Yeah, so I’m a bit late with this one. We were staying with Abi’s parents, and this was the last night of our visit. I only vaguely remember the gig, but the Fillmore itself is a bit more vivid. Lots of posters, which may have been influencing my office decor choices in recent years. I also remember walking quite a ways up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets to get to the venue; I think we got off the bus a bit too early.
Something’s Always Wrong
Is It For Me
Before You Were Born
Come Back Down
Whatever I Fear
All I Want
Walk On The Ocean
Support came from Hey Marseilles. I remember enjoying them on stage, but not quite being able to get into their album To Travels and Trunks when I bought it later.
On his podcasts, CGP Grey sometimes talks about how he occasionally takes a “greycation.” This is a kind of working holiday where he books himself a hotel room in a different city, and shuts himself away for a few days without distractions, enjoying the comforts of a nice room to think and write without having to deal with the responsibilities and pressures of everyday life.
I feel like I’m doing something like that right now. I was due to fly back from Edinburgh on Friday evening, but my flight was cancelled. Easyjet couldn’t get me on another flight back to Amsterdam until Monday, because it’s peak holiday season and everything is busy. But Friday was my last day at work for a while (more on that some other time). Alex and Fiona are on holiday as well, and Abi said it was okay for me to stay away for another few days. So I took advantage of Easyjet’s customer care and let them put me up in some nice hotels around Edinburgh for the weekend. On Friday night they had me at Macdonald Houston House in Uphall, and yesterday and tonight I have been at the Marriott Courtyard on the Heriot-Watt campus. The package was for dinner + bed and breakfast, so I’ve basically been enjoying a fully catered weekend break.
It’s nice. I haven’t been exerting myself. I’m not taking this as a city break where I feel obliged to go out and see things. Yesterday afternoon I walked to the Odeon cinema in Wester Hailes to see a film. This morning after breakfast I took a stroll around the campus, and stopped for a while at the loch and watched a jackdaw with an injured foot hop around. Its balance was remarkable. Occasionally it would right itself with itself with an outstretched wing. I took a few minutes of video. I spent some time watching bees shopping for pollen on lavender stalks. The campus was very quiet, even for a Sunday in the middle of the summer. I followed the sounds and echoes of some mechanical tones to the sports fields where a football training camp was working out to the orders of a computer controlled loudspeaker. Almost back at the hotel, a trio of chattering magpies chased each other around a tree and in and out of a bush. I’ve read some. I’ve watched some TV. I’ve napped.
There’s a desk here in my room with a seat that isn’t uncomfortable. I could do work here. I could write. If I had been paying for this room and this time with my own money, I think I would feel pressure to do more, to make sure the time was well spent, whatever that means. (Productivity, what a terrifying word.) If I’d been in a different city, I would have felt pressure to go out and see it. If I’d been staying with friends or family, I would have had to talk and be sociable. Instead, the fact that this weekend is free has opened my eyes to the liberating possibilities of a getaway like this. I could do this again. I would do this again. I’d pay for this experience of not having to have an experience. It’s curious, and serendipitous that this is happening right now, at the start of a work break whose purpose is precisely to not do things. Micro and macro.
Anyway, here’s briefly some stuff I’ve been watching and reading:
Colony season 1: tense, subtle alien invasion/resistance thriller series. I enjoyed this.
Westworld season 2: slower and more meandering than the first season. The parallel timelines felt like a tradition that had to be respected rather than an innovation this time round. It could have used to be a few episodes shorter. But I appreciated how they took the mystery a level deeper by introducing the idea that the whole thing might not just be artificial, but a complete simulation instead. I’ll watch season 3.
Luke Cage season 2: slow moving. It continues Marvel TV’s streak of well-defined villains, with Alfre Woodard and Mustafa Shakir being given every opportunity to chew scenery as Mariah Dillard and Bushmaster. They do it so well!
Elementary season 4 (⭐) and 5: John Noble as Sherlock’s father in season 4 brings sinister gravitas, and a illuminates the troubled father-son relationship. The Shinwell/gang warfare story arc that covered season 5 didn’t really do it for me, though. The show is at its best when it takes snippets of contemporary science and culture, and weaves them into a clever plot that satisfies one’s desire for justice, while also commenting on social justice.
💩 The Maze Runner: The Death Cure: Yawn. Far too long (2h20m) for what it delivers, which isn’t much. Gratuitous character deaths designed to be dramatic didn’t feel emotionally involving at all.
⭐ Game Night: Delightful, well-constructed comedy thriller.
⭐ Mission Impossible: Fallout: Action thrillers don’t come better than this. The stunts and set pieces are so well done. Sean Harris as Solomon Lane is the best villain this series has had.
🤔 The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu: The Three Body Problem was intriguing enough to make me want to read more. Just as that first book, The Dark Forest is in the mould of “classic” SF, with lots of bold ideas but characters somewhat lacking in depth and humanity. I kept reading because I wanted to find out what came next for the world, not for what came next for the characters. The part where Luo Ji asks Shi to go off and find him a real-world equivalent of the ideal woman he has imagined for him is creepy as fuck, but it is portrayed as somehow familial and sweet. I don’t have enough background context on Chinese culture, the attitudes of contemporary Chinese SF, and on the author himself to know what this signifies. I don’t know how troubled I should be.
🤔 Death’s End by Cixin Liu: At least in the finale of the trilogy the main character is a woman, and Cheng Xin is the best written and most convincing character of the whole series. This time, I would have continued reading to find out what happens to her, although she does function a lot of the time as just the set of eyes through which we view the entire future of humanity. Again, the ideas are huge and universe-spanning: very classic science fiction. And again they lack a certain post-new-wave cultural flavour that we take for granted in western SF. (In the case of this book, the complete lack of any kind of nod towards nonbinary relationships even in a future where men and women are explicitly shown as very fluid in their appearance.) All of this just makes me more curious about what’s going on in Cixin Liu’s head, and in Chinese SF in general.
⭐ The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: much more of a thriller than I had expected. Fantastically plotted, and rich with imagination and depth of emotion.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 8: My Best Friend’s Squirrel by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi: The Silver Surfer arc is fun, but the ⭐ gem in this volume is the one-issue story #31 where Doreen and Nancy get shunted into hypertime. This is Erica Henderson’s farewell to the comic, and to a character she has come to define with her bold artwork. It’s a brilliant and emotional goodbye.
Music: my buddy Stuart at work introduced me to And So I Watch You From Afar. They’re playing at Summerhall in Edinburgh on August 8th, but I won’t be around. I hear they’re great live. Maybe some other time!
I re-read Film Crit Hulk’s essay “THE IMPORTANCE OF DRAMATIZING CHARACTER” a couple of weeks ago. The ALL CAPS conceit (which he has since dropped) is distracting, but it gets to the heart of why so many blockbuster movies lack heart, and what they can do about it.
🤔 Ingrid Goes West: The humour is not cringe-worthy (mostly), but it is often deliberately awkward as the film follows the attempts of the psychologically disturbed Ingrid to be liked by a popular influencer she idolizes. It leads to an inevitable descent into some pretty dark territory, and I didn’t see the ending coming. I watched this with Fiona, and we both went “Ehhhhhh…that sends a really bad message.” But in retrospect: does it, though? Should we take the ending on face value, or are the filmmakers delivering another critique of our society’s messed-up attitudes towards mental health and social media?
The Guards Themselves I applaud low-budget indie amateur filmmaking. It’s rough and inconsistent, but they look like they had fun, and I’m sure it was a great learning experience. I wish I had the time and energy to do something like this.
⭐ The Post: Anything Watergate-ish is going to resonate right now. I also find it a fun exercise to watch an apparently down-to-earth drama and guess how much CGI goes into scenes depicting everyday life just a few decades in the past.
⭐ Deadpool 2: Enjoyed it a lot.
😕 Molly’s Game: I have mixed feelings about Aaron Sorkin. On the one hand, he writes some amazing snappy dialogue. On the other hand, that same dialogue can be glib and patronizing, and I dislike his glorification of a certain kind of manipulative smartness. In this film, I was totally captivated by Jessica Chastain’s performance as Molly Bloom. Molly is a smart underdog who builds up a poker business with nothing but her own ingenuity and persistence. But when she falls afoul of both organized crime and the law, she faces an upward struggle to prove her integrity and reclaim her freedom. (Idris Elba has a good turn as her lawyer.) But Molly’s story is completely undermined in the last ten minutes by Sorkin giving her father (who is aggressively absent for most of the film) a completely unearned character redemption where get gets to play the wise old man who knows her so much better than she knows herself, and tries to make her understand his shitty treatment of her since she was five. It is some epic patriarchal bullshit.
Unlocked is a spy action thriller I must have watched because it’s here in my notes.
Solo: Fun heist movie, if you don’t think too hard about the plot holes! (Like: why did they have to blow the bridge? Decoupling the cargo carriage would have allowed them to lift it away with less risk of blowing up an entire mountain. Unless…the whole point was to blow up the mountain in a spectacular escape sequence!) Also if you don’t think too hard about slavery and droid rights, and the horrific fate of L3-37. (Star Wars has always had a race problem.) Also if you are willing to overlook the weird non-sequitur appearance of Darth Maul to gloss over the cracks in Qi’ra’s motivation. But still: fun!
⭐ Crazyhead Weird, irreverent, violent, and occasionally shocking supernatural comedy horror drama? Hard to describe. A bit like a more grown-up Buffy but with more swearing and consequences. Also very funny.
💩 Arrow Season 6: I’m done with this show. The “heroes” are sociopaths with delusions of grandeur, and on their personal journeys they destroy everything and corrupt everyone they come in contact with. And then try to justify their actions, and lie about how it will never happen again. This is a dark, dark show with a black hole for a heart.
⭐ Collateral Intense police drama, dealing with the hot current topics of immigration and terrorism. Comes down firmly on the side of humans.
Games: The only new thing I have played recently is Pocket Run Pool by Zach Gage. It has short simple games, perfect for filling a few minutes here and there.
⭐ Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley: I really his first book, The Rook, and this is an excellent follow-up. Stiletto takes place in the same world, just shortly after the events of the first book, but with a very different set of characters and a totally new perspective on the war between the Checquy and the Grafters.
A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride: I found this hard to get into, because I find the fictional Scottish city of Oldcastle such an unnecessary contrivance. Also, MacBride has habit of writing very abrasive characters, and the opening chapters of this book are a relentless cascade of people being horrible to each other and shouting a lot. That said, they did grow on me. As he gradually peels back their layers, they turn into distinct and rounded personalities. The gruesome plot is as full of tricks and misdirection as a close-up magician’s card act.
⭐ The Wild Storm vol 2 by Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt continues in magnificent fashion. World-spanning plots treated in a subdued and serious manner with an ever-growing roster of weird and flawed characters.
The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch from 1999-2000 is the book that the new Wild Storm is based on. The new Wild Storm takes classic characters (Jenny Sparks, Engineer, etc) and spins them in a modern, mature way. Reading these books back-to-back shows me just how enormous a leap mainstream superhero comics have taken in the last twenty years. I’m thinking of books like Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on Hawkeye, Chelsea Cain’s Mockingbird, Tom King’s Vision and many others. There is so much room within mainstream titles these days for subtlety and rich thematic explorations. By contrast, The Authority is all about escalating conflicts, ever-larger scenes of global destruction, and punching more and bigger baddies. Although the artwork is gorgeously crisp, dynamic, full of detail and exquisitely coloured, the character Engineer (Angela Spica) is drawn in a hyper-sexualized manner, and is basically perpetually naked apart from a skin-tight layer of mirrored metallic armour. I probably would have appreciated it at the time, but in 2018 it feels juvenile and embarrassing. I don’t mind sex in my comics (see: Sex Criminals, Saga, et al.) But like it when my superheroes wear clothes, not capes, and when they are more likely to explore their relationships with words than their fists.
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod. I was on the fence about the first book, but the second one in this series left me cold. The characters all blurred together, and I felt insufficiently brain-powered to understand the distinctions in their ideologies. It lacked conflict I cared about.
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Fun popular science history, concentrating on the people who discovered the elements of the periodic table, and how they put them to use.
🤔 The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu). This book had multiple science fictional layers for me: one of them obviously being the sf story that the author was trying to tell, while the other came from the glimpse I got into Chinese culture from the way the book was written, and its present-day and historical settings in China. It relies on a lot of tropes and archetypes from (modern) Chinese history that will be as familiar to Chinese readers as the D-Day landings or a Victorian country house setting are to a western audience. But they’re new and unfamiliar to me. Also, one of the main characters (Wang) has a wife and a son that he interacts with in one tense chapter, and then forgets about completely for the rest of the book. Even when he is trying to save the world, they literally never even cross his thoughts. Is that normal behaviour for a character in Chinese literature, or is it just as baffling to readers in Beijing as it is to me? I don’t know. The story, despite mixing in modern physics and a healthy dose of virtual reality, feels like a throwback to classic western science fiction of the 50s and 60s. (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity springs to mind.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m planning to read at least the next one in the trilogy. But I didn’t find this first volume as ground-breaking and Hugo-worthy as many of its fans.
Music: I’ve been stuck on Kimbra’s Primal Heart for most of the last month, with occasional forays into Rival Consoles and 65daysofstatic. I’ve been trying to get into Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, but it just isn’t clicking, and what I really want to do is put on The Electric Lady or The Archandroid instead. I’m sure I’ll crack it sooner or later.
Podcasts/audio: Mythos was a neat three-part BBC supernatural investigation radio drama, but it’s not available online anymore. Yay BBC! I’m also starting to spread my net for more podcasts to make sure I don’t run out of listening material on my long walks. Two new discoveries for me are Matt Haughey’s Hobby Horse (interviews) and the Undiscovered Podcast (science) by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. New Radiotopia show ZigZag (tech/business) by Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant has got off to a good start as well, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept from economics called stock and flow recently. Robin Sloan wrote a piece about it a few years ago:
Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.
Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
Flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but I think we neglect stock at our peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: oh man. I’ve got nothing here.
(I came across this when Merlin Mann got on the topic of why (and whether) kids these days obsess over small things (like backpacks, or pens) much more than people of his (and my) generation do, in episode 78 of Reconcilable Differences. He carried the discussion over into the next episode of the Do By Friday podcast where he talked about it with his much younger co-hosts Alex Cox and Max Temkin.)
The stock and flow concept pops up in all kinds of contexts. The one that struck me recently was personal reputation: to what extent it’s bankable, and how it evaporates over time.