packbat: Headshot looking serious and superimposed on the Gettysburg Address. (gettysburg)
I wish this was a proper review, but the book came out a good seven years ago - long enough for this to be awfully old news regardless.

I. Love. Moneyball.

I would say this, if I were cynical and funny: Moneyball is, ironically enough, a story about how storytelling is deceptive. But it's not true. There is a hint of that feeling when I read it - the story is such a good story that I'd want to believe it if the entire book was lies from cover to cover, and the book does warn against dreaming and making up expectations based on merely what you see - but I would do Michael Lewis an injustice if I said that. The man worked his butt off getting it right, and that dedication shows.

What is the material? Well, Moneyball is, perhaps, the perfect underdog story: a story about a baseball team (the Oakland Athletics) with a financial payroll tinier than almost any other in a sport where the richest teams spend many multiples more than the poorest ... that sets out to win, with a determination and intelligence that is an inspiration to behold. Moneyball is also a layman's introduction to that intelligence which, long ignored by the very people who would most benefit from it, finally found its instantiation in the Oakland A's: sabermetrics. And Moneyball is a story of this intelligence on this team reaching out to rescue an oddball collection of underrated players and give them the chance to give a bloody eye to the entire baseball establishment that didn't see how good they were.

And it's a story of how such a thing should ever happen - how mistakes were made and perpetuated and compounded upon, and how the visions found when that fog of confusion was pierced could take so long and strange a journey to where they deserved to play out: on the diamond.

It's a business book, a sociology lesson, a baseball story, and a hell of a good read. A nearer approach to perfection in nonfiction is rarely seen.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (quarter-rear)
If I may venture a prediction: [ profile] feech, you would not like this movie. Like in Duel, very little plot transpires in a given minute of Sorcerer - the chief part of the story can be summarized in a couple sentences, but it all takes two hours to play out.

What I found compelling, though, was this sense of characterization and atmosphere. The characters are all trapped, desperate and struggling, but trapped - by financial problems, legal problems, extralegal problems, and, for the four protagonists, in the end by the job that they have taken itself. What drives the film is this almost certainly fatal struggle to escape the terrible circumstances they have found themselves in.

Don't be fooled by the title: it is a remake of the 1953 French film Le salaire de la peur (English: The Wages Of Fear), and the "Sorcerer" is merely a truck. There is a sense of sorcery about it, perhaps, as one poorly-punctuated review on IMDB suggested, but it is the inimical spirit of bad luck, no agent who may be blamed.

I found the characters compelling, and the story tense. It is not a happy film, but a good one, I think.
packbat: Leaning on a chain-link fence, looking to my left (your right) with a neutral expression. (spectator)
What? I asked.

It's a Japanese word that means a story that plays with the same characters, but different, my brother told me. Ninja Gaiden was a retelling of the story of Ninja, but different.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the difference between Whiteout (1998 comic) and Whiteout (2009 film). What killed the interest in this movie for the people who hated it was either (Theory 34) that Kate Beckinsdale's shower scene wasn't hot enough, or (Theory Changed) that it wasn't anything like the book. Both objections are correct ...

... but if the comic had never existed and the film had been simply written directly, it wouldn't have received anything like the opprobrium it is subject to. It's a thriller movie, set in Antartica, with a hot lead, lots of plot twists, good action scenes, kinda low-budget special effects but give them some credit, they work, and a satisfying ending. It's not a classic, it's not a tightly-written Chandleresque suspense novel with brilliantly stylized presentation, it's not forward thinking in any way - it's a popcorn movie, and a good one.

Whiteout Gaiden. Rating: 3 stars, buy cheap or rent.
packbat: Leaning on a chain-link fence, looking to my left (your right) with a neutral expression. (spectator)
I mentioned picking up the complete first season of The Wire - finished that today.

I'll say this much: I wasn't disappointed. Glad I paid for that one.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (music)
Okay, so the headphones which were first predicted to ship Monday the 1st and then (after they showed up in the warehouse in Hebron, KY) predicted to arrive Friday the 5th, arrived today.

How do they sound?

Let's say that where the packaging says "revolutionary bass bliss" - well, I wouldn't be surprised if there were an unexpected mass uprising, because the rest of it is dead on. It picks up instruments in Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" (from Blue) that I didn't even know were there six minutes ago. The legendary bass riff from The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" comes through perfectly. Even bass-light tracks like Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold" benefit.

A+. Would buy again.

(Oh, man! "Omaha" from Counting Crows!)

("Mr. Jones"!)
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
As a sociological relic, The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet is an interesting book.

As a book of advice, The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet is a superb book - but you may save a great deal of time by a simple method: turn immediately to Part Three and stop immediately upon reaching Part Four.

Some quotes:

1—About saving time.

Is there no time you can reclaim, not from your work, not from your exercise, not from your family or friends, but from pleasure that really does not give you much pleasure, from empty talk at the Club, from inferior plays, from doubtfully enjoyable week ends or not very profitable trips?


Do you know how to gather up fragments of time lest they perish? Do you realize the value of minutes? One of the Lamoignons had a wife who always kept him waiting a few minutes before dinner which in those days was in broad daylight, at three o'clock. After a time it occurred to him that eight or ten lines could be written during this interval, and he had paper and ink laid in a convenient place for that purpose. In time—for years are short but minutes are long—several volumes of spiritual meditations were the result. Mankind might be divided between the multitude who hate to be kept waiting because they get bored and the happy few who rather like it because it gives them time for thought. The latter lead the rest, of course.

There are in the daily press a number of writers, male and female, who make it a point to have an opinion about everything. Day after day, four or five hundred words from their pens appear in which they express their views on an immense variety of subjects, most of them interesting. An expert runs little risk of erring in estimating how much time these fellow-writers of his have devoted to each individual question. It can be counted in minutes rather than in hours. The authors have seldom referred to any literature, even to an encyclopædia, they have been satisfied with summing up their own flimsy knowledge of the data and their flimsier impression of them. Yet, this is so much better than nothing that we read the articles through.

Some people imagine they have to write a book as, at fifteen, they had to write an essay, whether they liked it or not. All the time they are at work on a chapter which ought to monopolise their attention, they are anxious over future chapters still unborn and even unconceived, and the anxiety throws its shadow over the page just being written. As long as an author does not take the habit of "only writing his book," as Joubert says, "when it is finished in his mind," or cannot honestly say, like Racine: "My tragedy is done, now I have only to write the verses," he will be a prey to the schoolboy's error. Nothing is as exciting as the hunt after thoughts or facts intended to elucidate a question we think vital to us, and the enjoyment of writing when the hunt has been successful is an unparalleled reward for intellectual honesty. Leave only the slavish necessity or the meretricious desire for producing a book and all the pleasure will be gone.

A fascinating book.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (pale blue dot)
In honor of the [ profile] goblinpaladin's birthday (last month...), here is a review of What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture by Edward Slingerland, 2008.

There's an old Isaac Asimov essay I recall reading where he discusses the implicit social hierarchy of different fields of study. You know, where math is more prestigious than physics, which is in turn 'above' chemistry, which is 'above' biology, et cetera. Asimov then asked (I paraphrase), "What's above mathematics?"

His answer was "the humanities". And he defended the answer with a little story, whose details I've sadly forgotten, but which essentially compared the reactions of the faculty at a school to (a) a student named Cicero failing rhetoric and (b) a student named Gauss failing mathematics. Asimov pointed out that all of them would laugh at the former (being as we all know Cicero was a great orator) but that only the math and science people would be amused at the latter (being as none of the humanities scholars would ever have heard of a mere mathematician, nor cared about his extraordinary influence upon mere math and sciences).

Sociologically, Asimov was probably just about right. Ontology, however, is Professor Slingerland's game, and he proposes just the opposite. And inverting this hierarchy - making the case for humanities as a higher-order level of explanation above neuroscience, psychology, biology, et cetera, the same way chemistry is a higher-order level of explanation above quantum physics, and just as dependent on its substrate - is the purpose of his book. It is so, he explains, because humanities is in desperate need of new life - it is visibly, clearly stagnating, as many scholars have observed, and Slingerland argues that an "embodied" or "vertically integrated" view of the humanities is necessary to move forward. Thus What Sciences Offers the Humanities seeks to open a new strain of humanities studies in close collaboration with scientific knowledge.

There. Now let us discuss what it does.

What Science Offers the Humanities, between introduction and conclusion, is divided into three parts. The first is a refutation of the objectivist and postmodernist views of humanity, the second his physicalist tertium quid based on modern cognitive science, and the third a defense of his view against a few anticipated objections. It is quite enough of a task for a bookshelf of books, and indeed Slingerland makes reference to at least that many along the way. Further, it is by its very nature difficult reading in many places - Slingerland in this book writes philosophy, and a modern philosopher must blaze a path through some of the harshest terrain in our mental landscapes.

(Incidentally, delicious little metaphors like that are featured prominently in Slingerland's "vertically integrated" model of humanity, described in Part 2. More on that anon.)

First, the refutations. Objectivism (which, in this case, contains a sort of Smullyan-logician theory of the person and the correspondence theory of truth) Slingerland spends comparatively little time with - while it is certainly not unpopular (I have strong inclinations in its direction myself), strong criticisms of it are well-established in the humanities, to whose scholars Slingerland addresses the book. Thus he deals his objections out quickly and competently (though not completely enough for my satisfaction - as I said, strong inclinations) and turns his attention to the other side.

Postmodernism, he explains, is a controversial term to use for what he describes. As he explains in the introduction, "virtually every [modern] postmodernist denies being one". Thus his treatment of postmodernism ends up extended over two chapters, with one dedicated chiefly to showing that, as he defines it, the appellation "postmodernist" still applies to many of the scholars he addresses, and only afterwards establishing the self-refuting nature of postmodernist theories. Naturally, for the non-postmodernist reader, these are among the most difficult chapters in the book - possibly by its very disconnect with experiential reality, postmodernist writing is almost invariably turgid. The density of the material is leavened by Slingerland's well-executed asides and rhetorical flourishes - his discussion of the Sokal hoax particularly struck my fancy - but those with an active disinterest in postmodernism may find it tiring. However, those coming from the humanities would be likely to profit much from these chapters - both by exposure to some basic objections to certain common lines of thought in the works of their peers and, if they share said lines of thought, by exposure to problems with their theoretical frameworks that need resolution or refutation.

Having thus cleared the ground, Slingerland turns to his own theory.

I will not attempt to elaborate his theory for him. The most central element of it is the theory of conceptual blending. This theory (originating, Slingerland says, with Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner) maintains that most (perhaps all) of human thought involves the mixing of properties from various already-existing ideas, as illustrated in expressions like "digging your own financial grave". This sort of combination (in the example, drawing the emotional content of the grave to accent the suggestion that a given financial plan is unsound), Slingerland argues, is a fundamental, universal part of how human beings work with ideas - he demonstrates its generality to analysis of cultural artifacts (a major part of humanities) with an analysis of the fourth-century B.C.E. Chinese Confucian work Mencius by blending theory.

After introducing his theory, much of the rest of the book deals with probable objections from the humanities tradition. (As a proponent of a minority theory, Slingerland is obliged to spend the main part of his book in its defense.) It is interesting material - defenses of pragmatism, refutations of common fears of reductionism, and the like - and competently presented, but it is certainly a decline from the excitement of the various introductions - of his theory, of postmodernism's weaknesses, of objectivism's weaknesses, and of the book entire.

It is not surprising when a book is exciting at the start and less so towards the end. What struck me in this case, however, is that there is a definite sense of the precise element lacking - and, ironically, that element is science. Slingerland is a fan of science, but he is a sinologist - student of Chinese culture - not a scientist. He has a breadth of scientific reading that does him great credit, a breadth far in excess of mine own, but his lack of depth in the specific fields shows. He quotes Dawkins and Dennett excellently, but he seems to need to. It is not a fault - he isn't a scientist - but the difference does make his very real contributions seem a little grayer in contrast.

What is the bottom line?

Slingerland's What Science Offers the Humanities is an excellent epistle to a world of humanities work in need of new insight - one with the understanding of the Academy whose lack prevents the Sokals, and even the Dawkins and the Dennetts, from engaging and not antagonizing its audience. It draws from the strength of the sciences to build a vision of a better university - for, as Slingerland points out in the conclusion, the sociological and psychological studies are rapidly approaching territory which requires knowledge of the humanities, just as they are - or should be - transforming the understanding of what the humanities contain.

As a popular science book, it is not. In its path, it alludes to a spread of important discoveries to understanding of the humanities, and of humanity, but its aim is not to bring true comprehension of these to the reader. Its aim is to show that the social sciences are relevant.

It shows this. That is enough.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
I was in the library booksale looking for Raymond Chandler with my dad when a stranger in the "Mysteries" aisle said, "If you like Raymond Chandler, that" - he indicated - "is a good book." Well, I don't know if I like Raymond Chandler, but I know he's supposed to be very good. I figured anyone compared favorably to him ought to be worth a shot. So I bought it and read it.

Dancing Bear is clever, but lacks verisimilitude. There: the book review in a sentence.

To elaborate: books must be evaluated on several levels. There is the most fundamental level, which is basic literacy. (Fortunately, few published works have much trouble in this area.) Then there is writing, storytelling, characterization - the responsibilities of every fiction writer. Then there are the responsibilities of the genre, which fall into two parts: defining characteristics - e.g. the presence of a mystery - and genre-specific merits - e.g. the cleverness of the solution.

As I said, Dancing Bear is clever. I would not spoil the secret, but Crumley lays out the threads quite skillfully - perhaps not as subtly as could be desired, but quite competently and with a knack for indirection. If a shortage of red herrings does not disturb you, the unraveling of Crumley's mystery might well entertain.

However, as I also said, it lacks verisimilitude. This lack is produced chiefly by two properties of the book: its clumsy adherence to nonessential genre characteristics and carelessness of characterization. These go together, as many features of the characters seem to exist either to imitate the clichés of hard-boiled detective fiction or to support the plot - sometimes both. A particularly glaring example of the former is the neighbor who, for no visible reason, loves to 'visit' the protagonist/narrator (Milton Chester Milodragovitch, III - usually referenced in the last name) while her husband is working. This could, perhaps, be forgivable, save that Milodragovitch is so thoroughly miserable a character (in every sense of the word) that it beggars the imagination that he would ever be sought out. (Fortunately, he's at least somewhat introspective - I don't think I would have bothered to finish were he not.) Unfortunately, the neighbor is hardly atypical - in every possible reading of the phrase. Annoying, that was.

The storytelling and prose, my two remaining categories, also failed to show any especial merit. Competent, both, the former more than the latter, but both were simply up to par and little more. In the final reading, all I can say for it is that it was clever. Lacking verisimilitude, lacking any sort of extraordinary literary virtue, but clever, all the same.

Even for only $2 U.S., I expected a little more than that.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
(I'm getting up in under eight hours, so I must be quick.)

A few weeks (months?) ago, an article about President Bush mentioned a book he was reading (had read?) about the deposing of Neville Chamberlain and placement of Winston Churchill in his place. Although the article alone was amusing, I decided to read the book as well. So, I checked Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England out of a local branch of the library.

I think it's a history book. At least, it shows many of the characteristics of history books, and while I am hardly well-informed about the time, it gives the impression of genuine scholarship. I suppose that qualifies.

It wants to be a thriller.

It is interesting how the conflicting urges of these two styles interplay in Olson's writing. She knows how to open her chapters in the middle of the action, how to develop the dramatic tension, how to pull the precise quote out of the historical record to make an impact. Against that, she knows that she cannot merely write what happens - each of her dramatic quotes are smoothly annotated, and when the presentation of related facts forces her to skitter back and forth in time, she invariably does so, however the suspense of the moment may be broken thereby. She takes the reader straight into the House of Parliament in the most visceral fashion to show the decisive vote - and lingers on there for a few chapters more past the climax, that we will not be ignorant of how things played out in the days, months, and decades to follow.

The reader - or, at least, this reader - bemoans the dreadful abuses Lynne perpetuates on her storytelling, and applauds them for the greater accuracy gained by their presence.

Troublesome Young Men is not what it hoped to be, perhaps. But it is easily readable, clearly informative, and even in places a page-turner. Would I buy it? I can't say. Would I read it? Absolutely.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (butterfly)
A couple points:

  • As [ profile] feech/[ profile] channing pointed out, the movie does the whole "Ride, Postman, ride!" thing, which one might find annoying.
    • Oh, and clothes left sitting on a decaying corpse for decades aren't usually crisp and clean. Details like that might annoy.

  • The acting is good. Extremely good.
  • 178 minutes.

Sorry for the lame entry. I'll try better tomorrow.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (pale blue dot)
I have to admit it. It's not something I'm proud of, but, well, one must learn to admit these things in oneself, that one may learn to let them go.

Remixes - cover versions of songs - they give me fits.

No, it's worse than that. Different versions of a song give me fits. If I hear the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young version first, then I get imprinted on it, and Joni Mitchell's take drives me nuts. Will for years. Maybe if I work determinedly, I can learn to stop hearing not-my-version and start hearing what she's actually playing, but that's if I work like the devil at it, and it's only because I love Joni Mitchell I'd give her the chance.

Knowing this, it's no surprise to me that so many people hated The Postman. They read David Brin's book, and the movie's just plain not it. But I would nevertheless urge every person who ever rejected it for not being their version, and every person who spurned it for the bad press it received, to reconsider.

I'll do my best not to spoil it, but I necessarily must say a few things to explain myself. )

The Postman is a quiet sort of science fiction movie. Oh, there's fighting, and it's certainly set in a future, but no hyperintelligent computers or genetically-engineered beasts are to be found here, and what battles there are are muddy, dusty, confusing things, and far from glorious. It is science fiction like Watership Down is fantasy - the category is correct, but both are ultimately about people. And the important moments are those ones where these people act for each other.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (butterfly)
In less depressing news, I finished Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar.

The short review: Needed a better editor.

The long review )
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Half-Face)
I'm feeling silly. My roommate has a copy of Poolhall Junkies, which just watched for our movie night, and I'm going to grade it, category by category. Everything's on a scale from one to ten, with references for each category. (Obscure references, admittedly, but I have eclectic tastes.)

The Scorecard )

Overall, though? I give this one a 8.5. Not a classic, but definitely choice.

Z followup

Jul. 13th, 2006 09:33 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (tired)
Remember I said I wasn't sure if the movie "Z" made sense without the book? Well, I talked to my mom today, and she tells me Yes, it did, and it was excellent.

(Does the capitalize-no-quotes thing work as an indicator of paraphrase, here? Just wondering.)

In other news... err, I don't have any. Cranial remote controllers (link from Skepchick), anyone?

Quickie: Z

Jul. 11th, 2006 09:49 pm
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
Toute ressemblance avec des évènements réels, des personnes mortes ou vivantes n'est pas le fait du hasard.

English subtitle: Any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberate.

I mentioned buying the book "Z" a couple months ago – I finished reading it before Goshen, and watched the movie today. The above is the exact quote from the screen, at the end of the opening credits.

"Z" is a peculiarly interesting example of book-to-movie transition. I have both seen and read (though rarely in that order) "The Shipping News", "Hart's War", "The Great Escape", "The Postman", and doubtless a few others whose names escape me now. "The Shipping News" was a singularly ineffective translation – a mediocre movie out of a spectacular novel – and every other one on my list had their plots significantly altered for the silver screen. Some (e.g. Mom) would disagree with me about how significantly in some cases, but they all underwent major revision.

"Z" was different. I don't know if it's like the Dune movie – incomplete – and I'm just filling in gaps in the movie from knowing the book, but somehow the scriptwriter(s) of "Z" found ways to imply enough, and drop enough repetition of ideas, and enough unneeded ideas, to bring most of what I got from Vassilis Vassilikos's book into itself.

A remarkable film.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Green RZ)
All caught up on my webcomickage and friendspage! Now, for a review!

My sister and I went out to the Cheesecake Factory for our birthday (we're twins), and while we were waiting for our table we dropped in at the bookstore. I got two books there – first, Issac Asimov's latest autobiography, and second, a Joan D. Vinge book called "Catspaw".

Possible spoilers )

In toto, I think all I can say is that the book passes the first test ("did it keep me through to the end?"), and possibly even the second ("would I like to reread it?"), and I don't mind that it fails the third ("is it perfectly executed?"), but I'm still trying to decide about the fourth. Is it a worthy book? Does it give you anything to think about that's worth taking away? I can't think of it.

In any case, it was nice way to spend a day, I must say. Now to finish "Blind Lake" by Robert Charles Wilson – loaned to me by my mom, and therefore very likely to be superb. (I'll possibly go back to IF after that, but I don't know. I've still that Asimov....)

Packbat ... out!
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
Yesterday, I saw "Elizabethtown".

Some movies do not restrict themselves to an emotion. That's true of all art, of course; Shakespeare opens "Romeo and Juliet" with a scene of witty banter that thrilled me to read it. Perhaps that is a characteristic which people have forgotten to appreciate – like some, maybe most, of the best movies I've seen, "Elizabethtown" was a terrific failure in theaters. But it takes something to make people laugh one minute and cry the next, and to do it as honestly as this.

Spoilers, possibly minor. )

But really, what's most impressive about the movie is the characterization. People talk a lot, they interact, they get angry and sad, and from the greatest to the least they seem like real people. To talk about the movie again with my mother is to see even more in it than before.

Also, on the side, I shouldn't talk about this movie without talking about the music. The music in this movie is superb. I rarely notice music in movies and I could hear how terrific this soundtrack is.

Yeah, other stuff happened today – installation of a folding futon and so on – but some things aren't worth talking about, and others are.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Still adventuring – I have completed "Distress" and "Internal Vigilance", each in under two hours. I could spend some more time on either, especially "Internal Vigilance" with its claimed multiple endings, but I see no need.

Distress - Rating: 10/10 )

Internal Vigilance - Rating: 8/10 )

Anyway, that's two more decent adventures, and 10 out of 28 rated, if you include "Mix Tape" that didn't work. Next is still "Waldo's Pie", then "The Sword of Malice".
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
I've gone through four more text adventures from the 11th Annual competition – "Beyond", "Phantom: caves of the killer", "Hello sword", and "Son of a...". I also tried "Mix Tape", but it crashed.

I'm not going to review "Phantom" or "Hello sword". I didn't even play them to the end. (Were I reviewing for the real contest, I would have, but for fun? Not worth it.) Word to the wise: if you want to submit anything involving words to a contest, and spelling and typo-fixing is difficult for you, then get a friend to proofread for you.*

Anyway, "Beyond" and "Son of a...".

Beyond - Rating: 9/10 )

Son of a... - Rating: 10/10 )

Anyway, that's the news. Next on my list are "Distress", "Internal Vigilance" and "Waldo's Pie" – I'll hope for the best (and keep a weather eye on the clock, this time)!

* I'm willing, by the way. I'm not a great proofreader, but I'm a pedant, which is almost as good.
† Not that most of the competition adventures aren't 'mini' – in the official rules, judges may only rate a game based on the first two hours of play. (I, of course, am ignoring that rule.)
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Half-Face)
Today, again, wasn't too busy – I decided not to go to school to sneak into that drawing class, and ended up staying at home, mostly reading. Specifically, mostly reading "Seven Days in May", which I started this noon, and finished this same day.

Seven Days in May is an excellent book, in my amateur judgment. My parents compared it to Fail-Safe, and while the plot is very different the styles do have some resemblance. It's a classic thriller – that is to say, a story combining the tempo of an action or adventure story with aspects of the mystery – and insofar as I can determine well thought-out. Certainly I can see no flaws in the production, and many points (the description at one point of a character tailing someone, for example) the details add a strong sense of verisimilitude that benefits the reading immensely. I recommend it highly.

16 Blocks is also excellent, though in a partly different fashion. For starters, it's a movie. Anyway, all the acting is top-notch, which is not surprising – the most important parts go to Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse, all of whom are expert. (From what my mom tells me, Eminem is a good actor too. Are most rappers that way?) Also importantly, the plot is extremely well crafted – there are a lot of surprises in it, but like good plot twists, they serve to explain unusual things earlier in the movie, rather than merely to astonish. Again, high recommendations.

Anyway, I didn't do much else today. [ profile] nanakikun called in to report that he is fine and well at Anthrocon, and who was that artist I wanted him to get prints from? (Ans: Ursula Vernon, i.e. [ profile] ursulav) Anyway, it's late, as Mom has just reminded me – goodnight!

P.S. Still curious about truth vs. happiness, if anyone's interested.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
I played more of the interactive fiction from the 11th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, finishing "Chancellor" and starting "Beyond". That makes "Dreary Lands", "History Repeating", and "Chancellor" played.

Both "Dreary Lands" and "History Repeating" failed to impress me. No, that is prevarication – I disliked them both. In both cases, gameplay issues were the key factor: the former suffered from typos and errors (one of which which caused an entire roomful of objects to display themselves in my inventory and on screen as "currently burning)" or something like that) and from poorly made puzzles, and the latter was caught in the "figure out what question you are supposed to ask" hole from nearly the beginning. Speech interactions with characters in text adventures are always fraught with peril for a game designer.

"Chancellor", on the other hand, was very good. At first I had been skeptical of its qualities (especially after having to resort to the hint guide to escape the introduction), but it didn't take long for the game to show its real worth. It does have speech interactions, as it happens, but they fortunately take the form of "ask about [keyword]", and I was able to deduce the proper keywords before too long. The story is surreal in a good way (and looks to have many cute fortune-cookies for the repeat player).

Right now I'm in the middle of "Beyond". I'll see how that goes.

Oh, and [ profile] nanakikun took the train to Anthrocon this afternoon, so I'll be keeping his GameCube company for the duration. (Sorry I didn't catch you in the window with the camera, [ profile] nanakikun! Have fun at the con!)

P.S. Oh, where I said I wouldn't go through and try all of them? I was wrong.

Hey, there's only 28....
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Half-Face)
Got back late last night, so here's yesterday's update. As implied in the Subj., the notable events were my watching "Ice Station Zebra" and my sister's orchestra in concert.

"Ice Station Zebra" is a good movie set during the Cold War. I suppose it's more like a John le Carré spy novel than anything else I can think of – it's got several dramatic scenes, to be sure, but there's also an intellectual complexity that's clear in it if you look at the subtleties. It more than stands up to a second watching; there's a lot there that you simply wouldn't know to look at if you hadn't watched it before. (I watched the first half again this morning.) We finished the movie just in time to head out to school to watch my sister's concert.

The concert was very good. She'd gotten us three comp tickets; my dad and I were sitting in the fifth row from the front, and it was amazing. Something that you don't get when you're in the balcony or towards the rear of the theater, and that you usually don't get if you're listening to an album, is how the different 'voices' come from different places. I remember near the beginning of, hmm, I think it was Mahler's Symphony no.5 in C-sharp minor, how the melody came in with one instrument on the right hand of the stage, and then gets picked up by another on the left side. More than just that sort of thing, the pieces in the concert – Siegfried's Funeral March from Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung, Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, and the Mahler – all have a certain amount of contrapuntal melodies in them, and the fact that each melody comes from a different place makes them stand out in a nice way.

After the concert, my mom (who had been in row Q) and I went to the reception for a few minutes to congratulate my sister, then we went home. It was after 11 then, so we pretty much went to bed.

I'm cranky and strange today – don't know why. I don't think it's lack of sleep, but I'm getting annoyed over the stupidest things, like taking an hour and a half to write this entry because [ profile] nanakikun is watching "Numb3rs" and playing Space Invaders simultaneously while interrupting me to point out various pieces of videogame news. Actually, I probably ought to warn him in case I do something stupid.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
First, another vocabulary term: "diablerie". It is a word which, according to my mother's turn-of-the-century dictionary, refers either to devilry and mischief or to magic arts and incantations.* Chesterton uses in the latter sense, as implying devilish magic – a use I found quite evocative.

That facility with language is actually the first characteristic I want to mention in my review. G. K. Chesterton is a good writer. I compared him to Dorothy Sayers, to Jerome K. Jerome, and to Charles Dickens – I stand by each of those comparisons, that to Dickens the most. His language is literate, it is evocative, and, most importantly, it is precise. Like a classical artist, Chesterton simultaneously makes his language beautiful in itself and makes it always serve the story.

Ah, but the story...! I cannot appreciate it.

The following contains spoilers of the worst kind - spoilers for the ending. It also contains spoilers for the middle, and to a lesser degree for the beginning. If you wish to read this novel from a state of ignorance - although I do not recommend it, in this case - do not continue. )

* "Diablerie" is also a term which, according to Wikipedia, refers to a particular action that can be taken in the Vampire: the Masquerade et al. games from White Wolf. I image a number of modern readers will have a pretty odd reaction when they see the word in The Man Who Was Thursday.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (RZ Ambigram)
Mysticism is a rational experience. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.

A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.

That was the end of the penultimate chapter of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. The final chapter is the Epilogue, which in all honesty reads like an extended summary. I think the book truly ends with the above.

I find myself in a curious position relative to this book. Harris seems to oscillate between the roles of the angry atheist and the modern mystic, almost without pattern, while speaking chiefly in the style of the objective observer. He is entirely contemptuous of the modern idea of religious tolerance – he seems to believe that religious beliefs (while protected the same as any other beliefs) should be accorded the same degree of respect (or even a lesser degree) as alien abduction beliefs. On the other hand, as is evident above, he believes spirituality and mysticism (neither of which, he states, are accurate terms for what he speaks of, as they do not connote the "reasonableness and profundity of the possibility [...] that there is a form of well-being that supersedes all others, [...] that transcends the vagaries of experience itself") are not only rational, but necessary.

I am being unfair.

I can say honestly that the book is not badly written – in fact, though dry in parts, I daresay it is well-written. Harris makes arrogant claims, but defends them with facts, logic, and references (not all of which I find convincing – for example, a book titled "The Case for Israel" does not sound to me in my state of ignorance like an objective source). His claims include many which I agree with, mostly about the flaws of religion (for I am an atheist myself, and occasionally prone to anger), and many claims which I consider absurd (for I am an atheist myself, and as dismissive of mystical claims as religious ones). He makes heavy use of endnotes (my count is 63 pages out of 281) for both citations and for extended side arguments, and provides an extensive bibliography and useful index.

However, I don't like the book. I think his conclusions are too strong for the academic tone he seems to be trying to maintain, and I think some of his basic premises – well, specifically his premise that spirituality in some form is a necessity – are far from obvious. (I, being uncharitable, attribute his shortage of skepticism towards psychic phenomena to his mystic stance as well, and condemn him in my mind for it.) My greatest objection is that I cannot imagine his book will be useful; he speaks at times as if all religious tenets are obviously risible, which would seem to be turnoff to most theists, and at other times as if his mystical beliefs are obviously reasonable, which would seem to be a turnoff to most atheists.

Again, I am being unfair.

Bah! I am a useless reviewer. I would not recommend reading the book – I think the good fellows of the Internet Infidels (who have on their site their review of the book, which is far more positive (and heavily cited) than mine) and the members of their forum would be a better resource for those curious about the arguments against religion. If you are interested in atheistic ethics and spirituality, Chapters 6 and 7 respectively might be of interest, but he does not go into great depth. If you are interested in arguments against confidence in religious pluralism and against supporting religious moderates, the remainder of the book might be of interest. Otherwise, I do not believe it will be of great interest.

I think that's all I have to say about the book. Sam Harris has a website he cites in the dust jacket. It links many positive reviews of the book (giving somewhat the lie to my idea that most readers would reject it), and has some info on related topics as well as an apparently large forum community.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Silhouette)
Last April, I wrote a review of "The Gate to Women's Country". I want to revisit this review, because it's been nagging at me for a long time.

First, the caveats. I have not, in fact, read the book since that review. Nor have I read other analyses of the book (though I discussed it (very) briefly with my mother once). Further, I am not disowning the earlier review. I wrote it, I meant it, and most of what I said is stuff I honestly haven't changed my opinion on, with one exception.

In my old review, I said "Perhaps I am too harsh on this book." I was, no question. I was, because my entire review was of the shallowest surface of the book.

This is not to say that the surface is irrelevant. As renown blogger Eric Burns said (I feel like Dan Brown!), if the surface isn't good, then any deeper meaning is lost (I'm paraphrasing here). So, the first question to be answered is not, "Is this story perfectly executed", but "Is this story enjoyable as a mere story?" In spite of what I said before, the answer to this question is pretty likely to be "yes".

And since the answer is "yes", we can ask the second question: "Is this story rewarding when considered more deeply?" To which the answer is, "definitely".

In a way, Sheri Tepper's book "The Gate to Women's Country" is not about the plot, it's about the world. And taken from that perspective, it is incredible. It does a far better job than any mere description of the world could, either – it conveys both the beauty of Tepper's invented society and the terrible flaws of it, in a brilliant fashion. The choice of characters and of plot show the world from every side, in the best and in the worst lights. There is tragedy on the order of Greek tragedy, with characters who almost, but don't quite, transcend their destiny. There is even cleverness.

All that said, the world is still flawed. But it is no more flawed than a fictional world should be, in fact it clears that standard by a fair margin, and the truths at the heart of the story remain.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Bumper)
Get Medieval, by [ profile] ironychan.
Get Medieval - 2005-12-27

Or, alternatively, [ profile] get_medieval, by [ profile] ironychan. Somewhat unusually among webcomics, Get Medieval is published online as a Livejournal. I don't want to get into that debate, however – suffice it to say that a number of worthy webcomics (e.g. [ profile] hollycomics, [ profile] bad_rabbit) are published that way, and that I consider it a satisfactory means of posting and updating a webcomic without too much technical difficulty. (Incidentally, the comic is configured to use Livejournal's "Memories" system to store the "storylines" archive. This is an excellent use of LJ's capabilities for webcomicking purposes.)

Leaving that all aside now, let's examine the actual comic!

Get Medieval - 2004-09-13 (First Comic)
Get Medieval is a four-panel black-and-white daily strip, based on the premise of a group of extraterrestrial humans fleeing from the mob and getting stranded on Earth in the Middle Ages. (While the main storyline is generally in regular strip format, Irony has done a few extras in other formats, like this out-of-continuity bonus comic.) While this sentence could describe any number of plots, Irony has chosen to pursue one of the most interesting ones; specifically, the story of individuals from a futuristic society learning to survive in a steel-age one. She is well prepared for this task; Irony is a student of medieval history, and she exercises her knowledge quite usefully in the telling of her tale.
Asher Hane portrait

In many ways, Asher Hane is the main character of the comic. This is hardly surprising; in fact, it is in perfect keeping with a pattern Tangents pointed out for gender-changing comics: the best character to drop a problem on is the one least able to deal with it. And, despite his being an anthropology student studying steel-age societies, Asher is in nearly every respect entirely unprepared to actually live in one. He is far more than merely helpless, though – Asher is quite entertainingly pessimistic, but more importantly he's actually intelligent, when he's not completely out of his depth.

Asher is not the whole cast, naturally. Irony has made a goodly host of characters, and has already introduced a story arc about Torquel, Asher's father. (I expect the others of the stranded aliens will get storylines as things develop.) More importantly, all those we have seen for any period of time are interesting and nuanced, with distinct and plausible personalities.

As importantly than any of that, Irony tells a good story. Naturally, all these things I've mentioned up to now contribute to this, but she has a good grasp of the basic principles of storytelling, and it shows. (As I lack a good grasp of the basic principles of storytelling, I can't really explain, but she does a good job.) [ profile] get_medieval is a good comic, with a substantial archive for your enjoyment (and a book out!), and I recommend it highly.

Note: Irony has another excellent comic on Livejournal, a retelling of The Prince and the Pauper. It can be found at [ profile] extd_grb_injoke.

packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Bumper)
"Kismet: Hunter's Moon" by Layla Lawlor
Kismet - p.31

I found this strip through the Webcomics Nation All-Time Top 100 list, because it happened at one time to be one place lower in the list than Eric Burn's Unfettered By Talent. It is no longer, but only because UfBT has risen two places since then – as it happens, Kismet is a fine science fiction comic.

The comic page is relatively simple – it takes good advantage of the features of Webcomics Nation, and the comic is sized appropriately for the screen. One problem I found with the site is the difficulty of locating the cast page and other such features – when I was searching, I first found an obsolete page on the artist's own site about the Kismet universe, and it took a little more luck to find the current Kismet info page. As I later discovered, this is the page she linked on her top-level WebcomicsNation page. While this appears to be the practical move (she hosts several webcomics set in the same universe on that page), it means that those readers who did not first read the top-level page may not to find the info page at all.

One of the more interesting aspects of the series is the setting. Kismet, the town in which most of the story takes place, is an interesting place – a domed city which, as time passed, grew downwards rather than outwards. The characters don't all come from there; in fact, the two main characters, Signy 12 and Linton 95 come from two other planets, Tertia and Secuba, and the history of these two planets is a major factor in the plot of the series. The universe is naturally not restricted to these three places – although little mention is made of other locations in the main series, the info page provides a fair amount of background on the rest of the universe.

Kismet - p. 49
Layla Lawlor's artwork is quite good, right from the start of the strip. Her style is cartoonish in some ways (and literally cartoonish sometimes) and not particularly detailed, but her proportions are always consistent and backgrounds appropriate. She is also good at doing special effects when she needs them. In fact, her use of atmospherics is superb – a cursory look at the three thumbnails included with this review show quite clearly how willing she is to change the color balance to fit the scene.

Kismet - p. 36
The characters are nicely developed as well. They are all plausible, and the influences of their backgrounds are clear in their actions. Very nicely depicted among their traits are the effects of the "memory implants" that Signy and Linton have, both directly and through the characters' reactions.

As I said before, the comic is quite good. Everything holds together, and has continued doing so throughout the reasonably-substantial archive that has developed thus far. A notable confirmation of this lies in the fact that the comic earned a place on Girlamatic, an invitation-only subscription website. It's quite a worthy story, and I recommend it.

A note: This review was inspired by The Webcomicker, which was kind enough to link me as a webcomics commentary site. Since the purpose of this LJ was to get me writing on a regular (hah!) basis, I figured I should go ahead and try to live up to this expectation.

packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
I think, at this point, any further delay of the review would be mere stalling.

Thus, The Gate to Women's Country. )

I still plan to read Grass and Beauty in the indefinite future. In the meantime, I will continue reading A Fire Upon the Deep, and probably continue enjoying it immensely. Vernor Vinge is very good.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
I always get so little done on my free days.


Even today, when I got out my books before doing anything else, I still got latched onto this computer for three hours before I did anything.

My problem isn't that I need a hobby. My problem is that I need a hobby, not an obsession.

Review of Joan D. Vinge's Snow Queen )

One final important thing to note is that this story is a retelling. It is adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow Queen", a story I have never read. I don't know what to feel about that fact, but Vinge's novel is excellent, regardless.

Unrelated to all the above, I'm rather peeved about the situation with one of the books for my class, a book which never was assigned for reading until the very recent past. I just spoke with my mom, and she suggested to me reserving and buying the book at a local Borders. Unfortunately, I already ordered it on Amazon, and it's shipped already.

What really burns is that everything here is my fault.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
In my previous book post, I mentioned that I was reading Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin. Well, I've finished.

Review, with minor spoilers )

Despite finishing that book, my backlog has actually grown. )

Furthermore, I also have added to my book wishlist. )

Long, long post. And it's not helping me revise my paper, so I probably shouldn't spend too long trying to think of new books for my wishlist.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)
Just finished reading "Warday", by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka.

Review - minor spoils to follow )

Huh, that was easier than I expected. I never was good at book reviews in the past.


packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

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