The Titanic Documentary Avalanche

What really sank the Titanic?
What really sank the Titanic?*

Since the week of the 100th anniversary, I’ve watched several Titanic documentaries I recorded off History and Discovery in the week preceding 14 April..  Some thoughts:

Titanic’s Sister Ship: The Sinking of the Britannic

  • Good: decent footage of deep wreck diving by experienced divers Chatterton and Kohler (from the excellent book Shadow Divers).
  • Bad: About 30 minutes of fluff and 10 minutes of actual wreck diving.
  • Other observations: this really had nothing to do with Titanic at all, and to use the more famous ship in the title was just cheesy.  Also, the events here were documented in Titanic’s Last Secrets.

The Titanic’s Last Secrets

  • Good: interesting documentation of discovery of a couple key bottom portions of the ship.
  • Bad: A lot of cheesy music intended to make the dive seem more exciting than the footage allowed.
  • Other observations: You’ll get tired of the phrase ribbons of steel.  Really, you will.

Titanic’s Achilles Heel
Expands on the information from the previous two docs — follows Chatterton and Kohler on a boring dive of Britannic.  Should have been blended into the episode about Britannic — there was plenty of fluff they could have trimmed to make the two into one episode.

  • Good: The historical portion of the show focused on the hearings in both the U.S. and Britain.  Interesting recap of the British whitewash and American scouring.  The brief discussion of how the changed expansion joint would have been stronger works nicely.
  • Bad: Underwater footage is terrible — the viewer sees none of the interesting new evidence they find.  The bulb at the end of the expansion joint–the key discovery–is invisible to the viewer.  Making a lot of hay out of nothing (as in: Will the inexperienced Greek boat captain be able to find the wreck? Yes, he did it! Ugh.)
  • Other observations: The documentary leaves out poor Stanley Lord of the Californian.  He took quite a whipping in both investigations, but has been exonerated so these docs ignore him completely.
  • Writing of scapegoats, the poor naval architect Roger Long gets full credit for being wrong in this episode.  Every chance they get, the narrator says “Roger Long believes… .”  Then we see him admit that they’ve “shot holes in his theory.”  It’s like a little schadenfreude in lieu of something interesting to see on the dive.

Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved!

  • Good: cool robots being used to map 15 square miles of ocean floor around the wreck site, accident investigators hired to piece together what happened, cool digital effects, cool footage of the wreck site.
  • Bad: if you strung together the content of the 120-minute show without commercials, re-caps, or pre-commercial promos, it’s probably no more than 70 minutes of show.  Lame.
  • Other observations: the show doesn’t mention the stop/start detailed in Last Log of the Titanic, has flawed explanations of the rivet tests (or else flawed tests), offers same old excuses for deaths.  Only Andrews comes out looking better because they decided there was not a technical flaw in the ship’s design.

*I spent a couple minutes trying to track down the original fabricator of this image, to no avail.  Such things circulate on the Internet much like jokes in daily life — yes, someone told it originally, but its author gets lost in circulation.  The difference, of course, is that re-posting an image someone else made takes no creative spark or ability whatsoever.  Telling jokes takes at least a memory and a performative spirit.

 

The Black Orchids

Black Orchids
Black Orchids

by Rex Stout

Nero Wolfe doesn’t like leaving his house.  But when a rival orchid fancier brings a new hybrid “Black Orchid” to the New York Flower Show (or some such), Wolfe overcomes his agoraphobia and leaves the brownstone, only to stumble onto a murder.  The second tale in this slim volume involves a return of the orchids in another case, one where Wolfe investigates not for a fee, but out of some other motive (spite for the police?).  A few thoughts:

  • Like all Wolfe novels, Black Orchids works best for its snappy banter, the jostling between Wolfe and Goodwin, and the way people get both incensed and dissected under the detective’s keen gaze.
  • The mysteries tend to focus mostly on method and motive, not a search for the suspect.  This is the shape of most Wolfe mysteries — he operates not in the vacuum of the police investigating a serial murder, but rather in the narrow window of the manor-house murder, where every suspect can fit into his drawing room at the same time.
  • While the novel included a little bit of the old team sneaking around town, I would have preferred more.  Both of these stories involved fairly straightforward investigations by Archie and Saul, with only a little Cramer-baiting for flavor.
  • Two things about the era emerge from these stories: first, the simple pleasures of the 1940s.  Archie and many others show up every day to see a pretty woman paddle her feet in a pond.  I just don’t see that plot point working very well today.  Second, a wealthy manor house has all sorts of wild animals, including an orangutan and a big cat (panther? I don’t remember).  Again, this seems less likely now, though we do see the occasional pet tiger at Mike Tyson’s place.

A fine entry in the Wolfe canon, eminently readable; perfect for a quick summer read.

Not really the extra mile, but they got there nonetheless OR, The Saga of the 43 minute Christmas Song

"Season for dancing" Justin  RussellIn December, I mentioned how I’d selected, among my music for the month, Non-stop Christmas Party Anthems which included a 47 minute track.  When I went to download it by clicking on “download full album”, however, it failed to download.  This had happened before, and I usually found that I could download the tracks individually, so I tried that.  I was able to get all the other tracks, but not the medley.  Since I was curious what a 47 minute christmas medley would sound like, I tried again, I tried the online help, I updated the download manager, to no avail.  So I began a gauntlet of customer service emails.

The long and short of it is that eventually they figured out that they couldn’t fix the problem, and that the track could only be downloaded as part of the “full download” link, rather than by individually clicking on the tracks, even if the whole album had been downloaded.  So they credited my account with enough to buy the album again, now that they’d fixed the album download link.

Below the cut lies the sordid details, for your edification. Continue reading Not really the extra mile, but they got there nonetheless OR, The Saga of the 43 minute Christmas Song

On Prometheus

Prometheus

I saw Prometheus Monday evening and have a few thoughts.  Spoilers ahead.

The Good

I liked the movie quite a bit.  The imagery and feel of the film are gorgeous, and I enjoyed the concepts for the monsters, the idea of the alien race being a kind of morphing biological weapon, the ship, the terror the individuals feel, the albino creepy engineers, and Michael Fassbinder competing with Charlize Theron.

I enjoyed the mix of explanation and mystery, and the end that involved an open question.  I enjoyed that the film set the ground for Alien without being a direct prequel.  It’s an ancestor, not a parent.

And as often happens, I found myself agreeing with Mark Bousquet at Atomic Anxiety, even if I disagree with many things he says at the same time. In particular, Bousquet suggests that the film serves as part of a retrospective, in which Scott reflects back on themes and ideas that haunt his films.  This movie certainly returns to questions of the soul, of humankind, etc.

However…

The Bad

There are a lot of howlingly bad moments in this movie.  I find these critiques of the science, of evolution particularly, and of the overall plot and character development all valid and correct.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a realism pedant.  I don’t generally complain that spaceships make noise in space, or that gravity shouldn’t work on a spaceship like it does on Earth, or even FTL travel.  These are things to note, but I’m happy to consign them to the “they solved that problem with technology” magic wand that SF writers get to wave.

At the same time, I don’t cotton to astoundingly stupid rewrites of current knowledge NOR to stupid decisions from characters who shouldn’t be stupid.  And I think these kinds of lapses make it hard to really like films.  Keep in mind Stephen Spielberg’s dictum about dumb things in movies — if the audience is with you, they’ll forgive you dumb mistakes in favor of drama.  For example, the scuba tank at the end of JAWS.  But to get there, we had to have some realistic-seeming shark attacks first.  Prometheus doesn’t give us any time for such things.

My top three complaints about the structure, shape, and storytelling of Prometheus that got in the way of me enjoying the film (some of these appear in the lists linked above.  This list is the things that occurred to me personally, but my description of them certainly owes to having perused the links above):

First: Dumb scientists. The film presents archaeologists as evidence-light crackpots, biologists as alternatively cowardly and stupid, and geologists as belligerent.  Admittedly, the sample size is pretty small here, but all the scientists are really stupid.  Some quick examples of how dumb they are: they take off their helmets in an Earth-like atmosphere (microbes, anyone?), they use their bodies to investigate things instead of using remote probes, they take almost no quarantine procedures, and they’re really cavalier about encounters with alien creatures.

Second: Poorly planned mission.  The hodgepodge crew and the idea that they’re just getting their mission briefing when they land is ridiculous.  Presumably, this was meant to mirror the situation in Alien, when the idiosyncratic crew awoke at an unexpected time with an unexpected mission.  But these aren’t miners who’ve been on a dozen trips to deep space — this is a specialized ship outfitted directly for this mission, and the idea that they’d pick such unstable buttheads is just DUMB.  And that they’d know nothing about their mission, even DUMBER.

Third: Evolution.  Jesus H. Darwin.  This film shows an incredibly uninformed notion of how DNA and evolution work.  While I’m personally not closed off to the idea of panspermia, the introduction of life on Earth would have had to happened billions of years ago in order to fit the fossil and genetic record we see all around us.  And the shaping tides of natural selection and adaptation would by no means have necessarily shaped human beings at the end, nor would that DNA match.  So for the scenario in the film to have happened, the “Prometheus” character who tumbles into the waterfall at the beginning wouldn’t have guaranteed that human beings evolved at the end of the line.

Instead, to have a DNA match, they would have had to seed humans directly, around the time we emerged, within the last 100k years or so.  But that raises the gigantic question of the rest of the biosphere — why does it match our DNA?  If we’re “made” how is it that our DNA is so close to the other members of the animal kingdom?  It just doesn’t make any sense. When the archeologists found the DNA match, they shouldn’t have concluded that the engineers made us, but rather that we’re their siblings.  It’s also extremely irksome that the biologist is both cowardly and stupid instead of curious, and that he uses the term “Darwinism” to describe his field of study.  In my experience, Darwinism is a term used mostly by people who oppose evolution on philosophical grounds.

An alternate plot:

I would have found it MUCH more plausible if the filmmakers had proposed an alternate historical timeline, one that included a humankind that evolved an advanced civilization during the first twenty-thousand years of homo sapien‘s time on Earth.  It would have taken some fancy footing to explain where the ruins of that civilization are, but at least it wouldn’t have ignored a vast compendium of evidence.  What if the Engineers weren’t an alien species at all, but an early human civilization that rose to high technology, got endangered by some coming global cataclysm, and set out for the stars?  After several thousand years, they return and find humankind regressed to technological infancy, so they leave the star calling cards the archeologists find.  BOOM, same premise for the movie without such stupid science (I’m sure archaeologists would find it just as implausible as biologists find this movie, but it seems like a much smaller cheat to me).

All that said, I enjoyed the movie a lot.  There were good squiggly aliens and neato ships and so on.  But it never got close to plausible, so I never got to suspend my disbelief.

Fantastic Gunther’s will trim your beard so you look good with or without a hat.

It's a special jacket/ hat combo you can only see from the side.
It's a special jacket/ hat combo you can only see from the side.

I imagine this is some sort of crime report, as these look like mug shots, but I like to imagine this is an ad from a proto-Etsy for a shirt, jacket, hat combo hand sewn by a milkmaid in Dusseldorf.

The Fear Index

The Fear Index
The Fear Index

By Robert Harris, narrated by Christian Rodska

One of the most successful hedge funds in the world has run into some trouble.  Its owner, the reclusive computer programming genius Alex Hoffmann, woke to find an intruder in his home, and seems to be at the center of a vast conspiracy designed for some unknown purpose to bring chaos into his life.  He, his wife, his business partner, and the workaday policeman investigating the break-in feel things must have to do with Hoffmann’s hedge fund and its alchemical algorithm whose lightning-fast trades seem to spin gold from the electronic aether.

A few thoughts:

  • At the heart of it, a thriller about an algorithmic hedge fund seems pretty dull, but Harris does an excellent job working in the confined spaces of Geneva and the Internet.  The story is plausible and thus pretty scary, thus fitting all the necessary conditions for a good thriller.
  • The characters aren’t very deep — each has his/her own facet in the shape of the story.  Reading other reviews of the book, I see that people are really disappointed in this aspect of it, but it didn’t bother me much because I’ve not read Harris’ other work (which people seem to like a lot more).  I will say, though, that I really liked the segments in which Hoffmann, who it turns out has had a turbulent psychological past, wrestles with the question of whether he has gone mad.
  • Rodska’s narration works perfectly, with different, unaffected voices and accents for the different characters, and a steady ratcheting up of the tension.

Harris’ book is a taut thriller with a solid premise built in the modern electronic architecture.  It isn’t a work of deep literature, but entertaining, nonetheless.

Afterward, SPOILERS SPOILERS AND MORE SPOILERS

It’s always strange to realize that you’ve figured out the “mystery” to a book far before the main character has.  I can’t help but wonder when the author thought we would know what was going on.  Frankly, as soon as the book revealed the nature of the self-evolving algorithm (maybe a quarter of the way through), it became evident to me what was happening.  I’ll give Harris credit, though, he avoided the mistake of the awakening sentience conversation, ala War Games or 2001.  By making the algorithm voiceless and faceless, he maintained what, for me, is an entirely plausible scenario.  I don’t think it’s likely that we will create a human-like A.I., but I think we will reach a point where autonomous machine reasoning exceeds our understanding of its mechanisms and exceeds the bounds of our own logic.

And it’s at that point that we all arrive on the fear index.

There will be blood

Battle Royale Drive

Battle Royale and Drive

This review focuses on two controversial films.  Battle Royale is controversial in a conventional way, driving people to ask whether it’s a good thing to make a film in which children murder one another.  Drive causes controversy by being made in an unusual way, by making a movie that doesn’t follow the usual rules regarding dialogue or sound–it has remarkably little of either.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films punctuate more mundane moments with brief salvos of intense violence.  While viewers expect such chaos in BR, it comes as a bit of a surprise in Drive, particularly given the film’s languid opening 45 minutes.  The violence is extreme, bloody, and disconcerting.  Battle Royale‘s most harrowing scene, for my money, comes when a group of young women suddenly turn on one another and turn their small hideout into a bloodbath.  Drive‘s most terrible sequence arrives in an elevator, where we see just how far the driver will go.
  • Drive functions, cinematically, much like driving itself — a mostly interesting but not thrilling pursuit occasionally marked with moments of intensity.  BR makes real the vicious landscape of the middle school classroom, in which enmities and alliances shift easily with the wind, and almost no one escapes unscathed.
  • Both films seem very much like other films.  Like a select group of nerds across the Internet, when I first heard of The Hunger Games, I thought to myself “Sounds like Battle Royale.”  <hipster cred=”firsties”>Unlike most of those doing the whining,  I had that thought in 2008 when the novel was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly.</hipster> Suzanne Collins claims she was unaware of the Japanese sensation, and I believe her.  But the basic premise — school-age children are put in a ring, manipulated by game masters, and made to fight to the death — sounds awfully similar.  The biggest difference between the two is that Battle Royale‘s 40 fighters have personal history that shapes their interactions (creating lots more moments for meaningful character development), whereas The Hunger Games has 24 fighters without intimacies among them.
  • Drive at first appears to be a close relative of The Transporter.  The opening scene, especially, has the same ring to it — a driver who has particular tastes and habits and can, at a moment’s notice, become the most badass wheel man out there.  Both films also involve fisticuffs on the part of the driver and a surprising connection to an innocent.  (In fact, I would group these movies together with The Professional and Shoot Em Up as films about tough-guy loners who become fond of little kids.  What the heck, throw in Man on Fire as well.)  But Drive also uses contemplative cinematography and the forgotten art of silence to craft a meditative character whose persona becomes evident through his deeds rather than his words.
  • In both films, the ultimate villain is a rather kindly man in his mid-late fifties or early sixties.  He’s got a capacity for intense violence, but ultimately seems driven by other motives, and resorts to killing not because he wants to, but because the system he occupies demands it.  Both figures also have an affinity for knives.

Both films are well worth watching, for different reasons.  Drive is an excellent film, very atmospheric.  Its non-driving scenes sparkle, and its cinematography make the movie.  Battle Royale makes a great companion piece to The Hunger Games, taking the question of children and violence a bit more carefully than does its more famous recent counterpart.  It also doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence at the heart of the story.

2012-06-24 Tweets

  • You should read this. I mean, it's called SAD ROBOT STORIES. http://t.co/vL3azqOJ #
  • Just one more thing: with my birthday money I ordered seasons 1-7 of Columbo to go with Jenny's gift of all the Columbo movies. #
  • Finn remembers a lesson from our friend Roy: "Daddy, when I'm a grown up I'll get bigger each year and you will get smaller." #
  • Can't wait to see Andrew's new project in all its glory. http://t.co/e7FsFKVg #
  • Pharyngula nails it: "Suddenly, lawyer jokes are obsolete, and ordinary shysters look angelic next to Mr Carreon" http://t.co/Ms1b0t1Y #
  • Just 475 words today. Really hard getting back into the swing after the weekend away camping. #750words #
  • Ferrara Pan Candy sign says it's 100 degrees today. I wonder if the Red Hots inside are getting sticky. #
  • "…That old man in the fun house was murdered by the same blowgun that killed Professor Quackenbush." #Lot49 #
  • @kristinarola what would you have said re: why agnostics don't go to church? in reply to kristinarola #
  • @kristinarola "troubling to assume there is one right path to God" Me too. That's why I'm Unitarian Universalist. http://t.co/gwMv2jr1 in reply to kristinarola #
  • 759 today. Continues to be a slog this week. Ugh. #750words #
  • Kickass. I just bought this steampunk monkey book: http://t.co/IlRRTqWd #
  • (1/2) "In Cribbage, as in other games, the ignorant go on, playing at random, and trusting solely to what they term “their luck;” … #
  • (2/2) while those who are better informed work to acquire the art of guiding that ‘luck’ towards their own side of the board.” George Walker #
  • Upon seeing Chris Hemsworth in the SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN trailer, Avery demanded to know why Thor is in that movie. #
  • Later, when Avery realized Angela Lansbury was in MISTER POPPER'S PENGUINS, she asked excitedly "Will there be a mystery in this movie?" #
  • @s2ceball Why is girl in quotes? Why would she share a rose with you? This is SOOOO cryptic. in reply to s2ceball #
  • Strange calorie burning math: mon did 35 min alternating speed, 3.74 miles, 374 cal; today did 35 min at 7.5mph, 4.21 miles, only 378 cal. #
  • I feel bad for all you poor chumps who didn't get to have Jenny's amazing root beer pie for dessert. #yummyyummy #
  • 957 words today. Off to the dentist! #750words #
  • Reading Joe Schrieber's DEATH TROOPERS right now. Star Wars + Zombies, and I don't care who knows it. #
  • It's not too late to get in on this awesome project: http://t.co/Bsnb7i5q #
  • @steam_games Enjoying inspiration from your handbook. Do staff follow it too? Accounting, HR, custodial? http://t.co/I6F1dhP0 #
  • 525 words today. Tighter schedule because we're going to the water park. Whee! #750words #
  • Did I mention what I got with for my birthday this year? 98 hours of Columbo. It's on. http://t.co/furqiOHO #
  • 48 hours without jenny. The daddy-kids weekend has officially begun! #
  • @bekdale Darn tootin'. Now I just need to convince them it's a good idea. in reply to bekdale #
  • Damn the person who first decided to put a music experimentation room in a children's museum. #HeadacheAnyone #
  • Kids museum play Potbelly's: Pretending to eat a sandwich, I make eye contact with another dad doing the same. Solemn nods are exchanged. #
  • Avery makes me a Dagwood Bumstead at the pretend Potbelly's. http://t.co/WhTMAdwm #

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Zombies online

Of course, knee deep in my current academic project, I look ahead to the next ones.  Aside from a couple ideas for books, I’m interested in thinking through ways to experiment with the massively online education course stuff.  I’m pretty sure I could get a grant from my school to develop something about this next summer, but I’m not clear what it would be.

So readers, what role do you think online free education materials should play in conjunction with the academy? In particular, I’m wondering if my ZOMBIES IN POPULAR MEDIA course would make a good trial for this kind of work, and if so, what that would be.

Some quick ideas:

  • lecture-type modules are easy enough to assemble.  Coordinate with my ZRS colleagues on this.
  • Lessons to go with films? Ongoing debates about what films mean and how to understand them?
  • Theme based modules — look at zombies through this theme or that one
  • Assignment modules — work on your own through key ideas

I tend to think the humanities gets its value in driving students to engage with complex material and guiding them through that.  How does this work with a very small instructor to student ratio?  Do you encourage students themselves to create and rate responses?

Development ideas:

– I may see if I can get a research assistant grant (our school has these) to get a student to help me set this up

– a tech development grant would also be helpful to fund my summer work

Lots to think about.

On Changing Demographics Brackets

"Aged" by tonyhall, cc-licensed
“Aged” by tonyhall, cc-licensed

A few quick thoughts on now being 35, and thus leaving the market-swaying 18-34 demographic

  • You know that I’ve been a Columbo fan for a long time, but between birthday money and gifts from Jenny, I’m now a superfan, an owner of the whole series and all the television movies.  “Just one more thing” indeed.
  • Camping last weekend, my nephew 13-year old nephew, Jacob, teasingly suggested that I was a “cool dad” while his dad was an “old dad.”  Mock-anger from Scott, the father, before he and I agreed that if this were the extent of Jacob’s Oedipal rebellion, Scott would have had a remarkably easy time of it.  A quick calculation told me that in relative terms, I was only two years younger than Scott (when my oldest is thirteen, I’ll be two years younger).
  • I might lament that my choices in entertainment and products no longer have the zest they used to, except that for me to extoll the values of an entertainment property seems more like sounding its death knell than a positive endorsement could help.  To whit, see all the television shows that have been cancelled after I started watching them.
  • I’m a gamer who has almost no time to game.  I love video games, role-playing games, and board games.  Yet I have relatively little time to play them — often just two or three hours a week thanks to a regular role-playing game time slot.  Ever since reading Cognitive Surplus, of course, I’m followed by a little Shirky on my shoulder who reminds me that the time used for all that television I watch could be used in other ways.
  • Each year I feel a little more lucky to be who I am when I am, and a little more compelled to try and help others live the most full lives they can.  Say what you will about Bill and Melinda Gates, the motto for their foundation, “All Lives Have Equal Value” demands a certain amount of action and self-reflection from any first-worlder, especially someone lucky enough to be middle class or better.  (On a related note, I find myself more content with the enlightenment, humanist worldview that accepts this world for what it is without spending too much time imagining the next.  Viz the Tim Minchin quote at the bottom.)

It’s interesting to ponder the demographic line, just another of the many ways we divide up populations and suggest that they belong to one group or another.  In the age of niche marketing, cookie-tracked web browsing, and discount clubs at every store we visit, it becomes extremely clear how such broad categories as Everyone between 35 and 55 fail.  You can’t fit me in one of your boxes, man.

From Tim Minchin’s “Storm,” a beat poem account of a conversation he had with a alt-medicine enthusiast at a dinner party (the “hippie” he refers to at the end).

Tim MinchinIsn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
If you’re so into Shakespeare
Lend me your ear:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet… is just fucking silly”
Or something like that.
Or what about Satchmo?!
I see trees of Green,
Red roses too,
And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
That’s ok.
But here’s what gives me a hard-on:
I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant lump of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short
And unimportant…
But thanks to recent scientific advances
I get to live twice as long as my great great great great uncles and auntses.
Twice as long to live this life of mine
Twice as long to love this wife of mine
Twice as many years of friends and wine
Of sharing curries and getting shitty
With good-looking hippies
With fairies on their spines
And butterflies on their titties.
(hear the poem on Youtube)

It’s the last point he makes — before he speculates about his dinner companion’s body art — that really gets me.  For most of human history, I wouldn’t be approaching middle age, I would be old.  Living to 40 would have been an accomplishment.  Like I said, lucky.

 

A Beautiful Blue Death

A Beautiful Blue Death
A Beautiful Blue Death

by Charles Finch

Finch’s first novel tells the tale of Charles Lenox, the second son of a wealthy family who amuses himself by putting his considerable talents of observation and ratiocination to use solving crimes in Victorian England.  A Beautiful Blue Death refers to a maid whose murder is staged as a suicide.  As Lenox and his trusty manservant pursues the case at the behest of his neighbor, the lovely Lady Jane, he discovers overlapping layers of lies, love, and political intrigue. A few thoughts:

  • The best part of this book is its intricately crafted mystery.  The levels of the story peel away slowly, but they make sense and they’re unpredictable enough that the story provides a solid payoff.
  • Finch also does a great job with the environs of Victorian London itself.  Lenox’s clubs, the pharmacies, Lady Jane’s house, and the various other settings come alive through his vivid descriptions.
  • At the same time, Lenox is a pretty flat character who shows flexibility with his suspects but about whom we don’t sense much under the surface.  His relationship with Graham (the manservant) emerges nicely, but feels too much like other detective duos for my taste. My biggest complaint is how much time Lenox spends explaining his reasoning — there’s just too much exposition.
  • Finch’s biggest challenge is introducing another detective to this already crowded arena.  Admittedly, Campion is about twenty years later, but both Holmes and Barker provide better stories, to my money.  Genre fiction has to walk a line between meeting expectations and introducing something new.  Alas, in this book, it felt too much like Finch used a checklist built on the Holmes stories to establish the necessary elements for the amateur detective to function.
  • The side characters, usually introduced for a specific purpose, emerge as charming caricatures.  I particularly liked the old pharmacist and his wife, James the bereaved footman, and the bootmaker.

Not a bad book, overall, but not great either.

 

On artists and the new connectivity

It used to be that if you saw something cool in a shop, you could buy it, and that would be it.  My favorite thing about the new connectivity is the way we can become acquainted directly with artists through the web, as though we’d met them at a gallery show, even if we live across the country from them.

Case in point, Chet Phillips.  I first encountered Phillips sometime last year, when Regretsy (or BoingBoing?) publicized his awesome trading card set, the Union of Superlative Heroes.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I had to have them.

"Gentleman Mint" - Chet Phillips

They’ve since been organized in a frame and hung up in my office, to great acclaim among my visitors.  When I signed up, I joined Phillips’ mailing list, so I could learn about other amazing art on offer.  Just yesterday, I got an email and snapped up my copy of Monkopolis, a book full of supernatural steampunk apes.  Of course.

"Zombie Whisperer" - Chet Phillips

This in itself is pretty cool, but I also enjoy the personal interaction such marketing systems allow.  Here’s the exchange Mr. Phillips and I have had over the last couple days.

6/20 CP: Thank you Brendan, for purchasing a signed copy of “Monkopolis!” Your package will ship out on Thursday via USPS First Class mail. I truly appreciate your fantastic continued support.

6/21 BR: My pleasure! It’s an easy purchase to make when it involves awesome steampunk monkeys. 😀

6/21 CP: We are indeed…. sim(ian)patico.

I love knowing that all the money I pay (save the small leechings from etsy and paypal) goes directly to Phillips.  It allows him to get the full bang for his buck and for me to make a direct connection with him.  This small interaction builds a lot of loyalty–in the same way that the great performance by Rodeo Ruby Love last year was cemented in my memory when I met the lead singer and he thanked me warmly for the compliment–Here’s to the burgeoning landscape of audience/artist partnerships.

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead

Hard Boiled and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead

Today’s movies are from the early 1990s, (1992 and 1991, respectively).  Hard Boiled is often cited as the preeminent early John Woo film, a blood-soaked thriller about a badass cop who teams up with a badass undercover cop to take down a badass Triad boss.  Did I mention everyone in the film is badass?  Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is, by contrast, about a bunch of people who are not badasses, children, mostly.  These waifs must find a way to buck up and get by as they struggle to feed themselves after their babysitter dies and takes all their money with her.

They don’t seem like an ideal match, but they’re interesting to see together.  A few thoughts:

  • Both films focus on an undercover character who must continually grapple with the dangers of the job (either as a hitman or an executive secretary), must lie to people they like, and must ultimately confess their deception to the boss who has come to love them.  In both cases, the boss surprises us by loving the person enough to overlook their dishonesty.  In one of the films, the boss then demands that the liar give him an honorable death by shooting him, and in the other the boss offers to help the liar get into Vassar.  I won’t ruin it by telling you which is which.
  • The early 1990s were a weird time, cinematically.  Families were in danger and violence was everywhere.  It’s odd but not that strange to think of these two films as representative of the cinematic landscape at the time.  Indeed, Hard Boiled fits the genre of shoot-em-up, take-no-prisoners films of the late 80s, essentially being in the same ballpark as Lethal Weapon.  DTMTBSD fits the other trope, of the endangered family.  Like Mister Mom or Home Alone or Three Men and a Baby, we have juveniles (literal or spiritual) who, when confronted with the responsibility of life, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a go of it.
  • Both our protagonists are pretty cavalier about stepping on their colleagues to get things done.  In DTMTBSD, Sue Ellen relies on a nice co-worker (played by Kimmy Robertson of Twin Peaks) to do the difficult work for her.  While she feels bad about it, she doesn’t do much to help her out, either.  In Hard Boiled, Inspector Yuen brings his co-workers into insanely dangerous situations and then watches them die around him.
  • Improbable and stupid nicknames are the name of the game for these films.  Inspector Yuen goes by Tequila, while Sue Ellen answers to Swell.  Swell Tequila sounds like an off-market brand of Mexican liquor, while Tequila Swell sounds like either a specific kind of sun-lit water formation or a South-of-the-border strip joint.

A few notes on the films individually:

  • I normally dislike John Woo films.  A lot.  I made a short video in grad school just called “I Hate John Woo.”  That said, Hard Boiled wasn’t bad.  It was dated, but it had good qualities given its era.  I would still much rather watch any number of other movies, even if they rip off aspects of his style. I enjoyed, particularly, the baby-handling scene, in which Tequila must navigate an exploding, villain-filled hospital while carrying an infant.  (Though both the recent aptly-named thriller Shoot ‘Em Up and the classic Coen brothers film Raising Arizona do better jobs handling babies in trouble.) When he arrives at the ambulance, oddly, he just hands the baby to the first lady who runs up and says “Is that my baby?”
  • Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead doesn’t hold up very well — not nearly as well as, say, Adventures in Babysitting.  But it is chalk FULL of people you’ve seen before but forgot were in the film.  I already mentioned Kimmy Robertson, but there’s also Joanna Cassidy (the snake charmer in Blade Runner), and John Getz (a character actor you’ll definitely recognize, but who had just appeared the previous year in Men at Work as the corrupt politician) when this film came out.  Even more recognizable is David Duchovny as the sleazy boyfriend of Jayne Brook, another actress you’d recognize.  In a strange bit of cinematic incest, a teenage Josh Charles plays Brook’s younger brother, but later the two would appear on screen together again, this time with Brook playing a short-lived love interest for Charles on Sports Night.  Finally, I’d like to say how annoyed I was that the kids got rid of the babysitter’s body by dumping it at the mortuary.  The cover clearly implies they bury her with her legs sticking out of the ground, and that’s what I wanted, dammit.

I didn’t hate either film, but neither film is worth going out of your way to see, for my money.

 


Oh these? They’re part of the Olivia Newton John Collection

Why yes, I AM happy to see you
Why yes, I AM happy to see you

All these sexist Gamer dudes are the Shook ones.

Damn straight.

AnimalNewYork.com via Pharyngula

Ill Doctrine: All These Sexist Gamer Dudes Are Some Shook Ones from ANIMALNewYork.com on Vimeo.