The world’s youngest Blink 182 fan

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1oUOvhv0RU]

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Having recently re-read HP 6 in preparation for the movie, I found myself struggling to remember exactly what happens at the end of the story. Seeing as the next movies are more than a year away, I decided to re-read HP 7. Some thoughts below–Spoilers ahead:

Those Deathly, Deathly Hallows
Those Deathly, Deathly Hallows
  • I enjoyed the book quite a bit on the second reading. Knowing the general outline of the plot gave me a bit more leisure to savor it. In particular, I wasn’t frustrated with the ages of camping Harry and his buddies do in the first half.
  • Jenny re-read the book too, and we’ve been talking about how they might make it into two movies. On one hand, I can see why this would make a good two-part movie, as it has lots of good short sequences that need telling in the overall story. On the other hand, I think it’s really all about the Benjamins.
  • This book has some excellent action sequences. I think the opening battle of the many Potters and the closing Battle of Hogwarts are both amazing. And the fall of Fred hit me right between the eyes, again.
  • I found some of the metaphyiscal stuff at the end a bit hokey this time around — having Dumbledore visit Harry in King’s Cross station and exposition the story along is a bit of a cheat, but since we haven’t seen ol’ Dumby for the whole book, we’re happy to see him.
  • Why oh why couldn’t we see Dolores Umbridge and Rita Skeeter get their comeuppances?
  • This time around I read the British version, which Jenny’s dad brought us from a trip to the U.K. I don’t remember the other book well enough to spot the differences.
  • I still don’t know what a Hallow is. I understand what the objects in the book were, but I don’t know why they were called Hallows. Correction: The Google definition function tells me they’re relics. Since the eponymous relics in this book belonged to Death, they are the Deathly Hallows. Sure, that works.
  • Moments I can’t wait to see in the movie: escape from the Malfoy Manor, Hagrid carrying Harry’s corpse toward Hogwarts, Snape’s big death scene, Molly Weasley versus Bellatrix.

As an aside, looking at the Harry Potter wiki, I see that the series took place in the early 1990s, and ended in 1998. Interesting. All this stems from two dates provided in the text, Nearly Headless Nick’s death (and subsequent 500th deathiversary) and the dates on Harry’s parents’ tombstones.

BookMooch queue

I’m having a strange experience over at BookMooch. As a way to keep myself from spending too much mailing books, I have a self-imposed limit of $10-12 / month. This means I can mail three or four books domestically, or a smaller amount if I’m sending one overseas. My queue of books to send is usually under control, swelling to 4 or 5 books by the time I hit mailing day, so I’m almost always a month away from sending books mooched from me. I publicize this fact on my bio statement, though, so people better not complain.

Just a day or two ago, however, I got two mooch requests from overseas, pushing my queue to the breaking point. Thus, my message now says:

I can also only afford to send two or three books a month (depending how big they are and where they’re going), so if you happen to mooch a book in a month when I’ve already met quota, I’ll have to delay sending until the following month. My apologies, but I have a large queue of mooches to send, so if you mooch from me right now, I will ship your book sometime around 15 October.

It will be interesting to see whether the current backup will keep away the moochers. If you mooched one of my books right now, it would be nearly 10 weeks before I’d mail it. You’d get a small-appliance rebate faster.

Big Train, Series 2

Distracting the boss
Distracting the boss

More of the same. I enjoyed it still, but didn’t get much sense of the troupe having evolved or moved forward. The series continues to revolve around the ideas of strange situations made surreal by their ordinary environs. If anything, the biggest difference this time around was in their willingness to push the joke past the funny moment, into the odd-because-it’s-too-long moment, and back to funny again. The best example of this was a series of sketches where a man sees a Wizard of Oz Tin Man staring at him on the bus. He gets off and finds himself followed:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPRGe9Vyojo]

Another element is the slow burn humor. This is where a joke is obviously funny, but the humor of the sketch comes from pushing past that first joke into a second that burns slowly. Here’s an example:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JibxHpXqAfc]

And this one’s funny mostly because I am only aware, in the most vague terms, that Billie Piper sings. I think of her mostly as the Doctor’s companion.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_3oU-Z4Vxo]

Not really that strange

The Stranger
The Stranger

The Stranger (The Labyrinths of Echo, book 1) by Max Frei

We read this book for my speculative fiction book club last month, but I’ve only now just finished it. The Stranger tells the story of “Sir Max,” a layabout unable to sleep at night who finds himself recruited to a fantasy world where he is to serve as the night-time deputy for the head of the Secret Investigative Service of the Unified Kingdom (read KGB). It’s a world of magic and exotic behavior. Some thoughts:

  • Aside from being a dense 545 pages, the book reads really slowly. Instead of the usual 50-60 pages an hour that I can knock out in most books, I got at most 40 for this book.
  • There’s something weird about the writing that put me off the book a little. Someone in our book club said that the word on the book-review-osphere is that the translation doesn’t do the book justice. I have to assume this plays a key role in the book’s failure to hook. It feels really detached; the translator used the passive voice a lot and it gives the book a weird feel.
  • The book’s Russian roots show through strongly, as the main character works for a secret police group that actually controls the country. We never get a sense that he’s a bad guy — in fact, he stops many bad things from happening — but he’s also a feared member of a secret police, and we regularly get the sense that people tremble at the sight of him.
  • There’s also a lot of concern with coffee and cigarettes. And why shouldn’t there be? The book obsesses with food, which was a bit of a turn off for me.
  • There are a bunch of interesting and innovative ideas in the book, don’t get me wrong. Among the more amusing ideas: levels of magical power are regulated since the “Times of Trouble” got everybody into a ruckus; food preparation has the most allowable uses for magic, as certain kinds of magic are needed for amazing dishes to be made; Max ends up performing magic accidentally a lot, since he’s got a natural affinity for it but hasn’t been taught. I most enjoyed it when he learns to capture or carry people by shrinking them and holding them in the flesh between his thumb and index finger.

I have a lot of trouble seeing why this book carries the strong bestseller weight it seems to in Russia. My strongest impression is that the book underplays its drama too strongly. In each of the seven chapters, which function almost like independent stories, there are dramatic moments that could be stunning fights or battles. Instead, like a play where the fighting takes place off stage, a paragraph or two are all we need to resolve the drama. So a 70 page story about some mysterious evil gets resolved in 2 pages.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic and Old Lace

When I was in college, I went to a high school production of Arsenic and Old Lace in which the boy playing Dr. Einstein did a very creditable Peter Lorre impression in the part. As we watched, I wondered if Lorre was in the film version of the play, or if the boy just thought it would fit the role well. Having now seen the film (via “Watch Instantly”), I’m interested in the King and I problem — I wonder if anyone plays that role without a nod to Lorre? (There’s an episode of, um, Seinfeld?, in which a man playing the King of Siam in the stage play of the King and I complains that he’s continually asked why he isn’t bald. “Yul Brenner was bald, not the King!” he exclaims).

Anyhow, Arsenic and Old Lace works well as a filmed version of a play. It has all the enjoyable elements of that original work, from the exasperated theatre critic to the neglected new bride to the dotty old ladies to the Teddy Roosevelt charging up the stairs. But it also does nothing beyond what the play does. (Scratch that — I don’t know if the cab driver is in the play.) But it does hardly anything beyond the play, and this is its failing. Forgetting that filmic storytelling needs to be vibrant in a different way than the theatre does, Arsenic comes up short in its staging.

It occurs to me that this could make a great horror film with just a little twist in the presentation of the ladies and the inflection of the nephew. What if Mortimer were the schemer and Jonathan was a misunderstood homebody who loves his aunts? What if the aunts were hateful women hiding behind a mask of civility, and Teddy were disturbingly deranged rather than delightfully deranged? I wonder what that staging might look like. I wonder if the dialogue could survive given just a different inflection and staging.

Some quick thoughts on flying solo

Fun at the Park
Fun at the Park

Jenny went to her parents’ house this weekend, so I was home with the kids (Avery, a 3.5yo girl and Finn, a 11mo boy) for 3 days. I was able to borrow a car for one of those days.

Activities:

  • Friday (car): zoo, picnic lunch; ice cream shop, park (1)
  • Saturday: downtown via el, family fun at Millennium park, lunch at Arby’s; park (2), saw some neighbor kids, dinner at softball tournament
  • Sunday: park (1), met up with neighbors, picnic lunch, pool; Jenny arrived home, dinner out

Joys:

  • Avery was a delight at nearly all the outings, the “waterfall” at Millennium park was particularly entertaining. Her splashing/running gait through the water embodies childhood glee.
  • Finn continues to be awesome. He scowled at the pool most of the time, but then I’d catch him surreptitiously paddling at the water.
  • Both kids continue to enjoy the El. Finn likes sticking his fingers in the air-conditioning vent by the window (though keeping his mouth off it was a challenge).
  • All three days included an everyone nap of around 90 minutes. Thank God.
  • General delight in fathering.
  • Hanging out with the neighbor kids across the street and their dad was fun.
Fun in the Millennium Park waterfall
Fun in the Millennium Park waterfall

Challenges:

  • Finn got diarrhea on Thursday morning and it continued through Sunday morning. So lots of diaper changing and sheet changing and fussy baby. And 5am wakeups daily.
  • Only a couple tantrums from Avery, but one barn-burner when it was time to leave Arby’s. I apologized to the other patrons.
  • Each kid “Boomed” their head once during the weekend. Avery slipped while running around the Millennium park water area (despite my several warnings to “walk, WALK, WALK!“) and Finn crawled over a footstool and off the other side onto the floor. I stopped him the first three times.
  • Finding time to take care of personal hygiene. (Notice my unshaved appearance.)

Avery continues to be hilarious most of the time, and Finn has gotten really good at doing what you told him not to, then smiling slyly at you . Fun bonding time, but I’m glad my better half has returned.

Pride and Prejudice, no zombies

Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennet
Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennet

I know most of you assume that I go in for costume dramas, but I’m not usually the first one on the couch when somebody says “6-hour Jane Austen adaptation.” But a couple things lured me into the beloved 1990s BBC adaptation: 1) I just read the Austen book and the Graham-Smith/Austen “adaptation,” 2) I like Firth a lot, and know this show propelled him to stardom in the UK, 3) Brian admired Jennifer Ehle’s performance in terms most reasonably considered gushing. So when Jenny announced, upon finishing re-reading the book last week in preparation for her book club meeting, that she would be watching the BBC adaptation, I volunteered to watch it with her.

Lucy Davis
Lucy Davis

In short, excellent. Very good stuff.

  • The choice to make the story 6 hours was a strong one, as it gives the cast time to linger over the moments that make the story work. When Darcy visits Elizabeth and doesn’t know what to say, we get to sit with them awkwardly. There’s a lot of sitting awkwardly. The length of the story (months and months) works when the story draws out.
  • The casting is amazing all around. I am always enamored of villains, nincompoops, and assholes in films. And the casting of the shriekingly inane Mrs. Bennet, the odious Mr. Collins, and the evil-eye wielding Lady DeBourgh (sp?) are all perfect. And Mr. Bingley’s sisters? The hatchet-nosed one harpies her way from scene to scene.
  • Colin Firth’s stunning performance in the show becomes ever so much more amazing when we consider the range of facial expressions he’s allowed to use. I have it on good information that he would have forfeited his entire salary for the film if he smiled even once. And with those starchy collars, he’s not going to be doing any head bowing or nodding. And to echo Brian’s sentiment, Ehle conveys unbelievable nuance and sentiment in the slightest dance of an eyebrow or widening of an eye.
  • One of the more remarkable parts of this series, for me, is the fact that the writers maintained Austen’s layered language and subtle conversations. A professor of mine from way back once credited his deep love for Henry James novels in their layered language. “Everyone is nodding and smiling to one another, murmuring pleasantries while intrigues fly just under the radar. It’s what they’re not saying that grabs you.” This adaptation maintains Austen’s similar use of dialog in Pride and Prejudice. The best example of this moment for me comes at the end, when Wickham, now married to Lydia, tries to slather on a few more lies about his childhood. Elizabeth mentions that she knows he turned down his place in the chapel, and they say nothing more about it. But the undercurrent was as clear as day: “I know everything you’ve done, you cad.”
  • I enjoyed seeing a young Lucy Davis (Dawn from the British The Office) as Caroline Lucas’ younger sister.

An excellent adaptation.

Big Train, series 1

I happened upon this early Graham Lineman show after I Netflixed The IT Crowd, and was doubly persuaded when I saw that it featured Simon Pegg. Big Train continues the British tradition of sketch comedy, building on the Python tradition but feeling a bit more like Kids in the Hall, but without the returning characters. It’s pretty funny, though not amazing. Some thoughts:

  • One of my favorite things about British television is its insular nature. Among the people I enjoyed seeing on Big Train: Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and others); Mark Heap (Brian from Spaced); and Kevin Eldon (small parts on I’m Alan Partridge and Black Books). For a while I thought Amelia Bullmore was Fran from Black Books, but she was played by Tamsin Greig. Really, they look quite a bit alike.
  • The show has a running gag throughout involving the “Stare-off” contest in which two combatants stare at each other. It’s minutes of animated stillness narrated by sports commentators who “wow!” and gasp at the motionless competitors on the screen.
  • Overall, it’s pretty high quality sketch comedy, and worth a look if you like shows following Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Kids in the Hall.

Here are youtube clips of a couple of the amusing sketches.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtllWIiOTuA] [youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMh9CDNQhBg] [youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3FruN_Lu5g]

Will the real Andy Kaufman stand up?

Brüno
Brüno

There’s a brilliant moment toward the end of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno in which a rabid crowd of UFC fans suddenly shifts from screaming in glee at the impending beating of a gay man to screaming in anger. As I watched the caricatured homophobes roaring, gasping and, in one particularly amazing shot, looking distinctly crushed — as if something inside had died — I couldn’t help but remember Andy Kaufman’s infamous turn as a heel in the professional wrestling circuit.

Brüno complicates the easy relationship we usually have to humor. While many of the jokes in Borat were easier to laugh at directly, Brüno often pulls its humor from making both the audience and its victims uncomfortable. And while Borat was a caricature of a racist homophobe, Brüno becomes the caricature of the flamboyant gay man, provoking his subjects as their target rather than as fellow traveler.

The film also has an over-the-top sexual component that far exceeds what you might expect to see in any mainstream film. Frankly, I’m surprised they were able to get an R rating. But as Owen Gleiberman pointed out in his Entertainment Weekly review, such moments play more to Brüno‘s personality; he is who he is.

The funniest moments go back to Baron Cohen’s bread-and-butter, the improv interview. At several points in the film, he follows his old formula of starting with something within the scope of semi-reasonable behavior and then twisting his victims further and further out past the edge of all reason.

As you leave the film, you’ll find yourself arguing with your companions about which parts were real — there are moments that feel like they must have been staged. Which begs the question, what is this movie? Is it documentary? Is it a prank film? Is it fiction, of a piece with The Bicycle Thief and other Neorealist films shot on location among non-actors?

Changing licenses

Flickr allows users to designate any of a number of licenses for their images, everything from a standard copyright (all rights reserved) to a variety of Creative Commons licenses. It also lets users change their licenses whenever they like. This means if they decide they want to stop offering CC licenses with their images, they may do so.

The ability to change the license connected to images creates some interesting problems. From the CC website:

This is an extremely important point for you to consider. Creative Commons licenses are non-revocable. This means that you cannot stop someone, who has obtained your work under a Creative Commons license, from using the work according to that license. You can stop offering your work under a Creative Commons license at any time you wish; but this will not affect the rights associated with any copies of your work already in circulation under a Creative Commons license. So you need to think carefully when choosing a Creative Commons license to make sure that you are happy for people to be using your work consistent with the terms of the license, even if you later stop distributing your work.

But Flickr’s system is real-time, with no history. So an image that’s got a CC license today can be marked “all rights reserved” tomorrow, and the person who downloaded the image has no way of proving that the license applied when they downloaded it.

The result is that an image owner can, after you have legitimately used their image under the license they applied, change the license and then email you a takedown notice. Since there’s no history, there’s no definitive way to prove that you used the image legitimately.

I started a Flickr thread with this post:

…One simple way could be for the account OWNER to have access to a randomly generated URL-key that gives access to the license history of a given image. Thus, if a dispute over an image arises, the person accused of mis-using the image can demand access to the license history and the image owner can grant it for a one time or short time basis. This would allow both parties access to the history of the image without providing general access to the previous status of the images.

I’d also be interested to hear whether this continues to be a problem for other users of Flickr. I myself have had two instances in which I’ve been asked to remove images that were previously CC but had been changed to non-CC licenses. As someone who goes out of my way to use CC images, it’s frustrating to have to either a) change my pages later or b) fight with the image owner.

The conversation has been interesting, but a bit more philosophical than I’d like. I’m curious if anyone here has thoughts about this system. You can contribute here or on the Ideas thread.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, primary and secondary phases

Primary Phase
Primary Phase

By Douglas Adams; Narrated by a cast at the BBC

I’ve heard that among fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, there has been a longstanding argument about whether the novel or the original BBC radio drama is the definitive version of the book. Frankly, I don’t care. That said, I enjoyed the BBC drama very much.

Told in 12 “Fits,” organized into two “phaases,” the radio play tells the story of hapless human Arthur Dent, grabbed by his pal, the space-wandering stringer for the Guide, Ford Prefect, to wander the galaxy in the wake of the Earth’s destruction. Making appearances are Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin the paranoid android, and many others. Dent wanders across the galaxy, getting into all sorts of mischief and generally goofing around. A few more thoughts:

  • While the book feels very late-70s, the radio show does very much more. The futuristic sound effects and other elements that date easily are quite dated, but they still work. The most particular timestamp, for me, was Zaphod’s use of hippie slang like “Man” and “Groovy” and “Wrap your head around this.”
  • Marvin the paranoid depressed android continues to be my favorite part of the story. He’s such a downer. The other cybernetic characters, like the friendly door and the overly-helpful ship-board computer were also quite amusing.
  • I was pleased to note that a young James Broadbent had a small part in the story, as did Jonathan Pryce. In Pryce’s case, I recognized his voice and inflection and had my suspicions confirmed by the final credits.
  • There’s a short passage in which the philosophers argue with the super computer built to solve the question of life, the universe, and everything, that I thought was particularly amusing. Despite my deep respect for the Humanities and our talent at finding solutions to questions not answered by science, I thought this passage was particularly funny given the recent fracas among science writers about “accomodationism.” (Accomodationism is the word used by advocates of science who think science agencies should not weigh in one way or another about science’s relationship to religion, as opposed to the current NISE policy that science and religion are compatible and explain “Non-overlapping magisteria.” More here.) In short, the philosophers argue that the computer should not be set on its current task because it will put them out of business.
  • I enjoyed this version, and given its provenance (namely, it was produced before the book was published), I’m inclined to say that it is the definitive edition, but I like the book just as much. I guess it doesn’t really matter to me.
  • As I was listening to the story, it occurs to me that Wikipedia will eventually become Encyclopedia Galactica, and that some offshoot, like Everything2, will become the Guide. I can’t wait to have a Kindle-like device with DON’T PANIC embossed in extremely friendly lettering on the cover.

Fans of the Guide, what do you think?

July music rundown

June/July’s downloads from emusic:

  • Jonathan Coulton, Thing a Week One: I was missing seven songs from this album, and was very happy to get them. By far, my favorite is “Someone is Crazy.” The jaunty banjo gets me hoppin every time. Check out the AMV below. Apparently there was a contest.
  • Trout Fishing in America, Big Trouble: a thoroughly enjoyable kids album with songs kids and grown-ups can like equally. The coffee song is a must for coffee fans like me. My favorite songs: “When I was a Dinosaur,” “Big Trouble,” “I Think I’ll Need a Bandaid,” “What I Want is a Proper Cup of Coffee,” “The Window,” and “Pico De Gallo.” All are excellent. The best line comes from “Big Trouble,” a song about a child whose parents went out for the day and while they were gone monsters came over to play:

    And what happened to the table? Is a question they might ask.
    There was a big guy with a chainsaw and a scary hockey mask.

  • Booker T. and the M.Gs, four songs from McLemore Avenue: Fine seventies instrumentals, but I guess I expected something a bit more awesome.
  • The Kinks, six songs from various albums: “Destroyer,” “Art Lover” — creepy! The phrase “come to daddy” has never been so horrible — “Celluloid Heroes,” “(I Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” “Low Budget” –an excellent rock anthem — and “20th Century Man”
  • Passion Pit, one song: “Sleepyhead”, a weird techno thingy. Enjoyable.

Jamendo:

None this month.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSxo_FUkW9s]

2009-07-19 Tweets

  • The Band Dick Tidrow: why did you only record one album? #
  • The Ethicist coins my new favorite phrase: New fangled is my favorite kind of fangled. #

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Child 44

Child 44
Child 44

by Tom Rob Smith

Set in the end of Stalin’s reign in Russia, Child 44 tells the story of MGB agent Leo Deminov, who discovers that a serial killer has been working all over the country, but the party line of “no crime” means that he’s unable to investigate.

The book grips the reader from beginning to end, immersing a thrilling serial killer procedural within the vicious and horrible background of Stalin’s most terrible era. Some other thoughts:

  • Smith consistently throws the reader for a loop, developing one line of thought or plot and then changing directions right about the time we feel smug for seeing where things are going. But at the same time, none of these changes feels outrageous or forced.
  • The setting works very well, giving the reader a distinct and authentic-feeling sense of the suspicion and intrigue of Stalin-era Russia. It’s a place where being a suspect meant you were a criminal, and being arrested meant you would confess and be convicted.
  • The book also rings relevant to our current situation, given its thematic treatment of torture as a way to get information from suspects. It’s a dark part of the book, but works well.
  • There are also genuine passages of solid character development, following Leo and his wife Raisa as they struggle with the ethics of personal behavior in a setting of unethical behavior.
  • The murder mystery works well, with tight plotting and a solid solution. Great all around.

Definitely worth a read.