Mark

Offbeat Streaming Picks

If you’re running out of things to watch on streaming services, I’ve got some offbeat picks for you. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about stuff like Palm Springs or The Old Guard, but there’s lots of good, recent stuff out there if you know how to Medusa Touch the Algorithm. Here’s a few movies I’ve discovered recently that might not be mainstream crowdpleasers, but are interesting in their own right:

  • Arkansas (Amazon Prime) – Slow-burn country noir about drug dealers in Arkansas. They work for a guy named Frog, whom they’ve never met. When a deal goes horribly wrong, they need to figure out how to escape. It’s structured in an odd way and moves a bit slow at times, but the performances are great.

    Arkansas

    Written and directed by the unlikely Clark Duke with an exceptional cast, including Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Vivica A. Fox, and Michael Kenneth Williams, it’s got a Tarantino-esque vibe, though that comparison may be unfair. Still, an unconventional narrative structure and some smart procedural stuff make this worth checking out.
  • I See You (Amazon Prime) – What seems like a rote serial killer tale mixed with dysfunctional family drama takes a hard turn about halfway through. Worth sticking with it to see how it goes. I won’t spoil anything here, but it’s an interesting flick.
  • Furie (Netflix) – Slick Vietnamese actioner starring Van Veronica Ngo as a mother whose child has been kidnapped by a trafficking ring. Ngo is an actress on the rise. She’s been showing up in bit parts in Hollywood fare (like The Last Jedi or Da 5 Bloods) and I suspect she’ll be breaking out in the near future. Furie is a good vehicle for her talents, both as an actor and an action star. It’s not a complicated story, but it’s very entertaining.
  • Cosmos (Hulu) – Ultra-low budget drama about three astronomers who accidentally stumble on a weird transmission from space. It takes its time to get going, but it’s reasonably well done. Decent atmosphere and some interesting ideas, it plays out like a less exciting version of Contact. That might be underselling it, but I don’t want to mislead anyone. This isn’t action packed and you’ll probably be ahead of the characters on the mysterious happenings, but it I enjoyed it.
  • The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime) – Micro-budget Twilight Zone riff about Space-Race-era teens discovering a weird radio signal in their small town. Director Andrew Patterson infuses the simple story with tons of energy and visual style.

    The Vast of Night

    This ranges from long-takes freewheeling camera movements to blacking out the screen to emphasize the audio. It might feel a bit overbaked for some, but I really enjoyed the movie.
  • The History of the Seattle Mariners (YouTube) – This six-part documentary on MLB’s most embattled franchise is pretty well done for a film centered on a big graph of wins/losses. If you finished The Last Dance and want another overlong documentary about a sport you don’t need to care about to enjoy the movie, this is for you. Fair warning: it’s basically the opposite experience. Low budget, no access, and covering a terrible team. But they’re a lovable team! As the narrator intones, “The Seattle Mariners are not competitors. They’re protagonists.” Look, if you get to the Jello Toilet incident and you’re not laughing hysterically, maybe this list of movies isn’t for you.

There you have it! Many hours of interesting, off-the-beaten-path movies released within the last couple of years. None are perfect or mainstream, but they’re worth checking out. Do you have any other offbeat streaming picks?

Hugo Awards 2020: The Results

The Results of the 2020 Hugo Awards were announced a couple of days ago, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I read most of the novel nominees this year, but I didn’t finish. I never dipped my toes into the shorter fiction categories either, so I ultimately ended up not participating. This tracks with my generally waning enthusiasm for the awards over the past several years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe I’ll find next year more worthy of engagement. In the meantime, congratulations are due to all the winners, even the ones I don’t like. For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting and nomination stats are also available (.pdf).

Best Novel

The Best Novel Award went to A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed that novel. Indeed, this is the first time in several years that I actually liked the winner of this category. It has its flaws, but so did all the other nominees I’ve read (5 out of 6), and all things considered, I think it’s great that the award went to the debut author. Apparently the race for first place was very tight, with Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame coming in a close second place. They were clearly my favorite two nominees, so it’s nice to see. The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in last place, and that also fits with my ranking…

Short Fiction

The only short fiction I had actually read that got nominated were a couple of stories from Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. They were good, as per usual from Chiang, but I never got around to reading the others. In scanning the winners, the one I would be most interested in is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. After years of being soundly disappointed by the Short Story category, I finally gave up this year.

Best Series

The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) wins Best Series. I read the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, a while back and came away unimpressed. However, I’ve also received recommendations from folks I trust, so maybe I’ll check it out again at some point. Perhaps it gets better as it goes.

That said, this award continues to baffle. Only one book from this series (the first) has actually garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Novel, so it’s better than the last few winners in that respect. But it’s still a logistically difficult category to judge. The Hugo Awards are always a popularity contest, but I suspect that’s so even more here than with the other categories. Plus, I have serious doubts that voters have actually read enough of each series to make a truly informed decision. Maybe I’m wrong about that! But the sheer quantity of work contained in just one ballot seems infeasible.

In addition, books from series keep getting nominated for Best Novel, so the Best Series category hasn’t curtailed that much either. Series are tricksy beasts. Clearly they sell, hence their proliferation. But when it comes to awards, they present a problem, because you’re often not judging a single work. I’ve never really participated in this award, mostly because of the aforementioned logistical problems.

Best Dramatic Presentations

The Good Place wins Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form for the third year in a row with: “The Answer”. A fine episode, to be sure, and I did quite enjoy the series, but it did sorta peter out. Personally, I would have much rather seen the award go to a new show/episode, like The Mandalorian: “Redemption” or Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, but the voting wasn’t even close.

Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form went to another TV show, Good Omens. I never watched it because I read the book and had mixed thoughts. On the other hand, of the nominees, it’s certainly a defensible choice. This category has always been a weirdly mainstream, blockbuster dominated affair. I probably would have voted for Us, but I’m in the clear minority there. It did not do well in the voting. Weirdly, I’ve been finding a bunch of smaller, low-budget 2019 movies that would have been deserving of recognition. But I’ll save those for a later post. In the meantime, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and more interesting than the offerings from Marvel or Star Wars.)

Retro Hugos

There’s apparently quite a row brewing about the Retro Hugo Awards, presumably because the Cthulhu Mythos won Best Series. No matter how much you may dislike Lovecraft, it’s difficult to point to a more influential nominee. Indeed, the award is for the Mythos and explicitly includes other authors, which in theory include books like The Ballad of Black Tom. All of which is to say that I’m doubting that the (relatively few) people voting in the Retro Hugos are motivated by rewarding Lovecraft’s bigotry, but rather the enduring qualities of his work (which, to me at least, are not the racism). I don’t know, maybe I’m being naively optimistic here. I certainly can’t fault anyone for being turned off by Lovecraft’s racism. It’s telling, though, that all of the complaints about the Retro Hugos never refer to alternatives and also seek to minimize the other winners.

Take the perennially dismissed Leigh Brackett. She’s experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, but even then, her contributions to the genre are consistently downplayed or erased. The last few Retro Hugos have provided some spotlight on this underrated author, and I’m happy about that. I don’t understand why so many are so willing to dismiss or ignore her work.

I saw one comment that said the Retro Hugos were rewarding people that we’re trying to relegate to the dustbin of history. Well, the Retro Hugos are quite literally “the dustbin of history”. There were only 120 nominating ballots for the 1945 Retro Hugos, which is an order of magnitude lower than the 2020 Hugo Awards (approximately 1500 nominating ballots). What’s more, I find it hard to believe that the grand majority (if not all) of those 120 people weren’t also participating in the 2020 nomination process. My guess is that these people aren’t obsessed with the past to the exclusion of the present and future. Ultimately, I find value in exploring the history of Science Fiction, warts and all. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t read or like new science fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to track down a copy of Killdozer!

20 Years of Kaedrin Weblog

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years (two decades!) since I started Kaedrin Weblog. I’ve already covered the history behind the site often enough, so I won’t bore you with repetition. I’ll bore you with something new and hopefully even more boring.

The first few years of the blog were filled with design changes, upgrades and the like, and I suppose I “found my voice” at some point, whatever that means. I eventually settled into a pretty comfortable 1-2 posts a week cadence and subject matter has shaken out a lot of random stuff. I’m mostly posting about books and movies these days, with the occasional foray into other topics.

Blogs themselves have gone through the whole lifecycle of technology, from a new and trendy form of self-expression and empowerment for the normals, to something that became almost universal and monetized and co-opted by professionals, to a steady decline. Looking back, I suspect the death of Google Reader was the biggest nail in the coffin. People don’t talk about it often these days, but Google’s ill-advised adventure in Social Media really hastened the demise of blogs and associated technologies like RSS. Not that blogs weren’t already in decline by then, but this was a big blow, and I think the internet landscape is worse off because of it.

Of course, blogs aren’t entirely dead, but this has never been a particularly popular blog. I like knowing some folks read it, but I like getting the practice in writing and it allows me to explore various things in a somewhat organized fashion. At this point, I’ve been writing this blog for almost half of my life (we’ll cross that threshold next year), so it’s become almost automatic.

One thing I noticed when transferring the blog to WordPress is that I have this Best Entries category that I haven’t added anything to in about a decade. I figure it’s time to recognize some of my favorite entries in that timeframe, so here’s a few entries worth checking out:

And that only brings me to the beginning of 2013. These trips down memory lane are fun, but it’s probably time to move onwards and upwards. Here’s to another 20 years of Kaedrin Weblog!

The 1978 Project: Part VI

The 1978 Project is a deep dive into the movies of a single year (guess which one!) As of right now, I’ve seen 66 movies made in 1978 (and am now caught up in reviewing each one). I keep discovering new pockets of films I want to watch, so there’s still a solid 10-20 left to go, but here’s the last 7 I’ve watched:

  • Convoy – A group of truckers led by the inimitable Rubber Ducky (all the truckers have goofy names like Love Machine, Widow Woman, and Big Nasty) run afoul of an abusive sheriff and form a mile long “convoy” in order to escape the forces aligned against them. Director Sam Peckinpah, in need of a success, basically took on this Smokey & the Bandit ripoff mostly because he didn’t really have any other options left at that point in his career. It falls pretty squarely into the trucker and C.B. radio craze of the 70s and while Peckinpah was able to add some of his own flavor to the proceedings, it’s ultimately just as cheesy and goofy as the other trucker-sploitation flicks that this imitates. You could certainly map traditional Western genre tropes to these trucker movies, which might have been the draw for Peckinpah. The truckers are the noble outlaws, the Sheriffs are corrupt lawmen, trucks are horses, and so on. I suspect Peckinpah’s big contribution was to incorporate the subplot about a politician who attempts to co-opt the convoy’s popularity for his own purposes, which does add a dark note to an otherwise silly story. Peckinpah’s visual preferences are also well represented here, particularly the cramped, sweaty environs of the truck cabins and general gritty tone. This film has its moments and it’s a diverting enough affair, but it’s nothing particularly special unless you’re a huge fan of trucker/C.B. cinema or a Peckinpah completest (which, to be fair, are both worthy pursuits, though not necessarily mine). **1/2
  • Slave of the Cannibal God (aka Mountain of the Cannibal God) – Sergio Martino‘s take on the jungle cannibal jamboree, it’s the standard tale. A woman charters a trip into the nefarious jungle to find her missing husband. Naturally, the jungle is filled with cannibals and it’s not long before star Ursula Andress (most famous for being the first Bond girl, but she has a long list of grindhouse credits) is strapped up on the chopping block. Look, it’s not delicate, subtle cinema, but it’s pretty entertaining.

    Slave of the Cannibal God

    Andress is always fun and it’s nice to see larval Stacy Keach (bordering on unrecognizable) as the experienced woodsman. I’m not an expert on the sub-genre, but this seems like a decent take on the Italian cannibal flick that is perhaps understandably overshadowed by the more controversial entries like Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s got some twists towards the end that sorta recall the nonsensical turns in Giallo flicks and I kinda like that. Apparently this was the highest budgeted Italian Cannibal movie and the only one to have internationally recognizable stars. It’s also one of the few that wasn’t outright banned in most countries, and thus is more accessible these days (Is it thus missing a badge of honor? Eh, probably not…) It’s still gorey as all get out, and while I’m sure we could come up with some sort of grand pretension about these types of films, it’s mostly about the gore and prurient interests, and Martino’s visual prowess pulls it off in fine style. **1/2
  • Heaven Can Wait – Not to be confused with Heaven Can Wait, the 1943 comedy of errors about a man who dies and tries to convince the devil that he belongs in hell (I really enjoyed that Ernst Lubitsch movie, watched as part of the 50 Under 50 project). This 1978 movie also deals with the afterlife, but is otherwise completely different. An overanxious angel accidentally sends a quarterback to heaven, only to realize that the quarterback wasn’t supposed to die yet. To make up for his mistake, the angel finds another body for the quarterback to inhabit, that of a recently murdered millionaire.

    Heaven Can Wait

    The millionaire’s wife and accountant, who were the attempted murderers, are naturally confused by this development. The become even more so when the millionaire decides to buy the LA Rams and become their quarterback, just in time for the Super Bowl. It’s certainly got some silly screwball tendencies, but there’s a more sophisticated core at work here, a balancing act that I’d attribute to writer Elaine May, even though Warren Beatty made this movie happen. It’s got some nice comedic touches, and I love the way Beatty interacts with his would-be murderers in ways that confound them, but it eventually settles into a more dramatic story that I found genuinely involving and pleasantly surprising. I didn’t realize this was nominated for an Oscar, a rare comedy to be recognized in that way, and it makes for a fun change of pace to the more somber, dramatic nominees in 1978 (which we’ll cover in more depth soon enough). ***
  • Koko: A Talking Gorilla – A documentary about Dr. Penny Patterson and her work with Koko, a gorilla who has been taught sign-language. It consists of standard talking-head interviews where people discuss the complexities of Koko’s use of language, and actual footage of Patterson interacting and speaking with Koko. There’s lots of interesting ideas about language and consciousness that are thought provoking. The interactions captured on film are great, if repetitive (especially in the middle of the film), but it’s hard not to fall in love with Koko and it’s nice to see the way Koko and Patterson develop a relationship. It’s not formally inventive or anything, but it’s great subject matter and well worth checking out. ***
  • Foul Play – Goldie Hawn gets caught up in a criminal scheme involving albinos, dwarves, and a plot to assassinate the Pope. Along the way, she has the help of Chevy Chase as the bumbling but competent detective, Burgess Meredith as the lovable landlord, and Dudley Moore as a… pervert. As a romantic-comedy-action-thriller-mystery, it’s completely serviceable, even if it doesn’t manage to do any of those genres justice. Apparently a big success at the time, having Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase as leads helps a lot. Not a lot of chemistry there, to be sure, but they’re pretty charismatic on their own, I guess. Everything’s just a hair off here. The convoluted assassination plot involving dwarves and albinos and the Pope has the potential to reach madcap proportions, but it never quite pulls together for what should be a cascading series of revelations and confrontations. Instead, it just sorta limps to the finish line. The comedy never quite gels either, and the action/thriller components are sorta undercut by the other elements (the car chase towards the end of the film, for instance, is a total drag and it goes on forever). It sounds like a blast, so I did find it a little disappointing, but it’s ultimately just fine. **1/2
  • Someone’s Watching Me! – John Carpenter’s made-for-TV movie about a woman being stalked by a stalking stalker. Carpenter would go on to direct Halloween not long after this, and you can see his craft evolving here. It’s got more of a Hitchcockian feel to it than Carpenter’s other work, and the reliance on the telephone as an element of suspense recall Mario Bava and Bob Clark. Lauren Hutton does good work as the lead, and Carpenter puts her through the paces well enough. It’s clearly a limited production, but as 70s TV movies go, it’s a pretty solid line drive. Ultimately, it’s probably more for Carpenter completists than anyone else, but there are worse things to be (this is kind of a theme in this recap). **1/2
  • Coming Home – A woman whose husband is fighting in Vietnam begins work in a VA hospital and falls in love with a paralyzed veteran. Jane Fonda plays the woman at the center of the love triangle and she’s a fine actress, I guess, but her infamously outspoken anti-Vietnam activism always kept me at arms length from this movie. There’s a lot to respect about it, a distinctly more feminine perspective on the vietnam war (it contrasts nicely with 1978’s other Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter), but I also tend to prefer later takes on the war (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t far off, but Stone and Kubrick’s efforts had the benefit of perspective, I think). No one element felt overbaked (even the love triangle, which isn’t nearly as cliched as you might expect) and the performances are all excellent, but it never really gelled together for me when you collect all these elements together. It’s worth stressing the performances. Fonda does good work, but Jon Voight really stands out as the paraplegic vet (his closing monologue is a highlight of the film) and while Bruce Dern doesn’t get as much time as the husband, he really turns up the juice when he comes back from the war with a nervous, wiry energy that I don’t think could be duplicated by anyone else. Unfortunately, big performance showpieces like this often don’t work as much for me. I have similar issues with the aforementioned Deer Hunter, which also has great performances but is otherwise pretty plodding, with the exception of one masterful scene. It probably deserves a better place in the Vietnam war movie canon, but it didn’t particularly work on me. I’m glad I watched it though, and I’m clearly in the minority on this one. **

This brings me up to date on my progress so far. Things have slowed a bit as the most accessible movies have been watched at this point, and now I’m trying to scrape up copies of out-of-print movies or I’m starting to tackle some things I want to watch, but which seem to have difficult subject matter, etc… Again, I still have a solid 10-20 more 1978 movies I want to catch up with before doing the traditional awards/top 10 &c.

Turn and Face the Strange

With apologies for two weeks in a row of naval gazey posts about blogging, I’m still playing around with WordPress. I managed to solve the most pressing issues for this initial migration from Movable Type to WordPress and have made the momentous transition from the old blog to the new. As described last week, this has already conferred many benefits, including HTTPS, a better responsive design, and pretty permalinks. That said, there are a few stragglers and other things that I still need to implement.

One thing that has struck me during this process is how easy a fresh installation is versus the challenges inherent in converting an existing site to a new system. This is something that has come up in my professional life as well. After decades of new systems being layered on top of old systems, we’re finally embarking on the process of retiring some of those older systems. It’s a challenging proposition, but the devil is in the details, and the details are all in the transition phase where the system to be retired still exists. Everyone loves designing a new system; no one loves retiring the old legacy systems and all the thrash implied in such an effort. Also, no one wants to lose functionality, just like I didn’t want to lose decades of blog posts and whatever Google juice I might have conjured up.

Look, this blog has never been popular and I’m not under any delusions here, but part of the reason it took so long to make this transition is that I didn’t really want to lose what I’d built up. Most of this was for my own edification, and thus, so is the transition, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be public if I didn’t want anyone to see it.

Anywho, here’s some remaining considerations:

  • Adding Widgets – There are a few things that I used to have on my old blog page that I want to port over here, namely some introductory text and additional links (i.e. the blogroll, etc…) for the sidebar. It shouldn’t be too difficult, but I haven’t looked into it yet and from what I’ve seen, there’s probably some ideal way to do it that won’t involve mucking with design themes.
  • Design Themes – Speaking of which, I’ve chosen a pretty basic design at the moment. One of the benefits of this process is that I should be able to change designs very easily… and there are tons of design themes out there for the picking. Navigating those themes is pretty rough though, and they tend to be very extensible, so even just previewing them can be awkward.
  • Commenting – I played around with this last week and immediately started getting spam. I know the process of commenting on my old blog was awful, but it at least prevented spam. There are, of course, lots of plugins for this sort of thing, so I’ll just need to play around with it. I’ll probably try opening up commenting again today
  • The Beer Blog – I’ve actually set up the WordPress version, which appears to be working well enough. It’s the transition that will kill me here. For some reason, I installed the original beer blog on a subdomain (it’s currently at beer.kaedrin.com). This, of course, does not play nice with WordPress (or, uh, vice versa). That said, I should be able to do something similar to here, which is to write up some regex code for .htaccess file to 301 redirect to the new site. Needless to say, my regex skills are not up to snuff at this point, so I’ll need to do some research and learning. In some ways, it’s nice to learn something technical to solve a problem. In other ways, I just want to get the new version up and running.
  • Various and Sundry Cleanup – While importing all the entries for both blogs was a relatively easy process, not everything survived intact. There’s lots of weird formatting issues strewn about that probably should be cleaned up. That said, the prospect of going through thousands of posts to do such a thing is a bit daunting. But I will probably pick and choose individual posts to be cleaned up here and there.
  • Stone Knives and Bearskins – So once I get all this fancy newfangled blog stuff sorted, I should probably go back and figure out some of the older content on the site (much of which pre-existed the original Blogger weblog, let alone Movable Type or WordPress). Some of it is probably fine to languish in obscurity, but some of it should probably be ported over here. Again, this will involve some sort of republishing and 301 redirects.

So yes, plenty of changes still to come. This process has been both easier than expected and yet some of the difficulties are exactly what I wanted to avoid. Good progress so far though, so let’s keep things moving.

Changes, They Are A Comin’

To the blog. I mean, yeah, sure, the world too (boy, are they!), but this post is about my blog. I’m sorry. It’s been about 4 years since the last refresh, and even that was kicked off accidentally and thus never quite achieved what was truly needed. Since then, additional requirements have come to light, and I figure it’s finally time to take a serious look at the technical foundations of Kaedrin.

Since 2002, this weblog has been powered by Movable Type. At the time, this was pretty much state of the art. It was significantly better than Blogger (the original platform I used) and other competitors at the time (i.e. Greymatter, etc…) WordPress was still three years away, and the initial versions were probably a bit behind Movable Type. For a long while, I feel like the two platforms kept up with each other and the competition was probably good for both. Movable Type even offered an Open Source option under GPL for a while. Alas, WordPress became the standard… but by then, I’d build up a solid decade’s worth of posts and the transition seemed like a lot of work for little benefit.

Well, things have changed a bit. Movable Type retired their Open Source version and basically priced individuals out of the software. I’ve mostly limped along since then, never really finding the time or motivation to seriously fix some of the issues. I could certainly continue on this path, but there are a few things I’ve wanted to do for a while now and it seems like WordPress would be a much better (and more sustainable) option for the future. You know, the one where people still care about and read blogs?

So anyway, after 18 years of service, I’m planning to retire Movable Type. Take a bow. Yeah, I probably should have made this transition a decade ago, but for all its faults, MT has served me well. So, what are the reasons I’m making this change? Here’s a few things:

  • HTTPS – Security has become more and more important over the years and somewhat recently, browsers and search engines have started penalizing sites that don’t use TLS/SSL. There are ways to do this on MT, but WordPress appears to be much easier.
  • Pretty Permalinks – Back in 2002, the only option for permalinks was to just use the numerical post id in the URL. A while later, the standard changed to using something more descriptive and while MT offered that option, I’d built up enough history that the change wasn’t as easy, and then it only got worse as time went on. So while I’m updating to HTTPS (which counts as a URL change), I might as well switch to a better, more descriptive permalink. More about how I’ll achieve this below…
  • Responsive Design – I technically already have this, but as already mentioned, it’s barely functional. In general, the design of Kaedrin has degraded a bit over time, and one of the things that WordPress is really good at is allowing quick and easy theme changes. They have a massive library of thousands of designs to choose from, while MT has, like, a dozen (maybe, I’m not checking). Now, the process of browsing and choosing a design theme leaves a lot to be desired, but I think I’ve found a few that could be interesting (and many allow for enough customization that it’ll be fine).
  • Comments – It’s possible to comment here, but man I’ve made it obnoxious to do so, haven’t I? Well, there are plenty of limitations on the MT side and it relied on some third party services that are no longer working (particularly, Google’s OpenID system broke again a few years back after I managed to briefly fix it). In any case, WordPress seems to have a much better way of capturing comments and their anti-spam measures are also better.
  • Support – In general, WordPress has a much better support community. This is also why it has so many design themes and plugins.

And there’s plenty of other reasons. You may have noticed that everything looks the same, and that’s because the transition hasn’t quite happened yet. So why isn’t this fancy new blog shooting into your eyeballs right now? What have I done and what’s left to do?

  • Installation – Installation was a breeze, actually. Only minor little kerfluffles here and there. WordPress is actually powering the main kaedrin.com page right now. It’s not much to look at, but now I’ve got some more options.
  • Importing Posts – Also a relatively simple process. There was one snag, which had to do with the CONVERT BREAKS indicator not being imported properly, but a quick google search for “wordpress movable type import line breaks WHY THE FUCK WON’T IT WORK” yielded a good solution. The only other annoying thing was that the importer can only work on files that are 1 MB or less. Believe it or not, this blog exports to a 12 MB file, so I had to spend some time splitting up the files and importing in batches. But all in all, it was a pretty easy process.
  • Stupid Rewrite Engine – So WordPress does this thing where it uses .htaccess rewrite rules to run the entire URL structure. Which, like, sure, it’s probably better than MT’s static HTML files, but it’s also not nearly as flexible in terms of where you can publish your blog. In particular, since this “weblog” directory already exists, WordPress has difficulty displaying the main page (everything else works fine – I can go to individual posts, archives, etc… with no problem). If you came here in the last few days when I’d been playing with this, you may have seen the main blog page show a 403 error (and you may see that again as I work out kinks). Now, the grand majority of users probably aren’t migrating 20 years of posts and are, in fact, just starting something new and thus won’t experience any issues. But after a few decades and several content management strategies, my directories are a bit of a mess, which causes issues with WordPress’ rewrite engine. It’s nothing insurmountable, but it will take some time to resolve.
  • 301 Redirects – Basically, I need to set this up for every blog post (I’m less concerned about Monthly/Category archives, etc…) There are easy ways to do this and I think there might be a way to do it in bulk, I just need to figure it out. I was hoping that the new and old blog could coexist for a while so that I could do a more leisurely transition, but this may ultimately be for the best anyway…
  • Updating Manual Links/Images – There may be some weirdness in the beginning as some of the old links and images are hardcoded into entries. The 301 redirects should function for the links, but it’s not a good practice to keep them in place; they should be updated to the new URL structure. I should be able to fix the majority of these using find/replace capabilities in WordPress, but again, some weirdness may persist in the archives.
  • The Beer Blog – I haven’t even started on the beer blog, but I’m anticipating basically the same problems there. Not only does that directory already exist (thus probably breaking the rewrite engine), but I also made that directory a sub-domain (again, WordPress’ lack of flexibility in terms of publishing makes this problematic). I’m also shuddering about the thought of reorganizing all the categories there (the import process flattens the category hierarchy – I’m hoping there’s a plugin that allows for better category management, I just haven’t looked yet).

There’s still plenty left to do, but it all seems more approachable than I had feared. A big part of this is the huge ecosystem of plugins and support that WordPress has built up (and that is practically non-existent for MT). I’m hopefully that the new blog will be up and running for the 20th anniversary of the weblog (while Kaedrin existed in various incarnations before the weblog, the first post here was on July 14, 2000). Until then, stay safe and healthy out there folks.

Update 6/30/20: The changes have come and are blasting into your eyeballs as we speak. Turn and face the strange. Moar to come.

Link Dump

I debated writing about something political today, which was a bad idea and now I’m depressed so here, fun links that might brighten up your day.

That’s all for now. Stay safe out there.

SF Book Review – Part 33: Hugo Nominees and Moar

I started this post a few weeks ago, but I had wanted to at least acknowledge what was happening in the world in the intro and that ended up becoming its own post. All of which is to say, stay Safe and Constructive out there everyone! A surprising amount of progress has been made in a short time, but now we’re in for more opportunism and potential backlash, not to mention wave two of the pandemic. Wallowing in social media probably won’t be very productive for a while and maybe losing yourself in a novel is a good way to reset. Here’s a few that I’ve read recently…

  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, an enterprising collector of mysterious trinkets and curious treasures. Set in the beginning of the 20th century, the story follows January and her talent for finding portals to other worlds. She has discovered a book amongst Mr. Locke’s belongings, a book of adventure and doors that features elements eerily familiar to January’s experiences. It’s an interesting enough premise, and it hits on two popular tropes that could make for an interesting combination: the portal story and the book-within-a-book. The former is merely a tease. There are portals to other worlds in this novel, but if you think this is going to be a story about actually traveling to new and interesting places and having adventures there, well, you’d be wrong. There are tantalizing mentions of these other worlds, some of which sound like they could be really exciting, but that’s all we get. We’re mostly just stuck in turn of the 20th century world, which is fine I guess, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a portal story. As a result, the world building feels a bit incomplete. The whole book-within-a-book conceit doesn’t really do much for me either, other than wreak havoc with the pacing of the novel. As previously mentioned, it’s not exactly a rollercoaster to start with, so this addition was not especially appreciated. Furthermore, both of these narrative threads (i.e. January’s and the book’s) are told in first person as a retrospective, which also has an impact on the stakes of the story. The characters came off as a bit flat to me. The heroine is fine, if not especially special (which is weird, because we’re often informed about how unique she is, even as she resembles a million other similar characters). The villains are obvious mustache-twirly types whose motivations don’t make much sense. Frankly my favorite character was Bad, the good doggo that January takes on early in the story. The prose doesn’t help things along either, as it’s overly flowery and at times, preachy (yes, this novel shares the politics of every other Hugo nominee from the past few years and it sometimes comes off as a leaden lecture). Ultimately, with the pacing issues and overbaked prose, it feels like not a lot happens in the book, which is one of those things that just bothers me. I’m obviously in the distinct minority on this one, so I’ll leave it at that. I clearly didn’t enjoy this and as of now it’s at the bottom of my Hugo Awards ballot. If you’re going to open a bunch of doors, you should probably go through them at some point.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Gideon is a swordswoman attempting to escape a life of servitude for the Ninth House. Harrow is the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer. When the Emperor summons the heirs to each house to find a leader so that he can defeat some threat on the horizon, Harrow enlists Gideon as her Cavalier. As the heirs to each house gather for their trials, dead bodies start to pile up, and mysterious bone creatures rear their ugly heads. I really ought to like this more than I do. It’s got a lot of winning elements. A Gothic whodunnit with bone witches and swordfights? What’s not to like? It’s got all the elements, and it comes together in the end fairly well, but there’s just a bunch of nagging complaints I can’t quite get over. A lot of people complain about the dense fog of jargon that is just sorta dropped on your head at the start, but that sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me. Some of the worldbuilding is unclear though, and that does lead to some confusion. The characters are a bit too snarky for my tastes. Gideon, in particular, seems awfully insubordinate for someone who’s supposed to be an indentured servant, and her relationship with Harrow is kinda weird. The whole odd-couple, enemies-to-friends thing is a time honored trope, but it only barely works here because the relationship is just so fraught with mistrust and pain that when things shift later in the story, it comes off as abrupt and perhaps unearned. The rest of the characters are a bit less defined and harder to care that much about, perhaps because there are so many of them (and they drop like flies as the story progresses). The story does seem to lapse into a repetitive state in the middle, but the conclusion is rousing enough. And along the way there are plenty of swordfights and necromantic creatures to keep things interesting. Ultimately, well, this isn’t really my preferred genre, but it comported itself just fine. It’s perhaps a bit too long and while it’s got all the right elements, there’s some tweaking needed to make it really sing. As with A Memory Called Empire and perhaps even The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I feel like this would be better served as a nomination under the Asounding Award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer (all three of these novels are debuts, and thus it’s perhaps not so surprising that I have similar complaints). As a Hugo finalist, this can’t quite compete with the more developed storytelling that you get from Middlegame (which is still at the top of my ballot, even as I didn’t love that novel either…)
  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi – The conclusion to Scalzi’s Interdependency novels (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) is, well, more of the same. Which, considering that I enjoyed the first two novels, is a good thing. I won’t call this Scalzi’s best work or anything, but it’s solid stuff and very entertaining. I don’t need to go into the plot much here because it’s kinda right there in the titles. The empire’s transportation network is collapsing and the Emporox must find a way to restore independence to each system before the become isolated while also fending off various assassination/coup attempts. Look, it’s getting a bit repetitive by this point and maybe it’s something that didn’t require a trilogy of novels to cover, but in general, I enjoyed spending time with these characters and while the scheming and intrigue are repetitive, Scalzi is actually pretty good at this sort of thing. Indeed, reading this not long after other Hugo nominees (particularly A Memory Called Empire, which has similar Empire-in-crisis vibes), put Scalzi’s talent for clever machinations and storytelling in stark relief. There were several surprises throughout, and even though some of them were fakeouts that some might find cheap, I rather enjoyed them. I won’t claim this should be nominated for a Hugo Award, but I do really enjoy Scalzi’s style. This isn’t his best work, but it’s highly enjoyable, and in these dark times, that’s laudible.
  • Randomize by Andy Weir – This is actually a short story, but I thought I’d give it a crack because I like Weir and while this has some interesting elements, it doesn’t fully gel for me. It basically tells the story of how quantum computing could wreak havoc on our world, though he focuses the story on a particular Casino. It’s a good idea and the Casino world is a good microcosm, but some of the machinations, particularly towards the end of the story, are strained and not quite believable. Still, I’m always curious to see where Weir goes. Nothing he’s written recently has been as great as The Martian, but I like his approach.
  • Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge – Towards the beginning of lockdown, I read two books that… start with plots about disease. This was not planned at all and felt a bit weird, but in this one, the disease was really just a delivery vector for something else. Once the story proper starts, the disease bit becomes background. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Robert Gu receives a series of medical treatments that basically cures him of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a world-renowned poet before the disease, but now he awakens to find a world that has dramatically changed. Also, he was apparently a prick before the disease, so he’s got a lot of baggage to wade through with his family and friends. Then he gets caught up in some sort of conspiracy involving that disease vector thing. Once again, reading this in comparison to recent Hugo nominees puts things in stark relief. The sheer idea content of this book is so much higher than anything nominated in the past few years that I’m wondering where this type of science fiction went (incidentally, this won the Hugo back in the aughts). The storytelling is a bit less successful. It’s overlong and some of the characters aren’t entirely likable at first, but it still functions well enough. It sorta meanders a bit at times though, which doesn’t help with the pacing, and while the conclusion pulls all the threads together well enough, it just wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. That said, the aforementioned idea content is high and so even when it’s going off on tangents, it’s interesting. I really enjoyed this book, even if it isn’t Vinge’s best work.
  • Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – Ah, and this is the other disease novel that I inadvertently started reading during a global pandemic. I mean, I guess I should have read the description more, but I like Bear and this has long been on my book queue to catch up with, so I just took a chance and started reading it. Fortunately, it’s a pretty darned good book! Molecular biologist Kaye Lang believes that ancient diseases encoded in human DNA could awaken and start infecting people. Christopher Dicken is a “virus hunter” for the CDC who is hot on the trail of an elusive flu-like disease that only infects expectant mothers and their offspring. Mitch Rafelson is a disgraced paleontologist who stumbles upon the preserved bodies of a prehistoric family in the Alps. Of course, all three plotlines are completely independent with no overlap whatsoever. Oh, wait, no, the opposite of that. To be perfectly honest, much of the details of Bear’s exploration of DNA and disease are way over my head. That said, it all sounds impressive and isn’t obviously wrong, so he’s got that going for him. The broad strokes of the story seem plausible enough and are easy to discern, and it’s an entertaining yarn. It’s the longest book covered in this post, but it earned its length I think. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for Bear’s dense style though, so maybe take that with a grain of salt. The ending perhaps leaves too much room for a sequel (which is out there) and thus isn’t as satisfying as it could have been, but it works well enough.

That’s all for now. I’ve actually got quite a backlog of books to cover, so we’ll probably have another of these posts sooner rather than later.

Safe and Constructive

I’ve been writing this blog for almost 20 years now and while I’ve touched on politics from time to time, it’s not a strong point and I’ve found that while arguing about stuff on the internets can be productive at times, these days it just makes me angry. Social media doesn’t help. With all due respect to Twitter and Facebook, they’re awful platforms for these sorts of discussions. They’re optimized for “increased engagement” but that basically amounts to algorithms that seek to obliterate nuance and sow discord.

A couple of months ago, as the world went into various forms of lockdown to fight a pandemic, I thought maybe blogs could make a comeback. That’s somewhat naive, I guess, and it’s not like some blogs weren’t a cesspool, but they were at least easily isolated or avoided cesspools. Social Media only occasionally scratches that blogging itch, but it’s too easy to mix garbage into your feed (or to have an algorithm insert garbage into your feed despite explicitly rejecting to follow someone, etc…) It’s a signal vs noise problem, and the algorithms find that noise actually increases engagement, so it’s encouraged.

It reminds me of that scene in Private Parts where they’re going over Howard Stern’s ratings and they’re like “The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for an hour and twenty minutes.” and they’re like “That’s amazing, but what about the people who hate him?” and the response is “Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.” People like to be angry I guess, and social media is built around that concept.

Mad

If there’s one recommendation I can make right now, it’s to at least be aware how this sort of thing works. I don’t think you need to avoid social media altogether (though it may be a good idea to take breaks from time to time!), so long as you are thinking critically about what you’re seeing. Anger is a natural and legitimate response to a lot of things in this world (what happened to George Floyd, for instance), but social media’s goal is to increase engagement by stoking that anger into something less focused and unproductive.

Look, anger can prompt action, but it can also end in counterproductive events or, strangely, apathy. I’m not very productive when I’m angry (or, I should say, that kind of angry), which benefits no one. We’re living through an unprecedented mixture of upheavals ranging from a pandemic to police officers committing murder to protests to antifa to looting to curfews and much more. No one reads this blog and to be honest, my “in the moment” analysis isn’t going to be very productive, but I’m reading and thinking and trying to find core issues and ways to support needed change (justice for George and I’m glad the police officer in question has been arrested and charged, but it goes far beyond that). I’m angry, but I’m trying to find ways to contribute that will actually help. As are most people! Another failing of social media is that it amplifies the most divisive voices even what the grand majority of people can all agree on a given issue.

For the record, some bullshit Executive Order isn’t going to “solve” social media. I’m critical of social media in this post, but it also contains value, and improvements to social media probably won’t come from government. The only way to “solve” social media is for its users to be more aware of what those platforms are and how they react to it. A lot of the best parts of the internet are also its worst parts, and it’s important to understand how that works.

All of which is to say: be safe and constructive out there, people. It might seem impossible, but we can get through this stronger than before. Change happens incrementally, and while it might seem like small victories aren’t enough, they can add up and build a base for larger change. But we have to want that. We’re trying to move mountains here, it won’t happen overnight. Being angry on social media isn’t going to get it done. Only a few people read this (or, for that matter, my social media accounts), but if you are reading this, I will repeat: stay safe and constructive.

The 1978 Project: Part V

The 1978 project is a deep dive into the cinema of a single year, undertaken on a whim late last year. As it turns out, this is somewhat good timing, as tons of 2020 films are getting delayed, so it’s nice to still get a feel for a single year, even if it’s not this year… and honestly, it’s much easier to get a feel for the current year because, you know, you’re already living it. I have no idea when I’ll finish this project, but I’ve been making steady progress. Current status: I’ve seen 62 films made in 1978. I still have at least 10 films I want to check out, if not more. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Speaking of which, let’s see what I’ve been watching whilst in lockdown:

  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Robert Zemeckis’s feature directing debut about Beatle mania and six teenagers from Jersey who make the trek to NYC to see The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. The only problem? They don’t actually have tickets for the show. It’s basically a nostalgic “one crazy day/night” story reminiscent of American Graffiti, except this is much more focused and all the little episodic bits tie together better. This little sub-genre experienced a sorta heyday in the 80s, but has remained with us in various incarnations to this day. It’s also notable that most examples of this sort of thing are not led by teenage girls, which this definitely is (though a couple of boys are along for the ride).
    I Wanna Hold Your Hand
    I tend to like, but not love, these sorts of movies, but this one is definitely one of the better examples. The use of the Beatles really serves to crystallize what could easily have fallen into a fractured narrative with no cohesive point. The tone is also perfectly calibrated. Zemeckis isn’t parodying or mocking Beatle mania, nor is he especially praising it. It’s just a thing that existed, and while the goal of getting to meet the Beatles might seem silly, it’s not like it wasn’t a common desire at the time. Zemeckis takes the time to show that the screaming throngs of teenage girls outside the Beatles’ hotel all had their own stories and hangups and reasons to be there, and the result is a playful little film that doesn’t feel forced or cloying (as Zemeckis would later do with Forrest Gump), but remains sweet and a whole lot of fun. ***
  • Up in Smoke – The first Cheech and Chong flick and landmark stoner comedy holds up reasonably well, I guess, but this duo has never really been my thing. They get into wacky adventures and do drugs and it all feels disjointed and pointless… but then, no one is claiming this is high art (though maybe it is, um, “high” art). Some of the bits work well enough and I chuckled a few times, and I like the concluding rock show where Cheech is running around in a tutu playing guitar… but it’s not like I’m gonna rush out and watch the rest of the Cheech and Chong oeuvre. **
  • The Lord of the Rings – Ralph Bakshi’s animated take on the Tolkien classic has a tortured history, and unfortunately that kinda sinks the movie. Bakshi clearly didn’t have the budget to pull off what he was attempting, and there were apparently lots of studio shenanigans and meddling in play. The animation doesn’t look particularly great. There’s a mix of traditional 2D animation and rotoscoping, and the latter comes in a variety of quality ranging from not that bad (I thought it looked ok for wide shots or landscapes) to absolutely horrendous (the barely animated film of extras wearing off-the-shelf gorilla masks pretending to be orcs). The transition between the two styles can be jarring too. A lot of that can be chalked up to budgetary constraints, but even the general designs aren’t that attractive, and the decision to condense the first two books into one narrative leads to an awkwardly plotted, rushed, and yet somehow simultaneously plodding experience. Much of the battles and chases take forever to get through, even as the narrative plows forward. Naturally, it ends on something of a cliffhanger and Bakshi’s follow-up was never produced (though there was a Rankin-Bass attempt to resolve the narrative a couple years later). Bakshi’s movies have a bit of a cult following, and I can kinda see why, but now that we have Peter Jackson’s take on the trilogy, this just pales in comparison.
    Lord of the Rings
    Even considering that Jackson clearly has some affection for Bakshi’s adapatation (he lifted some scenes directly from the animated version, particularly when the Ringwraith catches up with the hobbits on the road), the live-action films are far better paced and look much better. It’s worth a watch for completists and Tolkien nuts, but probably not much interest to anyone else. *
  • Fedora – Billy Wilder’s penultimate film winds up being something like Sunset Boulevard Redux, covering similar themes, perhaps updated for the 70s. Unfortunately, what that means is that the film demands comparison to an all-time classic and can’t help but fail to live up to that standard. That being said, it’s an interesting little ride, and Wilder’s not-so-flattering portrait of Hollywood and its inhabitants works well enough, even when transported to Europe. A down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer attempts to lure the famously reclusive but world-renowned actress Fedora out of retirement. But he’ll have to get past her retinue of well-meaning but possibly abusive hangers-on. It’s not quite as clever or twisty as it wants to be, and it drags in the second act, but it’s still a fun ride and the ending is engaging if not entirely surprising. If it’s a failure, it’s an interesting one. **1/2
  • Autumn Sonata – A mother-daughter showdown between an absentee concert-pianist mother and mousy caretaker daughter. Also known as “The Meeting of the Bergmans”, with Ingmar Bergman directing Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in the waning chapters of both of their careers. It starts slow, with the mother arriving for a visit and the daughter seemingly glad to have her… but things gradually become more tense, perhaps even passive aggressive. It all boils over when a lifetime of pent-up resentment and anger gets released one night.
    Autumn Sonata
    This is not normally my thing, but once that second half started, I couldn’t help but fall into the rythms of the movie. It’s talky and melodramatic, but you can’t help but fall for it. Ultimately, I’m not sure how much I really understand about these characters, though it’s hard not to feel for them. Ingmar famously deploys closeups in his directing, and he uses them to good effect here, making the accusations and emotional baggage nearly inescapable. Ingrid Bergman is certainly the more famous actress and she’s great as the overbearing yet oblivious mother, but I was more impressed by Liv Ullmann as the deservedly angry daughter. Her initial meekness and all the niceties of her interactions takes a big turn mid-way through the film, with Ullmann nearly hyperventilating in anger and resentment, and she pulls it off well. Ultimately, I can’t help but respect this movie, even if I don’t especially “enjoy” it or even understand it that well. ***

I’ve got a few more flicks in the hopper, but I’ll leave it at these five for now… look for another recap in a few weeks!