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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Streaming Narrative
The NYT laments the sorry state of royalties paid out by music streaming services like Spotify.
A decade after Apple revolutionized the music world with its iTunes store, the music industry is undergoing another, even more radical, digital transformation as listeners begin to move from CDs and downloads to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube.

As purveyors of legally licensed music, they have been largely welcomed by an industry still buffeted by piracy. But as the companies behind these digital services swell into multibillion-dollar enterprises, the relative trickle of money that has made its way to artists is causing anxiety at every level of the business.
So I really don't know enough to comment on whether or not the whole royalty situation for streaming will pan out (or not!) the way some think it will, but the interesting thing here is the narrative.

The NYT credits iTunes with revolutionizing the music world, and in some ways it did, but only by making the revolution legal. The real shift began with file sharing services like Napster. One of the old narratives that the music industry endorsed was that if you liked a song and wanted to own it, you had to also purchase the 10 or so other songs that surrounded it on an album. Napster was free, and while it's ability to enable widespread music theft was probably the cause of its popularity, it also changed that whole album purchasing paradigm. You like "For Whom the Bell Tolls", fine, download it and stick it to that annoying Lars guy. No need to go buy the whole album. Apple, to their credit, realized that the narrative had shifted, and when they implemented iTunes, they allowed customers to purchase only the songs they wanted.

Like I said, the free downloads were probably the main cause of Napster's popularity, but the success of iTunes shows that the whole a la carte idea was also a key component. A decade later, and the narrative is changing again.

The thing that struck me reading the article is that free music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, while providing truly minimal royalties, also shine a light on another narrative about listening frequency. Namely, once you bought a record, the music industry could care less how often you listened to it. But streaming services aren't based on sales, they're based on "listens" - the number of times you streamed a specific song.

I'm probably the last person in the world who should be commenting on listening habits, as I suck at music. I love it, I'm just bad at keeping up with this stuff and constantly go back to the same well (What? I've got movies to watch, books to read, and beer to drink over here, leave me alone!) All of which is to say that I have to wonder how the metric of "listens" will impact the industry. I tend to listen to the same thing over and over again, and when I do that, I'll probably earn someone a few cents of royalties. But I have a large suspicion that a lot of people will give most music a single listen (especially given the low barrier of entry on streaming), maybe revisiting once or twice if they're really psyched about it.

Music is certainly relistened to more than movies are rewatched, and being more of a movie guy, that might throw off my calibration on this issue, but I really have to wonder about the relationship between sales and listens. Yeah, such and such album or song may have sold a million copies last week... but how long will that song be in heavy rotation in streaming? And when you literally have millions of songs on your fingertips, are you likely to cast your net far and wide, or return to the same music over and over again? Will this notion drive what kinds of music becomes available? More pop music with clear hooks, less experimental stuff? Will those experimental folks be able to survive on the long tail?

I don't have any answers here and I don't really know enough about the music industry to say how this will play out, but I'm thinking we'll see some interesting developments in the next few years. Incidentally, movie streaming doesn't seem to have caved to streaming in the same way. They don't charge streaming services like Netflix per watch, but for the general ability to stream a certain catalog. I'll be curious to see if we ever reach a Spotify-level streaming service for movies. As I've mentioned before, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon... but again, the next few years will be interesting.
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2013 at 08:30 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

2012 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners!
The nominations for the 2012 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. Today, I'll be announcing the winners of said awards. Next week, I'll cover less traditional categories in what we like to call the Arbitrary Awards, and at some point in the near future, I'll post my top 10 of 2012 (this will most likely happen in mid-February, usually the week before the Oscars). So let's get this party started:
  • Best Villain/Badass: (tie) Calvin Candie and Stephen, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained and The Zec, played by Werner Herzog in Jack Reacher. A total copout, but these two selections are hands down the best of the bunch, and their are tradeoffs for each. Django Unchained is clearly the better movie, but it's already got a lot of attention (and will get more) and I actually nominated two different characters in one nomination (another cheat). Both characters are great, and both feature standout performances from their respective actors (both of whom have a tendency to be a bit samey with their choices, but not here). Herzog's character, on the other hand, is singularly awesome, deeply abstruse, frightening, and totally the best part of Jack Reacher. Unfortunately, while I enjoy the movie and think it's a bit underseen, it doesn't really stand up to Django in terms of quality. Plus, Herzog's only in the movie for a few minutes. Glorious minutes, though. I really couldn't decide between the two, so they both win. The other nominees weren't slouches, to be sure, but they just couldn't compare. Special callouts to Lena Headey's Ma Ma, who elevated a thankless part, and Javier Bardem's Silva, which is probably more due to that utterly fantastic introduction than anything else.
  • Best Hero/Badass: The Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers. This was a stronger category this year, so the decision as also more difficult. That being said, The Hulk/Bruce Banner is clearly a challenging character, as evidenced by the fact that no less than 2 other movies (and good ones too) have made the attempt over the past few years and pretty much failed. Both of those movies have their merits, I guess, but it's not until you see The Avengers that you realize just how flawed those previous attempts were. Now, sure, The Hulk is but one part of a team, but he's the clear standout of the movie, perhaps because he's the biggest surprise.
    The Hulk
    No one really expected his character to be very good, but Ruffalo's inherent charisma really shines through, even when in Hulk form. And The Hulk gets some of the best moments in the film, particularly the "Puny God" moment. Other standout nominees were Dr. King Schultz and Django, played by Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, who were absolutely brilliant. Barry Bostwick's performance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fearless, a necessity for a movie as ridiculous as FDR: American Badass!. Jessica Chastain as Maya was great in Zero Dark Thirty, worth the nomination for the "I'm the motherfucker that found this place." line alone. I seriously considered this as an offbeat choice, playing against the more ostentatious badassery by picking someone who spends the majority of the movie analyzing files and videos and whatnot. Alas, I went for the more obvious choice.
  • Best Comedic Performance: Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street. This might be the most surprising movie of the year. I remember being perplexed when the initial good reviews came in, and even more flummoxed when I actually saw the movie, which was hilarious. Tatum, too, was a bit of a surprise, as he showed a goofy openness and magnetic personality that you just didn't get when he was, say, Duke in G.I. Joe. Special mention, again, to Barry Bostwick's fearless performance as FDR, and Seann William Scott in Goon (worth the nomination for the E.T. speech alone). I kinda hate Mark Wahlberg as an actor, but he was a good fit for Ted, and that scene you always here where he's trying to guess Ted's white-trash girlfriend's name is brilliant.
  • Breakthrough Performance: Channing Tatum in Haywire, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike. Two wins for Tatum? Well, he had a very good year, and it was just so surprising coming from someone who seemed like a charismatic black hole before (not that I had much exposure to Tatum - not much of a fan of dance movies, either, so perhaps he showed some sense of life in those Step Up things). Next choice would have been Jessica Chastain, who was fantastic. Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey were both included because these were two actors that I'd totally written off this late in their careers, but who put in some great, unusual performances in 2012.
  • Most Visually Stunning: Prometheus. It's a little depressing that most winners of this award are movies that I don't particularly care for. Usually, there's some element of artistic respect, but Prometheus is just not a very good movie. Visually, though, it's spectacular.
    Runner up would have been Django Unchained (which I loved), or maybe The Master (which I didn't). And a special callout to Detention for the most hyperactive visual sense. And that gorgeous red hair in Brave. And the landscapes in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. And the highrise fight sequence in Skyfall. And ok, fine, maybe this category was harder to pick than I'm letting on.
  • Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: The Cabin in the Woods. Ultimately a pretty tight race between that movie and Detention, both of which will receive further recognition, because they're both pretty fantastic. All of the other nominees are worthwhile, and genre fans would do well to seek them out.
  • Best Sequel/Reboot: The Avengers. I suppose you could argue that this isn't technically a "sequel", but really, it is. And it was actually much better than I was expecting. Thrilling, exciting, and a return to just plain fun entertainment (as opposed to the grim and gritty direction comic book movies seemed to be moving in). I enjoyed all of the other nominees well enough, but The Avengers is the one I like the most. It's also the only one I sought to revisit...
  • Biggest Disappointment: Prometheus. Aside from the visuals, this was possibly the worst movie I saw all year. It's just so mindnumbingly, unforgivably stupid in so many ways. I wasn't a big fan of any of the other nominees either, though they all were mildly enjoyable enough diversions, and none of them quite managed to anger me like Prometheus did. In truth, I had difficulty populating the nominees for this category, which is a sign of a pretty good year.
  • Best Action Sequences: The Raid: Redemption. Duh. This thing is pretty much wall-to-wall action. Exquisitely choreographed martial arts sequences, mixed with some weapon work and some just all around awesomeness. It shares some similarities with the underrated and underseen Dredd, and I have to wonder how I'd feel if I saw The Raid after Dredd... but I suspect I'd still respond more to The Raid. I also wanted to make special mention of Haywire, which had some of the most memorable action sequences of the year. The fights in that movie have this really raw sensibility that is striking, and the fact that Gina Carano is pretty badass out here in the real world (she's apparently an MMA star) serves that film well. I also wanted to callout just how impressive The Dark Knight Rises was in IMAX. I saw the movie twice in theaters, and the action sequences were seemingly much more effective in that larger format. The other nominees were all rather good as well, and worth checking out for action junkies.
  • Best Plot Twist/Surprise: The Cabin in the Woods. Another category where Detention was a strong contender with Woods. Still, Cabin in the Woods was seemingly filled with twists, right from the very opening of the film, leading all the way to the button/elevator sequence, which was surprising in the most awesome way. Once again, all of the nominees are strong films, well worth seeking out.
  • Best High Concept Film: Detention. And finally, Detention manages to defeat The Cabin in the Woods. Manic, kinetic, exuberant, energetic, Detention is a movie that is all over the place, and you never know where it's going to go next. It's a movie made for the information overloaded, internet soaked generation, and it's clearly calibrated for a younger audience when it comes to the way it presents information. And once again, the rest of the slate of nominees is really good, so check them out.
  • 2012's 2011 Movie of the Year: Bobby Fischer Against the World. I had a rough time choosing the nominees for this, mostly because I didn't see a lot of 2011 movies in 2012, but the winner was a pretty clear choice for me. I have a fascination with this type of story, the obsessive genius who pursues one subject to the detriment of pretty much everything else. We'll see a flavor of this in my top ten for 2012 too, though it's a little different. Anyway, the biggest surprise of the nominees was Fright Night, a movie that I was shocked to enjoy so much, even if it's not exactly fine cinema!
So there you go. Round 1 of the awards is complete, stay tuned for the Arbitrary Awards and (eventually) the top 10 of 2012.
Posted by Mark on January 27, 2013 at 06:32 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Link Dump
It's been a busy couple weeks here, so here's some interesting stuff I've seen on teh internets recently:
  • The Honor System - An excellent look at the Teller half of Penn & Teller, as well as the theft of magic tricks (or illusions or whatever you want to call them). There's some neat intellectual property twists going on here, notably the fact that it's difficult to protect this sort of thing because suing might "require the magician to reveal too much about his trick in public, making the very act of protecting magic one of the easiest ways to destroy it." But the article gets way deep into the weeds of the magic con too, witness this bit:
    Among his many works, Steinmeyer wrote Hiding the Elephant, his best-selling history of magic. In it, he writes that the best tricks are a "collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously." Like jokes, tricks should have little plots with a twist at the end that's both implausible and yet logical. You shouldn't see the punchline coming, but when you do see it, it makes sense. The secret to a great trick isn't really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical. (When Penn & Teller have famously exposed a trick, they've almost always invented a ridiculously poetic method and built the trick around it; by making their art seem more intricate than it is, they force the audience to assume that the rest of their tricks are equally complex. Penn & Teller's exposures are really part of an elaborate con.)
    Good stuff.
  • Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie - This article chronicles infamous writer/director Paul Schrader's decision to cast Lohan in his new Kickstarter funded, microbudget film collaboration with Bret Easton Ellis.
    Schrader thinks she's perfect for the role. Not everyone agrees. Schrader wrote "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver" and has directed 17 films. Still, some fear Lohan will end him. There have been house arrests, car crashes and ingested white powders. His own daughter begs him not to use her. A casting-director friend stops their conversation whenever he mentions her name. And then there's the film’s explicit subject matter. Full nudity and lots of sex. Definitely NC-17. His wife, the actress Mary Beth Hurt, didn't even finish the script, dismissing it as pornography after 50 pages. She couldn't understand why he wanted it so badly.
    As someone on twitter noted, this article about the film is likely to be more entertaining than the film itself.
  • Ryan Gosling Interview - I have to imagine that doing press tours can get to be incredibly monotonous for stars, having to always repeat the talking points of their movie, sell, sell, sell. But every once in a while, an actor or director lets loose and acts goofy and it's awesome.
  • Seal Team 6 Calls 'Zero Dark Thirty' Inaccurate; Say They Don’t Pop Collars Or Wear Tapout Gear - Priceless:
    An anonymous Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for Seal Team Six says the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" is factually inaccurate, portraying Seal Team Six members like the douchebags from Seal Team Two.
    And there's more. Just fantastic.
  • ?????????????? - It's an animated gif, but it's yet another piece of brilliant internet art brought to you by the idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingoninthisvideo tag on my delicious account. Enjoy.
So there you have it. Stay tuned for some Movie Award winners on Sunday!
Posted by Mark on January 23, 2013 at 10:38 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012 Kaedrin Movie Awards
Welcome to the 7th Annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! As of right now, I've seen 68 movies that would be considered 2012 releases. No film festivals this year, so this is about par for the course, and I'll probably end up somewhere in the mid 70s by the time I get to the top 10 in a few weeks. This post thus commences my end of the year recap, only a few weeks late! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011] I'll post the nominations now, and like last year, I'll post all the winners next weekend.

2012 was a surprisingly solid year for movies. I don't know that it's the best year in recent memory or anything, but it was a lot of fun, and there were a lot of really good movies released, even in the typical early year doldrums and end of summer dumping period. There were a fair amount of disappointments, of course, and not being a real critic or anything, it's not like I went out of my way to watch bad movies. I'm lucky like that. But even critics are gushing over the year in film, and there's a lot to like about the year. I haven't really started to compile my top 10 list, but I can already think of 5-8 definite inclusions off the top of my head, which is a pretty good sign. There are still a few things I want to catch up with before I post that list, but the awards can start now. One of the points of these awards is that they allow me to give some love to films that I like, but which aren't necessarily great or are otherwise flawed (and thus the categories may seem a bit eclectic). Some of these movies will end up on my top 10, but the grand majority of them will not.

The rules for this are the same as last year: Nominated movies must have been released in 2012 (in the US) and I have to have seen the movie (and while I have seen a lot of movies, I don't pretend to have seen a comprehensive selection - don't let that stop you from suggesting something though). Also, I suppose I should mention the requisite disclaimer that these sorts of lists are inherently subjective and personal. But that's all part of the fun, right? So here are the nominees for this year's awards:

Best Villain/Badass
A mildly good year for villainy. Perhaps not as many nominations, but what's here is all pretty quality stuff, though there are two pretty clear options that are ahead of the pack. As with previous years, my picks in this category are for individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a group). There's a kinda exception to this rule in the nominations, but I really just don't want to split the vote on those two, you know what I mean? Best Hero/Badass
Quite a heroic year, certainly outweighing the villainy, but not by a ton. Again limited to individuals and not groups. Similar to the villains category, there's an exception here, but I put two characters together because I felt like it. Sue me. Best Comedic Performance
I have to say, this wasn't a particularly great year for comedic performances. There were a lot of movies that I couldn't quite bring myself to nominate because they weren't really straight comedies. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for those movies, but it makes categories like this one hard to populate. Breakthrough Performance
As with previous years, my main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). This can sometimes even happen for a long established actor, and this year is particularly annoying in that case, as there are two extremely well known folks that I'm nominating here. Yes, the criteria is vague, but the fun of these awards is that they're supposed to be idiosyncratic and weird, so I'm just going with it. Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great... Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
In case it's not obvious, I'm a total genre hound, and these are movies that don't tend to get a lot of attention, so I like to shine a light on them. Best Sequel/Reboot
Typically a difficult category to populate, and this year was no exception, so I was a little liberal with the nominations. Biggest Disappointment
Always a difficult award to figure out, as there are different ways in which a movie can disappoint. Usually, expectations play just as big a part of this as the actual quality of the film, and it's possible that a good movie can win the award because of high expectations. Best Action Sequences
We've got a solid, action packed year here. This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film. Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Well, I suppose even listing nominees here constitutes something of a spoiler, but it's a risk we'll have to take, right? A decent year for plot twists, though I don't see a clear winner either... this is going to be a hard category to pick! Best High Concept Film
This is always a strange category to populate because the concept is a bit nebulous, but nevertheless, there are always a few interesting choices... 2012's 2011 Movie of the Year
I instituted this category a few years ago because I was always discovering movies from the previous year after the fact. Of course, since then, I've had difficulty populating this category. This is going to be a tough choice, as I have to say, I wasn't really blown away by any of the nominees... Anyone have any suggestions (for either category or nominations)? Comments, complaints and suggestions are welcome, as always.

Surprisingly, it's looking like The Dark Knight Rises and Dredd (?!) are leading the way with 5 nominations. The Avengers, Detention, Django Unchained, and Skyfall all pulled down a respectable 4 nominations as well. Lots of films earned 3 nominations, and even more got 2 or 1 nominations. In total, 39 different films were nominated (a little less than last year, but more than previous years). So I'm going to let these nominations stew for a week, then announce the winners next Sunday, followed by the traditional Arbitrary Awards and eventually culminating in my top 10 of 2012 list (which may be a few weeks, though it will be before the Oscars, which are a little earlier than normal this year)...

Update: It's actually the seventh annual awards. I'm a lazy moron.
Posted by Mark on January 20, 2013 at 05:23 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Weird Movie of the Week: Wrong
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week... well, it was a book, but it was weirdly awesome nonetheless. This week, we've got a movie I'm super excited about, director Quentin Dupieux's follow up to his wonderfully bizarre movie Rubber (a top 10 Kaedrin fave). It's called Wrong, and it's about a man trying to find his lost dog. I guess that sounds a little boring, but check out this bonkers trailer:
It's a superb trailer, so very energetic, and that song is perfect. Sometimes the Weird Movie of the Week is a movie that, while weird enough to be interesting, doesn't really look so good and I don't really want to watch it that much. But I cannot wait to see this movie. I suppose I'm going to have to. Poop.
Posted by Mark on January 16, 2013 at 11:06 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Link Dump
The usual roundup of things I found interesting on the internets recently:
  • The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater - In the new year, I've been trying to eat a little healthier, but healthy eating is a kinda ridiculous racket. Sample awesome:
    That really skinny old scientist dude says anything from an animal will give you cancer. But a super-ripped 60 year old with a best-selling diet book says eat more butter with your crispy T-Bone and you’ll be just fine as long as you stay away from grains. Great abs beat out the PhD so you end up hanging out on a forum where everyone eats green apples and red meat and talks about how functional and badass parkour is.

    You learn that basically, if you ignore civilization and Mark Knopfler music, the last 10,000 years of human development has been one big societal and nutritional cock-up and wheat is entirely to blame. What we all need to do is eat like cave-people.
    And it just keeps going... and going...
  • Unchained Melody: Two Troublemakin' Bruvas Take on Tarantino's Django Unchained - An interesting discussion on the "controversy" surrounding Quentin Tarantino's new movie, Django Unchained. For the record, as you'll see in the coming weeks of 2012 movie roundup activities, I loved the movie.
  • A Simple Walk Into Mordor - So some nerds realized that the actual, real life, distance between where they filmed the Shire and where they filmed Mordor (particularly Mount Doom) is only about 120 miles, and they thus resolved to fly to New Zealand, get dressed up in capes, put on fake hobbit feet, and actually walk that distance (the title being a play on Boromir's infamous "One does not simply walk into Mordor" line). Since they're city-folk, they get up to all sorts of jackassery whilst traversing the countryside and interacting with animals and locals and whatnot. Very entertaining. There's four videos, and they're all pretty fun.
  • Videology: Dear Loyal DVD Customers - An interesting look at how one independent NY DVD rental store is looking to remain vital and relevant in this day and age of streaming and Netflix and so on:
    A couple years ago, it became terribly obvious that a video store in this day and age was not something that could flourish on its own anymore, especially in New York City, let alone Williamsburg. We tried a lot of different things, some that were successful (No Late Fee Plans!), others not so much (delivery… a valiant effort). But in the end it came down to a singular decision: change or close.

    With a collection of over 30,000 movies and many regular customers, shuttering our doors was not an option. So we came up with a plan. It was risky and expensive and we could be running ourselves even further into the ground, but there was nothing left to lose. Times had changed. Netflix and iTunes and Amazon and Redbox… well, they became our direct competition and that was a tough battle. So we decided we’d offer something that they can’t: a movie lover’s paradise, right here in Brooklyn.
    The place sounds pretty cool...
  • Wolfenstein 3D Online - The original Wolfenstein 3D is available to play for free online. It's a classic, though clearly showing its age. I can't believe that I still remembered all the secrets on the first level... I even managed to get to that purple secret level. Heh.
And that's all for now. If all goes well, look for the kickoff of 2012 movie recapping with the announcement of the annual Kaedrin Movie Awards nominations next Sunday. Last minute recommendations/category suggestions welcome!
Posted by Mark on January 13, 2013 at 07:00 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

More Year End Movie Cramming
I've made some excellent progress on the annual year end movie cram session, uncovering at least two top 10 films in the process. Of course, I've also discovered some additional movies that I figure I'll watch before I ever get around to compiling a top 10. Some of these show potential, some are almost certainly horrible, but I want to watch them anyway, because I'm a glutton for punishment. Not really, but most of these are on Netflix Instant, so I'll probably give them a go anyway.
  • ParaNorman - Alright, I'm cheating a little here because... I already watched this one, but it was one of those things I kept hearing about in year end movie discussions of underrated movies, etc... And actually, this one seems to have garnered a fantastic reputation. I can't say as though I quite loved it that much, but I did really enjoy it and am really happy I caught up with it.
  • The Pirates! Band of Misfits - Alright, let's keep the animation theme going (Maybe time for a best animated film category in the annual Kaedrin Movie Awards?). I didn't hear much about this back when it came out, but hey, it's the Wallace and Grommit guys (I think?), so I'll give it a shot.
  • The Three Stooges - I dismissed this back when it came out, but I've been told it's actually very funny. I've also been told it's horrible, but who knows, maybe it will make a good KMA nominee at some point.
  • Trouble with the Curve - Eastwood's cragly old-man period continues. I can't say as though I expect much out of this, but why not give it a look?
  • Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap - I'm not a big rap fan, but good documentaries will often bring you into worlds you never thought you'd find interesting. And I do like documentaries about the creative process, so this could be a winner.
  • The Queen of Versailles - This documentary is showing up on a lot of top 10 lists and whatnot and it's on Netflix Instant, so I'll check it out. I'm not overly enthused about the subject matter, basically chronicling the opulent excess of a rich family as they're forced to buckle down during the 2008 economic woes. It almost feels like slightly upscale reality TV.
  • Mansome - It seems like Morgan Spurlock is really cranking out mediocre documentaries these days, but you know, I tend to find them oddly entertaining, even if never quite approaching the level of profundity that he things he's achieving.
  • Sleepwalk with Me - I've heard a lot about this movie, and yet, I find that I can't really describe it at all. Seems to be generally well respected though, and it's on Netflix Instant, so I'll check it out.
  • Bullhead - One of last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees, didn't really get a release here until 2012.
  • Dark Shadows - Lots of mixed signals about this. It seems like a horrid mess, but the bits and pieces I've seen of it seem at least entertaining, even if it never really comes together.
And who knows what other things will come up. Like I said, I'm not really expecting any of the above to knock my socks off, but I guess there's only one way to find out for sure.
Posted by Mark on January 09, 2013 at 09:29 PM .: link :.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

What's in a Book Length?
I mentioned recently that book length is something that's been bugging me. It seems that we have a somewhat elastic relationship with length when it comes to books. The traditional indicator of book length is, of course, page number... but due to variability in font size, type, spacing, format, media, and margins, the hallowed page number may not be as concrete as we'd like. Ebooks theoretically provide an easier way to maintain a consistent measurement across different books, but it doesn't look like anyone's delivered on that promise. So how are we to know the lengths of our books? Fair warning, this post is about to get pretty darn nerdy, so read on at your own peril.

In terms of page numbers, books can vary wildly. Two books with the same amount of pages might be very different in terms of actual length. Let's take two examples: Gravity's Rainbow (784 pages) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (752 pages). Looking at page number alone, you'd say that Gravity's Rainbow is only slightly longer than Goblet of Fire. With the help of the magical internets, let's a closer look at the print inside the books (click image for a bigger version):
Pages from Gravitys Rainbow and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
As you can see, there is much more text on the page in Gravity's Rainbow. Harry Potter has a smaller canvas to start with (at least, in terms of height), but larger margins, more line spacing, and I think even a slightly larger font. I don't believe it would be an exaggeration to say that when you take all this into account, the Harry Potter book is probably less than half the length of Gravity's Rainbow. I'd estimate it somewhere on the order of 300-350 pages. And that's even before we get into things like vocabulary and paragraph breaks (which I assume would also serve to inflate Harry Potter's length.) Now, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the variability of page numbers.

Ebooks present a potential solution. Because Ebooks have different sized screens and even allow the reader to choose font sizes and other display options, page numbers start to seem irrelevant. So Ebook makers devised what's called reflowable documents, which adapt their presentation to the output device. For example, Amazon's Kindle uses an Ebook format that is reflowable. It does not (usually) feature page numbers, instead relying on a percentage indicator and the mysterious "Location" number.

The Location number is meant to be consistent, no matter what formatting options you're using on your ereader of choice. Sounds great, right? Well, the problem is that the Location number is pretty much just as arbitrary as page numbers. It is, of course, more granular than a page number, so you can easily skip to the exact location on multiple devices, but as for what actually constitutes a single "Location Number", that is a little more tricky.

In looking around the internets, it seems there is distressingly little information about what constitutes an actual Location. According to this thread on Amazon, someone claims that: "Each location is 128 bytes of data, including formatting and metadata." This rings true to me, but unfortunately, it also means that the Location number is pretty much meaningless.

The elastic relationship we have with book length is something I've always found interesting, but what made me want to write this post was when I wanted to pick a short book to read in early December. I was trying to make my 50 book reading goal, so I wanted something short. In looking through my book queue, I saw Alfred Bester's classic SF novel The Stars My Destination. It's one of those books I consistently see at the top of best SF lists, so it's always been on my radar, and looking at Amazon, I saw that it was only 236 pages long. Score! So I bought the ebook version and fired up my Kindle only to find that in terms of locations, it's the longest book I have on my Kindle (as of right now, I have 48 books on there). This is when I started looking around at Locations and trying to figure out what they meant. As it turns out, while the Location numbers provide a consistent reference within the book, they're not at all consistent across books.

I did a quick spot check of 6 books on my Kindle, looking at total Location numbers, total page numbers (resorting to print version when not estimated by Amazon), and file size of the ebook (in KB). I also added a column for Locations per page number and Locations per KB. This is an admittedly small sample, but what I found is that there is little consistency among any of the numbers. The notion of each Location being 128 bytes of data seems useful at first, especially when you consider that the KB information is readily available, but because that includes formatting and metadata, it's essentially meaningless. And the KB number also includes any media embedded in the book (i.e. illustrations crank up the KB, which distorts any calculations you might want to do with that data).

It turns out that The Stars My Destination will probably end up being relatively short, as the page numbers would imply. There's a fair amount of formatting within the book (which, by the way, doesn't look so hot on the Kindle), and doing spot checks of how many Locations I pass when cycling to the next screen, it appears that this particular ebook is going at a rate of about 12 Locations per cycle, while my previous book was going at a rate of around 5 or 6 per cycle. In other words, while the total Locations for The Stars My Destination were nearly twice what they were for my previously read book, I'm also cycling through Locations at double the rate. Meaning that, basically, this is the same length as my previous book.

Various attempts have been made to convert Location numbers to page numbers, with low degrees of success. This is due to the generally elastic nature of a page, combined with the inconsistent size of Locations. For most books, it seems like dividing the Location numbers by anywhere from 12-16 (the linked post posits dividing by 16.69, but the books I checked mostly ranged from 12-16) will get you a somewhat accurate page number count that is marginally consistent with print editions. Of course, for The Stars My Destination, that won't work at all. For that book, I have to divide by 40.86 to get close to the page number.

Why is this important at all? Well, there's clearly an issue with ebooks in academia, because citations are so important for that sort of work. Citing a location won't get readers of a paper anywhere close to a page number in a print edition (whereas, even using differing editions, you can usually track down the quote relatively easily if a page number is referenced). On a personal level, I enjoy reading ebooks, but one of the things I miss is the easy and instinctual notion of figuring out how long a book will take to read just by looking at it. Last year, I was shooting for reading quantity, so I wanted to tackle shorter books (this year, I'm trying not to pay attention to length as much and will be tackling a bunch of large, forbidding tomes, but that's a topic for another post)... but there really wasn't an easily accessible way to gauge the length. As we've discovered, both page numbers and Location numbers are inconsistent. In general, the larger the number, the longer the book, but as we've seen, that can be misleading in certain edge cases.

So what is the solution here? Well, we've managed to work with variable page numbers for thousands of years, so maybe no solution is really needed. A lot of newer ebooks even contain page numbers (despite the variation in display), so if we can find a way to make that more consistent, that might help make things a little better. But the ultimate solution would be to use something like Word Count. That's a number that might not be useful in the midst of reading a book, but if you're really looking to determine the actual length of the book, Word Count appears to be the best available measurement. It would also be quite easily calculated for ebooks. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it's better than page numbers or location numbers.

In the end, I enjoy using my Kindle to read books, but I wish they'd get on the ball with this sort of stuff. If you're still reading this (Kudos to you) and want to read some more babbling about ebooks and where I think they should be going, check out my initial thoughts and my ideas for additional metadata and the gamification of reading. The notion of ereaders really does open up a whole new world of possibilities... it's a shame that Amazon and other ereader companies keep their platforms so locked down and uninteresting. Of course, reading is its own reward, but I really feel like there's a lot more we can be doing with our ereader software and hardware.
Posted by Mark on January 06, 2013 at 08:02 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Locus Online's 20th and 21st Century SF Novel Polls
Back in November, Locus Online conducted a poll for the best science fiction and fantasy of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The results, based on 625 ballots, were tallied and posted just last week. Like all such lists, it's merits are debatable, but I always find them fun and we all know that Americans love lists, so let's get down to brass tacks here.

As I did with NPR's top SF/F list, I'll list them out, bold the ones I've read and maybe throw in some annotations, because I'm a dork like that. I'm focusing on Novels here, but Locus also has novellas, novelettes (why is SF the only one that has these?), and short stories. Also, they broke out SF and Fantasy, so I'm only really focusing on the SF side of things. Ok, enough disclaimers, here's the 20th Century List:
  1. Herbert, Frank : Dune (1965) - Certainly nothing to argue with here, and I like that the Locus poll doesn't include all the sequels (which, I admit, I never read).
  2. Card, Orson Scott : Ender's Game (1985) - I'm still surprised that Card's real life shenanigans have not impacted this novel, but on the other hand, it's a great book, deserving of the praise it gets.
  3. Asimov, Isaac : The Foundation Trilogy (1953) - I have a soft spot for Asimov, but I think I always preferred his Robot books. Still, I get why Foundation always comes out on top.
  4. Simmons, Dan : Hyperion (1989) - In the queue for this year!
  5. Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) - Great novel, one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years.
  6. Adams, Douglas : The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) - I never connected with this as much as others, but given that this shows up near the top of all of these type lists, I guess everyone else does!
  7. Orwell, George : Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) - A classic.
  8. Gibson, William : Neuromancer (1984) - Not a favorite, but certainly a good book and an important one too, in that it represents the whole Cyberpunk thing.
  9. Bester, Alfred : The Stars My Destination (1957) - I am literally going to pick up this book when I finish this post.
  10. Bradbury, Ray : Fahrenheit 451 (1953) - Finally caught up with this last year and enjoyed it.
  11. Heinlein, Robert A. : Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) - Not my favorite Heinlein, but I get that it's a cultural touchstone and thus always rates highly on these lists.
  12. Heinlein, Robert A. : The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) - This one is my favorite Heinlein, and while perhaps not as high as I would rank it, it's still pretty well represented here.
  13. Haldeman, Joe : The Forever War (1974) - Interesting that this one ranks higher than Starship Troopers, though I think you could make the case either way. Heck, they're so connected that you almost never hear about one without the other being referenced.
  14. Clarke, Arthur C. : Childhood's End (1953) - I like this book and it's a solid choice, but I like other Clarke novels better than this one...
  15. Niven, Larry : Ringworld (1970) - On the bubble for this year's queue, but I'll get to it at some point, I'm sure.
  16. Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Dispossessed (1974) - I'm really not a big fan of this novel and greatly prefer Left Hand of Darkness, but it does usually show up on lists like this, so it must strike a nerve with everyone else...
  17. Bradbury, Ray : The Martian Chronicles (1950) - On the bubble for this year's queue, but I'll get to it at some point, I'm sure.
  18. Stephenson, Neal : Snow Crash (1992) - I love that Stephenson made the list, and this is an important novel in a lot of ways (puts the nail in the coffin of Cyberpunk, popularized/presaged a lot of internet conventions). I really can't complain, even if I prefer Cryptonomicon...
  19. Miller, Walter M. , Jr. : A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) - Another one I caught up with last year, largely prompted by lists like this one. It was certainly very good and I can see why it's on a list like this, even if it's not really my thing.
  20. Pohl, Frederik : Gateway (1977) - On the bubble for this year's queue, but I'll get to it at some point, I'm sure.
  21. Heinlein, Robert A. : Starship Troopers (1959) - For a book consisting mostly of lectures, it's pretty darn good. As a thought experiment, I love it even if I don't wholly agree with it. There's also not much of a story and I can see it chafing some readers. Still, it basically codified the modern Military SF sub-genre, so it's certainly an important book...
  22. Dick, Philip K. : The Man in the High Castle (1962) - A novel I found much more fascinating in it's conception (an alternate history in which a fictional character is writing his own alternate history) than it's execution, it is definitely a good read, but perhaps not something I'd have put on the list.
  23. Zelazny, Roger : Lord of Light (1967) - One of those books that made me wish I paid more attention to Siddhartha when I read it for school. A really interesting novel though, with a sorta literary tone I don't feel like we get much of these days.
  24. Wolfe, Gene : The Book of the New Sun (1983) - Another one that's on the bubble for this year's queue.
  25. Lem, Stanislaw : Solaris (1970) - I saw the movie, does that count? I am curious to see how the novel stacks up, though I don't know that I'll get to it this year.
  26. Dick, Philip K. : Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) - I suppose I should really break down and read this sucker, the story Blade Runner was based on... but I picked up a bunch of Philip K. Dick books in a sale last year, so I'll probably settle for those this year.
  27. Vinge, Vernor : A Fire Upon The Deep (1992) - A great book featuring one of the most original alien species in all of SF. The ending is a little odd, but the novel is overall well deserving of this sort of recognition.
  28. Clarke, Arthur C. : Rendezvous with Rama (1973) - I have not read this in a long time, but it was one of the formative SF novels I read when I was younger, and I definitely like it better than the aforementioned Childhood's End.
  29. Huxley, Aldous : Brave New World (1932) - I should really get on this one at some point, but I've just never psyched myself up for this dystopic experience. Someday, perhaps.
  30. Clarke, Arthur C. : 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Another Clarke book I like better than Childhood's End, and I like the relationship between the book and movie (both of which I think are great).
  31. Vonnegut, Kurt : Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) - Another one on the bubble for this year's queue.
  32. Strugatsky, Arkady & Boris : Roadside Picnic (1972) - This is the first book on the list that I'd never even heard of! Sounds interesting and now that I look into it, i see that this is another Soviet novel adapted to film by Andrei Tarkovsky (like Solaris), though I have not seen that...
  33. Card, Orson Scott : Speaker for the Dead (1986) - While I loved the aforementioned Ender's Game, for some reason, I've never visited any of the sequels. Perhaps that should change this year...
  34. Brunner, John : Stand on Zanzibar (1968) - Another new wave dystopia? Maybe. It doesn't seem as relentlessly annoying as others of its ilk, but again, sometimes I find it hard to muster enthusiasm for such works.
  35. Robinson, Kim Stanley : Red Mars (1992) - I'd like to check this novel out this year, along with its two sequels. They seem to be pretty well regarded...
  36. Niven, Larry (& Pournelle, Jerry) : The Mote in God's Eye (1974) - This one pops up on a lot of lists. It's in the queue.
  37. Willis, Connie : Doomsday Book (1992) - A really good book, not sure I'd have ranked it this high.
  38. Atwood, Margaret : The Handmaid's Tale (1985) - Another dystopia that doesn't really rev my engine, but it's something I should probably check out at some point.
  39. Sturgeon, Theodore : More Than Human (1953) - It's nice that Sturgeon made the list, and this novel is certainly a worthy inclusion.
  40. Simak, Clifford D. : City (1952) - Another book I'm unfamiliar with, though it does sound interesting...
  41. Brin, David : Startide Rising (1983) - This is the second book in Brin's "Uplift Saga", a series I've been meaning to check out for a while. On the bubble for this year!
  42. Asimov, Isaac : Foundation (1950) - Not sure why this is separated out from the Trilogy listed above at #3?
  43. Farmer, Philip Jose : To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) - Another book I'm not particularly familiar with, though I've seen Farmer's name bandied about often enough.
  44. Dick, Philip K. : Ubik (1969) - A book I caught up with last year and really enjoyed, moreso than I thought I would.
  45. Vonnegut, Kurt : Cat's Cradle (1963) - Yeah, I need to read more Vonnegut, I get it.
  46. Vinge, Vernor : A Deepness in the Sky (1999) - I really enjoyed this book, though I find that it shares a lot in common with A Fire Upon the Deep. I can't really fault anyone for including this book, but if I were making a list, I wouldn't include both.
  47. Simak, Clifford D. : Way Station (1963) - Another interesting sounding book... Probably won't get to it this year, but you never know...
  48. Wyndham, John : The Day of the Triffids (1951) - I've seen this book on so many of these type lists that I figure I should check it out at some point. Killer plant story, I think I may have seen bits and pieces of a movie adaptation or something...
  49. Keyes, Daniel : Flowers for Algernon (1966) - One of the novels I caught up with last year, and it's a fantastic, heartbreaking novel.
  50. Delany, Samuel R. : Dhalgren (1975) - This gets thrown out a lot in such lists, but I've never quite brought myself to attempt such a large, forbidding tome. Or maybe my preconceptions about it are completely off. Only one way to find out, I guess, but I've got enough stuff I want to read in the short term...
Phew, that took longer than expected. It's an interesting list, and I faired pretty well, though it's perhaps not an ideal list. If I were to put together a favorite SF list, I'd probably feature a lot of books that weren't on there, but then, that's the way of such lists based on polls. Here's the 21st century list:
  1. Scalzi, John : Old Man's War (2005) - I'm a little surprised at how well regarded this novel is, though I do really love it, so I guess there is that...
  2. Stephenson, Neal : Anathem (2008) - Stephenson is my favorite author, so this obviously makes me happy. I would probably put it ahead of Old Man's War, but these make an interesting top 2 either way.
  3. Bacigalupi, Paolo : The Windup Girl (2009) - I don't know about this one. There's a lot about this that just doesn't ring my bells, if you know what I mean. No? Well, whatever. I might give this a shot sometime, but I can't see it happening anytime soon.
  4. Wilson, Robert Charles : Spin (2005) - This has been in the queue for a while, I've just never really gotten to it.
  5. Watts, Peter : Blindsight (2006) - I go back and forth on whether I want to read this, but I'll probably get to it at some point.
  6. Morgan, Richard : Altered Carbon (2002) - If I ever get in the mood for a Cyberpunk marathon, this would be on the list. But I'm not a big Cyberpunk fan, so there's that.
  7. Collins, Suzanne : The Hunger Games (2008) - I didn't particularly care for the worldbuilding here, but the meat of the story is solid, thrilling stuff.
  8. Gibson, William : Pattern Recognition (2003) - Gibson's post-Cyberpunk stuff does seem interesting to me, but I've never been so enthused about this one. May need to look a little deeper.
  9. Mieville, China : The City & the City (2009) - I read my first Mieville a little while ago, and would be curious to check out more from him. This one seems as good a place as any.
  10. Stross, Charles : Accelerando (2005) - I didn't really care for this novel. I just never really got into it.
  11. Mitchell, David : Cloud Atlas (2004) - The movie makes me curious to see if the book reads better than it plays on screen...
  12. McDonald, Ian : River of Gods (2004) - McDonald is an author that I need to check out.
  13. McCarthy, Cormac The Road (2006) - If I can muster enthusiasm, I might check it out. I wouldn't hold my breath though...
  14. Harrison, M. John : Light (2002) - I'd not heard of this one, but it sounds really interesting.
  15. Chabon, Michael : The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) - I really enjoyed this one, an alternate history novel that reads more like a hard boiled neo-noir.
  16. Willis, Connie : Black Out/All Clear (2010) - I like Willis as an author and would like to read more of her stuff, so this is in the running.
  17. Niffenegger, Audrey : The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) - I've been told that this wouldn't really be my thing. Fine by me!
  18. Simmons, Dan : Ilium (2003) - More excited for Hyperion than for this one, but if I'm super-taken with Hyperion, maybe I'll eventually make my way here...
  19. Doctorow, Cory : Little Brother (2008) - This one has been on my radar for a while, I've just never gotten to it...
  20. Ishiguro, Kazuo : Never Let Me Go (2005) - Something about this has never really interested me. I should look into it more, but...
Hrm, well I didn't do quite so well on the 21st century list, which is interesting. Every year, I'd be curious to see what it would be like to read, say, all of the Hugo nominated novels/stories, but I never really get around to it... maybe this will be the year.

Some assorted comments about the above lists: Female authors not particularly well represented on either list. Kaedrin favorite Lois McMaster Bujold shows up in the voting a lot, but it appears that her Vorkosigan series books caused a lot of split votes, though she did really well on the Fantasy lists (not discussed above). I'm really surprised that Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow only got one paltry vote.

There's a ton of overlap with similar such lists, though there were definitely a few interesting choices that didn't appear on, say, the NPR list. I'd be really curious to see how the 21st century list evolves over time. The 20th century list definitely has a lot of old standbys, but I could see the 21st century list changing a lot as time goes on...
Posted by Mark on January 02, 2013 at 11:21 PM .: link :.

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