouldn't normally expect. For instance, every podcast I listen to on a regular basis has devoted a segment to Prometheus, even the ones that aren't solely focused around movies. Extra Hot Great, Filmspotting, /Filmcast, Reasonable Discussions, Slate Culture Gabfest, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show, and probably a bunch of others have all done so. But there's a ton of other discussion surround the film that I also wanted to point to, in case you were jonesing to read about the film, which I admit is kinda fun, even if I didn't love the movie:
  • Prometheus Unbound: What The Movie Was Actually About - So this guy on Livejournal (!?) has a pretty thorough discussion of the movie and it's philosophical and mythic underpinnings. Lots of interesting stuff here, but as is the case with a lot of things, I'm glad a lot of this is subtext:
    From the Engineers' perspective, so long as humans retained that notion of self-sacrifice as central, we weren't entirely beyond redemption. But we went and screwed it all up, and the film hints at when, if not why: the Engineers at the base died two thousand years ago. That suggests that the event that turned them against us and led to the huge piles of dead Engineers lying about was one and the same event. We did something very, very bad, and somehow the consequences of that dreadful act accompanied the Engineers back to LV-223 and massacred them.

    If you have uneasy suspicions about what 'a bad thing approximately 2,000 years ago' might be, then let me reassure you that you are right. An astonishing excerpt from the Movies.com interview with Ridley Scott:

    Movies.com: We had heard it was scripted that the Engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and that Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever considered?

    Ridley Scott: We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, "Let's send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it." Guess what? They crucified him.

    Yeah. The reason the Engineers don't like us any more is that they made us a Space Jesus, and we broke him. Reader, that's not me pulling wild ideas out of my arse. That's RIDLEY SCOTT.
    As I said, I'm pretty happy this wasn't explicitly referenced in the movie, but it's fun to read about it on some dude's blog like this.
  • The Science of Prometheus - a review, containing a lot of spoilers - With a title like that, I was expecting this to be a bit dry, but it's actually a lot of fun:
    Seriously guys? Cinema trips with my pals are better prepared than this. No one thought to ask what they’d be doing when they signed up for a 4 year round trip to a new planet? The money must be really good. ...

    As we’ve discussed, this is probably the most slap-dash, ill-prepared scientific mission ever. No one really knows what to expect, and they only carry out atmospheric analysis on arrival to let them know if they can step out onto the surface without dying instantly. On the upside, they have gorgeous space suits to go out in (costume designer and long-time Scott collaborator Janty Yates deserves high praise). Holloway is the spitting image of Commander Shepard of the Normandy in his suit, which I liked for no clever reason.
    There's lots more and it's very good.
  • Film Freak Central Review - Another review that sorta craps on the movie, but in an interesting way:
    It's time, probably long past time, to admit that Ridley Scott is nothing more or less than Tim Burton: a visual stylist at the mercy of others to offer his hatful of pretty pictures something like depth. If either one of them ever made a great film (and I'd argue that both have), thank the accident of the right source material and/or editor, not these directors, whose allegiance is to their own visual auteurism rather than any desire for a unified product.
    That's a bold statement... but I can't really fault it.
  • SMS dialogue between Noomi Rapace and an Engineer - Heh. "All will be revealed in James Cameron's PROMETHEUSES"
Well there you go. Interesting stuff. Stay tuned for some Redshirts action on Sunday.
Posted by Mark on June 20, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

I am surprised at the reception Prometheus is getting in the press. I wasn't a huge fan, but for the most part, it's getting positive reviews, even from people I'd expect wouldn't review it well. Adam from Filmspotting gave it a pass (to his credit, Josh did not), Ebert gave it 4 stars, A.O. Scott was generally positive, and heck, even the snobs over at the Slate Culture Gabfest were pretty happy with the movie. In fact, it seems like everyone is talking about this movie. The weird thing about all this is that every one of those positive reviews acknowledges the things I hate about this movie, but for some reason, they don't seem to care as much. The consensus seems to be that the movie is gorgeous and visually stunning, but stupid (which is usually attributed to the script). I agree with that, but I guess I place a higher value on storytelling than critics.

I suppose I can see where they're coming from, but as a Science Fiction nerd, I'm wondering if I hold movies like this to a higher standard than the more general film nerds out there. Part of it is that there really are so few science fiction movies out there that actually capture the same sensawunda feeling I get from reading science fiction... and one of those movies is definitely Ridley Scott's first Alien film. To me, this sets a high bar, and Prometheus doesn't even come close to that level of storytelling.

Prometheus certainly strives for more than Alien, and I suspect that ambition mollifies some critics, but I would much rather a film that delivers on what it promises than a film that reaches for the stars and doesn't even come close. I'm ultimately not even really willing to credit the film for ambition, as its attempts at depth are all ham-fisted and awkward at best.

The film certainly starts out with some promise. I was a little on-edge when we first see the spaceship in a series of admittedly pretty establishing shots. This is a nitpick, but the engines were firing, as if the ship was in a constant state of acceleration. This is typical in a Hollywood film, but rewatching Alien made it a depressing thing - this was something the earlier film got right. In the grand scheme of things, it's not important, and I was willing to overlook it at first, but looking back on the film now, I find it emblematic of the intelligence displayed in the film. This is where being a science fiction fan probably kicks in - I like a film that at least makes an effort at scientific plausibility and rigor, and this film has almost none.

I was quickly heartened to see the montage of the robot David, played excellently by Michael Fassbender, as he went about his duties on the ship while the human crew slept for the 2 year duration of the trip. There's a focus on character there that isn't really present in the rest of the film. After that opening sequence, Fassbender's David is generally relegated to playing the sinister robot that no one can trust. This is also a bit depressing, because at one point, it almost seemed like the film was really going to deliver on the parallels between the humans looking for their creators, and David's struggle with his. Part of the problem with any ensemble piece is that the story will often not give enough attention to the side characters, or it will give too much attention to everyone and muddle the results. We see both in this film. I think there was a lot of potential in the story for David's character, but it is mostly squandered.

The more we learn about the plot, the worse the movie gets. We're treated to a clumsy scene of exposition where the two main scientists in charge of the expedition explain what's going on, and in the process they neglect to display any scientific prowess at all. They make crazy inferences from millenia-old cave paintings, attribute the whole thing to a race of "engineers" that actually created the human race (despite not having even a modicum of evidence), and fall back on spiritual hooey when questioned. Now, the whole science versus faith struggle can be an interesting one and certainly warrants exploration, but while this film makes overtures in that direction, it never really goes more than skin deep. These are just sloppy plot points used to get our hapless humans into dangerous situations with monsters and stuff.

Charlize Theron plays the corporate suit, meant to be smarmy and icy cold like the other businessfolk in the Alien universe, but she never quite comes off that way. She seems mildly selfish and concerned with her own well-being, but her display of basic knowledge about things like quarantines (I mean, seriously? This is an expedition to find alien life on an alien planet, and there's no easy quarantine procedure?) and self-preservation comes off as being slightly refreshing in a movie where a geologist responsible for mapping an alien cave system gets lost. I think Theron's performance is pretty good, but she's just written very poorly. She has a scene with the ships captain, Idris Elba (who does a fair enough job representing the "trucker in space" archetype established in the original Alien), which is cliched and a little off, but actually works because, you know, there's two people acting like normal human beings. But otherwise, she's given some pretty shit lines (I found it odd that she actually pronounced the word comma between "No, father" at one supposedly revealing scene later in the movie... oh wait, she didn't pronounce it, the script was just that bad) and her characters arc really goes nowhere.

I don't want to turn this into a catalog of nitpicks and complaints about how wrong everything is in the movie. Others have done a pretty good job nailing stuff like that down, but I do want to call out the worst offender. Right, so we have a group of scientists exploring a series of alien cave systems. They come across a long-deal alien being. The geologist immediately freaks out and wants to leave, which, ok, fair enough. Then the biologist joins him? In other words, the person who would ostensibly be the most interested in a dead alien body decides to leave too. Ok, fine, I can deal with that I guess. Then they get lost, which I think I already mentioned makes no sense, as the geologist has been mapping the entire place with his fancy probes, but whatever, they're lost and there's a storm outside and no one can get them. So they make their way to the creepiest location in the building, a room with a bunch of vases leaking suspicious black liquid. Ok, sure, let's go with it. Then an obviously aggressive and terrifying snake-like alien creature pops up like a cobra, spreading some flaps to reveal its teeth... and the biologist guy decides to approach it like it was some sort of adorable puppy. Now look, I get it, these characters aren't aware that they're in a horror movie, and as a prequel, they're unaware that this thing has face-hugger-like attributes, but it's acting in obviously threatening ways and the biologist, of all people, decides he should just stick his hand in its mouth or something? To no one's surprise, it attacks him and eventually shoves its way down his throat, doing god knows what to him. Quite frankly, I don't even really remember what comes of him. It's sorta dropped later in the movie.

Like the aforementioned thrusting engines at the beginning of the movie, this is just one representative example of the many things this movie gets so very wrong. It's a movie that pretends it has some sort of lofty goals of exploring mankind and creation and spirituality and all sorts of stuff, but the fact of the matter is that the people in this movie aren't really characters. Some of them get a solid set-piece or two, but they're otherwise bland plot-delivery devices, useful only so that the screenwriters can tell us what the movie is about (rather than letting us grapple with those big questions ourselves). Like I said, some of the characters get some good moments, but these only become more frustrating when you realize that they don't really add up to anything.

For example, there is a great set-piece where our main protagonist (at least, I think she is) finds out that she's "pregnant"... of course, she's pregnant with some sort of alien organism, rather than a real child (in an awkward exchange earlier in the film, we learned that she was barren). Sinister robot David wants to freeze her for the trip home (normally that sort of thing would be left to the corporate weenie of the expedition, but whatever), but she bravely escapes and runs to a med-pod and gets it to extract the organism. It's actually a really well executed sequence, and Noomi Rapace gives a great, raw performance here... but it's just sorta floating in the middle of the movie. It's not entirely clear why any of that happened or what difference it made and it doesn't really fit with the whole biology of the Alien universe. In fact, the movie seems to assume that complexity is what makes the whole Alien life-cycle interesting, but that's just so wrong. The original Alien portrayed a rather elegant system, and Aliens grew on that and expanded it in a logical way. This film just throws in extra steps and new creatures for the sake of doing so.

The film is gorgeous, well composed, even a little interesting. The first forty minutes or so show a lot of potential, but the rest of the movie fails to deliver on any of that promise. Nearly everything about this movie is well done, except for the script, which is just horrible. The fact that it's a prequel to Alien, a movie that got all of these things right, only makes it more disappointing. I suspect that Sonny Bunch is right when he speculates as to how this movie got to be made as an Alien prequel, rather than as a standalone feature:
Ridley Scott: You see, it’s a movie about finding out who we are. It’s a search for God, in a way—and a reflection of what happens when God has judged you to be a mistake. We’re talking a big budget, high-octane movie with a spiritual side.

Fox Exec: Well, Sir Ridley, I’d be interested if the price is right.

RS: I’d say we can do this for, I dunno, $150M or so.

FE: Yeah, well, I dunno about that. I mean, your last few flicks haven’t exactly blown away the bean counters—Robin Hood, Body of Lies, American Gangster, A Good Year, Kingdom of Heaven…that’s a decade of flops, man. I’m not sure I can really authorize that kind of scratch.

RS: OK, well…….what if it’s a prequel to Alien? ::shrugging::

FE: HERE’S ALL OF THE MONEYS. ::hands over bag with dollar sign on it::
I don't know that it happened exactly like that, but I do know that the prequel aspects of this movie are absolutely worthless. It adds nothing important to the Alien canon, and you could argue that it, in fact, subtracts rather much from the series. This could have been a good movie, which only makes it all the more depressing. Given Ridley Scott's previous work, I have to wonder if there aren't a few other versions of this film on the cutting room floor. Perhaps one with a noir-like voiceover that the studio thought might work, and a 5 hour directors cut or something. But I really can't see how that could possibly save this turkey. There's enough interesting stuff going on in the movie that it always manages to hold your attention, and I suppose there's a few scenes were big stuff done blow up real good, but the film is ultimately lacking in the most important area: the storytelling.
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2012 at 07:45 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Link Dump
Yet more interesting stuff from the depths of the internets:
  • Reset Your Password - Poor usability conquered through persistence. Unfortunately for those of us who work in the industry, none of our users will be so persistent. "Your password can not contain any references to jazz slang." Heh.
  • Lord of the Rings Movie of 1940 - A pitch perfect parody of both 40s film noir and LotR. Long, but very well done.
  • Movie Simpsons - A tumblr consisting of comparative screenshots from movie references in The Simpsons. The current post is actually one of my favorite references of all time - the picture above the bed is such a bizarre detail from the original movie that I love how they parodied it in The Shinning.
  • FunnyJunk is threatening to file a federal lawsuit against me unless I pay $20,000 in damages - So we all know The Oatmeal, right? Well he's being sued because... well, quite frankly, I can't really figure out how the person threatening the lawsuit thinks they deserve anything. Read the post for the full story, but the response is beautiful. Rather than pay the $20,000, he set up a charity link to raise $20,000 for donation to the National Wildlife Federation and American Cancer Society. So far, he's raised $157,000. Oh, and the asshat that was threatening to sue him is now trying to get the charity post disabled while contemplating how to sue fans of The Oatmeal for calling him out on his asshattery. Putz.
  • Mark Malkoff's Netflix Challenge - This guy wanted to get the best possible value out of his Netflix subscription... so he watched over 250 movies in a month. He even gets celebrities to show up and do live commentary for their movies (which does bring up one issue with the current streaming situation - no special features!)
That's all for now!
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2012 at 07:49 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga
So I'm finished. I love the series and highly recommend checking it out. The problem is that there's a lot of churn in terms of how to read the series. It's a long series consisting of 13 novels, 3 novellas, and 1 short story (plus a few other outliers), and there's a lot of discussion on ye olde internets about the ideal order to read them. Like the recently discussed Star Wars, there are two obvious orders: internal chronology and in order of publication.

There are some complicating factors that can lead to different (or streamlined) sequences though. First, most of the books center around a character named Miles Vorkosigan, but the first two are told from the perspective of Miles' mother, Cordelia Naismith. Second, the initial installments of the series were written and published out of chronological order, so there are plenty of folks out there who've read the series that way. Third, Borders of freakin' Infinity (more on this below, but it's a collection of novellas that can confuse the order). Fourth, most of the books have been collected together in omnibus editions, which complicates things a bit, but if you want to read the series chronologically, they're actually pretty well organized. Fifth, and the reason I struggle with the whole reading order thing, is that the height of the series starts about 8 or 9 books in... This is not to say that those first 8 books aren't good, just that the series got better than I ever expected around that time with an amazing four book run starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign.

Every book in the series tells a discrete story. There are no cliff-hangers, but there are a bunch of character-centric multi-book arcs. Interestingly, the series could be read almost as a series of pairs, and the omnibus editions are mostly built around that notion, with the novellas from Borders of Infinity thrown in for good measure. Aside from attempting to read the second of a pair first, I suspect you could try to get into the series almost anywhere along the way. Before I go further, it might be useful to list out the series, publication dates, and omnibus editions:

Story Published Omnibus Notes
Falling Free 1988 N/A Independent novel set 200 years before main series.
Shards of Honor 1986 Cordelia's Honor Told from Cordelia's perspective.
Kaedrin Reviews: Shards of Honor, Barrayar
Barrayar 1991
The Warrior's Apprentice 1986 Young Miles Kaedrin Reviews: The Warrior's Apprentice, Mountains of Morning, and The Vor Game
"Mountains of Morning" from Borders of Infinity 1989
The Vor Game 1990
Cetaganda 1995 Miles, Mystery & Mayhem Ethan of Athos is an independent story.
Kaedrin Reviews
Ethan of Athos 1986
"Labyrinth" from Borders of Infinity 1989
"Borders of Infinity" from Borders of Infinity 1989 Miles Errant Kaedrin Reviews: Borders of Infinity, Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance
Brothers in Arms 1989
Mirror Dance 1994
Memory 1996 N/A Kaedrin Review
Komarr 1998 Miles in Love Kaedrin Reviews
A Civil Campaign 1999
"Winterfair Gifts" 2004
Diplomatic Immunity 2002 N/A Kaedrin Review
Cryoburn 2010 N/A Kaedrin Review
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance 2012 N/A Told from Ivan's perspective.
Kaedrin Review

So the first thing to note is that Falling Free, while technically part of the series, is an extreme prequel and doesn't really involve any of the characters (it's set 200 years before the rest of the series). As such, it's almost completely independent of the rest of the series. I say "almost" because I've heard it would be good to catch up with this one before Diplomatic Immunity. Also, I neglected to mention a short story called "Dreamweaver's Dilemma" which is apparently also an extreme prequel that's not closely coupled with the rest of the series. Of course, I haven't read either of these, so I can't say for sure (Update: I've since read both, and they are indeed not closely coupled with the rest of the series, I would skip them and come back later). I do plan to catch up with them at some point, but the real meat of the Vorkosigan Saga starts with Shards of Honor.

Shards of Honor is where I started the series, though it appears that many people bypass Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and start directly with The Warrior's Apprentice, which is when Miles first shows up (well, there is a short scene in Barrayar where you see him as a young child, but that's from his mother's perspective...) There are pros and cons to each approach. Starting with Shards of Honor and Barrayar gives you a lot of background on the universe and characters, while The Warrior's Apprentice will get you into the series quicker. Personally, I opted to start with the Cordelia books. I'm something of a completist, but it worked really well for me. The other option is to read the books in order of publication, which will have you ping-ponging from Cordelia stories to Miles stories and back again a few times, as well as being all over the internal chronology... but I'm sure it would work too.

The most confusing thing I encountered in the series, though, is Borders of Infinity. This is a collection of three novellas (including one called "Borders of Infinity", just for added confusion), which in a lot of other arenas, means that you can probably skip them... but I would strongly advise against that, actually. "Mountains of Mourning" is quite possibly the best story in the entire series. "Borders of Infinity" is a really clever prison story, and the events in that story - some of which rubbed me the wrong way at the time - pay off huge in Komarr (I have no idea if that was always Bujold's intention, or if she just thought of it later, but it was a fantastic revelation in any case). "Labyrinth" is the most unusual of the bunch, but it also introduces one of my favorite side characters from the series, Taura. Now, these stories were originally published as part of one collection, but the three stories all take place at varying points of the chronology. The omnibus editions do an admirable job mixing the novellas into the series though, which lessens the confusion quite a bit. The only thing lost, then, is the narrative glue between the stories, but that's only about 5 pages or so (even still, it takes place between Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, making it a difficult thing to fit in - you won't really miss it). Anyways, there are a bunch of options for Borders of Infinity... it might even make an interesting introduction to the series, though it's always hard for me to judge (I'd still recommend starting with Shards or Warrior's).

Ethan of Athos is another book that is noteworthy for its independence from the rest of the series. Indeed, Miles is barely even mentioned, though one of the series' recurring characters, Elli Quinn, plays a prominent role. It's an interesting story, probably one of the least mainstream of the entire series, but it's also very independent. There are some small references to it in later stories, but nothing big enough to say this needs to be read in order (though, completist as I am, I did). If you're looking to get to the amazing four book run starting at Mirror Dance, you can probably skip this one.

So I think that covers all of the exceptions and divisive parts of the series. There are a lot of books that pair together well, and I think the omnibus editions do an excellent job latching them together. Incidentally, just because something isn't part of an omnibus doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. I think my second favorite story in the series is Memory. Also, just because something is a novella or a short story doesn't mean that it's not worth reading. I've already mentioned that, but it bears repeating. Even "Winterfair Gifts" was a great story (which, I believe, is only really available as part of the omnibus).

This series has probably been my favorite recent discovery. It's a tricky thing, and I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about series like this. I have to wonder how good something like Memory or A Civil Campaign would appear to an outsider who didn't have so much background on the characters or the universe. It certainly worked wonders for me, but it's hard to express that because in order for anyone else to get that feeling, they have to read several books into the series to get there... Tricky. But that's a discussion for another day.

Update: Added Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, some additional notes.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2012 at 09:02 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Link Dump
It's that time again, here are some interesting things I've seen on teh internets recently: That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2012 at 10:32 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Mass Effect 3
I never played the first Mass Effect game, but the second game has become one of my favorites. It's not a perfect game - I had my issues with certain aspects - but once I got into it, it was very involving and fun to play. I can't think of any other game in which I've been this attached to characters in the story, so naturally, I was looking forward to Mass Effect 3. It's the "last" game in the series and it promised to incorporate decisions and actions from previous games. Unfortunately, this installment stumbles.

Most people will point to the ending, which I certainly think is lackluster at best, but my problem with the game is more emblematic of the series as a whole. My favorite part of the second game was the series of recruiting and loyalty missions. There's an overarching plot about an implacable alien force called the Reapers, who periodically attempt to destroy all life in the galaxy, but I always found that aspect of the story somewhat trite and boring. To me, it was only interesting in so much as it gave me a reason to recruit my crew. It was a unifying evil force in the galaxy, so it worked, but it wasn't all that special or interesting. So the second game focused a lot on your crew, gaining their loyalty through side missions, and stopping some Reaper-related threat. All is well so far, so where does the third game fall down?

Well, at the end of the second game, your crew is scattered and you end up starting over. This is a minor instance of the Video Game Sequel Problem, but one of the interesting things about the Mass Effect series is that your decisions from the previous game play into the current story. That being said, you kinda have to start over. My biggest issue with this third game, though, is that you're not really building a crew that can defeat the reapers. You're trying to align galactic resources, playing politics to get various races to cooperate, gaining strength for the coming fight with the Reapers. There really aren't many new characters, and most of your former crew are relegated to supporting roles, cut scenes, or temporary missions.

The end result of this structure is that in the second game, I had built a crew of 12 members, each with their own personal backstory and independent, often interesting loyalty missions that illuminated their character. In the third game, I had a crew of 4 or sometimes 5. A few of them are characters I know and welcome: Garrus and Liara. EDI is the ship's AI come to life, which is a great development. Towards the beginning of the game, when this happened, I found it very encouraging. Unfortunately, she's really the only new character that's really interesting and progresses through the entire story. Gone are the recruiting and loyalty missions where I grew to like all the characters. Heck, even Shepherd's choices seem to matter less. The whole Renegade/Paragon thing seems to matter much less here, instead you get "Reputation" points, though it's unclear what that actually means (and I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean anything in the end). There are some side characters who showed promise, but they were either relegated to a small part of the game or they didn't have a lot of depth. For instance, I enjoyed playing chess with Specialist Traynor, my Comm officer, but that's really where her role ended (apparently she's a romance option for female Shepherd).

Actually, my romance option from the second game was Tali, and she does show up for a while in this game, but I think some of the choices I made lead to her death (I had, essentially, chosen not to commit genocide against the Geth, but wasn't able to broker a ceasefire between the Geth and the Quarians, so a lot of Quarians ended up dead and Tali committed suicide). This was a tough mission, but it sorta fit with the game and I can see why it happened. Inexplicably, Tali shows up after her death for one last go, just before I went to the final battle with the Reapers.

Anyway, the focus of the third game is to build up Galactic Readiness, aligning alien factions, many of which have longstanding grudges against each other (the Geth and Quarians being an example). This is all well and good, and the whole resolution to the Genophage is actually very well done, but while I got to spend some time with Mordin and Grunt, there was very little moving the characters forward. This seemed to happen with a lot of my former crew. I got to see what became of Jack, which was pretty great (she's grown as a character between games, which was really nice), but it's not like she joined the crew again or anything. Other characters showed up too, but it was all ultimately unfulfilling. It was all in service of fighting the Reapers. And, I guess, Cerberus... an organization I've never quite understood, though I must say that the Illusive Man certainly shows more personality than the Reapers, and thus defeating his plans was somewhat fun.

I think part of my issue with the whole Galactic Readiness angle is that it's not entirely clear how much that helped, especially when you get to the ending. Indeed, the gamemakers even forced me to fire up the multiplayer missions in order to boost Galactic Readiness - though, actually, I really enjoyed the multiplayer for what it was - but while I got to see the pretty numbers increase, I never really saw what impact it had.

So the ending. It's a non-sequitur. It doesn't really logically follow what came before it. Since I wasn't that invested in the main storyline, it didn't actually bother me that much. I was much more bothered by the lack of focus on characters throughout the entire third game. The ending only exacerbated that complaint for me, though it's pretty bad in its own right. As usual, Shamus has done an excellent job breaking this down, in particular the parts about the Reapers and the Galaxy are insightful. There are, of course, contrarians, and I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about the authorship of video games. Devin comes down squarely on the side of the writers at Bioware, but video games as a medium are interesting because of interactivity. Because we, as players, have some sort of ownership of what's happening on screen. There are certainly limits to our ownership, and I think I might agree with Devin about certain pieces of this, but it's an interesting topic of discussion. It gets at the heart of the video game and storytelling problem, the thing that Roger Ebert keeps wanking about (interestingly, both Roger Ebert and Devin Faraci are primarily movie critics, so it makes a bit of sense that they'd side more with the creators than the players). A quick summary of Ebert's argument against games is instructive:
Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.
This, of course, has been debated ad nauseum over the years, but then, it's the core of the problem with Mass Effect 3.

One of the reasons the series has been so successful is that Bioware promised that our decisions would matter. Not only would they matter in the immediate story, but they would be accounted for in future games. This is astoundingly ambitious, and I enjoyed most of the game... right up until that ending, which just doesn't logically follow from the rest of the story. It's not just that my choices weren't taken into account - I don't think I would have been frustrated at all if that were the case. I understand that the nature of branching decisions would result in an impossible task for Bioware. There's just no way they could account for everything. But that doesn't mean they should account for nothing and completely change the whole purpose and goal of the story, all in the last minutes of the series. This could have been a game series that settled the whole Ebert debate in favor of video games... instead, it just gives the Ebert argument more credence. The reason people are upset is that it didn't really need to be that way. It's not like Bioware wrote themselves into a corner. There are a million possible endings that would be better than what we got. Dark, happy, depressing, confounding, whatever. It would have been better than "stupid", which is where we're at now.

Ultimately, I had fun with the game, but not as much as with the second game, primarily because of the characters. This whole grand overarching storyline was always underwhelming to me, but I had fun with the characters. Unfortunately, the third game disappoints on that front. The combat is good, the dialogue is well written, a lot of the big conflicts in the series are actually resolved in a satisfying manner... the game plays well. There are some things that aren't as successful. For some reason, the notion of "slow motion" Shepherd seems to fascinate the developers, and those sequences are annoying. I'm still frustrated that navigating to different decks on the Normandy requires a load screen each time. But those are nitpicks. The real trouble was the lack of emphasis on character, exacerbated by a non-sequitur ending. Again, I had a lot of fun with the game, so to me, the ending didn't ruin the whole series (as some folks are saying). Indeed, I find myself contemplating a second play through (starting back at ME2 with the Interactive Backstory (if I can figure out how that works)), perhaps as a female Renegade Shepherd.

Update: Just wanted to point to this video, a very long explanation of why the ending of ME3 doesn't work for him. It's sorta done in the style of those Red Letter Media Plinket reviews, but it's pretty good. The part where he talks about the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC (from ME2) and how "Sometimes I'm not sure Bioware understands the magnitude of what they've done here" is particularly good, and it gets at exactly what I loved about ME2 - the characters! I don't know that Bioware recognized how attached players were to the characters...
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2012 at 02:03 PM .: link :.

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