Saturday, July 31, 2010

Knight and Day

Given that I'm about three weeks ahead on blog posts, when I say that "today" we went to see Knight and Day, I mean back on July 10th. I was expecting a light-hearted, goofy, funny action movie, and that's precisely what I got.

Some of the reviews have been pretty scathing. Some people seem to want to treat it as an action movie and then grouse about plot holes. About half of those complaints are simply people not getting all the twists and turns. For instance (and don't worry about the spoiler, it's from the first ten minutes of the movie), the plane that the characters board is supposed to be fully booked yet ends up almost entirely empty; this is a significant plot point, and is discussed in the film, and yet it's actually listed on the IMDb goofs page as a plot hole and several reviews I've seen make a lot of hay out of it.

The other half are intentional things that reflect the comic element of the movie. Again, don't worry about this spoiler: at a few points, an implausible sequence of action-movie nonsense is replaced with a montage of blurry shots because one of the characters has been drugged. This isn't a cop-out; it's very much a joke at the expense of the genre itself. That's not to say that every joke and metajoke works perfectly, but most of them do, and in any case, a criticism that says it's a bad action movie element misses the point that it's not an action movie element at all.

Reviews that got the joke were generally kinder, but a few found the jokes tired and worn. Certainly, there's not much we haven't seen before in some form, but that doesn't mean they're not funny. A particularly good sequence involving a truth serum is reminiscent of True Lies yet also very different, for instance.

That said, even when the plot twists and action sequences aren't intentionally spoofy, there are still bits of plot that don't bear examination. A few of the jokes are a bit flat. This is not going to be a movie we'll be talking about in ten years, or even two years. But it's definitely a movie that's enough fun to justify going to see it. It has some great action sequences (there's some car chase stuff near the end that's particularly effective) and a lot of great laughs (not all of which have been telegraphed in the trailer). It's also a bit unusual for action movies these days for the plot twists to require a little thinking to piece them together -- usually they're handed to you in a nicely wrapped package.

Of course if you can't see Tom Cruise without gnashing your teeth and saying "Tom Cruise Tom Cruise hate hate hate" then you probably won't be able to enjoy this. Never had that problem myself. Don't really care what a jerk he is off-camera, any more than I feel a need to find out if the guy who made my dinner plate was a jerk.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Scofflaw bicyclist!

Let me first say that I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the police and law enforcement. In addition to the reasons everyone has -- they have a crappy, thankless job, filled with stringent requirements, vast bureaucracy, mindless tedium, and the occasional wild danger -- there's also the fact that my family was active in the volunteer fire department so we knew a lot of them personally and my parents worked with them.

This has been slightly strained by my recent brush with injustice, in which I got a $173 ticket for being the only car not speeding. It seems like Vermont's troopers are on a mission to further erode my appreciation for them. Or maybe they're just bored and need some real crime.

Every day at work, twice a day, I do a bikeride along the bike path on which my office sits. I ride to one end (through Peace Park, coming out by the water treatment plant), then turn around and ride to the other end (near the Taylor Street bridge), then ride back to my office. Round trip is about 15 minutes and about two and a half miles. At one point, the bike path crosses Bailey Avenue, passing through a clearly demarcated pedestrian crosswalk.

As one approaches that crosswalk, a bicyclist on the path can easily see the oncoming traffic despite a line of trees because there's enough gaps in the trees, and the bicyclist has the time to focus on them. A driver on that road, however, probably won't see the bicyclist approaching at all through the trees; they have little reason to be looking that way, and bicyclists don't make so visible a target. So if a bicyclist gauges the traffic and zooms across the road through a gap, a driver might find his sudden appearance a surprise.

I did that on yesterday morning's ride, entering the gap with plenty of time; I was across the road and into the bike path on the other side before the car even got to the crosswalk. That car was a state trooper's car.

Apparently they had nothing better to do than chase me around town for the next ten minutes. Not easy since I was on the bike path which doesn't particularly well parallel the roads they can travel on, but they were really determined. I was on my way back when they caught up with me. And stopped their trooper car so it blocked traffic on the most major road in the area, the one leading right to the Interstate, so they could come across the bike path to yell at me.

They not only threatened me with a $156 (or something like that) ticket, for not coming to a full stop before entering the crosswalk on the bike path, they (yes, it took two of them) also insisted that since they couldn't see me, I couldn't see them, so therefore I was driving recklessly. (The Bugblatter Beast of Traal's got nothing on these guys.)

Frankly, I think that a lot of it was a face-saving emotional reaction. To them, I suddenly came out of nowhere. When I pointed out that I could see them even if they couldn't see me, rather than recognizing that they were wrong, the guy I was speaking with dug in his heels and deflected, and got more confrontational. That's a classic response to being shown to be wrong. My reaction was just to back down and say it doesn't matter, if you say I have to do this then I have to do it. And in hindsight I think that was the right response.

Of course, technically there is a stop sign, and technically bikes do have to obey all such signs, and while it's also technically true that cars (like that trooper's car) are supposed to stop for traffic in the crosswalk but never do and the troopers didn't bother to say anything to anyone (including themselves) about that, technically, they could have given me the ticket. I think I would have contested that one. But I still can't flout the law. If I want to cross there I need to stop, as much of a pain as that would be.

But I'm not actually doing it. Instead, I've changed my route to avoid the intersection in question. It was always a pain in the butt to have to deal with traffic there. If I have to come to a complete stop even when there's no traffic, it's just not worth it. So instead, I'll treat it like it ends at that crosswalk, and instead of doing one "round trip" (the whole length twice), I'll do a round trip and a half (the whole length three times), by going to the Peace Park end twice. It's about the same distance and time. Unfortunately, it means more time on the worst part of the bike path, poorly maintained and hilly, but that's still better than dealing with traffic and bored cops bent on making me dislike them the way most people do.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The dentist thinks I'm lying

Dentists and their staff must get really jaded and tired of telling people, over and over all day long day after day, about all the things they need to do to care for their teeth, knowing that most of them won't do most of it. They undoubtedly get to assuming that they're talking to a wall. Doubly so if, six months later, the patient has the same plaque build-up, or whatever.

So every time I go to the dentist, I know just what they're going to tell me. Brush a full two minutes when you brush. Hold your mouth mostly closed to get to the back of the uppers. Hold the brush at an angle. Be sure to floss regularly. And I know they're going to be telling me how, since I'm not doing that stuff, that's why I have this or that or the other issue, or that's why I'm going to have some issue in the future.

The problem is, I do all those things. I do more than they ask. I probably do three minutes of brushing, more than half of which is focused just on those outer uppers. I floss; in fact, I get icky-mouth if I don't, and a few spots that collect things, so I don't even have to try to remember, my mouth reminds me. I hold the brush at an angle. I keep my mouth closed. I use an electric toothbrush to get more movement on the outer uppers than I could do in such tight quarters. I do a dry-brush and another time with toothpaste.

And Siobhan does maybe a third as much as I do, and doesn't do everything they say as often as they say to, and yet I usually get chided more than she does. I guess my teeth just naturally build up plaque faster, or have the wrong kinds of gaps, or something.

I don't bother to correct them or offer a self-defense. They would just assume I was lying. But sometimes I wonder if my dental care might not be better if they knew, and believed, that I really was doing those things, and the mouth they see is the result. Maybe they'd make other suggestions. But they're so used to being ignored that's just not possible.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Designing a Z-Wave controller

One of the downsides of being an early adopter of a technology is having to live with the lumps of the first versions. Actually, that's really the only one. We bought all-new Z-Wave home automation hardware when we were building our house so we could have it all pre-installed, and that includes the central remote controller which is in a way the heart of the system -- even if you rarely use it. (In fact, they recommend you put it in a drawer and never touch it. How's that for an odd design.)

The problem we keep having with it is, once any module dies, there's no way to fully remove it from your system, and I mean fully, other than wiping the whole thing out and rebuilding. If you are just using the remote, that means maybe an hour of walking around the house, pressing buttons, and rekeying names into the remote. If you also use a computer with HomeSeer or the like, it's a lot hairier, since you'd also have to rebuild your devices and those events that linked to them. As long as you don't do that, there's a chance of having some groups fail to turn on and off for a pause of 30 seconds or so, which may not seem like much, but it's sure annoying. Not annoying enough yet to actually do the full reset.

What would tip me over the edge is if we could get a nice controller in the process, since the one we have now, pictured above, is really badly designed. Other than six devices, you can't get to any device other than by scrolling through the whole list, and once you get there, you can't turn it on or off; you can only toggle it, but the toggle depends on whether the remote knows the current state, and (and this is amazingly dumb) the remote makes no attempt to keep track of the state being changed by anything but itself. Despite the fact that it could hear other Z-Wave commands, and despite the fact that Z-Wave can poll devices, and despite that Z-Wave has "on" and "off" commands, not just "toggle" commands. So the upshot is you usually have to do several dozen clicks to turn the device on or off, and then do the same several dozen clicks a second time.

Another mind-bogglingly dumb design decision: the tiny LCD screen isn't backlit. Why would you want the screen to be backlit on a device you are using to turn lights on and off, where you need to be able to read the screen to operate it?

So I found myself imagining the perfect design for such a device, and I don't mean the "genie out of the bottle" design where cost isn't a factor, but a design that would be pretty much as cheap to manufacture as the one we have, or only a little bit more. And you could make a really rocking controller at that price point just by applying some principles of design to it. This is what I came up with.

The remote is about the size of a TV remote, or a bit wider. The top two thirds of it is taken up by an LCD screen that has six rows, with a button on each side. This doesn't have to be pretty color high-res LCD screens you're seeing even on cheap MP3 players these days; it can be the clunky old LCD screens from calculators. It just has to have six rows with 10 or more characters per row. Below all of this is five more buttons arranged in the familiar "directional cluster" formation, up down left right select.

The controller is normally off: nothing shows on the screen at all, to save battery power. Press any button, and it turns on, including a backlight. It turns off after 30 seconds of not having any buttons pushed, or when you press and hold the Select button for 3 seconds.

Normally, it'll show the first six devices in the current location, one per row. The button to the left turns each device off; the button to the right turns it on. Press-and-hold the left to dim, if dimmable; press-and-hold the right to brighten. The remote will also make some attempt to get the status of those devices (on, off, dimmed) and indicate this with an icon on the right edge; but nothing needs to wait for those statuses to be updated.

Use the directional up and down keys to scroll down to the next six items, if there are any. (The screen should have a "more above" and "more below" indicator at top and bottom to indicate whether there are any.) Use left and right to move to other locations (location in this context would normally mean a room, but you can use it however you like). The remote would remember what location (and where down the list in that location) you were when it turned off and return you there.

The select button would switch to a menu system navigated by the arrow keys, which is where you'd go to do everything else. That includes setting up devices and their locations; setting up and playing out scenes; setting up timers; and system stuff like exporting settings. (It would probably be set up so the first thing on the first menu was where you'd go to execute scenes, since everything else is mostly setup stuff, but that's execution stuff.)

In terms of hardware this is less ambitious than many Z-Wave remotes, and yet it would be far more functional for the everyday activities of turning things on and off, instantly, without having anything in the way. It's neither too dumb (like my current remote) nor too smart (like those which are trying so hard to have pretty graphics that they don't put the things you need to do right now at your fingertips right now). Why doesn't anyone consult me for the design on these things? I'd happily offer my services for cheap. All I'd want is one of these controllers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tsianina's cryptogram journal

I've recently taken up a second character, or "alt", in Lusternia, in part to break up some of the less pleasant things about my main character's life and circumstances, and in part to explore some intriguing things about one of the cities (but which wouldn't suit my main character at all). My new character is a scientist, and a gangly, geekish one. I'm modeling her personality on a mishmash of similar characters and stereotypes, including some things from the Venus Equilateral stories, and a few elements from Big Bang Theory.

But I'm also including a few elements solely so that I can fit them into Lusternia, and be able to do the stuff in Lusternia I want to do. One thing is I like writing, but I also like earning goodies for my writing. Lusternia's bardic contests do accept non-fiction pieces, but they very rarely win, and the more dry and scientific, the less likely to win. So I decided to make this character have a penchant for word puzzles, though she treats them as no big deal, just something she does to while away the boring times. She creates word puzzles and leaves them for herself to find a year later, when she can solve them since she no longer remembers them. Puzzles have some chance of scoring in the bardics, as long as I make them uniquely Lusternian.

Following from that, and her tendency to be constantly scribbling notes and diagrams in her journal, I decided that she does her entire journal in cryptograms. Even the little notes are jotted in code. Not so much to keep things secret as to give her something to do. Whenever she goes back to her notes she has to solve the cryptogram to read them. She doesn't write down the ciphers, either. But since you can't always solve the cryptogram on a very short note, she needs a "safety hatch" so she won't lose her notes. Plus she might need to read them quickly.

I solved this by developing an algorithm by which she uses the title of a piece to create a cipher. Thus, every piece, whether a short note or a lengthy dissertation, has a title, which is written in plaintext. The algorithm to produce a cipher from the plaintext of the title is consistent, and produces a unidirectional, asymmetric cipher (that means, if T in plaintext becomes R in ciphertext, R in plaintext does not necessarily produces T in ciphertext, so applying the cipher twice won't give you back the plaintext). It uses all the letters (but isn't case-sensitive) plus the digits, but not punctuation, so it has 36 elements.

Since the cipher is determined by the title, she can always use the title to create the cipher, then reverse the encryption, fairly quickly and with complete reliability.

I decided it would be more fun if I actually did this and wrote in her journal that way. So after doing a little bit of the encrypting by hand to make sure I could, I wrote a program in C which generates the cipher and then enciphers the plaintext with it. This is now what the first page of her journal looks like (just the start, it goes on at some length):

               Project: Conjunction

Sfesu1g: Zu yfjnz5av j1zeu7upv 5nzu j 1c5gncg jn4 5nzgpejzg 5z i5zh ufe fn4ge1zjn45np ua jgun5c1 jn4 zgdsuej7 shv15c1, zu 5dseuqg ufe fn4ge1zjn45np ua j1zeu7upv jn4 5ncegj1g 5z1 gaagcz5qgng11.

Nuzg zhjz zhg gaagcz1 ua 0u4v ejv1 4gsgn4 un zhg zjepgz'1 njz5q5zv 5n j ijv ih5ch 51 j7egj4v aj5e7v ig77 fn4ge1zuu4, jn4 zhf1, zh51 51 ufz154g zhg 1cusg ua zh51 seumgcz. 5n 7jzge shj1g1, zhgue5g1 j0ufz zhg cjf1g1 ua zhu1g gaagcz1 d5phz je51g j1 j njzfej7 154g-gaagcz ua zhg seucg11.


U0mgcz5qg: Cegjzg j cj7gn4je zhjz 4gdun1zejzg1 zhg cvc7g1 ua duz5un ua zhg s7jngz1 jn4 0u45g1, 1fch zhjz ig cjn auegcj1z zu jnv je05zejev 4jzg 0v cj7cf7jz5un zhg 1jdg 5nauedjz5un zhjz iuf74 0g seuq54g4 0v jn j1zeu7j0g.

Dgzhu4u7upv: Djkg egpf7je u01geqjz5un1 jz zhg j1zeu7j0g jn4 egcue4 zhgd. J1 5z i577 nuz 0g su11507g zu 0g jz zhg j1zeu7j0g gqgev 4jv, zhg 4jzj i577 hjqg pjs1, 0fz 5z 51 gbsgczg4 zhjz gjch 0u4v i577 hjqg cvc75cj7 sjzzgen1 ih5ch i577 gqgnzfj77v gdgepg, j77ui5np ejnpg1 ua cheunu7up5cj77v 1gsjejzg4 4jzj zu 0g fn5a5g4. Zh51 gaauez djv zjkg djnv vgje1, 15ncg 5z 51 knuin zhjz Jjsgk'1 zejn15z 51 dueg zhjn j vgje jn4 1gqgej7 cvc7g1 djv 0g egyf5eg4 zu a577 5n j77 zhg pjs1.

Cuna5edjz5un: J1 gjch cvc7g 51 54gnz5a5g4, seg45cz5un1 cjn 0g auegcj1z 0j1g4 un zhjz cvc7g, zhgn cuna5edg4 jz zhg j1zeu7j0g. Ihgn j cuna5edjz5un zg1z aj571, 5z i577 cegjzg ngi 4jzj aue jnuzhge jzzgdsz zu 54gnz5av zhg cvc75cj7 sjzzgen. Ihgn j sjzzgen hj1 0ggn cuna5edg4 un df7z5s7g uccj15un1 1gsjejzg4 5n z5dg 5z i577 0g j11fdg4 zu 0g cueegcz (zhufph cunz5nfg4 cuna5edjz5un1 i577 gn1fg zheufphufz zhg afezhge shj1g1).

This is eminently solvable -- even more if you consider what words are likely to lead sections in a research project proposal -- but certainly it would take more work than it's worth for most people to solve. I hope that this comes across to people as an interesting character trait instead of just an annoying one.

(Incidentally, Project: Conjunction is a research project she's planning to propose that will attempt to quantify and make scientifically analyzable the skill of astrology, which in Lusternia is a real thing, and not about fortune-telling. The above is just an abstract of the purpose, plus the first of six phases.)

Incidentally, the algorithm for generating the cipher is to use just the letters of the title, and turn them into numbers, where A is 1 and Z is 26. Repeat the title as many times as needed. So "Project: Conjunction" becomes 16 18 15 10 5 3 20 3 15 14 10 21 14 3 20 9 15 14 and then repeats. Now, set up a cipher as follows:

Plain : 0123456789abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

The first number is 16, so count right 16 steps (placing you under the F in the plaintext) and put an A. The second number is 18 so count right 18 steps and place a B where you land (this time under the X). The third number is 15 so count right 15 steps, wrapping around when you reach the end, and place a C (this time under the C -- as it happens, Cs don't get converted). Continue this, but if you reach a spot where there's already a letter, keep shifting right until you find an empty one. Place all the letters, then all the digits. The result for the title "Project: Conjunction" is this cipher:

Plain : 0123456789abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz
Cipher: 892w6lxotrj0c4gaph5mk7dnusye1zfqibv3

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pressure washing the deck

The good thing about having a nice, powerful pressure washer is that it's fantastic at getting things clean. The bad thing about it is that it's too good at getting things clean. For instance, doesn't this look like a pretty normal bit of patio decking, maybe a little in need of a deck brushing in spots, but otherwise, perfectly normal?

Most of my deck looks this way. I've been cleaning it with a deck brush and cleaning fluid, then coating it with Thompsons deck sealant, every two years, and it's only six years old. Looks like it's in pretty good shape, right?

Well, this is what happens when I use the pressure washer on it to clean up those little spots that seem like they need a deck brush:

Holy cow. Turns out that it's got a thick layer of grime that's gray in places, and brown in others. Looks like the "natural weathering" of the deck, people say, but it turns out to be something which washes right off, leaving the wood looking much more vibrant and attractive. The difference is so striking it feels like I'm painting woodgrain onto it rather than peeling off gunk; each swipe leaves a clear border between grime and wood.

Then again, maybe what I'm really doing is the equivalent of sanding it, stripping off a layer of "weathered" wood to reveal the wood underneath. I think that's unlikely, though. If I hold the washer in one spot, I never get a groove, I just get it to a particular level of golden yellow wood color and then it stops. And the clean spots don't feel even slightly lower than the dirty spots. I find it very unlikely that the wood is that weathered on the surface but completely different so close below that you can't feel the difference. Besides, a scratch in the wood doesn't show the "clean" surface that the pressure washer is exposing, even if it's a gouge. And finally, the washer's doing the same thing to mildew stains in places. In any case, if it's really sanding the wood, that's fine too. That's actually recommended before treating with sealant, though it's far too much work for people to actually do it.

The downside as I mentioned earlier is that it does such a great job that I feel like the work is never done. I look at the huge deck and see some areas that seem clean and others that need a washing, but once I wash those, the other areas now look dirty. The job has ended up far larger than I originally anticipated, and even though it's not really arduous work, like scrubbing would be, it is time-consuming. Especially when I keep going back to redo areas that seemed good enough before.

Unfortunately, even the pressure-washer won't take off some of the grease globs and stains that the grill has left behind. Maybe next time I do this in two years I'll experiment with adding some detergent to the pressure washer (it has a system for that).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Skunk adventures

Thursday night about when we were going to bed, Socks got riled up about something in the backyard and went out to bark at it. Nothing unusual about this, though the barking had a different tone than usual. Turns out she'd not only found a skunk, but it was inside her penned-in area, and she had it cornered under the tiny bit of deck that serves as the stoop, and Siobhan didn't quite arrive in time to save her from getting sprayed.

Fortunately she got a very light hit. Even minutes afterwards it was entirely possible to stand right next to her. I've experienced full-blast skunk sprayings on dogs before and even with my notoriously weak sense of smell I couldn't stand next to them without feeling like I was going to lose my lunch. Socks was flipping out and rubbing her nose on the grass, and occasionally trying to menace the skunk again, but I was able to get her and lead her in without getting sprayed. The skunk later found its way out of the yard and down to the neighbor's shed.

We had a pretty late night trying to bathe the dog and mop the floor, and find enough ways to get rid of the smell to get through the night. Again, all this was only possible because we had a very mild hit to deal with. Siobhan has never experienced this before (and while I think she believes me that this was a mild hit, I don't think she quite gets just how mild) so we had some of those miscommunications that'd be comical if you saw them on a TV show. Thinking back on it, I think some of them come from the fact that she was reading advice that assumed you'd had a full-fledged spraying, and which, if followed, would get us down to probably about the level of stink that we already were at. Thus she had a sense of urgency that I lacked because we were already at the kind of "tolerable" level that's probably the best you can achieve, other than by waiting it out. It was a very frustrating and exhausting night. (Great preparation for having a long drive to a concert tonight, and then back from it afterwards).

Socks stopped being upset about it after her bath last night, once the smell wasn't hurting her nose anymore. About the only distress she had was that we weren't letting her up on the bed so much and not petting her as we would usually, since we didn't want to have to wash our hands after. Since then she's been pretty back to normal.

The house still has a smell about it, but for me, it's mild enough that I can stop noticing it until I go out and come back in. Roomba and Scooba are working on the floor, and we have the fans going (enough to make it chilly in here). Of course the smell is still strong enough to bother Siobhan. There's probably nothing for that but to wait it out.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Approaching the unreal

Last night we went to see Rush playing at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs. This was my first time seeing them in more than twenty years, and I'd decided if there was one band I'd really like to see again, even enough to brave a crowded hall full of raucous fans, it was Rush.

The drive out to Saratoga Springs went all right though we arrived a little later than planned due to a detour, some traffic, and an unplanned stop, but we had plenty of slack in the timeline and assigned seats so nothing bad came of that. I had pulled my right rear calf muscle earlier in the day so the steep climb to the footbridge over the highway from the west parking lot to the path to the arena was a bit of a strain.

The venue itself seemed disorganized and like it was mostly counting on the visitors to already be familiar with how things worked. It's not like I expect a stadium that hosts rock concerts to be a sparkling model of customer service. But they didn't even have signs suggesting where the (far too few) bathrooms were, or how to find the right part of the arena where your seats were, or even where to go next.

A lot of people said that I would love SPAC, and I can see how it might be a good venue for some kind of events, despite having seats so tiny and close together that even Siobhan was crammed in. It was a nice blend of indoor and outdoor, at least. But it turns out it was a terrible, terrible venue for a rock concert, and I will not be returning.

The first problem is that the sound quality was abysmal. I don't expect a live concert to be as crystal-clear as a CD player and headphones, of course. But these speakers were almost nothing but hiss and crackle. You literally couldn't tell in some songs when Neil stopped playing the cymbals or high-hat because every other sound tended to come out as the same kind of hiss. I don't know how much of the blame to place on SPAC; maybe the problem was in the band's equipment or its setup, though I find that far less likely.

The previous times I'd seen Rush were back in Nassau Coliseum, which is much, much bigger than SPAC. Sitting in the back sections up pretty high, I was farther away from the stage then than the entire width or length of SPAC. And yet, I could see the band at Nassau Coliseum far, far better. Again, SPAC can only take part of the blame, because of how the rows were so close together and each row was only a tiny bit higher than the previous one. The biggest problem was the crowd.

Apparently it's now standard for rock concerts to be held in a completely standing position. Everyone gets a chair and promptly ignores it. This is a kind of mass stupidity, in my opinion, because so long as everyone stands, no one actually gets a better view than they would have had if everyone sat. Except maybe a few tall people, and if so, they're explicitly getting it selfishly at the cost of their neighbors. In my teenage years, people didn't do this, at least not at the venues I went to on Long Island (and it's so rare to find a way that my generation wasn't as stupid as later ones, so I should probably revel in it!).

Standing for three hours needlessly would be a discomfort at most (made worse by that strained calf muscle), but something I'd be willing to endure to see Rush. In fact I had it in mind before buying the tickets that that was a possible outcome. (It's one of the reasons I don't go to big concerts of big names these days. You don't get this kind of sheep-like conformity to foolishness at Bobs concerts.) But combined with the fact that the rows were so close together and so lightly sloped, the result was, if anyone in the 30 rows in front of you was taller than you, you probably weren't going to get to see anything. This is the view I had, from eye level, while standing:

This was actually an unusually good moment for a view because a woman three rows ahead of us had her head down at that moment. It's the shortest dark lump in the middle. When her head was up, her ponytail tended to block most of the drum set, which is all you can really see in this picture (it's the blurry shape in the center lit in green lights -- wasn't blurry for me, of course). If I strained onto tiptoes I could see a little bit more, but I couldn't do that for three hours (especially with that pulled muscle), and even if I had, I could barely see anything anyway.

I kept thinking, hey Geddy, just tell everyone to sit down and they will. You're probably the only person who could do it and have it happen, too. Of course he didn't. Though I've heard of other bands doing so. Some bands, and some venues, have made some attempt to reverse the "everyone stands" thing, perhaps because they see how it really benefits no one and hurts the shorter (or older, or disabled) people, or perhaps just because they don't want to lose customers.

But nothing else would have worked. Even if a bunch of people simultaneously sat down, it wouldn't be enough to get everyone else to sit down. Heck, if 95% of us magically chose the same moment to sit, the other 5% would still have no reason to sit. Once some people stand, everyone else has to stand. Makes me wonder why people don't go the next step and stand on top of their chairs (I was tempted at times) -- as long as everyone does it, it'll hurt everyone and benefit no one, but if one person does it, everyone else has to. It's the logical next step in mob stupidity.

On the up side, for a rock concert, there was surprisingly little weed in the air. I only got a few mild breezes of it. I saw one person being kicked out for using it, too. Maybe SPAC takes it more seriously, or maybe times have changed, I don't know.

You've noticed I haven't said much about the show, for the obvious reason that I could barely see or hear it. What I could see struck me as being a good show. The band was in solid form. They weren't deviating hardly at all from the album recordings; even the solos were mostly note-for-note, and there was only a minimum of running around, talking to us, or anything else other than the set list. (Of course, that might have come later.) The pyrotechnics were solid and only rarely distracting. The set dressing was fascinating and made me want to get a better look -- lots of steampunk brass-and-chrome stuff (the drum set was particularly cool in that regard). The video stuff they played on the screen behind the band was sometimes distracting (might have been less so if I could see the band) and if it added much I didn't see how, but maybe it was just not for me. The performances were crisp, polished, energetic, and of course, masterfully skillful.

But since we could neither see nor hear it very well, when the intermission break came, we decided to leave. No sense enduring those discomforts and facing a later drive home (as it is we got home around 1am) just for the chance to choose between watching the back of a teenager's head, or the back of his shirt. It would have been nice to see the solos, but not worth it to stay just to not see them.

SPAC must be a great venue for something, since so many people told me I was going to love it. I'm not sure what kind of things they do there and whether it works well for them. They certainly get a lot of great bands, but even if I felt like the crowd at a Tom Petty/CSN show wouldn't stand all night, I still doubt it'd be worth the high cost, the long drive, and the discomfort, to endure bad sound and a bad view. Add the "everyone stands" factor, and it's definitely not worth it. I won't be coming back to SPAC.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Costs and benefits of RPG rules

Roleplaying games tend to be arranged along an axis of complexity: rules-light games are very simple, rules-rich games are more complex. On its face, "simple" seems like a virtue, so why wouldn't we all use rules-light games? (This argument might seem absurd, but it's actually a widely made one.) Because that complexity buys you something. Or more accurately, three things.

Assisting the GM
A GM has to balance a lot of things. Keeping the story going in a satisfying direction, ensuring all the players are engaged and getting what they need, adjudicating conflicts, improvising when the players go in unanticipated directions, and playing all the NPCs, to name a few. Rules-light games also pile onto the GM a lot of additional work: deciding what various outcomes mean, inventing results for actions, etc.

A good, experienced GM can keep up with more of this stuff, but no matter how good a GM you are, there's always times when doing more of one thing means doing less of another. Having to spend more time thinking about what it means that the player just rolled that particular roll, means spending less time thinking about what the NPC's reaction should be, for instance.

And this tends to make us fall into ruts. Some kinds of reactions or events are closer to the forefront of a GM's thoughts, and will thus tend to happen disproportionately often. Others will happen too rarely, even though they might be fun or make sense (or both), just because the GM's mind doesn't run there as readily. Free up more of the GM's mental processing power and he's more likely to be able to think of unusual or uncharacteristic things to happen, as well as being able to make NPC reactions more fleshed out and less one-dimensional, pay more attention to keeping all the players engaged and having fun, etc.

While rules can occupy some of a GM's mental processing, they can also free up a lot of it by taking care of things for him. They can also allow the players to contribute to running things by handling their own arithmetic, table lookups, and to some extent, rules and action resolutions. In a rules-light game, usually the GM has to do all of that... in his head, off the cuff, in the moment.

Expectation Calibration
It happens more often than you might realize, that your expectation of what your character can and can't do, or what the likelihoods are for various outcomes of some situation, don't match what the GM thinks. This means the decisions you're making for your character can turn out to be wrong through no fault of your own. You might try something with less chance of success than you'd expect, or fail to employ a tactic that would work if you had. Most of the time, this is a minor issue, easily overlooked. At its worst, you can get your character killed trying to jump a chasm that you think your skill should let you jump, but your GM doesn't.

Rules help to firm up a lot of these things because it's up to the rules whether your character can do this or that, and the way the dice work determine the probabilities in a way that the players can figure out (or just pick up from experience). It's never going to be a 100% calibration, of course, but there's a significant gap between a rules-light game where the outcome of a combat comes down to "the GM makes it up" based on the advice of a die roll, and a rules-rich game where specific wounds are determined by a specific numerical process.

Good rules tend towards being more "realistic" to the world setting and genre feel, by ensuring that all possible outcomes are possible, and come up with the right probability. Note that we're not talking about realism in the sense of accuracy to the real world: no one wants to play a swords-and-sorcery game where the dragon can't stand up because of the cube-square law, and can't breathe fire because of the second law of thermodynamics. But we do want one where the rules produce results that accurately simulate the way things work in that world, and that's why we say "verisimilitude" instead of "realism". Rules-light games can be only as accurate as the limited amount of the GM's mental processing available for ensuring verisimilitude can achieve, but as we make rules more complex, one of the main things we're aiming for is more verisimilitude with each extra rule or element.

So what is the cost of all these rules? They're real costs, and they're why for some types of games, rules-light is the right solution, and for some games, rules-rich is better.

Slowing The Action
More rules mean more time you have to spend looking things up, adding things up, figuring things out, and working with rules instead of with the world and the action. In the extreme case, a combat that represents a half-minute of frantic, action-packed gunplay and acrobatics can take a few hours to play. And that can mean by the end of the session you don't feel like you got very far, which can be dissatisfying. You don't come away with the breathless excitement you'd get from watching that same fight in a movie.

Intimidating Learning Curve
More complex rules tend to scare off new players. They see a big sheet full of numbers, and despair at the idea of being able to jump in, or have fun. They worry they're going to "do something wrong" and they figure they'll never quite figure out how to make a character that isn't crippled because they forgot something, or make the right choice in a combat. They might even feel like instead of playing a game they're learning something as dry and unexciting as chartered accountancy.

Disconnectedness From The Genre
Often the GM is trying to convey something of the emotion or atmosphere of a setting or genre. Running a horror game? You probably want your players to feel a little bit scared, a little frisson of chill up the spine. Your space opera might want to convey a sense of the vastness of the possibilities around us. Your game of mysticism wants to feel shrouded in mystery and symbolism. Your historical fiction should convey the sense of being in that period of history, or alternately, in the fiction from that period of history. Your modern suspense should make your players feel like they're the ones hanging from the chandelier dodging bullets as they try to get to the bomb before it goes off.

None of those things really dovetail well with asking your character to look something up on a long list of numbers, add it to three other numbers, then cross-reference the result on a table and record the result on another sheet of paper. (Unless you're playing a game set in a bureaucratic dystopia, maybe.) Rules tend to pull the player's focus away from the world you're trying to immerse them in, by pulling them to thinking about the rules themselves, the numbers, the dice, the hit points. It's like watching a movie and paying attention to trying to see the wires by which the hero is dangling, or guessing what CGI rendering engine they used, instead of being drawn into the story.

We usually assume that there is a simple cost/benefit process in play. Every new rule, or new element to a rule, that increases complexity, serves to increase the benefits and the costs. That's probably true in some sense, but it's an oversimplification. The real point is the cost/benefit ratio.

Some rule additions will add very little complexity, and thus, increase the costs very, very little. Some will add a lot. Some will provide very little benefit (or even, in the pathological case, no benefit), while some will provide a lot.

Game design is really all about finding the best ratios. Finding ways to add more of the benefits while paying less of the costs. The difference between a good rules-rich game and a bad one is not how many rules they have, or even how much verisimilitude they have, or any of the other benefits. The difference is how good a ratio they achieve between costs and benefits. It's easy to make a set of complex rules that accurately model weapon ranges or encumbrance; it's hard to make one that does so while still staying out of the way of the GM and the players.

The most important fact about game design that is typically overlooked or oversimplified is that there is a huge range of cost/benefit ratios available. Some of the rules employed in some rules-rich games cost a lot for what you get. They slow things down too much or pull us out of the world too much. But that doesn't mean some other approach, some other rule, couldn't do just as well (or better) while costing far less. What game designers need to be doing is finding techniques to maximize the ratio, more than worrying about where on the light/rich spectrum to fall.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A sucker for tempo changes

Meat Loaf's "All Revved Up And No Place To Go". Pat Benatar's "Hell Is For Children". The Yardbirds' "For Your Love". Credence Clearwater Revival's "Lookin' Out My Back Door". Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen". What do they have in common, besides being good songs? In each case, one part of the song is in a markedly different tempo from the rest, and it's not just a time signature change, or a song where the tempo changes so often there's hardly a real baseline, or a song where the tempo is being subtly played with: it's a song which abruptly changes tempo (and in some cases, changes back).

For some reason I can't put my finger on, this technique really has an impact on me. It's such a simple, even simplistic, trick. And it's probably one that you couldn't use too often before it would lose its impact. But those songs always appeal to me more, somehow, than they should. The moment of transition is so engaging, it gives the whole song a new sense of life.

It's kind of embarassing to be tickled by such a cheap trick. But I can't help myself. And I have no idea why.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

You Rock Band 3?

About a year ago Inspired Instruments announced the You Rock Guitar. It's an electronic guitar that you can play like a real guitar, but it can also work as a controller for games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Each piece of guitar string over each fret, while feeling and playing just like real guitar string, works like a button when it's used as a game controller. There's also set of six strings to pluck which are attached to sensors. The result: it will let you play those games, and then advance to real music, and when you play real music it's a brilliantly powerful guitar because it works from a library of samples to sound like almost any kind of guitar you can think of (and other instruments too).

This was revolutionary, but it took them a long time to get them out the door. They were originally supposed to be in our hands last September, but they're only just arriving this summer. During the ensuing gap, the same idea has come along at least two more times in forms that are built into the next generation of rhythm games, which take the next step towards being about really playing music. Power Gig comes out this fall and features a six-string guitar controller very similar in design to the You Rock, though limited to being just a controller for that particular game. More visibly, Rock Band 3 is due out before Christmas, and its two biggest changes: the addition of keyboards, and a "pro" mode in which the guitar, keyboard, and drums all have you actually playing the song using real techniques. Which necessitates a new controller which again looks almost exactly like the You Rock.

Actually, Rock Band 3 is talking about two new guitar controllers, one of which is just a controller like the Power Gig one, while the other one, the Squier, is a fully functional guitar as well as being a controller, similar to the You Rock. No word yet on its functionality. You Rock has a lot of guitar features that I bet the Squier doesn't have, but it's too soon to tell.

I'm wondering if Inspired Instruments is going to suffer the "first to market" curse. We like to imagine that being first to market with an idea just before it catches fire is always good, but if you go back through the recent history of technology, you'll find quite often a small company hits with a revolutionary idea, a bigger company grabs the same idea and makes a much bigger splash, and the first company goes under. (Apple loves to be that second company. Often, to avoid the risk of going first, they'll wait until they're fifth or sixth instead. Steve Jobs would, off the record, admit it: he'd rather do it "right" than "first" at least by what he considers right. How much is really them doing it right, and how much is them selling it sexy, is a topic for another argument.)

But Inspired Instruments has made one very right choice that could save them. The functionality that lets the You Rock work with each game is in the form of a separate component, a GameFlex cartridge. It's basically a cartridge that links the YouRock to the game system, and makes the YouRock appear like the controller that game and system expect. That means that the day after Rock Band 3 comes out (or well before), they could be working on a GameFlex cartridge to make the You Rock be like the Squier, only better. If they can get that out fast enough and sell the advantages that the You Rock has over the Squier well enough, they can be swept along, not away, by Rock Band 3.

Not only would that be good for them, it'd be good for me! It'd mean I won't need to buy a new guitar when I get Rock Band 3. I just need a new GameFlex for my sexy sexy guitar.

So I hope that the people at Inspired Instruments are having these exact same thoughts right now. Naturally they wouldn't be saying them publicly. (Actually, since they're rushing their first shipment of guitars out the door after a nine-month delay, they're probably too tired to be thinking much of anything.) But their website does now say this: "For gamers, the You Rock Guitar provides a more guitar-like gaming experience with existing games and is gamer-ready for the next generation of more complex games." I hope that "next generation" comment, and a few vague and non-committal comments on their forum and their Facebook page, mean what I think they mean. I can't wait for Rock Band 3, particularly if it'll work with my You Rock.

(There's also talk that Rock Band 3 will be sold with a MIDI interface that means you can plop any MIDI-compatible instrument, including the You Rock or just about anything else, into your Rock Band 3 system, and it'll work as a controller. If so, that would be an amazing step, though it would probably also be a lot more complicated, and probably more expensive, than just another GameFlex cartridge. More on this as they make it clearer!)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The license plate game

Since I was a kid I've played a little game when I'm a passenger in a car (or even a driver sometimes), to while away the minutes or hours. It's quite simple: find a license plate with three letters, then find a word that has those three letters, in that order, in it. They don't have to be adjacent, and it doesn't have to start with the first letter. For instance, if you see ETY, some possible words are PETTY, ESTUARY, ETYMOLOGY, and YEASTY. Standard Scrabble rules apply: dictionary words, no proper nouns.

There's no formal rules for scoring, but the best words to find are:
  • As short as possible
  • Interesting and unusual, not everyday
  • Don't start with the first letter
  • Avoid as much as possible having the provided letters adjacent, especially doubled letters (e.g., ANN is better solved with CANYON than BANNED)
Of course if you get really hard letters like EQX you'll consider yourself lucky to find any solution. Sometimes seemingly easy letters will turn out really hard; for instance, DTF took me a while to come up with DETOXIFY.

There's rarely a drive, even a short one, where I don't do this at least once. It's almost a twitch. Of course in Vermont the game is somewhat limited since the plates that are three letters and three numbers are only up to starting with F or G, so your first letter is somewhat limited.

By the way, for the pictured plate, I'd probably use BACKWARD or PACKAGE.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Socks swimming in the reservoir

My daily exercise for Socks involves a bikeride round trip of about 1.5 miles that includes a stretch up a hill and back down, which gets her pretty well exerted. After that part, which is near the middle, we stop for five minutes at a creek that's flowing into Dix Reservoir, so she can sniff, dig, do her business, drink, and since she's a lab, inevitably swim, and through all these, catch her breath before the trip home.

Dix ReservoirDix Reservoir is a beautiful lake (pictured here) that is also the Barre town water supply. As such, it has very limited recreational use. There's one designated fishing area, plus another (near where Socks and I stop) that also allows fishing at certain times, and that's about it. No swimming, no watercraft.

While Socks isn't actually in the lake itself, she's in a creek feeding directly into it for those few minutes, so I have to be sure that this isn't in violation of the restrictions or their intent. Once, I even had one jerk (who was busily littering at the time) bitch at me for letting her swim in the reservoir -- but that he was a hypocritical jerk doesn't invalidate the question. On consideration, I'm fairly confident that letting her swim in the creek (or even the lake) violates neither the rule nor its intent, because there's two main reasons why letting people swim in the lake is a whole different thing from letting a dog swim in it.

First, a person dipped into a lake is going to release all kinds of contaminants. The person's body is covered in soaps, shampoos, skin creams, hair gel, bug spray, medicines, perfumes and colognes, tanning lotions, antiperspirant, and who knows what else. His clothes are full of even more cleaning chemicals. By contrast, the geese, beavers, deer, etc. that regularly visit the lake (you could hardly stop them) bring essentially nothing that isn't already in the lake -- what's on their fur is what's in the trees and soil and rain. A domesticated dog might not be quite as all-natural as an otter, but pretty close. Even if your dog gets bathed, it's probably once a month, not once a day, and probably involves a lot less soap that won't stick around as long, and no perfumes, tanning lotions, laundry detergent, or any of the rest. And while dogs might have a flea and tick prevention medicine or cream, that's also going to be far less than any human. A dog's impact on the water purification process will be a tiny fraction of a human's, and barely more than that of a few geese.

Labs love to swimSecond, letting a dog go for a five-minute swim a day is not going to cause a huge pack of other dogs to come cluttering the place up. But if you put up a sign allowing swimming, every sunny day you'll have a hundred humans, so that much greater impact will be multiplied by a huge number. Plus they'll be bringing their trash and failing to pack it out (or even put it in receptacles, if you provide them and send someone to empty them regularly). They'll be coming in cars which need to be parked, which means parking lot runoff and leaking car runoff, which will hurt the water purity more than everything else combined. They'll be dropping actual trash into the lake while swimming, and making plenty of messes. They'll be doing damage to water quality just through the act of erosion that far exceeds all my dog, despite her love of digging, can do in a lifetime.

So a person does many times more than a dog to the water, and allowing people would mean hundreds as many as allowing dogs, so all in all, the impact of one dog is trivial -- far less, I'd guess, than the difference caused by one extra rainfall, or one extra visit by a flock of passing geese -- while the impact of humans would be tremendous. I really don't think I need to deprive her of those five minutes of cooling off in the water. And I don't think I have to feel bad about it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Superhero movie stew

One thing I liked about the Iron Man movies, compared to the original comic book source material, is that they make more of an effort to root themselves in the real world while still bringing along the fantastic. In the four-color comics, people throwing cars around the street is so commonplace that we focus almost entirely on the epic-scale battles between these vastly superpowered beings, with "normals" being barely more than set dressing and suitably vulnerable tokens of value to be fought over.

Tony Stark (the movie version) lives in a world that is much like ours, and reacts like ours would, but in which a very few people do some very amazing things -- amazing, but also explicable, even feasible. Yes, there are no arc reactors; but if there were a news article tomorrow about how Stephen Hawking, or the people at CERN, or even Google, had a breakthrough in energy technology, you would not conclude you were being pranked. Tony Stark's world reacts to him the way we would.

And Tony Stark's world is not (yet!) full of a dozen equally amazing and entirely unrelated origins for fantastic things. As of the end of the second movie, all the events which are beyond what our world expects are all consequences of the same set of scientific and technological advances created by a few geniuses, and a lot of people being extremely well trained in things people can actually do (Black Widow's martial arts may be better than anything you or I can imagine doing, but it's not significantly farther beyond an Olympic athlete than Tony's engineering is beyond the stuff they're doing at Sony).

We get a similar effect from the recent Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight, where the biggest plausabilty issues we have to face are logistical issues of how the villains find henchmen and funding, more than how there can be so many odd origins for "supers". Even the much-disliked Daredevil movie, which posited one almost-"supernatural" origin story for one character (but left everyone else simply "the best humans can be") stuck to a real world setting. (Its sequel, Elektra, cast that aside without realizing what it was giving up, more's the pity.)

I've always found the spandex-cape four-color version of the superhero genre a little harder to swallow, and most entertaining when it's being spoofed (as in The Incredibles or Mystery Men). It can be palatable if you provide a reason why, fairly recently, a world without "superpowers" suddenly got some, so everyone's origin stories are related, and there's a good reason why the world hasn't had a chance to react to the world-changing nature of this event by, well, changing the way it would. But if a superhero story isn't going to have that, it should just leap into its story and try to avoid dwelling on the oddity that simultaneously a bunch of people independently found amazing powers, but the world around them still remains familiar.

So as much as I've enjoyed Iron Man's recent incarnation in the movies, I'm nervous about the Avengers storyline that's clearly coming. I never read the comics, and frankly, always found the idea of Iron Man and Thor being on the same team as kind of incomprehensible, the sort of thing that works only because the writers keep the story moving too fast for anyone to stop and say WTF? But the comics-movies are heading that way.

The various Marvel-comic-based movies are all so far being treated like they're in their own universes, so no one needs to say, "wait, in one place someone's made a giant green monster with radiation and in another, someone's built a super-suit... why not get these guys together!" There's been a few tiny hints otherwise, but they're so small, things like news reports on screens in the background of shots, that you can easily ignore them. But once they change that and make it official that the Hulk and Iron Man are in the same world, things start getting wobbly. Throw Captain America and Magneto and Spiderman and the X-Men into that world, and all the previous movies start making no sense retroactively -- how could the events of any one of them not have been impacted by the existence of the others in that same world? Then, toss in an ancient Norse god, and all bets are off.

They could try to explain away all those questions, but that would likely create a big hairy pile of boring exposition that wouldn't really satisfy me, but would also drain the fun out of the movie. Or they could just strap us into the roller coaster and hope to keep us moving so fast we never got around to caring, which is the better approach, but I suspect it's still going to keep the movies from being as fun -- particularly on repeat views -- as the ones we've already had.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Avengers movie is going to be great. But I think for me, at least, the best of the comic book movies have happened, and we're on the edge of a transition into a new era of comic book movies that will be flashier and full of more gee-whiz but ultimately less satisfying and less enduring.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

MAME status update

Progress report on Project MAME.
  • The controller pack has been ordered, no word yet on whether it's shipped (they probably have to build them since they're so customizable).
  • The computer itself is here and I've taken it through basic Windows setup, just enough to make sure it all works.
  • The wireless mini-keyboard is very cute and I suspect we'll be "borrowing" it to use with netbooks -- though that'll leave me one USB port short (the keyboard and mouse share one, and the controller will take three, but if I switch to a regular keyboard and mouse, I'm one short. Reviews said that hubs don't work well with this computer, but who knows if that's true when you're just using it for a mouse and keyboard?
  • It includes a mounting bracket to allow it to be affixed to the back of an HDTV, which is cool, but I won't be doing that. Instead, that mounting bracket will also be great for mounting it to the inside of the cabinet, up off the ground, in much the same location that the computer boards are usually mounted in original arcade games, as it happens.
  • The computer is absolutely quiet, and runs cool. It's ideal for this application. The Wifi seems to work fine too.
  • I haven't spent much time on it, but so far, the video quality's not too good. I can't get the built-in video to support the HD resolution that my monitor offers, which is odd -- the monitor supports all the 720 and 1080 resolutions, and the computer has an HDMI port as its default output, so it ought to be plug-and-go.
  • I haven't installed MAME on it yet, or really done anything but walk it through the twelve billion Windows updates, enough to be sure the computer itself is okay. (Don't want to leave it in a box for two months and then find something's wrong when it's too late to return it.)
  • I can't finalize the case plans until I have the controller, so for now, I'm just stuck waiting. I should have ordered that controller before going to the UK.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Screen and stage

Filmmaking evolved from live acting, so it has inherited a lot of methodology and mythology from that source. Over the years, cinematography, screenwriting, production, directing, and especially stunts and effects, have evolved away from those theatrical origins. There's no question that these arts in filmmaking are a distinct entity, certainly related to the theater yet distinct enough that no one would question that they are their own disciplines.

It seems to me that acting has not separated as much. Certainly, if you speak to actors, or those who teach acting, they'd be inclined to disagree by pointing up the many differences of technique they study for theater versus film. But I think these differences are treated far more like refinements of a common base of technique, like the differences between watercolors and oil -- or maybe more like the differences between watercolors and charcoal sketching, or watercolors and digital art. But not like the differences between watercolors and sculpture, or between watercolors and violin. But I suspect most actors who are studying acting techniques study a core set of techniques, probably for a fair amount of their education, before they even start to get into the differences in much detail.

Specifically, there's an assumption that anyone who can act in one format can probably work in the other. Certainly some actors prefer one or the other. And maybe some people are better at one than the other. Theater requires more skill at improvisation, and requires acting to be more holistic -- you have to be emoting, hitting your mark, remembering your next line, listening for your cue, dealing with props, etc. simultaneously and in real time, while in film you have some opportunities to split these things up and think about only some of them at a time. Film requires more of certain kinds of emoting and voice quality due to the close-ups and two-shots, more dynamic movement in some genres, more fluidity of dealing with a story out of sequence, and lots of adaptations to effects and cinematography considerations. But anyone who's good at one should be serviceable at the very least at the other.

Actors often assume that theater is the more unforgiving and thus more challenging. One usually assumes that a well-respected actor of the stage can do the screen with only a bit of retraining, but when an established screen actor (particularly those that seem to be getting by mostly on their looks!) tries at the stage, we wait and wonder: will they do okay (and thus prove they always had the acting chops all along) or bomb (and thus prove they were just coasting on how much "easier" film is)?

I wonder, though, if there are actors that have some genuine, powerful, rare talent for the kinds of acting you do on a screen but who suck on the stage for reasons that have nothing to do with a lack of talent, who are getting short shrift merely because of the historical legacy of acting coming from the stage. Acting is such a delicate art; no one really knows why it works when it does. How hard is it to imagine someone with an awe-inspiring talent who happens to also be very shy about people, so has their talent drain away on stage because of the proximity of the audience, not because of the more demanding timing of stage acting? Or someone whose finely detailed nuances of expression show up nicely on the two-shot but are completely lost from the third row?

What's worse is, are there people with that kind of talent, people who might be the best film actors in the world, who didn't make it that far because their initial exposure to acting usually comes from theater, or from an education that assumes learning stage acting is part and parcel of acting. Is it possible today to grow up and become an educated, trained, skilled actor without ever having to go through stage acting? And even if you did, would being terrible at the stage make you looked down on so much that an awesome talent on the screen would be overlooked?

My guess is that actors and non-actors would have opposite reactions to this post, and will chide me for being ignorant in opposite ways, and both of them would tend to assume their reaction is the only logical one to have.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Overall, I enjoyed Zombieland, but it felt like about a 45-minute movie padded out to two hours. They filled it out with long pauses, with set pieces that didn't always add anything, with uneven pacing, and with lots of gratuitous gore.

It's hard to be critical of the movie because it was very intentionally over the top in some things, winking at the audience, playing lots of meta-humor, and enthusiastically choosing not to take itself seriously. So any criticism risks the response, "but that was on purpose." When they went over the top on the gore, particularly in the first ten minutes, they went way over the top, pulled out all the stops, made it clear that they were doing it to make fun of the very premise of gore in this kind of movie. And yet it still went past funny into "okay, that's too much, now let's have something funny again" to me.

And that's how a lot of things in the movie felt. But there was still a lot of good stuff, enough to make it a worthwhile idle entertainment. The best parts were the characters and their interactions, and the main character's rules for survival (and how they kept coming back up). Those moments when they went over the top and spoofed themselves and did so in a brief form were also uniformly good, with some of them providing surprise laughs.

I don't know if they could have made it less uneven, given the premise, and the goal of appealing to an audience mostly made of people not much like me. I suspect that some of the over-the-top stuff would have been funnier to fans of the "serious" zombie genre (which I am not). But this wasn't just spoofing the genre (Shaun of the Dead already did that), it's more of a try at riffing on the spoof once the basic spoof has been done, and that's where some of the unevenness comes in, and that's why I don't think being a big zombie genre fan would have changed it nearly as much as you might think. I think it's just more whether you appreciate the "taking things too far" metahumor of taking a metajoke too far.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What if Jim Morrison had gotten help?

I recently watched the episode of American Masters that retold the story of the Doors, and once again I find myself thinking about those artists whose creativity seems to come from being broken. It's tempting to conclude that Jim Morrison couldn't've been all the things he was without also being on a path to destruction. Is that because his heedlessness of his impending doom was what gave him the freedom to make expressions he might not otherwise have been able to make? Was it because it was the very act of him plunging like a falling star towards an inevitable crash that made him so compelling? Or were his expressivity and his self-destruction separate effects of a common cause, whether that was an aspect of his personality, or the simple acts of indulgence?

This question came to me by a different method during the show, when it was mentioned that at one point, when things were getting bad but before they got irretrievably bad, that he went sober for a week, and his lifemate Pam urged him to get therapy, and he went to one session. I started getting all Harry Turtledove and wondered, what if he'd gotten help, and it had helped? What if he'd come out of it clean and sober?

It seems likely that in this scenario he'd probably still be alive today. (Perhaps Pam would be too.) Maybe there'd still be Doors concerts today. (Maybe he'd've dropped music and focused on his poetry, but it seems inevitable the pressure to do a reunion would eventually get to him.) But the big mystery is, could he have retained the spark that made his performances what they were? Would a clean and sober Mr. Mojo Risin' also be a boring, uninspired one? Would we be bemoaning the new Doors album the way we do so many artists that stay past their prime?

Or would Jim find some way to stay in touch with his poetry, or perhaps take it to a new level, in the post-destructive era of his life? Maybe they could keep the magic. After all, while we all recognize that Jim's spark and charisma were key to the band's appeal, one shouldn't dismiss the amount that the other band members brought to the party. Many of the songs we love were written by Jim, sure, but Robby wrote plenty of them, too. Maybe Robby could have kept things going long enough for Jim to find a new voice?

I think knowing the answer to this question would in turn shed some light on that facet of the creative process that seems correlated so highly with self-destructive tendencies. It's easy to be glib about it and brush it off with platitudes. ("The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long." Sure, but why? That's an analogy, not an explanation.) The correlation between creativity and madness, self-destruction, and being broken, doesn't even suggest which one is cause and which is effect (or if they're both effects of some common cause). If we can't even figure that out, we can't really ever understand this aspect of creativity.

(Of course, plenty of people would prefer that we never do understand creativity, but that's just the "merely" fallacy about which I've written before. Once again I'll let David Brin answer that concern: "The same folks who decry that the beauty of a rainbow is diminished if we penetrate its secrets to discover that it consists of ten trillion floating watery lenses, all brilliantly refracting, in perfect synchrony, rays from a stellar fusion pile, burning with ancient, furious constancy, millions of miles away." Or perhaps Catherine Faber: "The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand.")

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Watching a train wreck

Consider the TV show House. Unquestionably, House's private life is strewn with disasters in the offing, but there's never a sense that they're inevitable; one can also hope for positive outcomes and they do sometimes come. And not merely "just enough to temporarily stave off catastrophe", but genuine positive turns. In any case, the bad things in his private life are backdrop and backstory: they both demonstrate and explain the real star of the show, his irascible, curmudgeonly ways, his knack for saying what no one else can get away with saying. Plus the medical Sherlock Holmes story.

Contrast the show Nurse Jackie (which I don't watch, but I am often in the room while Siobhan watches it). The overall theme of that show is that a mostly-unlikeable (though with a few redeeming moments) character starts out on the path to imminent catastrophe, and just barely averts the worst happening. Over and over, though while still conveying a sense that it's always nearer than ever. And that's about all. She's as unlikeable as House in the sense that you wouldn't want to be her friend, but from a safe distance (the other side of a TV screen) House is likeable to watch, but not so Jackie. We're not watching her, we're watching the inevitable disaster looming towards her. That disaster is what the show is about.

I don't mean to pick on Nurse Jackie but just to use that show as a contrast to House (since they're both also medical shows). It seems as if this is the formula by which those TV shows that run on cable channels are made: unlikeable characters largely devoid of redeeming qualities, even the "always right" quality that almost justifies some of House's prickliness, with whom we sympathize only to the extent that we worry about the catastrophe they are hurtling (intentionally or not) towards. The United States of Tara is another good example: while that at least has another story (Tara figuring out why she is like she is), most of it seems to be watching the train almost go off the rails and wondering if they'll survive another day.

Even Dexter, which I do watch and enjoy a lot, uses this quite a great deal. Dexter is about a lot more than the imminent disaster that haunts him, but that is unquestionably a plot element that they play with, and have built whole seasons around. Though one big difference there: at the end of the season, when by some miraculous chain of events Dexter dodges the disaster, it's resolved. When Nurse Jackie avoids her life of lies falling to tatters today, the same threat hangs over her head tomorrow, and not even in a really new form.

Generally speaking, throwing your characters into peril and watching them narrowly escape is of course a part of almost all fiction, and has been around forever, and there's nothing wrong with it. What's key to this pattern is that that's pretty much all the show is about. It's that moment of falling off the cliff, barely catching yourself, and then a few seconds to set up the next fall, and repeat. The only reason you care about the character is that she's falling off the cliff and you would probably rather she didn't, but otherwise, you wouldn't give her a second thought; and if she did fall off, you'd figure she deserved it, too, so it wouldn't be too bad. It's like eating a big bowl of spices, without anything for them to be spicing.

Was there some greatly successful show that set the standard of watching characters plunge off the rails as a form of entertainment, explaining this trend?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Screening in the deck

I've written about the trouble I have with my dog digging up the ground next to the house and I think this problem's finally solved. Not by preventing the dog from digging; you can't really do that, save by taking away the opportunity by not leaving her outside alone, which is absurdly impractical. Some breeds of dog just need to dig, and I don't mind Socks making my lawn a bit of a warzone, as long as she's not hurting the deck or house doing it.

In the backyard, I dug up a trench alongside the house, about six inches square. Into this I put a piece of wire meld fencing, curved with the convex side facing up. I then filled the trench back in. That way, if she digs there, she hits the fencing very soon, but she's unlikely to dig in such a way as to hit the edge of the fencing. Since I did that, she's almost completely given up digging there, and the few times she has, she stopped immediately. She digs other places now. Mission accomplished.

The front yard wasn't quite as simple. First, the edge of the house is under the deck in a spot where there's mere inches of clearance, so digging there is impractical. Second, I also want to keep her from digging around the posts that hold up the deck. There's a third factor: her getting under the deck inevitably leads to her tangling herself up in her line. Here's how I solved all of these considerations:

Actually, I hired a neighbor to do the actual work of affixing the lattice pieces. He dug out a trench at the bottom of each one and attached a bit of the wire fencing to that edge, to prevent her from digging her way under the lattice.

I ended the lattice before the end of the deck because that's beyond where she can reach on her line, and that leaves the part of the deck that's highest up still available to me to use as shelter for things like the lawnmower (I've had to do this with a tarp to make room in the garage temporarily before).

While we were at it, I also put on a much stronger hoop to affix her line to. She'd been able to either pull out the eyebolts I'd been sinking into the wood, or bend them up, and either way, get free. So now I have a solid welded zinc ring, about three inches across and quite thick, affixed to a base of zinc held in with four wood-screws. If she manages to pull this out somehow, next we're going to hook her up to an SUV and see if she can win a tug of war.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cop Out

After watching The Book of Eli on the plane, I wanted something a little lighter. So I gave Cop Out a try. This isn't something that, based on the poor reviews, I would have watched under most circumstances. But I wasn't doing anything else on the plane, so why not?

The movie is a buddy cop comedy and it sets out to be today's answer to the comic cop movies of the 1980s -- they even got the composer who did the Beverly Hills Cop movies to do a similar score for this one. There's about a half hour of good material in this movie, which mostly comprises the times they are directly alluding to other movies and their themes; and then, there's another hour and a half of movie, which ultimately fails to be either a good cop movie or a good comedy, but instead lurches back and forth between these. I don't know if I could have captured the magic in a bottle that made Fletch and Beverly Hills Cop work -- especially without Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy to work with. I'm not sure what specifically made the balance of comedy and plot, and their interweaving, work, but then, I'm not a filmmaker. Kevin Smith thinks he could do it. Turns out he couldn't.

That said, as idle entertainment during a long flight, it's not bad. It had a few good moments and jokes scattered throughout it. Ana de la Reguera's performance was surprisingly amusing given that she got little to do and never got to speak English other than "hi" -- in part, her ferocity and conviction come across very well. Bruce Willis is coasting, but only because that's the right thing to do in this role. Tracy Morgan gets some of the best lines, but when they work, it's in spite of, not because of, his delivery -- he's perching midway between the Wayans Brothers and Eddie Murphy, and that's a bad midway point to stand at. And he's just not convincing as a seasoned cop, not at all.

Seann William Scott's character serves almost no purpose but to be annoying. They bring him in as a plot device, and then bury him after fifteen minutes of tedious stretching out of two jokes. Then when we've managed to forget about him, they dredge him back up for another ten minutes of reprising those same jokes. Turns out the second use of him as a plot device is ultimately futile: the reason they brought him out doesn't pan out, and the story advances as if he hadn't been there. Almost as if the filmmakers are pinning a light on this fact, the character gets removed in the most anticlimactic, facepalm-inspiring bit of nothing imaginable. Then they refuse to ever come back to the consequences of that moment. There's absolutely no reason not to edit him right out of the movie, except that it would come out a half hour too short that way. That's what too much of the movie is like.

In all, the movie's best laugh comes in the first ten minutes, and it's a breaking-the-fourth-wall moment that happens in the middle of a long string of deliberate quotes of other movies, buried in a meta-joke about the role of "homage" in movies. That long string of quotes itself goes on way too long and takes way too many turns into least-common-denominator-ville. Tracy Morgan really can't carry it off -- he takes the cheap path of gross exaggeration almost every chance he gets. It's a great laugh to play with Bruce Willis's character not recognizing a catchphrase from one of the best-known Bruce Willis franchises, but it's also the kind of cheap joke that earns the filmmakers no credit at all.

I also found the final scene a great letdown. What I suppose we were meant to see as a comeuppance for a pompous, pretentious character actually comes off as a compeletely unjustifiable and unfair dirty trick. Bruce's character agrees to do something -- he wasn't forced to at gunpoint, so he must have done so because he felt like he had to -- and then in the last moment someone else arranges that he simply gets to back out of that agreement. There's nothing in how it was done that actually changes anything about why he agreed, so it's just a roundabout way of having him refuse again. It is, both from the perspective of the characters and of the writers, a cop-out.

But I suppose that's okay, since the movie is named that. In fact, all the movie's shortcomings are cop-outs, but since the movie is named that, maybe we can forgive them all. Unless that, too, would be a cop-out. Maybe it is. And maybe we should forgive that one, too.

If you're ever trapped on a plane and there's nothing better than this, watch it. Otherwise, watch the first ten minutes, then go watch Beverly Hills Cop again. You'll enjoy it more, and even if you've seen it ten times, it'll still have more suspense.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Book of Eli

On the flight back from the UK, since the airline provided a number of free movies, I passed the time watching a couple, to save battery power in the Archos for the seven-hour layover. (Turns out Siobhan didn't use the Archos at all on the trip back, though.) The first one I watched was The Book of Eli.

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers, but most of what I'll say won't spoil plot elements, only things about the premise and very general stuff. (There'll be a bit at the end that discusses an unambiguously spoilerish revelation, though, but I'll warn you before that comes.) Still, if you are sure you want to see the movie it might be best to stop here, just to be absolutely careful.

Boy, was this a moody, atmospheric piece. In some ways, it reminded me of Children of Men: grim and dark, set in a sort of post-apocalyptic world, and using in some cases similar cinematographic techniques. There are even scenes which are directly reminiscent, such as a scene near the end with a wounded character paddling a tiny boat through a misty body of water towards presumed hope. There are thematic similarities, too; both stories tell of a journey undertaken by someone who is protecting a new hope from the world since lost that might be the world's restoration.

In a much more complete and overt way, though, this was a story about faith. As someone who does not have faith, and who considers Dan Barker's maxim a profound truth ("Faith is a cop-out. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits."), this could have been annoying. But it really wasn't. The film's creators probably intended the movie as a moving testament to the power of faith, intended to teach us all a lesson. Religious people watching it probably feel like it's going to help strengthen faith, and challenge those of us without it.

But it really doesn't. The movie is simply set in a world where that faith works: where there are, eventually, demonstrable results to having had it. It proves nothing more than me writing a story which starts out with one character saying "if you always wear a pink pixie pin, eventually a pink pixie will give you a grilled cheese sandwich," and being doubted by everyone around him, and at the end of the story, a pink pixie gives him a grilled cheese sandwich, thus proving him right. Sure: if he'd succumbed to doubt and taken off the pin, he wouldn't've gotten the sandwich. But all this tells you about is the state of mind in the imagination of the author. It's no great revelation that faith only lasts until it stops, and if it turns out to be, by coincidence, right, happening to stand by it turns out by coincidence to have been a good choice. But that's all it proves. I feel no more motivated to be religious after watching this than I was after watching Dogma, or than I felt like taking up the techniques of the Force after watching Star Wars. I don't live in the world of those movies.

Nor does that fact impede my ability to enjoy those movies. There weren't even many moments when The Book of Eli got preachy, either, despite the message throughout. It mostly stuck to the story which was full of interesting turns and explorations. It was slow, but not in a bad way. The long, lingering shots of clouds really seemed to contribute something for once; though they looked like someone being too artsy and pretentious, they were the exception that proves the rule, that sometimes that actually does something, that all those artsy pretentious people are at least trying to do something real (even if 99% of the time they fail to do so).

The action was surprisingly compelling even when it was over the top and even though there wasn't nearly as much of it as the trailers made it seem. The explorations of this post-apocalyptic world were even more interesting, and the movie avoided the pitfall of so many post-apocalypse movies, where the first half hour exploring how you survive in this world is the best part, and then the "actual story" that follows is a comparative let-down (I Am Legend was a particularly bad example there). Here, they were spread out through the whole movie, and the "actual story" was also interesting. About the only place where the movie fell into that pattern was in the end, when the "place of hope" I alluded to earlier was simply presented with little explanation -- but even there, the explanation wasn't particularly needed, and would likely have been a distraction from the point. We just don't really know much about the apocalypse, so it seemed a little convenient.

One odd thing that gradually emerged from the movie is how Denzel's character is supposed to be old. He's referred to at many points as "old man" by other characters, but I took it as just something about how people in that world call each other. It later comes out that the apocalypse is supposed to have been thirty years earlier, and he was, presumably, an adult at that time, so he's supposed to be at least fifty. But while Denzel himself is, in fact, in his 50s, he sure doesn't look it, and especially in this movie. He looks decidedly less grizzled or rumpled than many of the people calling him "old man". So while I can buy that he simply ages well (after all, if Denzel can, why not Eli? even if Denzel's got a better life than Eli, Eli has his advantages too), I can't buy that everyone around him recognizes him on sight as an "old man".

Denzel gets a lot of credit for being a great actor. Well deserved, I'm sure. This was not a movie to really show that off. His character is a great character, and in particular, he's got a level of confidence (without being swagger) that is breathtaking. Surrounded by gunmen, he is as matter-of-fact as can be that he'll be walking out as he declines the "invitation" he's being given at gunpoint, and then turns and walks away as casual as you like. You love the character, but really, Denzel isn't stretching here. There's nothing he could have done better; there's just not much that required an actor of his caliber.

There are not many laughs in this movie. And most of them that do come are so tiny that repeating them would make the movie sound awful. But in the middle of the mood they're occuring in, they are very impactful, eliciting those odd kinds of laughs that are as much out of relief as amusement, and that don't really break the feel of the scenes around them, just sharpen them through contrast. There are more than a few moments when it seems impossible for the story to continue, and then it does anyway, and (apart from the general tone of Eli being inexplicably bad-ass) few of these come off as contrived or unbelievable. And there are quite a few moments of potent emotion: fear, triumph, and bittersweet mixtures of these and other things.

The one big spoiler follows after the break. Stop now!

At the very end, it is "revealed" that Eli has been blind the entire movie. The IMDB trivia page claims that when you go back through the movie, there are clues throughout about this. It does answer one thing that I had earlier thought was a little filmmaking mistake -- the time he feigned having left his glasses inside to trap Solara, and was outside without them and with his eyes open.

But I wonder, if I go back and re-watch the whole movie, will I really buy that he was able to do everything he did? Even if you buy the myth that blind people develop superior hearing and other senses (they actually just get better at paying attention to them, but they gain no actual acuity), I have a hard time believing that I won't find moments where there's no way he could have known something he clearly knew. A few of these jump right out at me as possibilities already. Maybe if I watched it I'd be able to plug them all, but I doubt it. I think we'd have to conclude that the voice in his head -- presumably God -- was telling him things all along. In which case, him being blind really doesn't matter much, does it?

All in all, I felt that this revelation was a let-down. The whole point of it, apart from the artsy element of making him a "blind prophet" and thus following in the historical and mythological precedent of Tiresias and others, was that the book was in Braille all along, so Carnegie could never have used it. (And yet, one of his coterie was a blind woman who knew Braille -- or so I took it from the look on her face during the brief moment she touched the book. So it being in Braille isn't even why he couldn't read it; it was only because his injuries and losses by that point had undermined his power to force her to read it for him.) This would have been just as well served by having Eli being sighted and still able to read Braille. In a way, that would be cooler -- a "failsafe" to his protection of the book.

This is by no means a slight against the blind, or any other form of disability or handicap. It's just that, as a storytelling device, making him turn out to be blind but making this a surprise puts too much strain on the story. It's like the surprise at the end of The Sixth Sense done wrong. In The Sixth Sense, the moment you got it, you realized with a sudden rush that it was absolutely true, unquestionably, that it explained so many things, that it all fit. But at the moment of revelation in The Book of Eli, you just feel (or at least I just felt) dubious that it really works, that the movie would still make sense. While it might turn out that I could explain every scene if I rewatched it, there's no sense of the inevitability, no reaction of "of course he was blind, it all makes sense now" like that in The Sixth Sense.

Then again, maybe this is another point about faith. Maybe those with faith would feel like the revelation works perfectly and don't need to go back to rewatch the movie to verify that. Maybe only those of us who find doubt and proof more meaningful than "blind" (pun intended) faith are the only ones who'd find this a less than satisfying resolution. If so, did the moviemakers set out to undermine the movie's apparently-intended (but ultimately doomed) message about faith specifically amongst the people they most wanted to (but never could) reach with it?

I don't think I care nearly enough to go watch the movie's commentary tracks to see if they talk about this. I'm not even sure I care enough to rewatch the movie to see if the blindness thing works. I'm happy I watched it, but I don't know that watching it again would be worth the cost of whatever else I might have done with those two hours. Maybe I will, maybe I won't.