Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed media, Sunday 9 August 2020

My last Mixed Media post was about five months ago; my last post at all here was on 28th March. I wrote the latter while procrastinating in the middle of the “48-hour online timed assessment” (don’t call it an “exam”) at the end of the Learning & Development module for the Org Psych course I’m following.

The course is a big time commitment. The university suggests that we should expect to spend around 15 hours per week on it during term time. This comes in the form of a weekly lecture, readings, and writing assignments for the online forums. My intention is always to spend use “evenings and weekends” for this, but reality is that I’m often too tired at the end of a full work day to hit the books after dinner. I find myself doing most of the work in the weekends, submitting my forum posts long after everyone else has chewed over the subject of the week, trying hard to contribute something new or useful. In terms 2 and 3 I experienced a pattern of feeling like I was constantly falling behind, and a huge amount of stress and anxiety before the assessment.

Is this fun? I’m not taking this course because I have to. I’m doing it because I’m interested in the subject, because I thought a deeper understanding of organizational psychology would help me be a better manager, and because it seemed like a bit of a challenge. There are many other things I could be doing with my time, such as, oh, not putting myself under that kind of pressure 30 weeks out of the year. I’m learning a lot, and I’m gaining a sense of achievement from doing this, but is it worth the cost?

The exam online timed assessment (there’s a rant in there, but I’ll save it for another time) for term 3 was about a month ago, so I’m in the middle of the summer break now until the start of October. It’s very relaxing! I can wake up at the weekend and spend a day doing absolutely nothing without a feeling of guilt that I should be reading and studying. (I still spend time doing nothing, or at least nothing “productive” during term time; it just leads to me feeling bad.) I tried to go easy on bingeing TV shows during term, and I deliberately held back on buying The Last of Us Part II until the assessment was over. If I wasn’t spending time studying, is that all I would do, though, read books, watch TV, play video games? (I could say that I’d spend the time getting back to practicing the bass, but let’s keep it real.) Would simply enjoying myself be a bad thing? Don’t answer that, I already know.

So I’m spending some time thinking about whether to continue the course after the summer. I don’t have to decide straight away, and because I’ve got 5 years in total to complete it, perhaps I just space out the modules a bit more, and do 2 per academic year instead of 3. Maybe future modules will be different?

Last term was a bit of a pressure cooker: the Selection & Assessment module covers subjects of fairness and biases in hiring practices, the role of “intelligence” (aka “general mental ability”), and the differences in average test scores between racial groups. In the light of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and elsewhere, I found myself getting genuinely angry at some of the research literature I encountered that didn’t address scientific racism, but instead took a hands-off “we’re just reporting the numbers, what you do with them is up to you” attitude. Many researchers do try hard to come up with methodological explanations for the means differences: the apparent numbers just can’t be right, so what’s causing them? But the journals of I/O psychology are not exactly a hotbed of social justice activism. This is frustrating because outside the field, there’s a much simpler answer: the prolonged effects of structural racism!

Also COVID-19 and lockdowns. That’s not making me feel happy and comfortable, either.

Hmm, I started this blog post with the intention of writing about media.

Films

Euskal kultura - News
  • 💩 Need for Speed: Too much nonsensical plot, not enough racing. Fast & furious, this isn’t. I watched it because I was looking for something mindless, and that’s what I got.
  • ⭐️ El Hoyo: Tight and tense sci-fi thriller about a prison? Rehab centre? Social experiment gone wrong?
  • Bloodshot: I’d been looking forward to seeing this in the cinema, but then lockdown hit. Fortunately, the studio released the film for download. It’s daft, but neat. Interesting for a film to offer a twist beginning rather than a twist ending. Don’t see it spawning a major franchise.
  • Rampage: Daft, but entertaining.
  • ⭐️ Booksmart: Yes, it’s good, with good gags, strong characters, and a nice pay-off; but I’d hoped for it to be a little less cringe-y.
  • ⭐️ Onward: Good Pixar, not great Pixar.
  • Code 8: I remember seeing the short film a few years ago; this is the full-length thing, a low-budget, low-key crime thriller in a world where some people have powers, but society has grown to shun and marginalize them. Engaging.
  • ⭐️ Jumanji – The Next Level: More fun than it has any right to be. It’s simple and silly, but the cast sell it really well.
  • 💩 Central Intelligence: I’d been going to say something about how I enjoy pretty much anything with Dwayne Johnson in it, but I’m putting that thought back on ice.
  • ⭐️ Colossal: The premise is weird, and for a while it looks like the characters will follow a certain kind of redemption arc, but it goes somewhere darker instead.
  • The Lovebirds: Throwaway romantic comedy. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
  • Brightburn: What if Superman origin story, but he turns out as a brutal psychopath instead? Jump scares and some slasher-ish horror, but it’s not much deeper than that.
  • Mute: Very pretty Blade Runner vibe to the production design, with a very earnest tragic romance driving the plot, but lacking in focus. I didn’t need to see so much of both sides of the curtain.
  • 💩 Bad Boys For Life: I got about five minutes into this and couldn’t watch any more. After the Black Lives Matter protests and the heightened awareness of police brutality in the US, the opening scenes felt laid bare as a classic building block of pro-police propaganda that I hadn’t critically examined before. See also Jordan Calhoun’s article “Saying Goodbye to Law & Order” in the Atlantic.
  • ⭐️ The Old Guard: Satisfying action thriller with a bunch of immortals trying to come to terms with who they’re fighting for, and why.

Books

  • ⭐️ Mick Herron – Joe Country:I’m still enjoying these Slough House spy stories.
  • ⭐️ Curtis C Chen – Kangaroo Too: Sequel to Waypoint Kangaroo. I don’t think he has written any more in the series, which is a terrible shame because I love the wise-cracking space opera spy with superpowers vibe here.
  • ⭐️ William Gibson – The Peripheral: I got a few chapters into this a couple of years ago and gave up because I couldn’t get a handle on it. This is a very dense book. The writing style is sparse, and there’s no surplus exposition. You have to build your picture of the world from the inside out. At times it feels like Gibson started with a 1200-page draft and then deleted every other word to bring it down to size. But I found it enormously rewarding once I got properly stuck into it, especially because the current pandemic makes it feel like we’re living out part of the Jackpot, a decades-long slow-motion global catastrophe.
  • ⭐️ William Gibson – Agency: I felt an ache when Gibson described the circumstances in the present-day “stub” world, where most of the action in Agency takes place: Trump didn’t win, and no Brexit. The world is in peril for different reasons, though, so still no party. The writing feels lighter and faster-paced, but maybe that’s because I’d already bootstrapped my understanding of the world from The Peripheral. The ending also felt a little too tidy and hopeful. You’d think I’d enjoy a bit of hopefulness? Given the backdrop of the Jackpot in the book, and the current situation of our world, it rang a bit hollow.
  • Warren Ellis & Jason Howard – Trees vol 3: So there’s the Warren Ellis thing. This struck me because it came hot on the heels of the allegations and accusations around Max Temkin. I had enjoyed the weekly podcast Do By Friday with Temkin, Merlin Mann, and Alex Cox for a couple of years, and had just recently backed his Magic Puzzles kickstarter. Picking up the first two volumes of Transmetropolitan, along with Matt Fraction, David Aja, & Javier Pulido’s Hawkeye: My Life As A Weapon at Dr. Comics & Mr Games in Oakland in the summer of 2013 feels like the start of my ongoing love of modern comics. I had consistently sought out Ellis’s other comics. I subscribed to his newsletter, and through it learned about many other artists and people of interest. I’m fully aware that any fondness I had for Ellis and Temkin was parasocial. But the fondness was there, and when it gets betrayed there are feelings. June 2020 was a pretty fucking intense month for feelings. Anyway – ignoring the author, Trees vol 3 is a minor addition to that canon: a claustrophobic murder mystery/ghost story that doesn’t contribute to the global events the first volumes showed. I’d be surprised if we ever see any more.
  • 💩 Stuart MacBride – All That’s Dead: Filler material in the Logan McRae series. Gratuitously gruesome. No character evolution. Skip it.
  • Max Brooks – Devolution: Remote Washington residential community for clueless rich people gets attacked by Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) when Mt Rainier erupts and cuts them off from the rest of the world. Much more easily filmable than World War Z, but much less interesting as a result.

Episodic Video (“TV”)

  • ⭐️ The Witcher season 1: Highly entertaining fantasy. Neither Tolkienesque nor GoT-ish grimdark. Looking forward to more of this.
  • ⭐️ Tiger King: So much has been written about this already. It’s compelling viewing, each episode filled with more WTF than the next. One of the wildest things was how the film-makers got footage of the whole story as events unfolded over several years. The result is far more reality show than an investigative documentary.
  • ⭐️ Better Call Saul season 5: Beautiful, meticulously constructed, and continues to generate empathy for characters, good and bad, whose destiny is already written. Except for Kim: she’s never mentioned at all in Breaking Bad, yet she’s grown to be one of the biggest elements of the show, and is thus the biggest mystery. I’m looking forward to and dreading the final season.
  • ⭐️ Agents of SHIELD season 6: Took a very different direction than the out-in-space season 5. Still great. Annoying that season 7 isn’t up on Disney+.
  • Halt and Catch Fire season 1: It’s a wonderful production, full of intricate historical verisimilitude. You can watch it as a computer expert and not strain your eyes from rolling them. At the same time, the characters are horrible people, I don’t like them, and if I keep watching the following seasons sooner or later one of them is going to kill someone, possibly accidentally, but definitely with a lot of secrecy, guilt and remorse, and I’ll like them even less. I don’t think I’m up for that.
  • Community seasons 3, 4, 5: Funny, yes, but there’s a certain cruelty that always seems very close to the surface, and shows its face often enough for it to make me uncomfortable.
  • Runaways season 2: Entertaining enough. Annoying that season 3 isn’t up on Disney+.
  • ⭐️ Dead to Me seasons 1 & 2: Brilliant dark comedy drama.
  • ⭐️ ⭐️ Chernobyl: 😳 Utterly astonishing. As a teen in the Netherlands at the time of the events of 1986, I remember only the general shape of news events, and a heightened sense of alarm about radiation. In the years since, the disaster has been sanded down by history, and rendered abstract by factual articles and encyclopedia entries. This 5-episode mini-series brings out the full horror or the catastrophe, and shows how close we came to it being unimaginably worse. The image of a shaft of blue light, caused by Cherenkov radiation, spearing up up into the sky from the exposed core is something that will stay with me.
  • 💩 Space Force season 1: I couldn’t watch more than the first two episodes. First of all it’s just not very funny. Secondly, I have no appetite for gentle satire of government and administrative incompetence when genuine malfeasance is rampant and needs to be attacked, not made light of.
  • ⭐️ Dark seasons 2 & 3: I appreciate a show that actually brings things to an end. And for a show all about free will versus determinism, and the ambiguity of “good” and “bad” within the context of a time loop (the characters spend much of their time apologizing to younger versions of themselves or their family members about horrible things that are about to happen, or staring at things in regret), the ending was surprisingly tidy. It made me wonder a lot about how the writers had planned from the start, and how much they tweaked on the fly between seasons. Dark is a deliberately slow burn, but even at that careful pace, it’s one of the densest, twistiest time travel stories I’ve ever seen.

Games

I finished Desert Golfing. I’d seen a video of someone finishing the game at around 24,000 holes, but that was from some time ago. Originally the game was “unending”, but had some impossible holes in it. In an update a couple of years ago the creator put a 10,000 limit in place for new games, or 10,000 more than wherever you were at the time of the update – hence why some people have so many holes.

I’ve picked up Golf on Mars, the follow-up, but the physics are a bit different, and hard to get used to after so much of the original. It also has 25,770,000,000 holes, which is effectively infinite. This somehow makes it feel less challenging and more pointless? Not that there was much point in finishing Desert Golfing, but it always felt like there was an end I was striving for – some kind of achievement. Without such a goal, and no high-score to beat, I’ve quickly lost interest.

Post Mortem Review - The Last of Us Part II - Modern Gamer

I’ve also finished The Last of Us Part II. Fiona and I played it together: me on the controls, and Fiona providing snark about how bad I am at killing zombles. After the end credits rolled, the game presented a screen asking us if we wanted to start a New Game + session to level up the characters even further and pick up all the collectibles we’d missed. We were both very much NOPE NOT GOING BACK THERE THANK YOU.

It’s an amazing game in many ways: the graphics, environment, and art are stunning; the post-apocalyptic world is richly portrayed; the character models are shockingly emotive; the voice acting is unparalleled; the gameplay is fluid, with well-balanced difficulty that can nonetheless be adjusted on-the-fly so that you don’t get stuck and get bored.

But it’s also continuously, intimately violent far beyond my comfort level. The absence of choice in all of the actually meaningful encounters makes a mockery of your ability to sneak past enemies instead of shooting or stabbing them along the way. This is very much not an open-world game, or a role-playing game where you can steer your character’s personality. It forces you to become attached to a sympathetic character, and then forces you to watch her (to be her) as she then consistently makes the worst possible choices. It’s maddening, bordering on sickening. Maddy Myers describes it very well in her review at Polygon. Art doesn’t have a responsibility to make us feel happy or comfortable. I’m glad that I’m done with the game; I’m not sure if I’m glad I played it.

Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed media, Saturday 1 February 2020

Fuck Brexit!

The words Europe and Scotland linked by a heart, projected onto the side of the European Commission HQ
Europe ❤️ Scotland

Town in Netherlands replaces Union Jack with Saltire in EU flag line-up

I haven’t quite figured out how to make a European Flag tattoo design that works for me yet.

Fuck Brexit!

Knives Out movie poster

Films:

  • El Camino (Breaking Bad movie) A good chaser after having finished watching all of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
  • ⭐️ Knives Out I’m a fan of Rian Johnson’s, and I’d been looking forward to this for ages. Watched it at the cinema with Abi and Fiona on my birthday, after rushing down a pineapple and jalopeño pizza (yes) at the Domino’s around the corner to catch the movie start time. Excellent film, absolutely loved it.
  • The Irishman Boring. The facial digital de-aging was good, possibly the best we’ve seen to date, but they forgot to de-age the actors’ gaits. In scenes where he’s supposed to be playing a man in his 40s, De Niro still walks and moves like a man in his 70s. Also, did I mention the film’s boring? Because it’s boring.
  • Rise of Skywalker Yes, it’s stupid and full of plot holes, but I liked it. Kinda glad that the cycle is done now, though.
  • ⭐️ Warcraft You know what? Not at all bad. It’s not Moon or Source Code, but it’s not a turkey. It’s not subtle, it’s not groundbreaking, but it’s sincere in putting on an entertaining and exciting big-budget fantasy spectacle that isn’t set in Middle Earth. I enjoyed it.
  • Roman J Israel Esq Knowing nothing about this film other than having watched the trailer clip showing a single scene of dialogue between Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell, this went in a completely different direction than I’d expected. Thoughtful, uncomfortable, pretty good.
  • 💩💩 6 Underground I tried watching this, but I couldn’t. A billionaire faking his own death so he can mete out vigilante justice with no regard for collateral damage is…troublesome at best, the I found the opening car chase scene so abhorrent that I deleted the download from my phone so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try returning to it. (Yes, Bruce Wayne/Batman, yes, Tony Stark/Iron Man. I know.)
  • Frozen 2 Good. Kristoff’s “Lost in the woods” eighties music video parody is hilarious.
  • My name is Dolemite Excellent. Funny and moving story of a comedian trying to make it big, and do it his way.
  • Song of the Sea Beautiful film, gorgeous animation.
  • Jojo Rabbit Brilliant. I found the start uncomfortable, with how much it leaned in to painting the nazis in a normal and humorous light, but it turned into something altogether sharper, more subtle, and more emotional.

TV

  • Rick and Morty season 4 (or at least the first half of it) – still funny.
  • Watchmen Excellent, intense, twisty & turny, although the use of kinetic weapons in the final episode felt inconsistent in its execution.
  • The Good Place season 4 Wow. Hard to keep up the level of comedy and still bring that to a satisfying ending, but they really did it.
  • October Faction season 1 I won’t be surprised if Netflix doesn’t renew this for a second season, and I won’t be super disappointed, either, because they brought this first story arc to a pretty solid conclusion. It’s relatively low budget, relatively low key and downbeat, definitely not the flashiest or best piece of TV out there. But what can I say? I enjoyed the family story, and felt a strong connection with the two parents, struggling to deal with two teens who themselves are trying to figure out their own identity in a new and difficult situation.
Slow Horses by Mick Herron book cover

Books

  • ⭐ The first 5 books of the Jackson Lamb series by Mick Herron: Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, Spook Street, and London Rules. Loved these. I came across them via Warren Ellis. Serious spy stories, with elements of Archer-like inappropriate humour that creep in around the edges. Looking forward to the next one.
  • 😐 Measure What Matters by John Doerr. He never comes out and explicitly says there is a causal link between the use of OKRs and corporate success (maybe his editor balked), but he sure as heck implies it at every opportunity. Now, I like OKRs, but I also like supporting evidence. This book is a selection of the most successful case studies from his personal acquaintance. Pretty! But completely lacking in balance, or in guidance for anything but the happiest of paths.

Music

  • Manic by Halsey is amazing. Varied and richly textured. And I can actuall play the bass part for “Finally // beautiful stranger” because it’s super easy (E-D-C-A) and at a tempo I can still handle. ❤️
  • The track “Alanis’ Interlude” on Manic features…Alanis Morissette, who I haven’t listened to for ages. As in, I hadn’t heard Flavors of Entanglement from 2008 or havoc and bright lights from 2012 at all. But now I have! I prefer the latter.

Update: I’d forgotten that in the time period for this mixed mediastravaganza I also had a subscription to Amazon Prime. This was accidental. I generally avoid Amazon (I disapprove strongly of their labour practices), but when I do use them, I always avoid signing up for their offers of Amazon Prime. But this time they caught me with one of their dark patterns. Something like a “no, I don’t want to not take advantage of opting out of this free offer” checkbox that I misinterpreted.

Anyway, so there I was with an Amazon Prime subscription, and Season 4 of ⭐ The Expanse just having been released as an Amazon exclusive, so I stuck around for that. And season 1 of ⭐ Fleabag. But not season 2, because despite season 2 being “Available on Amazon Prime Video” this apparently doesn’t mean it’s, you know, available on Amazon Prime Video in the way media are available on other video subscription services. Of course not, what was I thinking.

So anyway, that subscription is gone now.

And then there’s Disney+, on which we’ve watched season 1 of The Mandalorian. Mixed opinion. On the one hand Baby Yoda, on the other hand droid slavery and mass murder. So.

And as I was looking back over this media collection, I thought it was looking a bit light for a three month gap since the previous one…and then I remembered that ⭐ Spider-Man on PS4 kinda took over my life for while there. Time well spent.

Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed media, 11 August 2019

TV

  • ⭐⭐ Bron | Broen (The Bridge): One of the best detective thrillers I’ve seen. The plotting is exquisite: over the course of each season the show follows a ton of characters that don’t seem significant at first, but are later revealed to be part of the puzzle, like keys for a sequence of interconnected locks. The crimes and the perpetrators are extreme and byzantine, but the police investigating them are grounded and vulnerable a way that British and American TV police often aren’t. (They’re also not buff and beautiful. They feel like real humans.) Sofia Helin is brilliant as protagonist Saga Norén. There’s a scene early in season 4 where she’s shown getting dressed in her iconic leather trousers, zip-up sweater and overcoat, and driving off in her classic Porsche 911. It was like watching a superhero do their first “suit up” scene in a Marvel movie. It also made me want to watch more European detective shows.
  • Jessica Jones season 3: Good. Sad we won’t be seeing more.
  • Stranger Things season 3: Hmm. In the episode “Bouncing Back From Rejection” of his WorkLife podcast, Adam Grant interviews M. Night Shyamalan about his successes and failures. Shyamalan talks about how he likes shifting genres during a film, and how he has learned that it’s better to shift from a genre of lower emotional intensity to one of higher intensity. (Like going from a family drama to a supernatural horror in The 6th Sense.) You have to raise the stakes. This season of Stranger Things didn’t do that. We’ve got supernatural comedy/horror all the way through, but it went from dread in the first four episodes to caper in the final four. My expectations weren’t fulfilled.
  • ⭐ 💩True Detective seasons 1 and 2: Season 1: brilliant. Season 2: exactly as bad as season 1 was good. Like Star Wars prequels vs. original trilogy bad. Could the characters be any more stereotyped? Could their dialogue have been any more awkward and implausible? Was George Lucas called in as a script doctor? So much mis-casting, so much faux noir.
  • 💩💩 Another Life season 1: Cool-looking trailer, but the first episode is utter garbage. Hot, sweaty garbage. Angry “give me that hour of my life back, you bastards” garbage. Offspring of Interstellar and Arrival, stabbed in the back, and corpse left in a Dumpster to rot for three weeks in the middle of a post-apocalyptic heatwave garbage.

Books:

  • The Mighty Thor vol 1: Thunder In Her Veins, by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, et al.: Excellent
  • The Mighty Thor vol 2: Lords of Midgard, by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, et al.: Also excellent

Films:

  • MIB International: It’s fine. Not great, but not as bad as some critics made out.
  • Rim of the World: War of The Worlds meets summer camp.
  • See You Yesterday: Starts as a lightweight kids-do-time-travel-for-science-fair, but takes a tragic and impactful turn to explore the impact of gun violence and biased policing.
  • Lego Movie 2: Fun
  • Glass: Brilliant first two acts, but stalls for the climax. Tries to open up an expanded universe; fails.
  • Prospect: Low budget science fiction drama about a girl and her prospector father looking for the one dig that will allow them to pay off their debts. It all goes wrong, and she has to team up with one of the bandits who ambushes them to fight for survival. Terrific script, fantastic drama.
  • Spider-Man Far From Home: Very cool, very fun.
  • Happy Death Day 2 U: Fun sequel! Heavier on the zany, lighter on the slasher thriller tension, and with some surprisingly deft emotional touches sprinkled throughout.
  • Fast and Furious presents: Hobbs and Shaw: Can you make a good blockbuster action movie based just on the ridiculous charisma of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, and the (played for laughs) over-the-top hyper-masculine chemistry between them? Yes. Yes, you can.

Podcasts:

  • ⭐⭐ Against the Rules by Michael Lewis: Michael Lewis is my favourite author of non-fiction. This podcast, about “the decline of the human referee in American life and what that’s doing to our idea of fairness” is just as entertaining and insightful as his books. He’s talking not just about sports referees, but “referees” in every sense of the word: regulators, judges, arbitrators – supposedly neutral parties of every kind. It’s a fascinating blend of psychology, politics, and justice both legal and social. Highly recommended.

Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed Media, Sunday 10 February 2019

Films:

High Flying Bird movie poster
  • High Flying Bird: Soderbergh at his best, with a powerful script about race, wealth, sport and passion. Compelling and subtle.
  • How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World: lovely cap on the trilogy. The bad guy was kinda meh, and the comedy more subdued, but it makes up for it with gorgeous animation and a sweet, emotionally resonant story.
  • Thoroughbreds: Deadpan murder girls. Not a comedy, more of a Hitchcockian tension-building thriller. Anyone with a teenage daughter should be suitably wary.

Books:

  • ⭐⭐ Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker: potentially life-changing, as previously mentioned
  • 💩 Gathering Prey by John Sandford: dull. The last 200 pages are essentially a single shootout scene. The “Prey” books are at their best when protagonist Lucas Davenport is investigating and executing political manoeuvres. This has practically nothing of either. The only redeeming factor is that Davenport’s daughter Letty gets some good protagonist time. She needs her own spin-off series.
  • All-new Inhumans vol 1 (Global Outreach) and vol2 (Skyspears) by James Asmus, Charles Soule, André Araujo, et al: lovely art, but the characters failed to ignite my attention.

“TV”:

  • The Blacklist seasons 2,3,4,5: I kinda went on a binge during January, and finished the remaining seasons I could hoover up from Netflix. Feels like that was almost the only thing I did in my spare time in January. I continued to enjoy it, apart from the first part of season 5, in which they briefly tried to turn it into a weird buddy comedy heist show. There are some shockingly good episodes of TV in here, though, with “Requiem” in season 4 as my standout favourite (the one where we see how Mr. Kaplan became Mr. Kaplan.) They wrapped up a lot of plot threads at the end of season 5. Although there was a notional “cliffhanger” ending in which the next volume of secrets was teased, I’d be okay if I didn’t see any more. The show takes a lot of moral liberties for the sake of story, and the compromises the characters make don’t land with enough impact.
  • The Punisher season 2: follows the standard Netflix Marvel show template. Sincerely made but unremarkable. It may be superfluous to say that it’s “very violent”, but, well. I keep thinking I don’t need more shows like this in my life, and then I keep watching them.
  • The Good Place season 3: continues to be adorable, fast-paced, witty, and continues to drive the premise further and further.
  • Russian Doll: This is straight up amazing. Takes the time loop of Groundhog Day and twists it. You may think you know where this is going to go, but you’re wrong. (Or are you?) Hilariously funny — I laughed out loud while watching this through headphones and my iPhone on an airplane, with a stranger sitting next to me — and moving. Natasha Lyonne is a cranky whirlwind, and a sheer joy.

Podcasting:

  • The Dream season 1 was a fascinating deep dive into multi-level marketing, and the people who take part in it.
  • The most recent episode of Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring, The Grifter has some nice parallels with Jason Scott’s recent instalment about Robert Hoquim. In it he refers to an old (2015) episode of Reply All, The Man In The FBI Hat. These three episodes make for a fascinating look at con artists, and why they make for such engaging stories.
Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed Media, Sunday 29 July 2018

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:

TV:

  • 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.

Films:

  • 💩 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.

Books:

  • 🤔 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!

Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed media, Saturday 23 June 2018

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.

Movies:

Ingrid Goes West movie poster

  • 🤔 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!

TV:

Poster for Crazyhead TV show

  • 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.

Books:

Book cover of the Wild Storm volume 2

  • 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.

    Contrasting images of the Engineer character from 1999 and the same character from 2018

  • 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.

Cover image for the ZigZag podcast