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Sunday, 21 May 2017

Early thoughts on Luke Cage and Iron Fist

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, and I sometimes disregard my own advice, I've started watching Iron Fist on Netflix. This is after seeing some not-awesome reviews on the AV Club, and a friend on Facebook warning me that it was terrible.

Turns out that, at least four episodes in, Iron Fist isn't terrible, but it's also probably the least compelling of the four Marvel-related series that Netflix has done so far. But there are nine episodes to go, so it could start sucking really bad!

Specifically, the thing that makes it the worst of the shows, after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, is Iron Fist himself. Each of the other title characters is sympathetic and compelling (more or less) - with Daredevil you get to see Matt Murdock balancing his life as a lawyer and as a vigilante, with Jessica Jones you get a survivor's perspective on sexual abuse, and with Luke Cage you have an old-school blaxploitation hero who can punch through walls.

Your mileage may vary on all of these, but the point is that when the main characters are onscreen you're interested in what they're doing. This doesn't seem to be the case with Iron Fist - or at least it's taking way too long to get to the point.

On the other hand, a lot of the other stuff that's happening around Danny Rand is pretty neat. Colleen Wing, in particular, seems to have a lot more going on, character-wise, and I want to see where they take her character. To a lesser extent, the machinations of the Meachums and their dealings with the Hand are also pretty interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it ties in with Daredevil, or how it leads into the upcoming Defenders series.

As far as Luke Cage, these aren't early thoughts, because I've gone through and watched it, but as I said, it was clearly an update of movies like Shaft and Dolemite. This led to some cheesy acting and dialogue, but on the other hand it was neat to see the machinations around Harlem. And Mike Colter didn't seem as well-used as in Jessica Jones, but he makes for a good lead to build his show around.

I also really liked Cottonmouth, and thought that it was a shame they traded him in for Diamondback. The latter villain had a greater connection to Luke, of course, but Mahershala Ali's performance was pretty great - they did a nice job of showing the two sides of his character, and the way they pulled him in different directions was underlined by his increasing loss of control as the show went on.

Or, to put it another way, he would have fit into the Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale storyline from the Wire.

The Marvel shows have featured a pleasingly high number of Wire alumni, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the black-themed Luke Cage should draw on that show for thematic inspiration. And if it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the Wire, well, what can? But at least they're getting inspired by the best.

Now that Iron Fist is out, the next time we see these characters is going to be in the Defenders, because apparently everything has to now tie into a shared universe and bring characters together as a team. That seems kind of a shame, because it feels like we're getting a pretty big gap to revisit Daredevil and Jessica Jones in particular, and you have to question whether such a long hiatus will do either show much good. It's possible (perhaps even likely) that Netflix is treating them all as substantially the same show, for production purposes, but as I say, I'd rather see what the DD and JJ showrunners have in store for us next, rather than taking a long detour to effectively replay the Avengers movies.

The one exception is the upcoming Punisher series - Jon Bernthal was pretty great in the role for Daredevil, so I'm curious to see where his story goes. I even just started reading Garth Ennis's old Marvel Max book featuring the Punisher, so I'll be looking out for any influences from that.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Looking Forward to Juve-Real in the Champions League

You know what I just realized earlier this week, when I was going through my old blog posts? I failed, unaccountably, to write a post-match report on last year's Champions League final!

In my defense, it was a bit of bad scheduling on my part - I found myself at SFO on the day of the game, watching bits and pieces while waiting to get called to my gate for my flight to Buenos Aires. Then, when I did head to my gate, I kept up with things on my phone, and can now definitively report that if you ever want to ratchet up the tension of watching a penalty shootout, do it on the BBC's or the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports while waiting to board an international flight.

Also, let's be honest, what takeaways could there be from an almost note-perfect rematch of the 2014 final? Well, okay, loads - the fact that it was, as I say, almost note-perfect in how it played out. Sure, 2016 didn't feature three extra-time goals like the previous meeting, but morally it might as well have done.

Funnily enough we got another rematch this year, of sorts, though in the semi-final instead of the final. Real once again beat Atletico, this time over two legs, though Atleti gave their rivals a big scare in the second leg. This puts Real in its second final in as many years, and its third in four years, as well as its first time defending its title in the Champions League era (and its first time since winning it in each of the first five times the tournament was held).

They meet Juventus on 3 June, which also marks Juve's second final in the last three years. This makes it my home team's most dominant period in the competition since the late 90's, when it made the final three times in a row and won it once.

So what does this year hold? I'm obviously hoping for a Juventus victory, though I understand that Real Madrid probably have the odds in their favor. The bods at Wildstat.com aren't much help in their head-to-head ranking of the two teams' meetings: Juve has the slight edge over all, with 9 wins in 19 meetings, but Real has more experience winning this competition. In fact, Real's gotten to the final 14 times compared with Juve's 8, but once there has won the competition 11 times, whereas Juve's won it just twice.

Stats are maybe not the best indicators of future results, but they certainly give an indication of what's likely to happen, and my suspicion is that Real's going to win this one. As I said, they have more experience playing in the Champions League final, and more experience winning it. One need only look at 2014 and 2016 to see that even if they are held to a standstill in the regular 90 minutes, they always have enough left in the tank to win it in extra time or penalties.

I don't doubt that Juventus have that level of professionalism and energy, but I think that Madrid are just better at showing up for these kinds of games, and I also think that playing over one leg, rather than two, means Real will be on their guard to avoid slipping up. Moreover, comparing this match with Juve's previous appearance at this stage, against Barcelona in 2015, we're once again pitting one of the best attacks in Europe against one of the best defenses in Europe (if not the best).

That match ended 3-1 to Barcelona, and the Juve backline that night will likely still be playing on 3 June, though they'll each be two years older. That age, of course, hasn't stopped them from being the stingiest back line in this year's tournament, with three goals conceded all season (and a 3-0 shutout of Barcelona themselves over two legs). And Cristiano Ronaldo is also starting to slow down a little, though that's meant he's deadly in a different role than what he used to play - and he's still surrounded by an amazing forward line for Real.

And yet...

That slight edge does go to Juventus, with 23 goals for and 19 goals conceded. Will it be enough to win the tournament, or will Spain's dominance of the Champions League extend to a fourth year?

We'll find out in just under three weeks.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A Left At War With Itself

So the fascists didn't win the presidential election in France today. Hurrah!

Except the left appears to made itself an irrelevancy, by losing out in the first round, enabling centrist Emmanuel Macron (who some of my friends on Facebook describe as a neoliberal, about which more anon) to be the standard bearer for reasonable, non-fascist politics.

What's the opposite of hurrah?

I didn't vote in the French election, of course, and I don't really know Macron's politics. If I could have, of course, I would have happily voted for him, to do my part against Marine Le Pen. A quick glance at his Wikipedia page shows that his policy positions aren't too different from mine, though I'm not in total concordance with him on his support for forcing internet companies to allow government access to encrypted communications, and I'm not sure his €500 "culture pass" is necessarily the way to stop French Muslim youth from becoming radicalized.

I guess this makes me a neoliberal to be opposed as well?

This kind of talk has been depressingly common of late, and I'm here this week to call down a pox on both the houses of the left, throughout the world. From the US, to the UK, to France, and wherever people are attacking each other for being insufficiently socialist, or for being too socialist; effectively for replaying that "People's Front of Judea" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian.



But I also don't want to apportion blame only to the really leftist side. I can get that out of the way now, if you like:

I was un-convinced by Bernie Sanders, though I agree with much of what he said and would have happily voted for him if he'd won the nomination. Specifically, I don't think he'd have automatically won those rural or Rust Belt votes that eluded Hillary Clinton, and it's hard to get a sense of his positions on foreign policy, beyond wanting to bring home the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet more than Senator Sanders himself it's certain segments of his support, who seemed to have swallowed wholesale the lies about Hillary Clinton, alongside the completely true things that made her not a great candidate. I don't know how big a demographic of Sanders voters went for Trump, but I have seen those people - they're out there, and the internet echo machine that turned Clinton into something slightly more hated than Satan is heavily to blame.

While we're talking about her, Clinton and her cabal need a lot of blame too. For one thing there was the whole "her turn" approach of her campaign, where everyone dissenting against her was considered to be insufficiently Democratic. This is the same group that pulled dirty tricks on the Sanders camp, and that has refused to fight down ticket, even at state or local level, leaving the Republicans (and worse) to crawl in.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn earns my nope because of his poor handling of the whole Brexit thing. Again, I agree with him on a lot of issues (though notably not on his opposition to NATO), but with his old-left distaste for the EU, he's failed to provide a reasonable alternative to the Conservatives, and I see it as eminently possible that after the June 8th elections Labour under Corbyn could find itself not just decimated but reduced to a party not much bigger than the Liberal Democrats. His heart is in the right place when he wants to protect the National Health Service, but what if he sided with Tim Farron and said that he'd stop the Brexit train if he became prime minister?

Again, I have some choice words for the Blairite wing of the party. My main objection is that they seemed determined to campaign as Tories-lite, which I think even Tony Blair himself was too smart to do - he is, after all, the only Labour leader in my lifetime to have won an election. But Ed Miliband's one advantage, as history will likely not recall, is that if he'd won the election in 2015 there wouldn't even have been a referendum on EU membership. The fact that everyone else on that side of the party was even less presentable than him is... distinctly uninspiring.

Then there's Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in France. I always find it worrying when I agree with the Economist on left-wing politicians, but I can't deny that he cut a not particularly reassuring figure. As with Corbyn, I didn't agree with his positions on Europe or NATO - which aren't all that different from Le Pen's.

To sum up, what I find annoying about these far-left wings of the parties is their supporters' lack of tolerance for viewpoints different from their own but still recognizably leftist - Corbyn supporters seem to be particularly prone to accusing people who disagree with them of being "red Tories", which is just absurd. This is Justin Bieber politics, where any divergence from your own views is seen as a personal attack on you, and it needs to stop.

And what else needs to stop is the traditional wings' insistence on moving ever further right. I've mentioned the Labour Party, but the Democrats seem to have gone as corporate as all get-out in the last decade - there are a lot of things I admire about Barack Obama, but I'm not convinced he saw the urgency of the growing income inequality in the US, or how it was translating into right-wing support and left-wing apathy. And there's only so much that he can blame on Republican intransigence.

The main thing that I need to criticize both sides of the left-wing parties for is choosing this moment, when radical right-wing populism and nationalist/racist demagoguery are resurgent, to focus on destroying one another. It's easy to blame the more leftist sides of each party, because they're louder (especially on Twitter), but if Donna Brazile had shifted more of the DNC's resources toward winning votes in key states, rather than smearing Senator Sanders, we'd at least have a safer ratio of Democratic senators and representatives in the Capitol.

What's heartening is that in the US in particular, people are mobilizing, and not just along party lines. Voters in both parties seem to have noticed that they're in danger of losing their access to healthcare and to national monuments, clean air and water, etc. Macron's victory in France today is another welcome step toward restoring sanity, but I hope both that it doesn't get undermined by the far left, and that he doesn't further discredit mainstream, centrist politics with scandals and overly corporate-friendly policies.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Let's All Do a Little Less

As anyone who knows me might be aware, I'm into Tim Ferriss's books. I read the Four-Hour Workweek every year, and have the Four-Hour Body, Four-Hour Chef and Tools of Titans on my Kindle app on my iPad. I listen to his podcast regularly, though not religiously, and like catching him on other podcasts - his chats with Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist and Marc Maron on WTF are particularly good.

I also listen (sporadically) to a podcast called the Side Hustle Show. It's hosted by Nick Loper, and features people who have turned their hobbies or whatever into paying side businesses. He references Tim Ferriss from time to time, though to my knowledge hasn't had Tim on his own show.

The reason I mention both here is that there was an interesting confluence of ideas between them, which I've been thinking about ever since. Because Nick Loper expressed it in the most digestible form, I'll call it by the name he uses, though with the understanding that Tim Ferriss also advocates it. Specifically, it's in the Side Hustle episode called "Too Small to Fail", and Nick Loper refers to it as micro-habits.

Micro-habits are too small to fail because, ideally, they are binary - you either accomplish them or you don't. The time investment is small, which means the attention investment is also small, and therefore the habit is easy to create. It can be drawing a single line of a picture per day, writing a single line of your novel, or doing a single pushup per day.

That last one comes from Tim Ferriss, via his chapter on Matt Mullenweg (Wordpress founder) in Tools of Titans. Mullenweg apparently does a single pushup before bed every night, which has helped him get in shape. It is, in fact, so easy to stick with that I've been doing it for a few months, and have seen a great improvement in my pushup form (though on occasions where I've tried to work out my max number of reps, the best I can do with good form is eleven).

Tim Ferriss mentions other micro-habits and ice-breakers in his books, including the fact that IBM sales people used to have a target of one call per day. He notes that keeping the habit small is intentional, because it means it's easy to say you've accomplished what you wanted to do, and because surmounting that initial hurdle makes it easier to pick up the phone again, or finish your picture, or whatever. It's not necessarily better for your pushups, but let's leave that aside for a moment.


Any big endeavor requires a significant investment of time, energy, attention, or whatever you want to call it. Breaking it down into its smallest component parts reduces the complexity and makes it less daunting to just begin, and when you begin you find that momentum carries you on over a long time.

I've made reference before to methodical ways of writing, so this is probably not a surprise to any readers out there. But I suspect it's not obvious to everybody - even Tim Ferriss sometimes blabs about how you need blocks of hours and hours for creative endeavors. Three hour blocks of productivity are probably great, but at least with micro-habits I've been able to check off the box of writing and doing pushups almost every day for several months, and if I don't always write for a full hour, or have the ability to do more than eleven pushups with good form (yet), at least I know I'm getting things done.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Vicarious Travel with Rick Steves

I've recently discovered the travel shows of Rick Steves, which are usually carried on PBS here in the States, but are also available officially on YouTube (i.e., Rick Steves himself has published them on his channel). There are over 90 of them on YouTube so far, with some episodes going back as far as 1995, and I've been going through them, in geographical rather than chronological order.

As best I can tell, the reason I started was due to my interest in Dutch (the language I'm currently learning on Duolingo), and the fact that I was looking for YouTube videos on Amsterdam. Rick Steves's shows are all in English, of course, so there wasn't going to be any language-learning boost, but he made the city look so great that I quickly snapped up his episode on the rest of the Netherlands (which I'd actually watched once before) and from there on to the rest of Europe.

It's hard to explain the allure, beyond the fact that I'm in the midst of a big bout of wanderlust/itchy feet/whatever you want to call it. Yet he and his team make every country look great, and I've been happy to devour episodes on places I know fairly well, like London or Paris, alongside the ones I don't know as well. It helps that even in the places I know, he unearths sights and activities beyond what I've already seen.

To put it another way, in contrast with Michael Palin's travel shows, Rick Steves goes much further in-depth on each country he's visiting. This is because Michael Palin's shows are based on strict schedules imposed by the "stunt" nature of his programs - like Around the World in 80 Days or Full Circle - meaning that most countries get only a few scenes, depending on how much ground Palin's team has to cover. Which isn't to slight them, because I do love Michael Palin's shows.

The other thing that I love about Rick Steves's show is the way his interests, particularly in art and music, shine through. An episode I was watching just this evening, on Vienna, had him putting his piano skills to use in explaining the differences in sound between piano, harpsichord and clavichord (apparently at the start of his career Rick supported himself by giving piano lessons). He also has a clear background in art history, as each episode features detailed explanations of the meaning and context of various works of art or architecture - in short, he's the ideal tour guide for making sense of what you're seeing.

What's funny to me is that even just a few years ago I'd have probably scoffed at his show. I may have more fully embraced my American-ness since college, but I've long maintained a certain snobbiness when it comes to American tourists in Europe. It was a running joke between my (American) friends in Germany about avoiding American tour groups, and even now I tend to be a bit dismissive of Americans talking about Europe, as I suspect a lot of them barely go beneath the surface of the place.

It's easy for me to be snobby, of course, because I actually speak some of the local languages and spent a lot of years living in Europe - but I'm willing to accept I may be judging my fellow citizens harshly. More than that, it's likely that I take traveling through Europe for granted, which is probably unfair to people who don't have such a natural "in" to the continent as I do. But the stereotype of American tourists remains.

I won't say the Rick Steves shows are making me want to take a tour, but I can't deny that in presenting each city or region or country the way he has, Rick's making me really want to spend more time back there. Since moving back here to the US, my European visits have been limited to London and Turin, for family and friends, while my leisure travel has focused more on the rest of the world (or even on other parts of the US). The one exception was in 2014, when I finally fulfilled my dream of traveling from London to Turin by train.

If I have a criticism of Rick's shows, it's that he goes hard on the traditional tourist destinations, but has done less on Germany, despite its size and excellent infrastructure. Of the 96 episodes available on YouTube, only four are devoted to Germany, while France has 11 and Italy has a whopping 17. To put it another way, Rome and Paris were the subject of three episodes each, while Berlin has only one.

That said, the preview for season 9 (which appears to be available on PBS's site, but hasn't been uploaded to YouTube yet) shows that he's rectifying that imbalance to a certain extent, with three or four episodes on Germany. I'm also pleased that the new season has a pair of episodes on Romania and Bulgaria, which are surely on few tourists' itineraries (American or not) but deserve to be better-known.

At this point I've watched most of his episodes on Western Europe, with the German-speaking and Nordic countries still to go before I get to Eastern Europe, but I'm looking forward to all of it. Some will be to revisit places I know, while the rest will be to get acquainted with new spots, and to get ideas for places to visit. All I'd like is for Rick (or someone else) to do a similar travel show for other parts of the world - Asia, Australia, South America, even Africa, would benefit from this kind of in-depth travel TV. Here's hoping...

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Two phrases we need to abandon

Can we please stop using these two phrases in our political discourse:

"A rising tide lifts all boats" and

"Wanting the President to fail means wanting America to fail"

I feel like I've been hearing them a lot recently (especially the second one, especially from the right), and to be honest, it needs to stop. The one about rising tides has bothered me since graduate school, when some douche who worked in PR used it, and while I see the logic in it, the political environment we're in shows that it is absolutely not true.

Specifically, if it were true that a rising tide lifts all boats, there wouldn't have been a class of pissed-off working-class whites in the Rust Belt who were so annoyed at both parties (but especially the Democrats) that they voted for the Orange Toddler. On the other side of the Atlantic, working class people in northern English cities - former strongholds of Labour - wouldn't have voted to cut themselves off from the EU single market.

These are people - to torture the metaphor further - who don't even have boats. It's fine for people with jobs (particularly with well-paying jobs) to say that everyone benefits from a certain level of overall prosperity. And to a certain extent, it's true - the poor here are probably a little better off than they are in truly poor countries. Though given that the rural American poor can't geoarbitrage their income and commute from Zimbabwe, I can't agree with some idiot economist who critiqued Paul Theroux's Deep South on the grounds that "poverty doesn't exist in America" because it isn't poverty on the same degree as in Africa, Southeast Asia, etc.

But the way the "rising tide lifts all boats" bromide is usually deployed is code for, "what's good for the banks is good for America" (or whichever country). What we've discovered since 2007 is that this is the worst kind of bullshit - as can be seen by the increasingly obscene salaries and bonuses they get in the financial industry, while the rest of the economy starts talking about how some communities are just never going to work again.

I could go on about rising tides all day long, but I want to turn to the other phrase that needs to be banished immediately. I saw a Facebook post from Arrow star Stephen Amell (who's Canadian), dating from after the election, where he talked about people disagreeing with one another. It was all fair enough, but then he pulled out the line about "wanting the President to fail means wanting America to fail", and he just lost me.

This is just sanctimonious horse-shit, designed to stifle criticism, much the same way that assholes who support Brexit (redundant, I know) tell those who supported remaining that they need to deal with reality and stop moaning. It's made worse by the knowledge that most of the people bleating about how we all need to support the President were hoping for Obama's agenda to fail for the previous eight years... and if they themselves weren't actively hoping for that, they sure as hell voted for people who did, and articulated that wish at every opportunity. Where were these people when Mitch McConnell said his goal was for President Obama's agenda to fail?

Look, if the whoever's in the White House has an agenda that's going to roll back civil rights protections, environmental protections, labor protections and make our borders and soldiers serving overseas less safe, then we need to vigorously oppose that agenda. If that specific agenda succeeds, America fails - if that agenda fails, America succeeds. Just because someone's in the White House doesn't mean that everything they do is sanctified.

You (a notional You) may think that Obama's agenda presented an existential threat to the United States, and that's, y'know, fine, I guess. You're an asshole, but as far as I know being an asshole isn't a crime. You don't even have to keep your opinions about how poor people don't deserve healthcare or the vote or whatever to yourself. Just don't tell me I'm rooting for America to fail.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

In Defense of Not Watching Bad Movies

I was perusing my timeline on Facebook not long ago, when I found a discussion between a friend of mine and some of his social network on the merits of the new Iron Fist TV show on Netflix. It had been panned by some critics recently, but my friend's reaction was that he was going to be watching it anyway, because he didn't really trust critics.

This is a fair comment, but the the reason it struck me was because I heard him defending his desire to see Batman vs Superman last year, in the face of critics talking about how bad it was (this was before my own review of it, but around the time I was talking about how unappealing it looked).

Quick digression: isn't it scary how I devoted two blog posts to a movie I loathe?

When BvS came out I talked about what it portended in the realm of politics and how America sees itself. Because we're through the looking glass on that score, I thought for this post I'd narrow the focus back down to the question of why nerds still support the shit that studios shovel at us.

In my review of BvS, I note that Suicide Squad was "a work of art" in comparison. That might be a little overblown, and Suicide Squad was pretty unmemorable on many fronts, but not the complete disaster some reviewers painted it to be. Yet Suicide Squad was also the cause of a bunch of nerds going all "alternative facts" on Rotten Tomatoes in response to the reviews it had aggregated (I'm serious).

Reading through that USA Today story, it's unclear what the creator of the petition was up to - either he's a troll, or un-balanced, or some combination of the two (beyond the redundant nature of that statement). But it's also clear that people who are into SF and fantasy and all that jazz are still operating on a scarcity mentality, even though there's a glut of movies and TV based on our favorite properties.

The conventional wisdom is that such stuff wasn't so common until recently, in part because it was usually so bad, and us poor geeks and nerds had to ferociously defend our stuff against people who scoffed at the likes of X-Men or Blade adaptations. And it's true that, Superman and Batman aside, there really weren't that many good comics adaptations around.

That said, I recently compiled my own list of my favorite movies from each year I've been alive, and found that it wasn't until Die Hard (1988) that I listed a film that wasn't even loosely in the SFF canon. I had the likes of Alien, The Terminator and Back to the Future - all classics - which means in terms of nerd-stuff there was plenty going on.

And anyway, we really are in a glut now, and have been since 2008, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Of the two, it's clear that Iron Man's the movie that really kicked off the current run on big-name Marvel movies, and that led to DC also trying to build an inter-connected cinematic universe. Not only is Marvel's Cinematic Universe intricately connected, to the point that the films become gibberish, but they're linked to Netflix's shows and Agents of SHIELD as well.

The point I'm making, in my usual roundabout way, is that we're no longer in a position where we have to go ballistic on critics for shitting on our movies. There's so much out there that Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies, and instead of complaining when a review aggregator scores Suicide Squad poorly, we should be boycotting Warners and demanding that they make better movies.

OK, that's a little simplistic too, because no one sets out to make a bad movie (except, of course, for the guys who made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). But I don't really agree that I have to experience every shitty comic book adaptation before I can complain about it - as cool as a Batman and Superman movie sounded, nothing appealed about the damn thing as I found out more, and I'm glad I saved the ten bucks or so I'd have spent in theaters.

By the way, this isn't a slight on my friend, mentioned up at the top. It's also not a slight on Iron Fist, which I expect I'll have a look at once I wrap up Deep Space Nine and Luke Cage. I do, however, see this as a time to remind my fellow nerds that we don't have to love everything that's served to us. Whether America (and the world) likes it or not, everyone else is watching what we want to watch, so we can afford to be picky about which movies we support.

Like Logan. Holy crap, what a well-done movie. Go see that.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Environmentalism is more than climate change

Of the many things I'm concerned about with this administration, its opposition to a clean environment has to rank at the top, right up there with its lack of understanding of how democratic norms function. The nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency has to be acknowledged as a massive troll job, done to piss off opponents and presumably to distract some of them from taking the president to task on other deeply worrying topics (e.g. blanket bans on specific religious groups or on its murky links with the Russian deep state).

And while I think it's slightly more important that we keep our democracy functioning, and not beholden to corporate interests, I find it interesting (read: distressing) how environmentalism is an issue that's become so partisan. Some people will take it as read that it should be, but clean air and water is truly something that everyone benefits from, whether or not they ever get within a hundred miles of Yosemite or Yellowstone.

After all, it was a Republican president who formed the EPA (Nixon, whom no one could ever accuse of being at all left-wing), and another who established the National Parks System before him (Teddy Roosevelt).

My sense is that a lot of opposition to the EPA and environmentalism among conservatives stems from discussions about climate change. Some don't believe in the science (as if science were a thing that one "believes in"), others think limits on carbon emissions will destroy the economy (or slow economic growth, which to some in this group is the same thing). Still others think companies shouldn't have to pay for the externalities created by use of their products (predominantly in the fossil fuel industry).

While I disagree with all of these points, it's hard not to sympathize with Arnold Schwarzenegger's contention that climate change and CO2 emissions are a difficult subject to get people excited about. I first heard him talk about this issue on his second appearance on Tim Ferriss's podcast, where he said that the focus for talking about the environment should be on reducing pollution, and I can't help but agree.

To a certain extent it feels as if the environmental discussion has turned primarily into one about emissions, and talk of actual pollution is relatively rare (except in cases like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I admit this charge is a little simplistic, and any number of organizations, from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace to the National Resources Defense Council, would justifiably point to all the anti-pollution work that they do.

But my impression is that corporations have hijacked the emissions argument, because saying they're reducing emissions is a good way to get folks like me to buy their products (even if that talk completely turns off people of other political persuasions; but the likes of Coke and GE have different marketing campaigns in different regions to address that problem). At the same time media outlets end up prioritizing climate change rather than other forms of environmentalism - reading the Guardian a couple of years ago it felt like all the environmental stories (and thinkpieces) were about how we needed to curb emissions, and not about how we needed to clean up the air in London. I don't know about you, but I don't miss the black snot I used to get from walking around that diesel-infested city.

Schwarzenegger's suggestion was that environmental groups and media should be focusing on the health effects of pollution and I tend to agree. It's hard to get people to care about rising sea levels in places that they've never heard of, like Kiribati or Palau, or to persuade people living in the northern Midwest that temperatures are rising when they've had ridiculously cold winters the last few years. But I suspect it's easy to get people interested if you can directly link polluted water or air to deaths, and I believe all but the most committed Libertarians would miss the National Parks if they were to disappear.

I believe that the current administration's environmental policy is misguided and is poised to set our country back decades; moreover, I believe that it will take decades to undo the actions it takes to roll back even environmental regulations, both in terms of replenishing our natural resources and in dealing with the health effects of this anti-environmental strategy.

If you believe in clean air and clean water, regardless of how you vote, get in touch with your representative and senators and tell them so.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Does a game have to be fun?

Here's a thing I've discovered about mobile games: they aren't any fun at all.

Here's another thing I've discovered, though: I can't seem to stop playing the damn things.

I recently exerted an impressive amount of willpower and, in a short sequence of time, deleted no less than three games from my iPad. Total War: Kingdoms was the first to go, because it was a complete time- and mind-suck. I'd build a house here, fight off a Viking army there, and pretty soon I'd realize it was 10pm on Sunday night and I hadn't accomplished anything.

Next to go was Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game that I've had dalliances with in the past. I downloaded last Saturday, played through the entire campaign, and then deleted it that same night, for the same reason as before - my brain had been there, and not on the actual issues occupying my life (for instance writing the proverbial great vampire/fantasy novel, earning enough money to survive in Trump's America, and attempting to find a woman willing to find my dead body 60 years from now and thereby ensure my corpse isn't eaten by a pet or something).

Yesterday, I took the final step, and deleted Star Trek: Timelines. As I was explaining to my dad a couple minutes ago, Timelines isn't what you'd call conventionally fun - you can have space battles, for instance, but you don't actually control the ships, and if your ship is strong enough, you don't actually have to do anything.

And yet I'm now kind of regretting deleting it. I'd built up a pretty strong and eclectic crew (I had Evil Goatee Spock from the classic Mirror Mirror episode of TOS, for example!), and had sunk enough time and effort into leveling them up. And I'd done all this without spending a dime, as Timelines is one of those annoying freemium games where you can pay for a certain type of currency, but can't win that currency in other ways.

As I said, it isn't conventionally fun. But somehow, it triggers some kind of endorphin rush that keeps me clicking on the next mission to win that piece of basic loot that I can use to build the piece of gear that will let my character unlock the next tier of rewards and perhaps, someday, actually win the episode. It's probably the most insidious version of the addictiveness of mobile games I've ever seen, precisely because it's so not fun (reading that last paragraph seems to indicate a number of reasons for my inability to attract a mate, for instance).

I've got a fair amount of experience with this stuff - I've messed about with Angry Birds, Infinity Blade and all three Kingdom Rush games, for instance. I've lost who knows how many productive hours and days on stupid flash games that I found on newgrounds.com. And back in college, I blew a lot of time on a naval battles game that let you set some conditions but didn't actually give you control in battle - someone once asked me if it was fun, and I remember trying to explain that no, it wasn't conventionally fun, but that wasn't the point.

That conversation was at the back of my mind over the past five or six weeks every time I played Timelines, which is what led me to delete the damn thing (that and a Tim Ferriss blog post suggesting I get rid of domino triggers that cause me to ruin all my productive work - for some people it's cookies, but for me it's Star Trek-licensed iPad games). It also got me thinking about why mobile games are like that - engaging but not fun.

The simple answer is that they provide a steady drip of pleasure drugs into your brain from accomplishing stuff. Total War: Kingdoms had this obnoxious thing where everything was on a timer - building a house took ten seconds, building a castle took ten hours, and so forth. But it was all staggered, so as soon as I collected money from one building, my farms were ready to harvest, and then I had to collect stone from my quarries, someone was attacking, and suddenly I'm two hours closer to my cat chomping on my face (this is a notional cat, by the way, as I haven't yet yielded to becoming whatever the male equivalent of lonely cat lady is).

But why's that steady drip of tricking your brain into thinking it's accomplished stuff so important? I'd argue that it's because they can't compete with console or PC games on graphics or gameplay. I'm told Super Mario Run has been super popular since launching on iOS, but I think it's because, by being a lot simpler than the original Super Mario Bros, they've unlocked a thing where you're constantly trying to improve on your performance. Just think Flappy Bird: it's some shitty web game where you're traveling through the same course endlessly, giving the occasional tap to keep from crashing into a pipe or something, but it unaccountably became the biggest gaming phenomenon outside of Pokemon Go, for that precise reason.

All of this is key to understanding why the mobile gaming business has eaten up so much of the traditional gaming business. Nintendo got a lot of praise when it launched the Wii for making gaming accessible to casual gamers, but then promptly lost that entire demographic to smartphones and tablets. Stuff like Angry Birds or Candy Crush provides a lot more endorphin per minute for the fifteen minutes you spend on the bus than cranking FIFA 17 or Dragon Age Inquisition does - in the time it takes to load up your first actual game in a season in FIFA, you could win three stars on the first ten levels of Angry Birds.

Paradoxically, I think it's the increasing sophistication and cinema-aping of console games that's turned casual gamers off the medium (that and shit like GamerGate, of course). You have to purposely sit down and play Skyrim, but Angry Birds can be played for five minutes and then abandoned. And that's why people get sucked into it for hours at a time.

What it all comes down to is understanding how your brain works, and planning accordingly. I'm not an alcoholic, but now that I've deleted Star Trek: Timelines I understand Chris Hardwick's analogy of a million baby birds chirping at you to take a drink. Despite the cellular noise saying that I really should have seen what happened when I leveled my one-star Desert Ezri Dax to level 100, intellectually I understand I'm better off.

And I restarted my campaign on Dragon Age Inquisition yesterday, so at least I don't have to decide on whether to eventually be eaten by my dog or my cat until I finish that, at the bare minimum.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ex Machina vs. Westworld

I just finished watching Ex Machina last night, and while I thought it was an interesting exploration of themes like free will and the ethics of artificial intelligence, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the ending.

Oh, but first, let's trot out our old friend:
To be honest, today I'm spoiling not just Ex Machina but also Westworld, so consider yourselves lucky!

Now, jokes aside, the first thing to say is that both Ex Machina and Westworld deal with humans encountering artificial intelligence. While the Turing Test is explicitly mentioned in Ex Machina, there are scenes in Westworld that also play into it - for instance, when William appears in the second episode and asks the woman who greets him whether she's one of the robots or not. Her response is along the lines of, "If you can't tell, does it matter?"

Both works also ask the question of who owns the artificial life, or if it has the same right to self-determination that a human intelligence does. In Westworld the question comes down to the power struggle between Anthony Hopkins's character and the Evil Corporation who funds the park, whereas in Ex Machina it ends up being slightly more subtle, as the AI, Ava, appears to make common cause with Domhnall Gleeson's character, Caleb, in order to escape the Evil Corporation.

I think the problem I have with Ex Machina is that it ends up being a lot more straightforward than it could have been. Caleb wins a week at the estate of his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (who really seems to be everywhere these days); when he gets there, he has to sign an NDA and then meets Ava, for whom he's supposed to be the interlocutor in a set of Turing Tests. Caleb discovers some unpleasant stuff about Nathan, plots to break Ava out, and then when he does so she locks him and Nathan in the compound and escapes.

I'm not going to go into all of the stuff to unpack about the movie (but you can read the AV Club's review to get an idea). But that ending...

I think the problem with the movie is that as soon as you meet Ava you know she's going to escape. Or more accurately, as soon as you see the glass enclosure where she lives, which has impact fractures. The minute you meet Nathan, you know he's going to be evil and sociopathic. Both assumptions are accurate, and while they don't have to be proven wrong for the movie to work, the road there is disappointingly straightforward.

But there's no indication of why it had to be Caleb - there's some business about him not having a family or girlfriend to miss him, but while it works in Ava's favor, there doesn't seem any reason for Nathan to care about that - unless he was planning on killing Caleb, but we never find that out.

Ava's escape is also overly simple - she stabs Nathan, wraps herself in other the other fembots' skin and clothes, and leaves via convenient helicopter. The pilot takes her away without asking why some woman he's never seen before is leaving the place, or without asking what happened to Nathan or Caleb. From interviews and comments I heard, I'd assumed more twists and reveals.

It all felt rushed, which is why I'm hanging this post off a comparison with Westworld. That's another kind of flawed work, in a lot of ways, but it has the advantage of teasing its ideas out over ten hours, rather than just two. I suspect Ex Machina could have worked better with more time to explain Caleb, Nathan and Ava - to say nothing of all the other fembots that Nathan built over the years.

Instead the viewer is left feeling a lot like Caleb, trapped in that compound and not knowing why things played out the way they did.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

5 Things I've Learned About Writing

Writing is such a personal thing that it's hard to come up with a list that'll work for everyone, or for every type of writing. Some people plot things out exhaustively, for example, and others have to feel their way through a story.

I was struck by this a little last night while out with a friend, and he was surprised that I make lists of 10 or 20 things that happen in each of my stories as a way to plot out where I want them to go. I've seen this mentioned in various places, although I haven't used it for every story I've worked on - but my friend was a little skeptical about the numbers.

So with that in mind, I thought nevertheless that it would be useful to list five important things I've learned about writing, or at least my own working habits over the years:

  • I need to plot, or at least have a general idea of where I want to end up.
    • As I mentioned above, I'm one of those writers that needs to plot stuff out. The extent to which I need to plot depends a little on the length of the story, of course - a novel's so much more complex than a short story, and a movie treatment is somewhere in between.
    • Oddly, I'm plotting the hell out of a short story right now, mainly because it's a pretty complex idea and because I'm adapting it from an idea I was turning into a movie script last year. The plotting has taken a number of forms, from the axiomatic list of 10 things that happen, to simply writing down a bunch of questions that I feel I ought to know the answers to, even if I don't resolve them in the story. 
  • Walking does help to jar ideas loose. 
    • While banging my head against that story last weekend, I went out for a quick walk around the block twice, and found that on both walks I resolved a question that had been bugging me. In doing so, I was able to move ahead with it, and get to the impasse I'm at as of this writing. Success!
    • More seriously, it's probably a cliche, but it's also true that letting your mind drift to some other topic, or at least changing your setting, can dislodge ideas. It's similar to when you have something on the tip of your tongue while talking to someone, but you don't remember the term you wanted until much later.
  • Stuff you learn writing one type of story does transfer to other types.
    • This relates mainly to how I've transferred ideas about three-act structure from my movie ideas to prose, but it's gone the other way too, in that my technique for proofing a novel has proven kind of helpful in proofing short stories and (perhaps to a lesser extent) movie scripts.
    • But it's also a deeper point, in that good writing is good writing, and practice in one type of writing helps in others. Writing poetry helps with word choice and concision, prose helps with visualizing a scene, and movie writing helps with dialogue.
  • It's helpful to know my own style of productivity.
    • By style of productivity, I mean how long I can devote to a task, and what kind of environment I need for it. When I'm writing prose, music is great but podcasts aren't, because the speech distracts me from what I'm writing, and vice versa. If I really need to focus, something instrumental, or even ambient is perfect. Or for a hit of perfect productivity I'll listen to a binaural beats video on YouTube.
    • Time-wise, I've found it helpful to devote an hour each night to writing, from 8 to 9, during which I aim to get something done. It has to be a concrete goal, like finishing a certain number of words or pages, and if I accomplish that in less than an hour, I have the option of taking the rest of the hour off, or forging ahead.
    • The one caveat is to not use this as an excuse not to be productive. Maybe I've messed around for twenty minutes and am sitting down later to write? Maybe I'm spending too much time looking for something to listen to? It's not very fashionable but at a certain point you need to sit in your chair, open whatever you're working on and do the work - your brain will rationalize why you shouldn't, but sometimes you need to shut your brain out.
  • Writing stuff by hand is helpful, except for when it isn't.
    • To be honest, any of these points could come with this caveat, but it feels most relevant to put here, because it really doesn't seem to work every time.
    • Specifically, I was listening to a podcast where Joe Hill talked about how he keeps a notebook to write in, by hand, which allows him to work out the story and then create a second draft automatically when he transfers it over to the computer. I tried it out a little with the story I'm working on now, and in this case I've found it pretty hard to make it work.
    • Of course, that's probably because I didn't plot the story out as well as I could have. Again, detailed plotting isn't always necessary for a short story, but it seems to be with this one, and writing by hand might be easier if I'd had a better sense of where I needed to end up.
This list isn't exhaustive, of course. I've learned a number of other things over the years (e.g., writing workshops are good in small doses, but if they become a commitment then they take away time from your own writing), but some of them have been covered elsewhere (get good beta readers, learn to revise a story) or are so axiomatic as to be unhelpful (do it every day, or keep a journal, or whatever). But these five are the big ones for me, which I've road tested over the years.

That said, they're always in flux, too. I've developed these habits over the years, and I expect them to evolve as I get more practice. But that's fine too - you can't expect to approach writing (or any endeavor) the same way you do at 37 as you did at 27 or at 17. What I look forward to is seeing how my habits change once I become a professional - here's to 47!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Super Bowl 2017 Is Not the 2016 Election

Like a lot of people, I was watching the Super Bowl yesterday, and like a lot of people, I was having a hard time separating the action on the field (or screen, in my case) from the results of the election. After all, we all know about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick supporting Donald Drumpf, and the MAGA hat that Brady has in his locker, etc etc.

In the end that was fine, it was a bit cathartic (except for the Patriots winning, of course), but I hope nobody was taking the "narrative" too seriously. Is Belichick awful? Sure - but we all knew that long before the endorsement, and frankly, we knew that long before Deflate-Gate. Is Brady a douche? I think Bridget Moynihan has a privileged viewpoint on that.

To be honest I couldn't find it in my heart to be mad at Tom Brady about that hat. I don't know if he's a racist or not, but I can imagine he's met Donnie a couple of times, someone gave him the hat, and he just held onto it. Who knows or cares how Brady voted in November? America's pretty great for him whatever happens, isn't it?

I guess you could say that the Falcons didn't have it in them to hold onto the win, but it's also true that the parallel with Hillary Clinton ends there - she didn't have the lead in the election at (hardly) any point. And we can't blame third-party candidates on the Falcons losing, either (though it would be funny if someone could have blamed the Raiders for last night).

The point, in the end, is that the country's definitely fractured, and in a dark place. I arrived at my friend's house early enough to catch this week's episode of Saturday Night Live, complete with that Sean Spicer impression by Melissa McCarthy. More to the point, we had ads constantly assuring us that corporations like AirBnB, Coca-Cola and Budweiser don't share the ideals being espoused at the moment by this "administration". No matter what happens on the field, that shows that those of us who don't choose this dark path aren't alone.

And let's be honest, I like the idea that those ads offended all the people who like to throw around the term "snowflake" as if it were an insult. We're a long way off from seeing Coke come out in support of Black Lives Matter, but seeing supporters of the "President" following his example and throwing tantrums at the thought that not everybody agrees with them is pretty satisfying.

So let's all have a Bud, or a Coke, depending on your poison. Let's all enjoy some guacamole and stay at AirBnBs and remember that it was just a football game. If the Falcons had won, we'd still have woken up to the same people occupying the White House and the legislature. We don't get the moral victory, but we do get to keep working for the world we want - and the opportunity to do so is even better than a Super Bowl ring for Matt Ryan.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

2017: I Am Not Pleased So Far

Well, that didn't take long, did it?

You have to say this for ol' Drumpfie, he's motivated af. Obamacare? No thanks. EPA? Let's just shut their communications down. National parks? Don't want them talking about stuff. Muslims coming to America? Nope. And, oh, people on the national security council who know stuff about security? Nah, let's put some racist twatwad on instead.

It's a brutal time, folks. The mind, parsing all of this, asks two questions: how much worse can it get? And how does someone even as monstrously narcissistic and unhinged as "Shut the Fuck Up, You're Out of Your Element" Donnie maintain this level of intensity for the next four years? Yet, having asked those two questions, the mind realizes that it maybe doesn't want to know the answer - it would rather retreat to those halcyon days of, let's say 2006, when the world was full of possibility and the previous worst president ever (who also only got into office because the electoral college is fucked) found himself having to change his mind from time to time as things got bad in Iraq.

Admittedly, the other stuff swirling around is kind of getting annoying too. Senate Democrats, in particular, seem to think that wagging their fingers is a dangerously provocative move, and so, for all their outrage, haven't considered blocking any of Donno's cabinet picks. They have reservations, of course. These picks aren't remotely qualified, even Elizabeth Warren admits that. But blocking them? Gosh, you guys, I don't know - I mean, there's this lovely high road here, and it leads to... I think that sign reads "Irrelevancy", but I can't be sure. Why don't we go up there and check?

In the meantime, all the cool kids are deleting Uber from their iPhones, which I feel slightly vindicates my principled stance in not taking it (seriously folks, I've only ever ridden in an Uber twice in my life, and one of those was paid by my boss). Although it's unclear whether Travis Kalanick ordered an end to surge pricing as a way to profit off the taxi strike in NYC, or as a measure of solidarity. Or... could it be both?

Meanwhile, every right-wing dickbrain out there seems to think that calling protesters "snowflakes" is the height of cleverness. Well, I don't want to be rude, but which side just spent the last eight years getting butt-hurt over how people would throw facts and logic at them? I think all the "special little snowflakes" are on the Republican side here.

Sigh. I spoke once about wanting a hard reset for the political class. I didn't mean tearing the system down or anything, I just meant that it might be time to redesign certain parts of the system. Now I'm not so sure - Plato's Republic is looking better and better, tbh.

Things don't seem to have moved on so far this weekend, but I wait with bated breath to see what horrors will be unleashed tomorrow. In the meantime, here's the website for the ACLU's donations page: https://action.aclu.org/secure/donate-to-aclu

And remember, this isn't a left-versus-right thing - it's about respect for the rule of law and for the Constitution. If you think this is just a bunch of whining lefties protesting - you're on the wrong side of history, snowflake.

Monday, 23 January 2017

What Makes Space Opera Tick?

I've been thinking lately about space opera.

Specifically, I'm wondering if there's a formula to it, the way there is for epic fantasy. Both are forms or genres that seem to prefer large, sweeping stories spread out over multiple books. Epic fantasy is perhaps more known for multi-book storylines, but I can equally point to epic space opera stories, like Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos or Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. There's also the notable case of Stephen R Donaldson, who's known for both the Thomas Covenant books (epic fantasy) and the Gap novels (space opera).

Admittedly, I've read very few of those books above - I loved the Hyperion books, but was less taken with Night's Dawn, and have never gotten around to the Gap books, though I keep meaning to. My experience of space opera revolves more around other media, specifically TV (Star Trek), movies (Star Wars) and video games (Mass Effect), which tend to skew more toward the mystical elements that epic fantasy also shares. Heck, Star Wars even has magic in it, and features a farm-boy toppling an empire.

But there are enough similarities to begin to move toward a unified definition of space opera, and chiefest of these seems to be multiculturalism (or at least politics, since alien races aren't present in much of Hyperion or Battlestar Galactica). Even the Ender/Shadow/whatever else novels by Orson Scott Card mix characters of different (Earth) cultures and find narrative momentum by examining how they interact.

Another common theme is hyper-specialized Earth analogues. Hyperion's setting is full of planets that are based on one specific aspect of Earth culture, and so is Night's Dawn - in fact, that's one of the things that put me off about it in the first place, as one of the planets in question has recreated Victorian-era British culture, an idea I found stretched credulity far more than the idea of the dead rising and invading human space. Go figure.

Star Trek leans less in this direction, though there are some notable episodes that glance at this kind of idea (like that early episode of TNG with the African-derived culture). Likewise, Star Wars doesn't have much in the way of Earth-cultures, but its equivalent is the array of landscapes it uses to show alien planets, from Tatooine to Dagobah to Endor.

The intersection of politics and business is another big theme, though not in Star Trek, where business doesn't really exist (a fascinating idea on its own, and one that seems to have been explored only there and in Iain Banks's Culture novels). Or if not politics and business, then the politics behind certain galactic corporations' misbehavior seems to be another favorite theme. It feels like a more recent addition to space opera, but timely, as the role of corporations in our own politics grows ever-larger.

Fantasy, meanwhile, seems to have started to embrace talking about business only in the last few years, the main example being the books of Daniel Abraham (whose favorite theme seems to be economics in general). It's probably less relevant to that genre as a whole, but does provide some thematic tension in the form of modernity versus tradition, similar to how it must have played out in actual history.

Daniel Abraham, in fact, is one reason why I'm setting my thoughts down like this. He famously held a discussion on how epic fantasy works with a number of other New Mexico-based SFF authors a few years ago, and the result is his series, the Dagger and the Coin, the last book of which I'm currently reading now. I'm fascinated by looking at the themes in common of space opera, not just because I like it but because it's a form I'd like to try my hand at, and I think an understanding of the tropes and themes is a good starting point.

So let me throw the question out to anybody reading: what space opera stories should I read? And what themes or ideas have I missed?