Mixed Messages, Sunday 10 January 2016

Since watching The Force Awakens at the end of last year, I have been interested in seeing Avatar again. In the years since its release, it seems to have slid out of the popular imagination. With that slide comes the question: was it really that good in the first place? So I watched it this evening for the first time since 2010, and yes, it really was that good. Even now, six years after its release, the visuals are still amazing. The Na’vi are still believable on screen as creatures of flesh and blood rather than mere animations. It remains a powerful story, with solid emotional impact.

As a science-fiction action flick, it has probably started to fade from memory because the world of Pandora hasn’t been revisited in franchise form every couple of years. Tentpole film-making is all about the franchise now. If an original film is any good at all, it gets a sequel. Therefore, if it didn’t get a sequel, how good could it have been? Well, Avatar 2 has long been in the works, and it looks like it will finally hit cinemas in 2017.

It also reminded me of the Imaginary Worlds podcast episode “First Contact”, which talks about how sf invasion stories draw from the historical experience of native peoples.

(Minor spoiler for The Force Awakens ahead.)

In the latest episode of CGP Grey and Brady Haran’s Hello Internet podcast, they spend two and a half hours talking about The Force Awakens. Starting at 2:30:32, Grey talks about his perspective on the scene where Rey goes squee over being on the ship that did the Kessel run in 14 parsecs. Although this is clearly intended as an in-joke, Grey was pained because it invalidates his interpretation of the scene early in A New Hope where Luke and Ben are negotiating terms with Han and Chewie. Grey always thought that Han was bullshitting them with the line about twelve parsecs. Han — a noted scoundrel — was trying to see if they were suckers enough to fall for the line, so he could hike up the price of their passage.

In the expanded universe books, the line is explained away by crediting Han with a brand new shortcut on the Kessel run, but I find the idea of him as a bullshitter far more compelling.

I sympathise with Grey’s feeling of disappointment when a sequel rules out a pet interpretation. At the end of the game Portal, I chose to interpret the song “Still Alive” as sincere. GLaDOS was genuinely happy at Chell having finally escaped. (She says it herself! “I’m not even angry; I’m being so sincere right now.”) This was what she had been working on for so long: to produce a clone who would make it all the way through her trials, thus proving herself strong enough to take on the horrors of the outside world. The lyrics and melody of the song are triumphant yet sad that Chell, for whom GLaDOS appears to care (in her own twisted way), finally has to depart. It’s a beautiful song that tells (in my mind) a very specific story, one that is completely ruined by Portal 2.

I’m not bitter, just disappointed. Still.

Back on the subject of Star Wars, I only recently came across Star Wars Ring Theory. This offers a mind-blowing re-evaluation of the three prequel films in the light of narrative ring composition (also known as chiastic structures). If this is genuinely how Lucas set out to make the films, it’s clear why he chose to write and direct all three of them himself: because he was the only one who could force through that particular vision. It’s also an excellent example that clever does not always mean good.

Via Kottke, This Man Ate Only Junk Food for 30 Days and Lost 11 Pounds:

I wolf down an early dinner of corn chips, Cheez-Its, beef jerky, and Fig Newtons before I head to a restaurant for a date. She orders the fish; I order whiskey.

“You’re not eating?” asks the waitress.

“I’m on a cleanse.”

“But you can drink whiskey?”

“It’s a new kind of cleanse.”

What Can A Technologist Do About Climate Change by Bret Victor is a deep dive into the biggest problem of our time:

This is aimed at people in the tech industry, and is more about what you can do with your career than at a hackathon. I’m not going to discuss policy and regulation, although they’re no less important than technological innovation. A good way to think about it, via Saul Griffith, is that it’s the role of technologists to create options for policy-makers

Your Two Jobs as a Manager by Elizabeth Spiers resonated with me, and I’m still chewing it over:

Nothing sets people up to fail faster than being unclear about what you expect them to achieve in their jobs. One of the mistakes that I see a lot of first-time managers make is failing to do this from the outset. They worry more about building up a good friendly rapport with the people they’re managing (which is not unimportant*) and many of them try a little too hard to be liked because they have some guilt about being the authority figure in the relationship, which is often a new experience for them. The downside of this is that if expectations are not articulated in the beginning, there’s a good chance that the employees flail because they are trying to please the boss and do the right thing, but don’t know what is actually required, or they lose respect for the manager because they assume the manager doesn’t actually know what their objectives should be.

This recipe for almond butter and quinoa blondies is a good basis for wheat/gluten free chocolate brownies, if you replace the quinoa with oatmeat flour and add sufficient quantities of cocoa. One could also make these with cannabis-infused butter, if one were so inclined.