(1) Thu Oct 16 2014 07:35 The Bot of Mormon:
I don't usually do in-depth analyses of my bots, especially one that's probably not gonna break ten followers, but my most recent bot is very personal to me, and the making of it turned out to be much stranger than I expected. It's The Bot of Mormon, "the most correct bot", a text-generating process with a very niche audience but the niche audience includes me, so I'm happy. A few of my recent favorites:
A note: In a bid for more followers, as well as not alienating all my relatives, I designed the Bot of Mormon to be a bit of harmless humor for believing LDS folk (early versions could be pretty offensive, and I chose not to go that route). However, Saints might take offense at this blog post about how and why I made the bot. So, fair warning. Here we go.
It's not much of an exaggeration to trace my interest in generative text back to my experience growing up in Mormonism. Mark Twain famously called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print", and I believe the reason it's so boring is that it was produced by a process similar to automatic writing. It's full of stalling and retreats to stock phrases. But what starts with the Book of Mormon sure doesn't end there. When I was a kid, church every week was a three-hour festival of stock phrases and repetition.
See, in the LDS church the task of coming up with things to say every week rotates around the general membership. Topics are assigned, and there are only about fifty topics total. Since every acceptable topic has been covered a million times before, the simplest way to make a new talk is to remember bits of old talks and mash them together.
When I was a kid I experienced this from both ends, and writing the talks was especially intense for me because despite my best efforts, I didn't actually believe. My talks were literally constructed by assembling meaningless symbols into patterns that matched what I saw other people doing. Naturally, ever since I caught the botmaking bug I've wanted to recreate this experience with a bot. I registered @TheBotOfMormon quite a while ago. But I couldn't figure out what to do until recently, when I hit upon the idea of taking as my corpus not the Book of Mormon itself, but the General Conference talks.
General Conference is a big twice-yearly event in Salt Lake where the top brass show y'all how it's done. These guys used to be lawyers and corporate executives, and their talks are all vetted by committee, so the result is... well, sometimes someone will say something offensive, but even that I wouldn't call "interesting". What is interesting is that Conference is where Mormonism meets the twenty-first century. By which I mean that's where you can see the pros use nineteenth-century language and rhetoric to talk about same-sex marriage (undesirable!) and the Internet (a mixed bag!) That's the kind of juxtaposition I thought would make a good bot. As it turns out, I was right... sort of. Eventually.
To give you a picture of what goes on in General Conference, here's a table I made of the top ten topics by decade, according to the keywords in the <meta> tags for each talk.
- missionary work
- Jesus Christ
- plan of salvation
- Jesus Christ
- missionary work
- Jesus Christ
- Holy Ghost
- Jesus Christ
- Holy Ghost
- Jesus Christ
- Holy Ghost
You can see the shape of the fifty acceptable topics there. Anyway, I downloaded the Conference talks and set about applying my usual bag of tricks to the corpus to come up with an interesting transformation. Imagine my surprise when none of my techniques worked!
The _ebooks algorithm, up to this point an unending generator of hilarity from any corpus, failed miserably. The word-frequency filter I used to find the interesting signs for Minecraft Signs, also failed. Markov chains were useless, big surprise. I had a dim idea that the key to bot gold here was the subordinate clauses: the sentences that run on and on in a lawyerly way, embroidering themselves with their own Talmudic interpretations. I tried Queneau assembly of sentences at the clause level. This was good enough to get the bot launched, but it wasn't great. Each individual clause is very likely to be boring, its boringness has no relationship to word frequency, and combining clauses doesn't help. The corpus is fractally boring.
Okay, I thought, time to break out the big guns. I incorporated the Book of Mormon into my corpus, the Doctrine & Covenants; even the Pearl of Great Price, the bizarro crown jewel of the LDS canon. None of it helped. (The Pearl of Great Price helped a little—it's really weird—but it's also very short.)
But legend told of a secret weapon: the Journal of Discourses. Basically a large collection of General Conference talks from the late 19th century, during the polygamy era, containing a ton of fiery rhetoric and juicy doctrines downplayed or outright disowned by the modern church. Some might consider it dirty pool, but I was desperate to get some interesting content out of my bot. I Queneau-ified every Discourse in the Journal and added it to the corpus... to no avail. It was still dull! On the sentence fragment level, it's tough to even distinguish between the 'scandalous' stuff in the Journal and the dishwater they serve up at Conference nowadays.
At this point I was so frustrated that I honestly started to question my unbelief. What are the odds that a corpus of text spanning hundreds of authors over nearly 200 years could be so uniformly dull? Was some divine hand at work, keeping things from getting too interesting? With shaking hands I ran my tests against a control sample: the Gutenberg text of a non-Mormon book of sermons. And it turns out nineteenth-century religious language is what's fractally boring. It's nothing to do with Mormonism in particular. The modern stuff is dull because it copies and recombines the nineteenth-century stuff.
And that, finally, was the key to what little success I've achieved with @TheBotOfMormon. When the bot is funny, the funny thing is not the rambling juxtaposition of sentence fragments per se. It's the juxtaposition of modern concepts with nineteenth-century language. To get the bot to work I would have to actually recreate that juxtaposition, not just hope for it.
Enter the Corpus of Historical American English. (Thanks, BYU! Seriously, what a great project.) This has word frequencies for every decade from the 1810s up to 2009. I picked out all the words that were 10x more common between 1930 and 1980 as they were between 1830 and 1880. I tagged all the sentence fragments that were distinctly twentieth-century. Now I can guarantee that every assemblage has an old-timey component and a more modern component, and the chances of humor go way up.
The lesson I want to take from this is that every corpus is different. I thought I could handle the LDS corpus with the same tools I use on Gutenberg, because they're both full of archaic language, but I was totally wrong. Once I engaged with the text this became obvious, but I came into this holding the text at arms' length because it held a lot of bad childhood memories.
There's no generic bot kit that will work on anything. (Well, there is, but it uses Markov chains and I don't like it.) Even my really simple bots like I Like Big Bot and Boat Names required a lot of custom behind-the-scenes work to find the most interesting subset of the data.
Perhaps this can serve as my new rule. A new bot needs to present a different way of being a bot, not just a different corpus. And adding more text to a corpus I don't know how to handle just makes the problem worse.
Mon Oct 13 2014 12:49 On Scarne On Dice:
At a book sale where the deal was "$5 for all the books you can fit in a bag" I picked up a book that barely fit in the bag, Scarne on Dice, originally published in 1943 and updated in 1974. The author, John Scarne, combines a ton of genuine gambling expertise with the demeanor of a megalomaniac crackpot. The jacket copy, written by some unknown soul *cough*, describes him as "the man who made the phrase 'Acording to Hoyle' obsolete and replaced it with 'According To Scarne'". He's invented his own kind of dice, Scarney Dice®, which are normal six-sided dice except that the two face and the five face have the word "DEAD" on them.
With Scarney Dice you can play a number of games such as Scarney 3000® ("the favorite dice game of the members of the John Scarne Game Club of my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey"), Scarney Put-and-Take Dice, Scarney Duplicate Jackpots, Scarney 21 Up and Down, Scarney Bingo Dice, and Scarney Black Jack. Many of these games feature dice combinations called "Big Scarney" and "Little Scarney", or require a player to call "Scarney" when exploiting a winning position.
There are also three chapters of the book devoted to card games Scarne has invented, games like Scarney® ("the first really new card game concept of this century"), Scarney Gin, and Scarney Baccarat. These games—stay with me here—are card games, they include no dice, and they have no place in a book called Scarne on Dice, especially since John Scarne also wrote a whole other book called Scarne on Cards. But since we're going down this route, how about the family portrait in the front of the book where John Scarne poses with his wife, his son, his books, and the board games he invented, most notably a checkers-like thing called Teeko. Did I mention that he named his son after his board game? Oh, and after himself, of course. John Teeko Scarne.
But unlike every other person like this I've ever encountered, John Scarne actually knows his stuff. He convincingly debunks parapsychology dice-rolling experiments by contrasting the way the experiment was run with the way casinos handle dice. He explains ludicrous systems for beating the casinos and then explains why they're mathematically impossible. His chapters on how to spot loaded dice, rigged games, steer joints, and general cheating are clearly a light rewrite of the lectures he went around giving on Army bases to stop GIs losing their paychecks to craps hustlers. He has a convincing description of what it would take to run an underground gambling operation, down to a detailed payroll.
What is going on here? My initial guess was that gambling is a field where being a Jeffrey Lebowski-esque blowhard is tolerated and even encouraged. That's still my primary guess, actually. But after reading the most interesting 200 pages of this massive tome and skimming the rest I I wonder if something else is going on. This book is mostly about craps, a folk game with a relatively clear origin in Hazard but no real chain of custody between its origin and the modern day. Maybe Scarne just wants to make damn sure that his contributions to ludology are properly credited. Unfortunately, his habit of naming everything after himself just made it that much easier to ignore his innovations and play the same games people have been playing for hundreds of years.
But there was one game that John Scarne invented whose genius I appreciate, even though I'll never play it. It's a drinking game called Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice and it survives in a modified version called Twenty-One Aces. Scarne describes a couple variants but here's the simplest one: in Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice the players take turns rolling two dice until someone rolls nothing but twos and fives (these are the "DEAD" faces of official Scarney dice). The first person to accomplish this orders a drink. Scarne recommends "a double rye with celery tonic, vodka with chili sauce", or something equally weird. The second person to roll twos and fives drinks the drink, and the third person to roll twos and fives pays for the drink.
That's just great. It creates two types of tension at once—who's going to drink the drink and who's going to pay for it, and it uses creativity from an unrelated field as a game mechanic. Good job.
Mon Oct 06 2014 10:09 September Film Roundup:
A whopping two films this month, at best. October's also not looking great. For movies, I mean. Everything else looks pretty good.
- Rebecca (1940): I don't even remember when I saw this, it probably wasn't September, but I'm 'reviewing' it here so that there's more than one film in this month's roundup. I was reminded of it when Sumana showed me the Mitchell and Webb parody. The parody will also serve as my review. It's a dull, super-melodramatic movie, and the best part is the scene where the maid is really creepily going through Rebecca's old clothes, a scene that's also in the parody, so why watch the movie?
After this and Vertigo and Rear Window I'm downgrading Hitchcock from "brilliant with occasional lapses" to "above average with extremely high variance". But let's remember the good times. The Strangers on a Train, the Shadow of a Doubt, the Psycho, the North by Northwest, even the The Birds.
- The Jerk (1979): I recommend this thoroughly funny movie. Now for the real point of this review. I saw this with Sumana on cable many years ago and I'd always wanted to rewatch it because there were a couple scenes which cut off really abruptly. The only explanation we could come up with was that the movie had been edited for cable. But what had been cut? The question gnawed at me for years without inconveniencing me in any way.
Here's the answer, near as I can tell: they cut every mention of the tattoo on Patty's ass. This movie has sex, racial slurs, every curse word in a slightly abridged edition of "the book", and comic mischief, but whoever edited it for cable thought we couldn't handle discussion of an ass tattoo. Not the tattoo itself, which we never see, but people talking about it. It squiggles the mind.
(1) Sat Sep 27 2014 11:13 The Minecraft Geologic Survey:
I've been waiting for all the pieces to go into place before writing about this on NYCB, and now the pieces are in place. The lightning strikes my castle laboratory and the Minecraft Geologic Survey rises! (See Fig. 1.)
Back in May I announced that I'd downloaded 65,000 Minecraft maps from the official Minecraft forum, and used the data to make my @MinecraftSigns bot. Later I took over Allison Parrish's defunct @minecraftebooks and revitalized it with _ebooks-style quotes from the books found in Minecraft worlds. (Plus, as of a few days ago, command block outputs that incorporate the names of followers, Exosaurs-style.)
But all the while, in the background, I was downloading. Worlds, screenshots, mods, player skins, texture packs... everything with a URL. I ended up with about two terabytes of data, an amount that here in 2014 is not difficult for me to store but is very difficult to transfer or process.
To get the signs and the books for my bots, I had to load every Minecraft world into Python and go through every chunk looking for entities. I ended up with about 180,000 worlds, and iterating over them all was a very time-consuming process. Fortunately, I had two more projects that would amortize all that computer time.
Both projects required that I take "core samples" of each world, extracting individual chunks that were likely to be interesting and forming a new world (like the one pictured above) containing only those chunks. The resulting dataset is representative of the full more-than-a-terabyte package of original worlds, but because it's just a very tiny sample, the whole thing weighs in at a comparatively slim 12 gigabytes.
That's small enough to go on the Internet Archive, and small enough for you to download it and use it in your own project. I wrote a detailed guide to the data, which includes not only 170,000 synthetic Minecraft worlds but a big JSON file (also available on its own) containing all the metadata and sign text and other things you'd need to do a text-based project.
The other project is The Reef, a series of Minecraft maps that combine the chunks obtained from the survey into mashup maps that incorporate designs from many different authors. For instance, you've got The Reef #1, which sticks spawn chunks from 10,000 different maps together to form a (mostly) naturally-sprawling terrain. Or maybe you'd prefer the Skyburbs, a thousand Skyblock maps jammed next to each other.
I've got plenty more ideas for Reef maps, but now that the data is available I think this is a good point to put the project on pause for a while. I will be publishing the code I use to make my Twitter bots and the Reef maps, to encourage you to play with the data and do your own thing.
I'm concerned about the Minecraft servers that have been shutting down since Mojang changed their EULA to include strict rules on monetization. People have been giving a lot of attention to the Microsoft buyout, but the EULA change is what's affecting servers right now. I would really like to offer an archive service for Minecraft servers that are being shut down (plus just original worlds that people have lying around on their hard drives), but I don't see a good way to get the word out. It's not like the typical Archive Team project where you can go into a server that's shutting down and download everything. The server owner has to take the initiative. Also bandwidth and storage become a problem for me at this point. So this is more of an open question than something I know how to solve. It may not get solved.
Mon Sep 01 2014 09:49 August Film Roundup:
Another month full of major progress on major projects, but I managed to squeeze in four features:
- The Women (1939): This was pretty fun! It brings together every single 1930s stock character of women in film and lets them duke it out. Just when you think the film is too classy to feature a Margaret Dumont-esque gold-digger, too middle-aged to feature a showgirl ingenue, and too urban to feature a profane cowgirl, BAM! Gold-digger, ingenue, cowgirl! I did not appreciate how the film started by comparing every major character to a different domesticated animal, but that was over quickly enough. Recommended overall. Oh yeah, the ending is super creepy and so over-the-top that I can only hope we're supposed to read it as the filmic equivalent of sarcasm. "Come back to me, male gaze!" Geez. Gimme a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ending any day. Still recommended.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): The nerd favorite. I had a really good time. The fact that it's based on an established comic book world meant that they crammed in a bunch of cool stuff without really explaining it, which is exactly the right speed for me. It still strains under the weight of its canon--there were a lot of proper nouns I didn't care about, and I thought the main plotline with its supervillains and its revenges was dull. But in the interstitials there is so much great stuff. Cute semi-humanoid aliens! Improvisational violence! Using a mech to control another mech!
As usual, I would have done things differently. This time I did do things differently, and you will eventually be able to read the result as Situation Normal. But just as an example, consider "Four Kinds of Cargo", the acorn that became SN. If the POV character of that story were the Captain, it would be a by-the-numbers space opera, like Guardians of the Galaxy, because that's how the Captain experiences life. So instead the POV character is Kol, the guy who is just trying to survive, who is trying to make the Captain's space-opera fantasy work, simultaneously intrigued and frustrated by her ability to change everyone's minds with an inspirational speech.
In GotG terms, the correct POV character is Rocket. You can have the doofy white guy who brings everyone together, but he shouldn't be the POV character. The American people understand this. I've seen people talking about this movie as if Rocket is the lead, because that's the right way to do it. But that's not the way it happened.
The one place my ignorance of the comic book let me down was when the unaccountable police force/military/governing body led by Glenn Close with her big swoopy hairdo and Peter Serafinowicz with his creepy British accent turned out... not to be evil? Not guilty of anything worse than imposing the bourgeois values of its Federation-type civilization on a band of criminals? That was unexpected, and I'm not sure whether my cognitive dissonance was the intention or if they're just saving the evil for the sequel.
PS: there's a lot of tasing in this movie. I guess that's how horrifying violence becomes comedy violence.
- The Phantom Tollbooth (1969): I was pretty sure I'd seen this before. I remember telling my great-aunt Lejeune about the book when I was six or seven, and the next time we went to her place she'd found a VHS copy for me to watch. But now I've actually seen The Phantom Tollbooth and I don't remember one frame of this movie. So I think I've conflated it with the time Lejeune showed me Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings.
I'm not going to accuse this movie of 'ruining my childhood', because it's just a dumb movie, but... it's a dumb movie. I am a fan of Chuck Jones's fluid gag-packed animation, but it's a bad fit with the cerebral subject matter of The Phantom Tollbooth, except in a couple cases like the integration of typography into everything in Dictionopolis, and the ever-shifting bodies of the Demons of Ignorance. The demands of the animated-feature-film medium require changes to the plot that frequently undercut the message of the book. An example will suffice: as Milo sinks into the Doldrums, the Lethargians stop being lethargic and become very enthusiastic indeed about sneaking up on Milo and violently killing him. Why? Because a book may vividly describe procrastination and laziness as perils in themselves, but when you're watching a cartoon all the evil things have to have pointy teeth and nasty Grinch faces.
Other examples: Milo permanently screwing up the sky when he takes over for Chroma (don't experiment, kids, you might destroy the world!), Tock dying and being resurrected for no reason other than that's what happens in the third act. It's obnoxious. One addition I really liked is that the Mathemagician's castle includes a wall of digital computers—something that probably wasn't on Norton Juster's mind when the book came out in 1961.
In the "don't really care" file, movie Milo lives in San Francisco instead of what is almost certainly New York in the book. The only reason I could think of for doing this was ease of obtaining filming permits, but this was after John Lindsay made it really easy to obtain filming permits in New York, so who knows. I guess San Francisco was a more magical, kid-friendly place in 1969 than New York.
Oh yeah, there's songs in this movie, they're all very 1969, and I'm not a big fan of 1969 music.
- Popeye (1980): This was one of the movies for which I forever saw promos on Comedy Central in the '90s. Like all the rest of those movies (Meatballs, M.A.S.H.) it looked like a classic 'unfunny 1970s comedy' so I gave it a wide berth. Heh heh, 'berth', get it? Little nautical humor there. You don't think that was funny? Now you see how I feel about these movies!
I decided to watch Popeye after hearing the Laser Time tribute to Robin Williams, where it was mentioned that Popeye was directed by Robert Altman. I thought "I've never seen an Altman film before, I'll give it a shot." I brought it up to Sumana, who was even more skeptical than with Celine and Julie go Boating:
S: Altman does ensemble films. Aren't there like four characters in Popeye? Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and I'm leaving space for one I don't know about.
S: Who is Swe'pea?
L: A baby.
S: Can a baby really be a 'character'?
L: How about J. Wellington Wimpy?
L: Poopdeck Pappy?
S: Are you just making up names?
I pressed on without Sumana. Imagine my surprise when a screenwriting credit for Jules Feiffer showed up! I knew I was in for a treat. A treat that was not forthcoming.
OK, yeah, honestly, I knew this wasn't going to be a good movie, no matter how many big names were attached. I watched it out of morbid curiosity. I would compare this movie to 1941: an unsuccessful experiment made while Hollywood was figuring out the parameters of the summer blockbuster. It looks great! There are some hilarious sight gags. But the action scenes were overwrought--maybe they should have brought in Steven Spielberg to direct the action scenes in Popeye and had Altman direct the comedy in 1941. There are a lot of characters in Popeye—more than I could have ever made up names for—but they're all pretty shallow and there's not a lot of good character comedy. I'm also disappointed that they never dramatized the time Popeye spent living in a garbage can.
The songs are a big problem. I mentioned to Rob I was going to see Popeye and he went on and on about how great songwriter Harry Nilsson was, so I'm not gonna say they're bad, but they're... really avant-garde for a musical adaptation of a Popeye cartoon? They play fast and loose with meter and rhyme and are generally not catchy. The problem is deepened by the inclusion of the insanely catchy theme from the cartoons, which tosses all the other songs under the bus. I do like that Shelly Duvall sang her songs slightly off-key.
(4) Sat Aug 02 2014 12:37 Month of Crowdfunding 2014!:
After taking a break last year because I didn't have a steady paycheck, Month of Crowdfunding (né Month of Kickstarter) has returned! (2011) (2012) Here's how it works: every day in August I will pledge to some crowdfunding project or another. Yes, that's pretty much it.
Unlike previous years, I will not be doing writeups of each project I back, because I am in the middle of novel revisions. I will just edit this post every day with a brief update. I will also not be trawling the crowdfunding sites every day looking for quirky, offbeat projects. That worked in 2011 when Kickstarter was very small, and it worked in 2012 because I created special software tools for making it work. This year, I will rely heavily on a revolutionary new concept I call crowdnepotism.
Here's how it works. If your friend has a crowdfunding project or Patreon that you want me to support, or you've backed a project and you'd like me to back it as well, please let me know through a comment on this post, a message to @leonardr on Twitter, or an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not tell me about your own project. Tell me about anyone's project but your own. The true meaning of Month of Crowdfunding is found in focusing on other people. That's the only limitation. If you say it's okay, I'll mention you as the person who suggested the project to me in the list below.
Speaking of which, the list below. The projects backed so far:
- The Ashville Blade - Supporting the journalism of a friend of Sumana's.
- "A History of Mobile Games: 1998-2008" - Just seems like a cool book.
- Dj CUTMAN, creator of a chiptune podcast that I listen to at work.
- "An Alphabet of Embers", an anthology
edited by Shweta and suggested by Zack.
- Designers and Dragons, a "comprehensive, four-volume history of the roleplaying game industry." (Found via @CrowdBoardGames and unknowingly ratified by Jim Henley.)
- Ninja Pizza Girl, "a serious game about bullying, emotional resilience – and pizza delivering ninjas", suggested by Nathaniel.
- Andrea Phillips's writing
- Epanalepsis, a graphical adventure game.
- Ben Briggs' chiptunes.
- Jenny LeClue, another graphical adventure, suggested by Andy Baio.
- Mia S-N's illustrations, suggested by Sumana.
- Accessing the Future, an SF anthology.
- Stretching the notion of "crowdfunding", I sent some money to Saladin Ahmed, who just had his basement flood.
- The games of Anna Anthropy.
- The games of Avery Mcaldno.
- Tree Climbing for Climate Change Research
- Why the long face? Functional morphology of a unique fossil porpoise
- Legends of Beforia, a card game prototype by #botALLY Patrick Rodriguez.
- Kris's comics, yay. (Not suggested by Kris.)
- African Skies: Establishing an Observatory for Students in Ghana
- I think the name of this project is too corny to say. It's a butter knife that works like a cheese grater.
- [Yeah, having troubles keeping this up to date, sorry.]
- Noisebridge reboot
- Critical Distance
- Dawn of the Algorithm (suggested by Mike Mongo)
- MS treatment for Paul Jessup, suggested by Saladin Ahmed, paying it forward.
As with the previous two Months, my daily budget is $25 or whatever it takes to get a cool reward. That corresponds to a $2 monthly Patreon pledge. And don't forget, crowdnepotism is a registered trademark of... what, now there's paperwork for registering trademarks? Screw that.
Final update: As you can tell this was a bit of a disaster, consistency-wise. I would frequently leave MoC for days at a time and have to go back and backfill, and near the end I gave up. So I think I'm done with the MoC "tradition". Not because there's not cool stuff on crowdfunding sites (there's a ton of it) but because I'm busy with other stuff now, and "back a project every day for a month" is no longer the interesting experiment it was in 2011. Even going through the science crowdfunding sites and funding science experiments became a bit of a chore given all the other stuff I have going.
I've also discovered that backing a bunch of projects gets me stuff, and I've already got more stuff in my life than I'd like. So I'm going to keep on with my rest-of-the-year strategy of using crowdfunding sites like a normal person.
(3) Fri Aug 01 2014 17:49 July Film Roundup:
I saw most of these movies on airplanes, and I have no regrets. Not about that, anyway.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): A fun and surprisingly violent Wes Anderson quirk-fest, seen on the plane to England. I initially thought the fake Nazis were a weird touch. Like, Wes Anderson's love of typography must accommodate even the most evil Fraktur, but he doesn't actually want to do Nazi graphic design, so he holds off a little bit. Is this unfair? Then I got to thinking: this is supposed to be a 2014 version of a comedy from the 1930s. And The Great Dictator had fake Nazis. There were those Three Stooges shorts with the "Nazties" or whatever, and "Der Fuhrer's Face" featured the "Nutzis". So I guess it makes sense retrohistorically? Not necessarily the choice I would have made.
- American Hustle (2013): Seen on the way back from England. I've never been so glad that a film was really long. I'm going to give this film the faintest possible praise: I'm glad I spent 138 minutes of a transatlantic flight watching it. However, it's not as good as a real 70s con-man movie, so I think they should have re-released The Sting instead of making this. That movie was made in the 70s and set in the 30s, so the relative timeline matches.
I dunno, while I was watching I just kept thinking about the logistics of putting together a period piece. "Ah, this dry cleaner scene lets the wardrobe department show off an entire collection of 70s clothes in an unobtrusive way." Not a sign of deep engagement.
- The Lego Movie (2014): I only saw about ten minutes of this, because American Hustle tired me out, but it was enough to make me realize that my drawer story about Lego people (in which a family starts reconfiguring their house into a spaceship, to the increasingly violent dismay of their homeowner association) is probably gonna stay in that drawer forever.
- Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974): Oh yeah. Here's my earlier, briefer review. I imported the DVD some time ago to watch it with Sumana, and it finally happened this month. Forty-five minutes in, Sumana was very reluctant to continue, but she stuck it out and ended up appreciating what remains IMO a hell of a film. Not a top ten film, because of that incredibly slow first hour, but really great.
Sumana asked me specifically what I love about this film, and it's this: Celine and Julie discover a world of endless repetition and emotional repression, where women are relegated to subordinate parts in petty melodramas. So they break into that world and destroy it with the power of goofing off. It combines the fun of the Marx Brothers with the simple, satisfying closure of an action movie. Very eristic.
- The King of Comedy (1982): The first good Jerry Lewis movie I've seen. Has the Dog Day Afternoon thing going on where there's a lot of peril but almost no violence. Has one of my all-time favorite bits of IMDB trivia: 'Martin Scorsese has stated that he "probably should not have made" the film.' But he did make it, and it's awkward and squirmy from beginning to end, one of those films that I'm really glad I saw but I'm going to try never to see ever again.
Amazingly, I believe this film was the originator of the "Basement Dweller" trope. This is now a supercliche (it showed up again, along with Robert de Niro, in American Hustle), and I can't think of an earlier example than this, complete with nagging offscreen mother. Shatner's "Get a Life" SNL sketch is from 1986 (and written by Bob Odenkirk, apparently). I dared to find the "Basement Dweller" TV Tropes article, even though as I'm writing this I have to leave to go to work, but King of Comedy is not mentioned in the "Film" section, and everything mentioned in that section is post-1982. So... chalk one up for method acting, I guess.
(2) Thu Jul 17 2014 09:23 The Average Minecraft Skin:
Currently my two spare-time hobbies are 1) Situation Normal revisions and 2) gathering Minecraft data. Yes, I'm still at it! There's a lot more data than I anticipated! I'm up to about 175,000 maps, and I've branched out into archiving mods and texture packs. There's even more I could do, but pretty soon I'm going to have to put away the data-gathering part of this project for six months or a year so I can get other stuff done.
My reach keeps expanding because whenever I decide that a certain dataset isn't interesting and I won't bother with it, I immediately come up with something really cool to do with the dataset. For instance, Minecraft skins, the little images that are bitmapped onto your character in the game to make you look like a penguin or Jean-Luc Picard. I never really cared much about skins, but in the process of deciding not to bother with them, I discovered that Planet Minecraft, one of the biggest repositories of skins, lets someone who uploads a skin specify a gender ("male", "female", "interchangeable", and "other"), as well as a category classification ("animal", "cartoon", "famous person", etc.). Now I was interested! Skins are data about how people present themselves in the virtual world, data that I could gather and graph.
Here's a simple graph showing the skins available on Planet Minecraft, broken down by category and gender:
In every category male skins are drastically overrepresented, but the discrepancy is smallest in "Other". Why? My guess is that "Other" is where you'd put a skin that you made to represent yourself.
Since there are only two different sizes for skin images, you can average a number of skins together to get a new skin. Here's a skin that is the average of 100 of the most popular "female" skins on Planet Minecraft:
And here's the average of 100 of the most popular "male" skins:
That's a pretty preliminary result, but I think it's interesting. The major sexual dimorphism among Minecraft skins—the shape of the eyes—comes through loud and clear. If you want to use one of these as your actual Minecraft skin, I recommend going in with an image editor and erasing the upper-right part of the image. Otherwise your character's head will be shrouded in a ghostly hat, and it won't look good.
Sun Jun 29 2014 11:03 June Film Roundup:
It doesn't get better than this. I liked every single movie I saw this month. Two, maybe three of them are in my top ten. I guess that's what happens when you only see time-honored classics and movies you've already seen and loved. I'm posting this a little early because I'm going on vacation next week. Have fun!
- Ghostbusters (1984): When Sumana said she wanted to see Ghostbusters my first thought was "She's going to love the fake Atlantic cover." And she did like that, and she liked the rest of the movie, because Ghostbusters is fabulous. 'Nuff said.
- Godzilla (1954): A top-ten movie for me. I'd seen the American version once and the Japanese version once, but never on the big screen. This movie speaks to me because it takes something silly and cheesy and gives it a real emotional core. That's what I always try to do with my work, and when you see a work of fiction that deconstructs the Godzilla mythos, that's what they're trying to do to Godzilla. (I admit I have dabbled in this myself.) But there's no need to deconstruct anything--just strip away the goofy stuff that has accumulated over the past sixty years, and you have the raw power and horror of the original. You leave the theater totally mystified and overwhelmed by Godzilla's invincibility.
The one false step: the first appearance of Godzilla, when it puts its head over the hill, doesn't look good. A hill can be any size, so there's no sense of scale.
- The Terminator (1984): Hard for me to believe this came out the same year as Ghostbusters, because I never heard of this movie until 1991 when Terminator II came out. Wasn't it Sylvester Stallone who starred in Terminator? Weird.
Anyway, this movie's... all right. (Sorry, Sukiko.) Definitely my least favorite of the June films, despite being the only one that passes the Bechdel test. I liked the basic concept, and seeing Sarah Connor's transition from harried waitress to seasoned freedom fighter. I liked seeing the sleazy side of the L.A. of my youth. Not a fan of the heavy-handed satire; Robocop (see below) would do it much better. I haven't seen Terminator II but I feel like it's got the material to be a much better movie, and IMDB agrees (8.5 vs. 8.1).
There's a lot of skulls in the future scenes. Like, disproportionately many skulls. I guess the robots invented a weapon that turns a human into a pile of skulls?
- Solaris (1972): I was apprehensive about the length of this movie, especially in the context of a brief clip I'd seen a few years back, which was the dialogue-free scene with the car driving on a Japanese highway for several minutes. But I can't say no to a Lem adaptation, and after two years of stretching myself with art films I was up to the challenge. And it was fun! Having read the book definitely helped. This is the earliest filmic use I've seen of my beloved "dingy spaceship" aesthetic. Probably not going to see it again because of the length, but an excellent movie. Next up: Stalker, I guess.
- Robocop (1987): What a weird, weird movie. Like Godzilla, it wants to have its B-movie cake and eat it too. And it does! Twenty-five years, later, it's still got that cake in the feezer. But unlike Godzilla, it doesn't do anything to elevate the material. I think enough has been written about the way Robocop managed to simultaneously satirize and embody the blood-lust of the Hollywood blockbuster, so I won't add more, but how about this example: Robocop shows you a fun stop-motion animated effect and then it's embarrassed about it. Stop-motion isn't cool in 1987. So then it shows you a fake commercial with some really cheesy Ray Harryhausen type stop-motion, just so you know Robocop is in on the joke.
I dunno, man. It's like there's two movies here in one package: a totally off-the-wall movie full of wild ideas and a dull Terminator-like cop movie. The satire is a couple levels above Grand Theft Auto, but that's a really low bar to clear. And it's so violent. If they were getting some emotional mileage out of the violence, like Godzilla does, I could see it. But that never happens!
I'm also pissed off at how the movie's critique of capitalism suddenly starts pulling punches in the final scene. But Robocop contains what for me will always be one of the great moments of cinema: the comedic slow-burn of ED-209 encountering stairs for the first time. It's so good. I'm so happy I saw that.
PS: I'm no master criminal, but if I were being hunted by Robocop I'd aim for the mouth.
- Silent Running (1972): Unlike most of my reviews this is spoiler-free because I want to watch Silent Running with Sumana. This was my third or fourth time seeing this movie, and the first time on the big screen. I picked up a few details I'd never seen before, and it was fun to see it with Tully Hansen, a known #botALLY, but also in the theater were Hal and Babs, who hated it ("It's so earnest." -Hal), so I feel like I have to defend it.
Silent Running is my second-favorite movie. It's my second favorite in a different sense than The Big Lebowski is my favorite. Lebowski has a good concept that's executed perfectly. It's the movie I wish I could make. But I'm not a filmmaker. Silent Running has a perfect concept that's executed near-perfectly, except the plot makes absolutely no sense. It's the movie I could fix.
All right, so it's earnest. It's okay for a movie to be earnest! Earnestness is the difference between Godzilla and Robocop, and I stand with Godzilla. If I were writing the screenplay I'd give it more nuance, but the core is perfect. The movie starts with an act of redemptive violence—the way movies like Robocop end—and then it turns out that the violence wasn't redemptive at all.
Visually, this film is so beautiful it hurts. The cramped but relatively tidy interiors are the missing link between the roomy jet-set aesthetic of 2001 and the "dingy spaceship" aesthetic of Star Wars and Alien. (Solaris, of course, was ahead of its time). Yeah, great movie all around, but the plot doesn't make sense. You might also try Moon (2009), a more modern take on the idea whose plot also doesn't make sense.
Mon Jun 02 2014 09:37 May Film Roundup:
Ready for "Wacky Wednesdays" here at News You Can Bruise? Here's the deal. We got five movies in the May roundup, but only three of them I actually saw in May! One is from April and one I saw yesterday. Also, it's not Wednesday.
- THX-1138 (
1971 2004!!!) I saw this in April and forgot to write about it, and then I remembered it and I was angry! Because guess what? George Lucas went in to this movie in 2004 and George Lucased it, and that's the version the museum showed us, under the pretense that we'd be seeing a 35mm print of the 1971 original. Fortunately, I don't think there were any substantial changes, because—and this is the official Crummy.com Opinion Of George Lucas—Lucas wouldn't know a substantial change if he made one by accident. He goes in and re-edits his first movie, not because the studio meddled with it, but because he now has the technology to make the car chase look cooler? Gimme a break. I'm sure it was fine.
The thing is, this movie's really edgy and disturbing for a 1971 sci-fi flick! I really liked it while I was watching it, and I would still like it if I weren't so angry about the editing. The plot is awful but, to damn with faint but sincere praise, I consider George Lucas to be one of the world's great art directors. There's a lot of eyeball kicks (I loved the opening scene), deliciously overwrought dialogue, and bizarre details and conundra.
For instance, why are all the holograms played by black actors, and why are they the only black characters in the movie? Is it mere artifice, an allegory that we see but the characters don't? Or is it a horrible reality within the world of the movie? With another director you could debate this point, but with Lucas, why bother? We've seen what he considers an artistic decision, and it's nowhere near this level. We've also seen that he frequently puts super racist stuff in his movies, so maybe it's best to back away slowly.
- The Famous Sword Bijomaru (1945): The museum is on a serious Mizoguchi kick (I believe they call it a "retrospective"). I never heard of the guy, but I figured I'd see a sampling. This is a bit of rally-round-the-emperor wartime propaganda that's full of low production values and sword-slashes that clearly don't connect and battles that are choreographed like kids roughhousing in the backyard, and overall it's not very good. But given that the Americans were firebombing the country while it was being made, I'm not in any position to complain.
In an interview Mizoguchi said making this film saved him from being drafted, so yay this film.
- Altered States (1980): This movie brings a lot of intellectual firepower (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky!) to a subject that can't support it. It's like if Aaron Sorkin wrote a Godzilla movie. And not one of the tentpole Godzilla movies, but, like, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla. The dialogue is snappy, the scientists talk more like real scientists than movie scientists, and there are quiet moments of yelling between the action scenes where it turns into something really special; the sort of good movie you made up in your mind when I said "Aaron Sorkin wrote a Godzilla movie," just to prove me wrong. But overall it's a mess, too ridiculous to even be pretentious.
Also not a good picture from an animal cruelty perspective. It's my non-expert opinion they actually killed the cute lizard (or a cute lizard, anway) used in the first hallucination sequence. Maybe you think I'm a fool and it's all Hollywood magic, but Cannibal Holocaust also came out in 1980, and William Hurt hits an elephant at one point, so who's gonna stop them killing a lizard?
- Lady Oyu (1951) Original title "Oyû-sama". More Mizoguchi. Three people spend their whole lives being miserable because the alternative is... doing something impolite. Just bite the bullet and do the impolite thing! A sad, sad movie.
- My Love Has Been Burning (1949) Original title "Waga koi wa moenu". Here's a confession, folks: I didn't originally intend to see Altered States or Lady Oyu. I saw them because twice in a row I showed up at the museum at 6:55 hoping to see My Love Has Been Burning, and twice in a row I'd misread the schedule and the 7:00 movie was something else. It doesn't help that the museum's website illustrates almost every Mizoguchi film with a screenshot of a woman looking unhappy. You think I'm joking? 1
and the one happy woman.
Anyway, I kept coming back for this movie because it sounded awesome, and let me tell you, it delivers! Kinuyo Tanaka gives an incredible performance for a character whose emotional options never open up past a) put up with shit, or b) quietly refuse to put up with shit. Much worse things happen in this movie than in Lady Oyu, but because the stakes are so high it feels like a political thriller, not angsty or exploitative (even when at one point it literally becomes a women-in-prison movie). It's preachy and didactic, but when virtue and right are repeatedly trampled, preachiness serves as a rallying cry.
I didn't think much of the first two Mizoguchi films I saw, but My Love Has Been Burning takes him all the way into James Tiptree "are we sure this is by a man?" territory. Like The Famous Sword Bijomaru, this film is propaganda: it was produced during, and to some extent for, the American occupation of Japan. But as Lori Spring wrote in 1983 (courtesy of the museum's handout flyer): "there has not been, to my knowledge, any film produced in the American popular cinema from the 40's to date with nearly as direct and radical a feminist intent as that of this film produced under American supervision."
Wed May 28 2014 11:04 @MinecraftSigns, And Minecraft Maps:
I finished a draft of Situation Normal and sent it in to writing group, so I've now got time to reveal the other non-NYPL project that's been taking up all of my time. Ta-da! It's a bot! @MinecraftSigns posts signs that I found in Minecraft maps using the pymclevel library I learned for the Historical Minecraft project.
For a long time, signs were the only form of textual self-expression possible in Minecraft. You get four lines of 15 characters each. In normal play they're generally used as labels or signposts. Custom mapmakers also use them for instructions to the player, dialogue, narration, and hidden messages. They are a medium of communication with more severe character restrictions than Twitter, which makes them a great subject for a Twitter bot. Signs posted so far range from the profound:
To something I think I saw on one of those trendy t-shirts recently:
To the crowd favorite so far:
You will lose.
Oh goodie, you say; another bot from Leonard! What will he come up with next? Yet another bot? The answer is yes. But, before you dismiss @MinecraftSigns as just another window into a beautiful realm of found poetry, ask yourself this: how did I get this data in the first place? Where did all these Minecraft signs come from? Oh, I don't know, maybe from the sixty-five thousand Minecraft maps I've got on my hard drive?
That's right. After the Historical Minecraft project I thought back to late 2011 when I was enjoying the world of custom Minecraft maps. I then thought forward to early 2012, when I was kind of done with custom Minecraft maps, but when I moved all the ZIP files I'd downloaded onto a backup drive rather than deleting them, because these things don't stay on the Internet forever and it would be nice to have a copy, say, twenty years from now. And then, in early 2014, two years into that twenty, I was thinking about that little act of preservation and it hit me: who's archiving the rest of those maps?
The answer was: apparently nobody. And then the answer quickly became: I am. From the middle of April to the middle of May I archived 65,000 maps linked to from the Minecraft maps forum. That's out of about 100,000 maps total. I verified that 25,000 maps are gone, and there are about 10,000 maps I didn't get because they're scattered across a million different file-sharing sites.
So, at least a quarter of the maps put up since 2010 are already gone. I was able to get screenshots for a lot of the missing maps, so it's not a total loss, but that's still really bad, and not only because it's generally bad when interesting things leave the Internet.
Minecraft is the medium used by a lot of accomplished designers and artists. The most obvious examples IMO are Vechs (Super Hostile) and three_two (Vinyl Fantasy). Those two are pretty legendary and their maps are in no danger of being lost, but there's a lot of really great stuff published in 2011-2012 that was lost in the flood. 2011-2012 was the silent-film era of Minecraft custom maps, when the genres were being defined and the first wild experiments were happening, but when the medium was not taken seriously enough to warrant systematic preservation. In the future we'll have tools for finding the overlooked gems, but first those maps have to make it to the future.
Speaking of the future, Minecraft is the training ground for the next generation of game designers, the way ZZT was the training ground for my generation. There's a ZZT archive; it's got about 2,000 ZZT games. How many are lost? Sure would have been nice to save more of them, but all we had back then was BBSes. We didn't have a big official "ZZT forum" with a special place for posting links to your games.
Finally, even a map that's made by a young child who grows up to be an actuary rather than a game designer is valuable. For one, it's valuable to the actuary. I didn't grow up to be a visual artist, but I value this awful, mysterious poster I drew when I was six. That poster would be long gone if someone (my mother) hadn't archived it for me. Second, these maps might be useful in the aggregate as a source of information about period slang or the way children visualize three-dimensional space. Third...
Well, I think one reason Minecraft is so popular with kids is it recreates an experience that American kids generally aren't allowed to have anymore: going outside and playing in a semi-natural environment, on your own or with friends, without parental supervision. There's this infamously bad Minecraft map from 2011 called Quest for Gallell, which turned out to be made by a six-year-old. Presumably this goofy swashbuckling playthrough was made before the players knew they were making fun of a six-year-old's map, but if you watch the video you'll notice that the players understand how to approach the map: like kids playing together in the woods. They're acting out kids acting out adults.
Quest for Gallell is the three-dimensional record of an imaginative play session, which you can play through yourself if you want. It sucks that kids can't play outside anymore, but at least we have some records of what they do instead. Those records are worth saving.
Fri May 09 2014 18:16 Crosspost:
Apparently I have a new weblog! It's my NYPL staff weblog and I've put up a post about a project I worked on with Paul Beaudoin on like my second day at NYPL Labs. We turned a historical contour map into a Minecraft world. This is cool on its own, but it also means I now know how to programmatically generate Minecraft maps with Python scripts. The possibilities are endless, and you'll be seeing more of them later. Like, when I'm done with this novel.
If you must get all your Minecraft news in video form, you're surprisingly picky but you're also in luck. I took Nashville's own Joe Hills on a tour of 1860 Manhattan, and he recorded the whole thing. My only regret is that I didn't prime the buried TNT he discovers near the end of the video.
(1) Mon May 05 2014 22:57 April Film Roundup:
Running late this month because of work on Situation Normal. But I'm sick of writing that tonight, so let's crank out some great reviews of (mostly) great movies.
- The Bucharest Experiment (2013): Has kind of a silly creepypasta feel I think Kris might enjoy. There's a funny meta twist at the end, and then this twist is immediately followed by another twist that takes it into real-life horrifying territory and makes this a difficult movie to write about. I don't have the critical skill to critique this movie. I don't know if it "works". I don't know if its final message is diluted or enhanced by basically goofing off for sixty minutes beforehand.
The preceding short, Before the Fall (2011) was creepy in a less complicated way, and I can unabashedly recommend it to the likes of Kris.
- Alien (1979): What a wonderful movie. It was engaging even though I knew everything that was going to happen. I read the Alan Dean Foster novelization when I was a kid, and you can't get very far in today's society without learning what happens in Alien.
Things I wasn't prepared for that blew me away: the slow burn at the beginning, the stunning dinginess of the spacecraft. ("Dingy spaceship" is my overall favorite aesthetic.) Unfortunately the second half is not as good as the first. The android and the ship's computer are goofy and unnecessary to the plot. Wouldn't this be a better movie if Ash was an amoral human, and Ripley found out about the secret order by snooping through the crappy 1979 computer? It sure would.
I was also surprised by how humanoid the xenomorph is in this movie. I mean, yeah, it's a man in a rubber suit, but I'm so used to seeing xenomorphs depicted on all fours, like big cats, that seeing the man in the suit sort of took me out of it. It's not like Godzilla where the scale of the shot tricks you into not seeing the man in the suit.
This movie is also responsible for one of the odder bits of IMDB trivia I've encountered:
According to Ridley Scott in the DVD commentary, he had envisioned a moment in the ending scenes of Ripley and the alien in the space shuttle in which the alien would be sexually aroused by Ripley. Scott says that in the scene, after Ripley hides in the closet, the alien would find her and would be staring at her through the glass door. The alien would then start touching itself as if comparing its body to Ripley's. The idea was eventually scrapped.
I like to think the idea was "scrapped" as soon as Ridley Scott woke up and said "Wow, haha, what a weird moment I just envisioned in that dream, I guess there is a lot of sexual subtext in this film I'm making."
- Border Incident (1949): Disappointing. I was hoping Ricardo Montalban's Mexican cop would preemptively avenge Charlton Heston's Mexican cop in Touch of Evil, and he's fine, but there's only so much you can do in an earnest-liberal 1940s film. Especially egregious: the framing device narration which effectively says "We feel it is important to inform the public of this terrible problem which has been completely resolved and there's nothing to worry about."
I feel like you could remake this movie without changing much.
- Alphaville (1965): I've been wanting to see this movie for years, and yet dreading it. For I knew Alphaville was the movie that would make or break my hypothesis that the unrealized destiny of the French New Wave was to make awesome genre films. And... yep, I was right. Great movie. Everything that's boring and pretentious about French art films is everything that's funny and fresh with this movie.
I posited last year that Fahrenheit 451 is Truffault wanting to make a sci-fi film, despite a history of looking down on the genre, because Bradbury's story is so good. Goddard also thinks American genre films are goofy, but he wants in. He wants to do the fistfights and the secret agents and the evil supercomputers. But he doesn't have any money. So he just appropriates the tropes without changing the visuals. Combine it with high-quality gags and you've got a winner. The one thing I couldn't stand: the computer's voice. So grating, and it went on for what seemed like minutes. (And may have actually been minutes.)
PS: Just gonna start a rumor that Alphaman is set in the same universe as Alphaville.
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): Tragically ending my streak of movies whose titles start with "A" or "B", this is the first and lesser-known of the two movies about David Bowie's crotch. It's 139 minutes long, it doesn't drag, and unlike a lot of arty SF movies (Alphaville) its plot has a strong through-line and original (non-borrowed) science-fiction elements.
And David Bowie is really, really good in this. Like, anything I can think of makes it sound like I'm snarking on him being a huge weirdo, but he plays a really good space alien. He's like a less friendly Tetsuo Milk. The human/alien sex scene in particular is really touching. Makes me wonder where Ridley Scott got his idea for a scene where "the alien would find her and would be staring at her through the glass door."
Actually, let me zoom in on the human/alien sex scene, because there was a shot there that creeped me out more than anything in Alien, and more to the point I have no idea why it was so creepy.
A little light-spoiler background: David Bowie is an alien, as I mentioned before. We frequently see him in flashback on his home planet, where he's a typical Star Trek style alien: he's bald, he's got lizard eyes, his nose is maybe a little weird. Just before the sex scene there's a scene where David Bowie's in the bathroom. taking off his human disguise, revealing his alien form. His girlfriend (Candy Clark), who has just found out she's sleeping with an alien, kind of sneaks to the bathroom door and slowly reaches for the handle and opens the door. And there's David Bowie and he's an alien and the girlfriend screams.
Here's the thing I don't understand: I already know what the alien looks like. I've seen alien David Bowie, not in glimpses like the xenomorph in Alien but in big detailed close-ups. So why is it so creepy, that moment when Candy Clark is inching her hand towards the bathroom door? Is it because she doesn't know? Is it because I've seen alien David Bowie on his goofy-looking home planet, but now I'm about to see him in a 1970s bathroom with cheesy wood paneling? Is it because I know it's not just alien David Bowie in there, but naked alien David Bowie, and I'm afraid of what his alien junk looks like? (Good job on the alien junk, BTW, Ellis Burman, Jr.) Am I conditioned to think any inching-towards-the-door scene is creepy? I don't know, but it's probably the first two.
- He Walked By Night (1948) Sadly, even though Richard Basehart is in this movie, Gypsy did not show up for the showing. I didn't enjoy the main thrust of this movie but there were so many great set pieces. The killer moving around LA through the storm drains, the oscilliscope con job, the pre-Identikit Identikit scene where the robbery victims collectively converge on a portrait of the suspect. But the best part was early in the movie, when the police dragnet rounded up a number of other noir movies in progress, and we got a little noir sampler.
PS: There's a character in this movie named Chuck Jones.
(1) Tue Apr 01 2014 13:21 March Film Roundup:
April Fools! As part of an elaborate prank spanning over a year I have slowly turned NYCB into mostly a film review blog! Hahahahaha... ah...
Anyway, I'm trying out a new strategy for spending less time writing these film roundups. Instead of trying to analyze each movie in detail I'm going to write only as much about a movie as I feel like writing in the moment. Sometimes this will still be a lot, but most of the time I think a paragraph's worth of text will suffice.
- Life Without Zoe (1989): A big budget father-and-daughter Coppola short that's charming despite being about a super-spoiled Richie-Rich type teenager. I think the key is that Zoe is a teenager who acts like an adult, whose parents act like teenagers. This works even though an adult who acted like Zoe acts would also be insufferable, and without Zoe her parents would be insufferable. It's a strange alchemy.
I was momentarily excited because the opening credits introduced everyone by given name ("Written by Francis and Sophie") and when the credits introduced "Giancarlo" I thought maybe Giancarlo Esposito was in this film. But no, it was just well-known Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini. Dammit!
- Lost in Translation (2003): O VER RA TED. In fact I'd go so far as to claim that this movie is the same as Meatballs (1979), with the Bill Murray part played by Scarlett Johansson and the Chris Makepeace part played by Bill Murray. Some good physical comedy from Murray.
- Last Action Hero (1993): Seen with Jake and Sukiko because Netflix didn't have Sukiko's favorite movie, The Terminator. To paraphraze jwz, this movie is good if your time has no value. There's forty minutes of really good, clever metahumor, an hour of obnoxious action movie parody, and half an hour that's just boring generic movie setup. So if you have nothing better to do, sure, go through this movie for that forty minutes. I don't regret seeing Last Action Hero. But being UN DER RA TED for years as people slowly gain an appreciation for its finer qualities is exactly what this movie deserves.
- Muppets Most Wanted (2014): Preview screening with Sumana! The Muppets, was a movie about the Muppets, and this is a movie with the Muppets. So it's got that going for it. Sumana likes it better than the first one, because it focuses on Kermit instead of Walter, who, let's face it, is kind of a nonentity. I... don't know. The movie flirts with how egregious an Idiot Plot can possibly get, but since most of the Muppets are well-established as idiots I guess it works.
In general the moments I loved in this movie—and there were a lot of them—were in the interstices. It's always lampshading its ridiculous plot and escalating sight gags into absurdity. It's funny, and certainly in the keeping of the classic Muppet movies, but it betrays the sweaty hand of the punch-up gag screenwriter. I think the Muppets have a lot of the same problems The Simpsons has at this point.
Misc notes: I loved the repurposing of Kermit's catchphrases into action-movie taglines. The songs are good, but nothing as catchy as "Life's A Happy Song" or "Man or Muppet". Sam the Eagle finally gets an entire movie subplot, and it's great. One misstep: the gulag? Maybe not the best idea? I don't think massive human rights violations are totally off-limits for humor, but maybe not in a PG Muppet movie?
A while back we were talking Muppet with someone and I mentioned that I can't tell the difference between the Jim Henson Kermit voice and the Steve Whitmire Kermit voice. Well, now I can, and it's kind of sad.
Prefaced with a fun Pixar short about Portal.
- The Playhouse (1921): Buster Keaton short. Watch it here, but only up to 4:30. The technical comedy achievement is marred by its conjunction with horrible blackface (blackface lasts from 2:10 to 3:00 and 4:30 to 4:45), and after the five-minute mark, there's no reason whatsoever to keep going. The technical wizardry ceases and for instead you get Keaton in apeface. That's right, he uses blackface makeup to impersonate a chimpanzee. the split-screen gimmick at the start is incredible, everything else is cringey, but give the man credit: he invented a new type of comedy capable of demeaning a whole different species.
- Seven Chances (1925): Also Buster Keaton, also watchable online. In stark contrast to The Playhouse, the whole thing is funny, and it gets better and better as it goes on. Not gonna say much more because the fun of this movie is seeing Keaton work out every possible permutation of its one basic joke.
I don't like doing Silent Movie Racism Watch, but I feel like it's a service I must provide. There's one kinda-iffy joke in Seven Chances, but this movie also features the only non-racist race-based joke I've seen in a silent movie. The main problem here is sexism. The premise of the second half of the movie is pretty sexist, but you also have huge crowds of assertive women in the final chase sequence, sending policemen to flight, commandeering vehicles, a sight that surely had reactionaries of the time grumping "I told you this would happen if they got the vote!" So maybe it's a wash?
- Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957): It's a Mad Men kinda satire of gender roles and corporate status play, except it's actually from 1957. People in the past weren't dumb. They knew what was up, and films like this show it. I can only hope we get the same consideration fifty years from now.
Starts with some fourth-wall breaking and then some zany fake MAD-style commercials. The movie is full of amazingly dirty innuendo-filled dialogue, and if you're not the intellectual sort, there's always Jayne Mansfield as "Mayne Jansfield." I think that was the character's name. Worth a watch, but not a must-see.
- 1941 (1979): Spielberg's Ishtar. A funny movie that went way over budget and, if things had gone a little differently, could have sunk the director's career. It's not as good as Ishtar, and it's been completely forgotten instead of becoming a punchline, but it has the same problems. Blockbuster comedies have trouble earning back their money, most people don't like to see super-convoluted movies about incompetent people, and Americans really don't like their government (at least, the parts of the government that carry guns) being satirized as incompetent.
That said, I love seeing super-convoluted movies about incompetent people, and the variety of incompetences depicted in this movie is really inspiring. The obvious next step would be to see Stripes, a highly acclaimed film on a similar topic to 1941 that has a lot of cast overlap. Which I'm guessing has a very straightforward plot, and that's the secret to box-office success.
I know Nathan Rabin's "Year of Flops" series did an entry on Ishtar, so I went to see if he did an entry on 1941 and, yes, he sure did. He did not like 1941 very much ("Fiasco"), but upon re-reading his Ishtar entry ("Secret Success") I now like Ishtar a little less, so he actually brought my opinions of 1941 and Ishtar closer together.
I also gotta take issue with Spielberg being described as "straight-arrow". Sure, he is now, but up to 1941 his films (Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters) were all pretty far out there. It's not unreasonable for him to think he could pull this off. Maybe 1941 was the movie that taught him to start playing it safe.
Two bonus appreciations: Dan Akroyd's inspirational troop-rallying speech, which is the same kind of jargony gibberish as the field manuals his character quotes the rest of the time. The Japanese sailor who's sad at the end of the movie for the same reason the other sailors are cheerful.
- Psych (2006-2014): I guess I'll do TV shows here when they end. I posted a brief appreciation of Psych when we started watching many years ago, back when it was just a silly mystery show. It never stopped being a silly mystery show, but over the years it suffered a bit of House syndrome as main character Shawn became more and more obnoxious while rarely suffering any consequences due to being the main character of a silly mystery show.
I'm glad it stopped when it did; the last two seasons were pretty uneven. But they were uneven partly because Psych started ramping up the crazy film-nerd stuff, doing experimental things like remaking one of their previous episodes. The sort of thing Manny Coto did in the last season of Enterprise. A lot of experiments don't work out, but even when it was bad Psych never took itself seriously.
Final note: I thought I said this on NYCB before, but it looks like not: Kurt Fuller is amazing as Woody the coroner. The story of the later seasons of Psych is the story of Woody becoming a major character. I feel so strongly about this I made a little chart charting his appearances since his debut in the 2009 Jaleel White vehicle "High Top Fade Out":
This is good and bad. Woody is a great character, and the most Santa Barbara thing about Psych, but all too often I think when the writers needed to make a guest star seem creepy or quirky they would give the guest star a line they wrote for Woody. Anyway, Woody 4evah.
- The Ladies Man (1961): This was Jerry Lewis's follow-up audition for being someone whose movies I'll keep watching, and he almost passed. This is funnier than The Nutty Professor, but still not all that funny. So I'm done. If you have a suggestion as to some Jerry Lewis movie you think I'd like, let me know and I'll give it a shot.
I was going to suggest that Jerry Lewis is like Mel Brooks in that as a comedian he's very creative, but not reliably funny. I was going to go further and say that his fatal flaw as a comedian is a Mel Brooks-like sentimentality: in this movie, the way he literally puts women on pedestals instead of letting them be funny. And then I go to IMDB trivia and see "During a 2008 interview, Mel Brooks noted that he wrote the original script for this movie, but since most of his work was excised from the final version asked that his name be removed from the credits." So I don't know what to think anymore.
Charlie Chaplin has this problem too, so it's probably not a "fatal flaw" so much as a "school of comedy I don't like."
- M*A*S*H* (1970): No thanks. Uses really, really awful sexism as the lens to view the clash between draftees and regular Army. I gotta say, if all of Robert Altman's films are like this, I want nothing to do with him. The football bit is funny.
- Groundhog Day (1993): Sumana saw this movie (at a Harold Ramis tribute), not me, but I just want it on record that I love this movie.
- The Ice Harvest (2005): Maybe not a movie you want to pay to see in a first-run theater, but that ship has long since sailed, and we're left with an enjoyable neo-noir thriller that does a good job of exploring the dark side of the holidays without making it the focal point of the movie. Oliver Platt auditions well for his upcoming role in the Fargo TV show.
Fri Mar 28 2014 10:16 Read My Lips: Two New Bots:
I've been trying to finish as much of Situation Normal as possible before my job at the library starts (uh... I think this is the first time I've mentioned my NYPL job on NYCB, but I'll be writing about it later). But I have created two new autonomous agents to engage and confound you.
The first is Euphemism Bot, inspired by the fact that most of the output of Adam's Egress Methods sounds like weird euphemisms for masturbation. Euphemism Bot elevates the tone by putting out weird euphemisms for all sorts of dirty, shameful things. You'll never be understood again! It's been up for about a month, and it's already subverted its programming.
From the naughty to the nautical, there's also Boat Names, which I "launched" today. It periodically sends out names that one, and only one, person decided to give their boat. The data comes from the Queneau-sounding ten thousand boat names, which I first learned of from the trivia podcast Good Job, Brain! (I'm linking to their Twitter page because their main webpage currently shows some base64-encoded text that isn't even a puzzle.) I had this idea kicking around in my head until yesterday's lunch with Andrea Phillips, when the topic turned to weird random datasets we'd collected. And now... a bot is born.
Boat Names also has an Egress Methods connection. I found the list of given names Adam uses for Egress Methods and used it to filter out boats that are named after people. This avoids the boredom of "Eleanor", which just proves that not many boat owners have wives named Eleanor.
Mon Mar 03 2014 09:23 February Film Roundup:
Three films this month, none of them great, but all of them worth your time.
- Pulp Fiction (1994): I think I came too late to this one. Like Superfly, it puts style way, way above substance. And twenty years later the style a) is kinda dorky and b) has been copied by tons of other movies. Samuel L. Jackson is always cool, but John Travolta was never cool. (Admittedly, I passed up the chance to see Saturday Night Fever; maybe he was cool in that.)
What substance there is, is gory fun. I loved Travolta's character in the bathroom convincing himself not to make a move on the boss's woman. He spends a lot of this movie in bathrooms, actually. I liked seeing the plot threads winding in and out of each other.
Before the screening, several people read essays about how much this movie (specifically, its soundtrack) meant to them. I'm glad it was important to them but I'm not really feeling it.
- The Pajama Game (1957): A beautifully shot musical about labor-management relations. It's really good. Lots of background relationships (including one horribly creepy one), not just the male and female leads. Too bad the songs are terrible! I have never hated the songs so much in a musical that I liked.
- Wu xia (2011): Fun violent emotional martial arts movie that keeps jumping from one subgenre to another. Unlike Tai Chi Zero, this movie consistently uses chi manipulation as a driver of fight scenes, to the point of using acupuncture needles as weapons. Good stuff.
Tue Feb 25 2014 10:48 Mahna Mahna:
My new bot, Mahna Mahna (@mahna____mahna), reenacts the Muppet Show's "Mahna Mahna" skit over the course of a day. It might be my saddest bot.
My secret is that I created this bot hoping that someone else would eventually create a Snowth bot to enact the other half of the skit. I quickly learned that there is already a Snowth bot, but it only talks to @mahna____mahna once a day. So... well, I already revealed one secret in this paragraph, I shouldn't reveal another.
Wed Feb 19 2014 11:34 Constellation Games Bonus Story Ebooks:
Thanks to requests by Ron Hale-Evans and others at Foolscap, I've compiled the four Constellation Games bonus stories into a single ebook. You can get an EPUB that looks okay and a MOBI that's kinda ugly. If you want to do a better job of formatting, then a) be my guest, and b) let me know and I'll send you the original source files, which should save you some work over downloading everything and putting it together yourself.
Thu Feb 06 2014 14:15 Writing Aliens:
I've put online the slides and prepared text of my Foolscap talk, "Writing Aliens", or, "Duchamp, Markov, Queneau: A Mostly Delightful Quilt". On one level it's a simple introduction to algorithmic creativity, but it's also about creativity in general, the anthropomorphization of software, and why the features that make Twitter so aggravating for humans make it such a great platform for bots. Bonuses include a recap of Brian Hayes's article on Markov and a telling of the @Horse_ebooks saga as a reverse alien invasion.
The two site-specific installations that I hinted at earlier were custom scripts displaying variants on Ebooks Brillhantes and Hapax Hegemon. The text corpus comes from a scrape of everything linked to from Free Speculative Fiction
Online. The software is a heavily modified version of Bruce, modified a) to stream data from a flat text file and create the slides on the fly, instead of trying to load 20,000 slides into memory at once; and b) when restarted after a crash/shutdown, to skip the appropriate number of slides and pick up where it would be if it had been running continually.
Unfortunately I never got a picture of both displays running side-by-side; if you have such a picture, I'd really appreciate it if you could send it to me.
Just after I set up the ebooks display, I met Greg Bear, who was at Foolscap running a writing workshop. We walked over to the screen and I explained the project to him. He said "I'd better not be in there." AT THAT MOMENT the screen was showing the quote "We zoomed down eleven" from this free sample of Blood Music. It was pretty awkward.
(1) Tue Feb 04 2014 13:34 January Film Roundup:
The cycle begins anew... OR DOES IT? Check out all the films I saw in January!
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013): Or as my ticket stub calls it, HOBBIT 2. I love my now-tradition of watching the Hobbit movies with my sister Susanna, but I'm a little disappointed in this one. The thing I loved most about the first movie (dramatization of the totally canonical gaiden in which Gandalf hunts down the Necromancer) was combined with the thing I disliked most (the elevation of a throwaway character to Big Bad status, in a story that already features a frickin' dragon plus the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Crimean War). This made me suspect that the details of the Gandalf B-plot were left vague in the book for a reason.
Plus, terrible confusing action sequences all the time. The one at the end made me think that not only has Peter Jackson been playing too much Minecraft, he's the guy who wants minecarts to work like boats in lava. It was also unnecessary, since the plot of the book at that point would work just fine as the end of the second movie in a trilogy. I can only blame Hollywood meddling and hope for the best.
The good news is that we have now stretched out the story enough that the third film contains all of The Hobbit's canonical action set-pieces. But that's really an argument for making two movies, not three. Or four, as I over-enthusiastically suggested last time.
Smaug was great. I don't see a lot of movies with dragons, and I suspect such movies' dragon effects are generally lacking, because lots of people are really going ape about Smaug whereas I was thinking "yes, good, solid talking dragon implementation." The same thing happened with Gollum in the LotR movies. I guess I don't care enough about dragons in general. They're like dinosaurs... that don't exist!
Insta-update: After writing that, I listened to the episode of "The Dork Forest" with Tolkien expert Corey Olsen. It didn't change my mind on anything, but it did remind me of all the changes the filmmakers made that improved on the book, or at least made a better movie than a straight adaptation of the book would have. Especially the love triangle, the splitting up of the party to establish a POV in Laketown, the early introduction of the arrow on the mantelpiece, and all the work done to differentiate between twelve characters who are nearly identical in the book.
Yeah, only one film! Because I was travelling all month. I couldn't even count Future Love Drug, a short film made by my fellow Foolscap GoH Brooks Peck, because I came in late and only saw the last minute of the film.
I don't know if the film roundups will continue in 2014. On the one hand, I'm going to try to see, or at least review, fewer films in 2014 so I can do more reading. On the other hand, I love taking fiction apart to see how it works, and reviewing books the way I've been reviewing movies is a good way to make professional enemies. Whereas nobody cares what I say about film. So who knows?
(1) Mon Jan 27 2014 12:13 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2013:
I've been travelling for most of the month, but I managed to scrape together a year-in-review post. Here's 2012. I'm a little disappointed right now, because I just woke up from a dream in which I'd savvily combined several middle-tier Kickstarter rewards into being able to go to the International Space Station whenever I wanted, so let's start with a self-aggrandizing montage of my waking accomplishments in 2013:
- The big one was RESTful Web APIs, a radical reimplementation of RESTful Web Services that takes the lessons of the last seven years into account. My accompanying talk is the time-travel extravaganza, "LCODC$SSU and the coming automated web" (see commentary from outside the framing device). And after the book came out we released the predecessor book under CC-BY-NC-ND.
- I didn't finish writing Situation Normal but I got pretty close; I'll finish it this year and hopefully sell it.
- Autonomous agent mania! I achieved a measure of fame (for Rob) with Real Human Praise, the bot whose 20,000 remaining followers proves that most people don't use Twitter the way I do. (Here's a behind-the-scenes.)
But I'm most proud of Ebooks Brilhantes, the bot that proves there's a better way to make *_ebooks bots: by reverse-engineering the actual @horse_ebooks algorithm instead of being lazy and using Markov chains.
Honorable mentions to the lovely Smooth Unicode and the ribald Dada Limericks. In non-bots, there's Apo11o ll and In Dialogue. And my explanation of comedy ethics for computer programmers, "Bots Should Punch Up".
- The big NYCB posts of 2013 were my film roundups, which I really like as writing (I mean, check out the review of Norman Mailer v Fun City, USA), but which are ultimately not standalone pieces of prose. They're my impressions of the films, impressions I will be condensing into the "Film" section below.
Here's the best of the remainder:
Now let's take a brief look at contributions from the not-me community:
Literature: The category that suffered the most from 2013's focus on film. I didn't read that much, and my writing is slowing down because of it. This is a strange alchemy that I can't explain but I'm pretty sure other writers recognize it. Anyway, I've got some new books I'm excited about so I'll get back on this in 2014.
For 2013 I'll give the nod to Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel's Atari Inc.: Business is Fun, a book that... well... this review is pretty accurate, but the book has a lot of good technical and business information, plus many unverifiable anecdotes. It seems I read nothing in 2013 that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation... except Tina Fey's Bossypants, I guess... yes! In a late-paragraph update, Bossypants has taken the award! Wait, what's this? In a shocking upset, the ant has taken it from Bossypants! Yes, the ant is back, and out for blood!
Games: 2013 was the year I finally learned the mechanical skill of shuffling cards. Maybe this doesn't seem like a big deal to you, but I've been trying to figure this out for most of my life.
The crummy.com Board Game of the Year is "Snake Oil", a game about fulfilling user stories with lies and shoddy products. The Video Game of the Year? Man, I dunno. I'm playing computer games a little more than in 2013, but still not that many. "Starbound" is really cool, and is probably the closest I'll get to being able to play "Terraria" on Linux.
Audio: As I mentioned, I'm travelling, and away from the big XML file that contains my podcast subscriptions, so I'll fill this in later, but there's not a lot new here. But I can tell you the Crummy.com Podcast of the Year: Mike "History of Rome" Duncan's new podcast, Revolutions. The first season, covering the English Revolution, just wrapped up, so it's a good time to get into the podcast.
Hat tip to Jackie Kashian's The Dork Forest. Probably not going to have to update this one, actually.
Film: Ah, here's the big one. As I mentioned earlier, I saw 85 feature films in 2013. By amount of money I spent, the best film of the year was Gravity, which I dropped about $40 on. But by any other criteria, it wasn't even close! Well, it was close enough to get Gravity onto my top twelve, which I present now. I consider all of these absolute must-watches.
- The General (1926)
- Nashville (1975)
- Ishtar (1987)
- Ball of Fire (1941)
- Calculated Movements (1985)
- The World's End (2013)
- No No Nooky TV (1987)
- Gravity (2013)
- The Godfather (1972)
- Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
- No (2012)
As you can tell, only films I saw for the first time in 2013 are
eligible; we call this the "The Big Lebowski rule".
There was no movie that really changed my aesthetic sense this year, the way Celine and Julie go Boating did last year, but Nashville gave me insight into managing a large ensemble cast. Hat tip to Fahrenheit 451 for getting me to understand why I keep lining up for French New Wave films even though they keep pulling the football away from me.
I still don't feel like I know that much about film. I treat films like they're books. I'm not that interested in what people do with the cameras. I have no idea what the names of actors are. I find the prospect of making a film quite tedious. They're fun to watch though.
For the record, here's my must-see list from 2012, which I didn't spell out last time:
- Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
- Brazil (1985)
- A New Leaf (1971)
- All About Eve (1950)
- The Whole Town's Talking (1953)
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Paper Moon (1973)
- Marathon Man (1976)
Okay, I think that's enough. Nobody reads these things until the centennial anyway.
Fri Jan 24 2014 11:52 One week to Foolscap!:
In a week I'm a guest of honor at the Foolscap convention in Redmond, WA. It's got a bit of an unconference feel, so apart from the basics--board game night, a talk by me that I have to prepare--we can form fluid overlays and schedule whatever we want.
Also featured at the con will be (I think I've mentioned this before) two continuous SF/F text installations I've created to astound you. This exhibit WILL NOT BE REPEATED, unless someone asks for it at another con. So if you're in the Seattle area, sign up or just show up the day of, and you'll get to hang out with me, and the other honored guest, museum curator/SyFy monster movie screenwriter Brooks Peck.
(1) Tue Jan 07 2014 12:20 The Bots of 2014:
I took an oath of non-bot-making for most of December, but now I'm back in the game. At the end of January I'm a guest of honor at Seattle's Foolscap convention, and I've got a couple site-specific installation projects that will hopefully entertain congoers to the exclusion of all other activities.
But for now, I have two new bots to entertain you, the general public. The Hapax Hegemon (@HapaxHegemon) posts words that occur only once in the Project Gutenberg corpus I've been getting so much mileage out of. So far it's emitted such gems as "zoy", "stupidlike", and "beer-swipers". And like so many of my recent bots, it won't stop until we're all dead.
My second new bot is the Serial Enterpreneur (@ItCantFail), which posts inventions. It's basically playing Snake Oil (spoiler: Crummy.com 2013 Board Game of the Year) with a much larger corpus, derived from the Corpus of Historical American English and the Scribblenauts word list.
So far my favorite @ItCantFail inventions are the delicious Fox Syrup, the liberal-friendly Left Drone, and the self-explanatory Riot College. Write in with your own wacky inventions! I won't use them, because that's not how this bot works, but it seems like a fun way to kill some time.
More bots are on the way! But not for a while, because I gotta do novel work and get the Foolscap-exclusive bots in shape.
Thu Jan 02 2014 09:14 December Film Roundup:
Counting it all up, it looks like I saw 85 feature films in 2013, plus some beefy television and a ton of shorts. Unfortunately the retrospective of 1913 silent film (semi-promised at 2012's 1912 retrospective) did not materialize. Oh darn!
I'll tackle the "best of" topic in a general 2013 wrap-up later on. For now, here's a look at December's cinematic adventures:
- The Kids Are All Right (2010): This was a fun family dramedy that never went for the cop-out solution. I liked that it presented sexual orientation as a spectrum rather than a binary. Also, Mark Ruffalo looks just like Rob Dubbin. Someone should look into this.
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979): Pretty exciting tale of a dame who sets out to be the brassiest of any dame in postwar Germany. There was a murder that I found pretty distressing, and the ending was a huge cop-out, but in the category of "random foreign film seen at the museum" I'd say it was above average.
The American soldiers in this film are clearly played by German actors. One of them speaks British English with a fake American accent. It was really, really weird.
- The Big Combo (1955): How can I not love a noir in which the detective is named "Leonard Diamond"? I don't know how, but I don't love this. Richard Conte is excellent as the crime boss Mr. Brown, and there are a couple great bits involving the chief henchman's hearing aid. Also Lee van Cleef as half of a gay henchman couple. But overall this was just a noir popcorn movie for me--good, but nothing special.
- Down By Law (1986): I went into this not knowing what to expect. I'd never seen a Jim Jarmusch film before [checks IMDB to avoid repeat of "Robert Altman" fiasco], and at first I was unimpressed by the way this movie dripped with sleaze and stereotypes and shiftless losers. I mean, I like Tom Waits songs, but you won't see me standing in line to see "Tom Waits Song: The Movie."
But then the shiftless losers get thrown in jail, and the movie a) radically changes direction and b) really takes off. The tight confines of the jail cell are the crucible that forges Down By Law into
a tight ball of character humor and callback-based jokes. It becomes a Marx Brothers movie written by Samuel Beckett, in which Groucho and Zeppo vie endlessly, pointlessly for supremacy, spurred onward by a combination Harpo/Chico. I can't recommend the second act of this movie enough. The third act is not quite as good, but what the hell, I'm feeling generous.
- Manos: The Hands of Felt (2013): I saw this at a party. I guess it counts as a movie? It was a filmed play, but a lot of early films were effectively filmed plays.
This is a puppet adaptation of Manos using Avenue Q-style Muppets (i.e. the puppeteers are not hidden and the puppets are not the official licensed Muppets). It was all right. They added a meta-narrative that recontextualized Manos as a found-footage movie depicting the process of its own filming. Which I don't like conceptually but it kept it from getting boring, as a completely faithful adaptation would have been.
The film was edited the same way as the original Manos, with the same abrupt transitions. (Okay, yeah, it's definitely a movie, not just a filmed play.) It was hard to resist the temptation to riff Felt using the original Manos MST3K riffs.
The puppet design was very good! I want to mention two things I thought were really clever. The teenage couple who make out in their car during the entirety of Manos are depicted by a joined Bert-and-Ernie puppet with two operators. (You can see a photo here.) And in the middle of the film, the "dancing wives of Manos" scene was performed as a The Muppet Show-style "At The Dance" sketch.
- Beyond Expectations (2013): Sorry, I've got to backfill this one because watching Manos reminded me of this other Kickstarter-funded film Sumana and I watched back in October. This is a documentary on The Phantom Tollbooth, a book that Sumana and I both adore. I want to say this film was "for hard-core fans only", but we're hard-core fans and we were a bit disappointed. We wanted more details about the creation of the book, and we felt this (very short) film focused too much on trying to sell the book's cultural importance to the unconverted. Interviewees rambled on about irrelevant topics and the editor didn't cut away to something more interesting.
Admittedly, the two main interviewees were Norton Juster and Jules Pfeiffer, and hearing them ramble on irrelevant topics appealed greatly to us. It's a delicate balance, and I'm not saying I could have edited the film any better, but I don't think it did justice to the source material. Great animated sequences, though.
- Children of Men (2006): Super good. It has all the same problems as Gravity (highly driven by coincidence, very predictable action-movie pacing) but also a ton of spectacle. And this movie has a plot. Yeah, I don't really have much to say about this one. It's great. The exposition could be done better.
- Lola (1961): At this point I know how it goes with 1960s French films, and I wasn't expecting anything from Lola except some nice visuals, which it delivered. But it also delivered some fun farce and a brief moment of excitement when it seemed like it was going to turn into a crime movie. (It doesn't.)
Unlike the American soldiers in The Marriage of Maria Braun, the American sailor in Lola is actually played by an American, Alan Scott. It's weird, though: his French sounds just like like an American speaking French, but his English sounds more like a French person faking an American accent.
Funniest line: "Learn your geography! There are no sailors in Chicago! Only gangsters!"
- The Bletchley Circle (2013): British TV series. A genius premise (bored, oppressed women in postwar London use their wartime codebreaking training to hunt down a serial killer) is ill-served by the plot, in which the killer is continually revealed to be more and more clever. He has to be; otherwise he'd be no match for the sleuths, and the series, already short even by British TV standards, would be over. To the point where in the final episode he's got out-and-out superpowers, like the once-mythical Mallory. Well, maybe they got it out of their system; I'll watch the second series when it comes out.
- The Godfather (1972): According to IMDB this is the second-greatest film of all time. Do I dare to be so conventional as to agree? I don't know, but I will say this is a hell of a movie. It flawlessly pulls off nearly everything it tries to do. (Notably, it does not try to have any female characters.) It's almost 3 hours long and I was only bored for a couple minutes total.
I know less about film criticism than I do about film, so I don't know how deeply this aspect of The Godfather has been explored, but the character progression was really the thing that caught my attention. The movie starts with a milquetoast undertaker asking Vito Corleone for a favor. He's terrified, because Vito Corleone is terrifying and ruthless. Everyone's afraid of him. The fact that he's polite and soft-spoken just adds to the terror. By contrast, Michael is the good guy, the "civilian", the son whose hands are clean.
Then Vito gets shot, and Sonny takes over. Sonny is a psychopath, and he's dumb, and the combination makes for a terrible crime boss. Sonny makes a lot of bad decisions and ends up getting himself killed. And then comes the turn. Vito Corleone calls in the favor he granted the milquetoast undertaker in the very first scene.
Because I was born after The Godfather came out, I came in to this movie aware of the general character of the titular Godfather. As such, this is the scene I've been dreading. How is this poor guy going to be compromised? But I'd read Vito Corleone all wrong. He doesn't compromise people for fun. He's a professional. And right now he really needs an undertaker. He needs his machine-gunned son to look presentable at the funeral. That's the favor.
And then Michael takes over the family, and it turns out that Michael isn't the good guy at all. Michael actually is the man I'd been assuming his father was. It's the "eaten by a bigger fish" trick I mentioned in my Constellation Games commentary, and I love it.
Interesting fact I'm not sure what to do with: The Godfather, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and The Bletchley Circle all cover the same time period.
- Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1979): If you believe IMDB ratings, this film is almost in the same league as Fanny and Alexander, the made-for TV Christmas movie the museum showed last year. I disagree! This is dull. I only liked a couple of the songs. The plot is the plot of an above-average children's book. Most Muppet stuff aimed at kids has something for the adults as well, but this did not. It can't help that this is the thing I saw after The Godfather.
The heavy use of water and Muppet-sized "outdoor" sets was very impressive technically. I liked the fish Muppet who had to be dragged around everywhere in a tank of water. I also enjoyed the outtakes they showed after the feature, including an interminable series of takes in which an attempt to film the behavior of a chaotically moving object goes endlessly awry. I laughed harder at that than I did at anything in the film.
I'm planning on seeing a lot of movies in 2014, but I don't know if I'm going to write these detailed reviews of each one. It takes a long time to get my thoughts in order and write it down, and, as you'll see when I write the year-end roundup, it really eats into the time I spend enjoying other media. So until next time, I'll see you at the movies! (If you are Sumana, Hal, or Babs.)
(3) Mon Dec 16 2013 13:10 Markov vs. Queneau: Sentence Assembly Smackdown:
I mentioned earlier that when assembling strings of words, Markov chains do a better job than Queneau assembly. In this post I'd like to a) give the devil his due by showing what I mean, and b) qualify what I mean by "better job".
Markov wins when the structure is complex
I got the original idea for this post when generating the fake ads for @pony_strategies. My corpus is the titles of about 50,000 spammy-sounding ebooks, and this was the first time I did a head-to-head Markov/Queneau comparison. Here are ten of Markov's entries, using the Markov chain implementation I ended up adding to olipy:
- At Gas Pump!
- The Guy's Guide To The Atkins Diet
- Home Internet Business In The World.
- 101 Ways to Sharpen Your Memory
- SEO Relationship Building for Beginners
- Gary Secrets - Project Management Made Easy!
- Weight Success
- How get HER - Even If It's Just Money, So Easy and Effective Treatment Options
- Sams Yourself
- Define, With, Defeat! How To Get Traffic To Your Health
The Markov entries can get a little wacky ("Define, With, Defeat!"), which is good. But about half could be real titles without seeming weird at all, which is also good.
By contrast, here are ten of Queneau's entries:
- Adsense I Collection Profits: The bottom Guide Income!
- Reliable Your Earning Estate Develop Home And to life Fly Using Don't Your Partnership to Death
- Help the Your Causes, Successfully Business Vegetarian
- Connect New New Cooking
- 1 Tips, Me Life Starting to Simple Ultimate On Wills How Years Online With Living
- How Practice Health Best w/ Beauty
- Amazing Future & Codes Astrology to Definitive Green Carbs, Children Methods JV Engine Dollars And Effective Beginning Minutes NEW!
- I and - Gems Secrets Making Life Today!
- Succeeding For Inspiring Life
- Fast Survival Baby (Health Loss) Really How other of Look Symptoms, Your Business Encouragement: drive Health to Get with Easy Guide
At their very best ("Suceeding For Inspiring Life, "How Practice Health Best w/ Beauty"), these read like the work of a non-native English speaker. But most of them are way out there. They make no sense at all or they sound like a space alien wrote them to deal with space alien concerns. Sometimes this is what you want in your generated text! But usually not.
A Queneau assembler assumes that every string in its corpus has different tokens that follow an identical grammar. This isn't really true for spammy ebook titles, and it certainly isn't true for English sentences in general. A sentence is made up of words, sure, but there's nothing special about the fourth word in a sentence, the way there is about the fourth line of a limerick.
A Markov chain assumes nothing about higher-level grammar. Instead, it assumes that surprises are rare, that the last few tokens are a good predictor of the next token. This is true for English sentences, and it's especially true for spammy ebook titles.
Markov chains don't need to bother with the overall structure of a sentence. They focus on the transitions between words, which can be modelled probabilistically. (And the good ones do treat the first and last tokens specially.)
Markov wins when the corpus is large, Queneau when the corpus is tiny
Consider what happens to the two algorithms as the corpus grows in size. Markov chains get more believable, because the second word in a title is almost always a word commonly associated with the first word in the title. Queneau assemblies get wackier, because the second word in a title can be anything that was the second word in any title.
I have a corpus of 50,000 spammy titles. What if I chose a random sample of ten titles, and used those ten titles to construct a new title via Queneau assembly? This would make it more likely that the title's structure would hint at the structure of one or two of the source titles.
This is what I did in Board Game Dadaist, one of my first Queneau experiments. I pick a small number of board games and generate everything from that limited subset, increasing the odds that the result will make some kind of twisted sense.
If you run a Markov chain on a very small corpus, you'll probably just reproduce one of your input strings. But Queneau assembly works fine on a tiny corpus. I ran Queneau assembly ten times on ten samples from the spammy ebook titles, and here are the results:
- Beekeeping by Keep Grants
- Lose to Audience Business to to Your Backlink Physicists Environment
- HOT of Recruit Internet Because Financial the Memories
- Senior Guide Way! Business Way!
- Discover Can Power Successful Life How Steps
- Metal Lazy, Advice
- Insiders Came Warts Weapons Revealed
- 101 Secrets & THE Joint Health Than of Using Marketing! Using Using More Imagine
- Top **How Own 101**
- Multiple Spiritual Dynamite to Body - To Days
These are still really wacky, but they're better than when Queneau was choosing from 50,000 titles each time. For the @pony_strategies project, I still prefer the Markov chains.
Queneau wins when the outputs are short
Let's put spammy ebook titles to the side and move on to board game titles, a field where I think Queneau assembly is the clear winner. My corpus is here about 65,000 board game titles, gathered from BoardGameGeek. The key to what you're about to see is that the median length of a board game title is three words, versus nine words for a spammy ebook title.
Here are some of Markov's board game titles:
- Pointe Hoc
- Thieves the Pacific
- Illuminati Set 3
- Amazing Trivia Game
- Mini Game
- Meet Presidents
- Regatta: Game that the Government Played
- King the Rock
- Round 3-D Stand Up Game
- Cat Mice or Holes and Traps
A lot of these sound like real board games, but that's no longer a good thing. These are generic and boring. There are no surprises because the whole premise of Markov chains is that surprises are rare.
- The Gravitas
- Risk: Tiles
- SESSION Pigs
- Yengo Edition Deadly Mat
- Ubongo: Fulda-Spiel
- Shantu Game Weltwunder Right
- Black Polsce Stars: Nostrum
- Peanut Basketball
- The Tactics: Reh
- Velvet Dos Centauri
Most of these are great! Board game names need to be catchy, so you want surprises. And short strings have highly ambiguous grammar anyway, so you don't get the "written by an alien" effect.
You know that I've been down on Markov chains for years, and you also know why: they rely on, and magnify, the predictability of their input. Markov chains turn creative prose into duckspeak. Whereas Queneau assembly simulates (or at least stimulates) creativity by manufacturing absurd juxtapositions.
The downside of Queneau is that if you can't model the underlying structure with code, the juxtapositions tend to be too absurd to use. And it's really difficult to model natural-language prose with code.
So here's my three-step meta-algorithm for deciding what to do with a corpus:
- If the items in your corpus follow a simple structure, code up that structure and go with Queneau.
- If the structure is too complex to be represented by a simple program (probably because it involves natural-language grammar), and you really need the output to be grammatical, go with Markov.
- Otherwise, write up a crude approximation of the complex structure, and go with Queueau.