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2016-12-10 10:34 am

Fermi Paradox addendum

A couple things I missed in the previous post. cut for nerdiness )
So, it seems likely that quite a few of those million or so lifebearing planets in the galaxy will have not just life, but multicellular life on them, assuming they have been around about as long as Earth, which needed about 4 billion years to build up enough atmospheric oxygen to support large, complex creatures.
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2016-10-22 10:33 am

Noodling about sapience and the Fermi paradox

It's a great pity that most SF geeks and space nerds are far more interested in physics, chemistry, and engineering than in biology or evolution. The Fermi Paradox keeps popping up on the blogs I follow, and every time I shake my head at the colossal ignorance of people's assumptions about how likely it is for a life-bearing exoplanet to evolve sapience.

The Fermi paradox observes that there's a high probability of life beyond the Earth in the galaxy, and then asks, "why aren't we seeing any evidence of alien civilizations?" exoplanet digression )

If we ignore the vast number of unknown factors that might keep an earthlike world from acquiring a diverse and full ecosystem like our own, and just focus on the (probably) thousands of worlds that have evolved complex life forms, we get to the real issue that I wanted to talk about -- Fermi, and many other extremely intelligent and educated people, have all jumped straight over the evolution of sapience, taking it as an inevitable given, without really thinking about it properly.

Elephants mourn their dead. Humpback whales have incredibly complex songs that we are only now learning how to hear and analyze, and they exhibit altruism, thwarting the preying of their orca relatives against seals and other species.

Clearly elephants and whales are among the most intelligent species on the planet. Yet both have been decimated by human predation. They have been unable to act in a coordinated manner in response to our wholesale murder of their kind, either to flee and avoid us or to defend themselves. If sapience is something that just evolves gradually and inevitably over time, then we'd see more evidence of beings other than us that can organize and coordinate their behaviour, especially in response to threats.

Instead, there's a quantum leap in mentation between other smart creatures and us. And when we see a quantum leap in evolution, we are seeing the result of a genetic bottleneck, a period of (relatively) rapid change in response to dire selective pressure. 99% of species die out rather than make it past the bottleneck.

A definition, cribbed and grossly simplified from The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon: sapience is the ability to think symbolically, to use abstract language (human language being a quantum leap towards greater complexity and versatility compared to all the animal languages we have studied). Everything else we label as human (tool making, tech, behavior, culture, society) grows out of the ability to think and communicate in an abstract, complex manner. Deacon's book makes a very persuasive case that a quantum jump in language and symbolic thinking came first.

Postponing consideration of Deacon's argument as to how and why our ancestors underwent a radical change in how they communicated, consider some alternative scenarios for evolutionary history on earth: smart whales, smart elephants, and smart pandas )

The speculative ETs in the Fermi Paradox are ETs that can either travel between the stars or send signals between the stars for us to hear. They can't just be smart, they have to be tool using, civilization-building creatures. They have to either possess a wanderlust that sends them into space and across interstellar distances, or a philosophical bent that causes them to want to speak to their fellow sapients elsewhere in the galaxy.

So from the thousands of worlds in this galaxy plausibly possessed of complex multicellular life, we have to narrow it down to however many worlds harbour life that made it through the quantum leap bottleneck to achieve sapience, and then narrow it again to however many of those sapient species happen to also benefit from being land dwellers, being possessed of dextrous paws or tentacles or whatever capable of making tools, and being possessed of a mindset that causes them to do something (say, build giant radio transmitters in orbit and start broadcasting a "we are here" signal to the cosmos) that could potentially be seen by us. Looking at the variety of creatures on earth, and how few of them are possessed of the ability to build tools even if they had the brains to do so, it seems safe to assume that less than one in a thousand sapient species in the cosmos are going to be civilized.

And how likely is it that the ones that are capable of civilization will be interested in the same philosophical questions as us, interested enough to make the effort to be noticed by the rest of the cosmos? So my answer to the Fermi Paradox is that even if sapience is a common evolutionary choice, it's entirely possible and even likely that we are either the only or one of the only civilizations in our own galaxy. No wonder we aren't finding any ETs out there.

Next time, hopefully soon, I'll talk more about The Symbolic Species and how likely it was for us to get past that evolutionary bottleneck.
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2016-07-07 06:32 pm

Feminist Anime: Read or Die/ROD

Casting around for something to watch that wasn't all boys all the time, I googled for lists of feminist anime a while back, and this was one of the recommended series. As a book person, the title jumped out at me. Having finally had a chance to check it out, I can now say that it's mostly quite good.

"Read or Die" started out as a series of pulp novels, then became a manga series, with a second spin off "Read or Dream" manga series set in the same universe, and finally got made into a direct to video miniseries, followed by a 26 episode TV series. The novels have never been translated into English, and I have not read the manga. But I have now watched both the miniseries and the TV series. Knowledge of the manga or novels is not necessary to enjoy either anime, but the extensive print based backstory appears in small unexplained details and lends the anime series a lot more texture and depth than it would have if it was a totally original creation. Also refreshingly, nobody brings the story to a halt to explain what is going on, yet at the same time, it's perfectly possible to figure out everything you need to know (Hollywood scriptwriters could learn a lot from this series).

Set in an alternate universe in which rare old books containing esoteric knowledge are the key to global power politics, Read or Die follows the adventures of the agents of the Special Operations Division of the British Library as they guard the UK against biblio-based threats. Like Mission Impossible meets the Avengers, as imagined by bibliophiles, with James Bond movie style villians.

The miniseries, mostly spoiler free )

The TV series is in some ways superior to the miniseries. There's less fanservice (a few moments every few episodes instead of every episode), the characterizations are sharper, and 26 episodes gives room for a bigger, more varied story. again, not many spoilers )

All in all, It's a very nice melding of sisterhood and girl power with high stakes spy action. I'm very glad to have watched both series, and I might even try to read the manga someday.
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2015-04-11 09:03 pm

Khadak (2006) - Mongilian magical realism

A very good movie that didn't get the respect it deserved, probably because most reviewers were too bound by realism and materialism to understand it.

In Communist Mongolia in (judging by the cars) the 1950's or early 60's, Bagi lives in a yurt with his mother and grandfather, herding sheep. He has very keen hearing, which lets him find lost members of his flock. We are also told he has inherited a spiritual destiny from his ancestors. One winter day, while attempting to locate a lost sheep, Bagi's soul becomes detached from his body. His body lies convulsing in the snow on a treeless steppe next to the lost sheep and his faithful horse, while his spirit wanders lost in a snowy steppe that has trees in it. spoilers abound )

And here is where almost all the reviews I looked at lost any ability to understand the movie, and instead declared it "muddled" (NYT) and nonsensical (SFgate). They bought the doctor's diagnosis, and, having adopted a "rational" explanation for what is going on, were utterly unable to understand the mystical goings on in the final third of the movie, in which Baghi's visions mix and mingle with the "real world."

Baghi realizes that the plague was a lie and their animals are still alive somewhere. He learns where they are stored. Somehow that knowledge moves from the spirit world to the real world, and Zolzaya leads a raid to liberate the animals. Then the real world begins to operate by spirit world logic, so Zolzaya and her compatriots can paralyze the guards with the reflections from broken bits of mirror, and as the animals leave the warehouse where they were being held, sacred blue scarves rain from the sky so that the raiders can tie the scarves around the necks of their freed animals.

I know I missed a great deal of import in this film due to not being familiar with the culture. The complete and blessed lack of any exposition at all (minutes pass with hardly any dialogue whatsoever, this is a film of few words) obviously left most reviewers confused and drifting, but it left me deeply engaged and working hard to sort out what was going on. I see I haven't talked at all about the most significant character in the film, the magnificent, awe-inspiring, and eerie landscape of the Mongolian steppes in winter (the entire film happens in the dead of winter), and the haunting soundtrack that accompanies it.

All in all, a stunningly beautiful, thought provoking film whose ending manages to be both downbeat and upbeat at the same time, highly recommended.
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2014-06-22 02:53 pm

Dear Ebook publishers

The author's name is not (to pick an example from today's solstice shopping) Tarr, Judith. That's how you sort the author's name, but, you see, there actually is (honest!) a separate field for determining how you sort the author's name. No, really, it exists and everything. So there is no need to sell me a book which thinks it is by "Tarr, Judith" or "Delany, Samuel R."

Oh, and, as an extra free tip, may I remind you that typically the first letter of the author's names are capitalized, but not any other letters in their names? So it should be (again, real example from today's shopping) Gayle Rubin, not "GayLe Rubin."

Get your act together guys. This sort of BS would be unacceptable on the cover of a print book, so why do you keep doing it on the (electronic metadata) covers of your ebooks? Ebooks have been a thing for over half a decade now. It doesn't do you any favours when your merchandise has as many typos and errors in the bibliographic data as the dodgy crap available on pirate sites.
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2014-05-05 07:42 pm

Cosmos (Sagan) vs Cosmos (Tyson)

After watching the first couple episodes of the new Cosmos, I decided to check out the original and compare them. Sagan's Cosmos )

The new Cosmos, in contrast, is a lot more polished and slick... and a lot more cringe-inducing. Tyson vs Sagan )
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2014-04-30 11:17 am

Migrating Eudora data from Windows to Mac

Putting this here because there is no longer a Eudora forum, the Eudora mailing list has no archive, and posting to usenet involves too much fuckery to be worth my while (given that I do not wish to submit my private organs to the Google ovipositor) nerd alert )

Of course Eudora no longer works on OS X 10.7 and later. But you can install 10.6 in VirtualBox, then install Eudora in that. Which is a bit of a kludge for daily use, but might come in handy for archival purposes, or if you discover that you need to run Eudora Mailbox Cleaner (another 10.6-only program) to migrate your data to a new email app without stupid errors.

Protip: Buying a 10.6 disk directly from Apple is usually cheaper than trying to score one on Ebay. I don't know why, except that all pricing of Mac items on Ebay is insane.
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2013-12-26 09:06 pm

Tree Carnage and continuing power silliness

Our power returned around 6am on Monday, after being off for 18 hours. Later on Monday, again on Tuesday, and twice again today, it cut off again for ten minutes or so. We are very much not amused by this demonstration of Why You Should Not Have An Above Ground Electrical Grid.

Since Sunday was cancelled due to a lack of electricity, and Monday did not get underway until after dark due to us both sleeping in after the stupidity of Sunday, I found myself doing a pre-holiday grocery run on Christmas Eve.

The one downside to our house's location is that there's no nearby supermarket. I don't particularly like walking along the main road (too noisy), so I tend to walk the side streets. My typical grocery run takes me through the "originally middle class but now upscale" neighbourhood to the east of us on the way to the health food store, and then north and west from there through an "originally upscale and now even more upscale" neighbourhood on the way to the small supermarket serving a dozen or so apartment towers a bit north of the subway station. Both neighbourhoods have plentiful front yard trees, ranging in size from small ornamental species to full grown maples.

So, I got to see a lot of tree carnage. I didn't see any large trees that had actually been felled, although one big tall old (maple?) tree that (IIRC) did not look in the best of health last summer, had lost essentially all of its leaf bearing minor branches, and all that was left were the trunk and primary branches naked against the sky. Most of the time the damage was more minor, but it was rare to see a tree that hadn't lost at least one branch, and in some of the more densely treed side streets the roads were completely lined with piles of fallen branches (which had presumably been in the road before someone moved them out of the way).

Darwinism in action: There are three or four paper birches along my route. Every single one was bent down under the weight of ice to little more than half its normal height... but none of them had any broken branches. The difference between being adapted for height and being adapted for resilience.

Christmas Eve was sunny but bitterly cold (more than 10 below freezing with wind chill on top). Now I've gone out in the aftermath of ice storms before, but usually when the ice is starting to soften and melt. This time, nothing had melted, and the cold had turned all that ice into hard brittle crystal.

So at one point in the "now even more upscale" neighbourhood. there was a fully treed block with no activity and no nearby cars. The wind picked up a bit, and I heard something I don't remember ever hearing before. The sound of thousands of brittle ice-covered tree branches clacking against each other and creaking and cracking as they bent in the breeze. It was beautiful, and unnerving. I was sorry I didn't have time to go find a bit of forested park where I could listen to it better... but at the same time I was very glad I was not in a forest with no place to be that was not under those branches.

By this time my fingers were turning blue inside my gloves and I was questioning whether we really needed the cheese and wishing I had not gone out, or at least had not decided to got to two stores. And then I turned a corner, and saw the (ridiculously early) sunset, pink and orange sky and a golden halo of fire fringing every branch of every tree. And I stopped grumping about the weather and decided it was a good thing I had gone out after all.
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2013-12-22 09:56 pm

Ice storm

The ice is half an inch thick on the trees. It looks like both the old cedars in the corner of our backyard are bent and broken halfway up. The radio says there's 300,000 people in Toronto without electricity. Our power went off for an hour yesterday evening, then came back. Today it went off again in the early afternoon and has been off now for 8 hours and counting. The radio says power could be out for days, since this isn't a single point of failure but rather thousands of individual fallen trees and downed lines creating a huge patchwork of little blackouts.

So, it's a bit weird. Some streets are fully lit, others totally dark, others lit here and not there. Outside our front door, all the houses are lit, but since we're on the corner, we, along with everyone else on the side street, are without power. Since Morgan's mobility is so severely restricted, we can't really go to one of the city's warming centres, and as it became clear this evening that this could last for days, we started to get very worried.

Fortunately, we thought of asking our neighbours, who do have power, if they would let us borrow some of their electricity. After a bit of mutual incomprehension (they're Italian and have extremely limited english, and I have zero Italian), they called their son, and I explained our request to him, who explained it to them, and they said yes. Such wonderful kind people cannot be thanked enough.

So, currently we have our hundred foot weed wacker power cord plugged into an outlet in their laundry room, strung out their basement window, around to our backdoor and in under the door. We have a little space heater striving to keep the temperature tolerable, a couple of lamps plugged in so we're not totally in the dark, our iPad chargers, and of course, the modem and router. When necessary, I turn off the space heater and plug in the microwave.

Naturally it took an hour online with tech support to get the Internet working again, but (knock wood) it looks like we may be able to survive now without having to call 911 and ask them to find a way to transport Morgan somewhere warm.

Next up, deciding how much of the food in the fridge needs to go on the back porch.
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2013-12-09 06:23 pm


Not doing too well at this blogging thing, am I? Life continues to suck with the power of a galaxy-sized black hole, leaving little energy for engagement with the internets.

Department of, "someone did not give much thought to their layout":
The large supermarkets nearest our home all have significant Kosher sections. On my last visit to one of them, I realized that the cooler devoted to kosher meat was sandwiched between the cooler devoted to hams, and the cooler devoted to bacon and sausage.

Department of, "clueless white people":
Jim Hines snarks about conrunners who don't understand the need for diversity. Which made me think there really should be a shorthand label for a group that has too many white people in it (like "sausage fest" for groups that are too male). The one I came up with was "Wonderbread Party".

Department of, "awesome TV shows we've discovered recently":
Recently finished watching "Dancing on the Edge," a BBC miniseries starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as the leader of a jazz band in 1930's London. A very good period drama that on the one hand follows the rise of jazz from something black people listened to, to the cool new thing that all the important upper class white people were mad for... and on the other hand is a profound examination of racism and white privilege. Must-see.

Department of, "unlivable houses of the rich and upscale" (an ongoing series)*:
The most recent open house I visited was yet another bungalow torn down and replaced with a Mcmansion. The ground floor, as usual, was one huge "open concept" room (with not one, but two fireplaces), although the sales brochure described it as consisting of a living room, dining room, and kitchen. Upstairs, instead of the usual 3 bedrooms, we had 4 bedrooms, all of them smaller than the bedrooms in our modest downscale bungalow. The bathrooms (ensuite in the largest bedroom plus another) were also quite small. After looking in every door I finally figured out why everything was so cramped: they'd shrunk things down in order to make room for a massive, long and narrow, windowless walk in closet that ran the length of the second floor, and reminded me of a rather dark bowling alley. I guess the developer's vision of the potential buyer was a clothes horse with lots of kids. Asking price: 1.4 million.

*Background: our neighbourhood is not upscale, with rather narrow lots, many bungalows and duplexes, and most houses minimally altered from their original circa 1940's construction. The lot sizes and house types weren't originally all that different between our neighbourhood and the one to the east of us, which is much closer to the subway/freeway terminus. However, in recent years, the area to the east has undergone gentrification, with equivalent houses selling for three times as much. Most of the bungalows over there have been torn down and replaced with Mcmansions, and at any one time there's six or ten homes being gutted and redone to be much bigger (second floor additions, backyard additions, etc). When I have the time, I visit open houses over there just to see how the 1% like to live.
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2013-02-07 06:46 pm

It just (doesn't) work

When you make a backup of your Idevice, Apple, in its wisdom, does not consider your POP email account to be worth backing up (because what are you doing still having a POP account, you retro loser? that is SO last century! Just give all your private information to Google the way God intended!). If you are ever in a situation of doing a restore from backup, you will find that poof, all email stored on your device is gone forever. Lovely.

Another thing that's not included when you tell Itunes to make a backup of your Ithing -- your apps. One would think that a "backup" would be, you know, a full backup, but no. To back up your apps, you counter-intuitively have to tell it to "transfer purchases" (said option being hidden behind a right-click on the name of the Igadget). And then, after restoring from backup, in order to actually have your apps on there with the data that you restored from backup, you must go to the "apps" pane of Itunes' list of things you can do with the plugged in Iwidget, and individually tell it to "install" each app that you wish to have on the device. What fun!

(eta, forgot to mention that) What this bifurcated and broken backup system means, of course, is that if your app does not store its data in exactly the apple-blessed manner, then there is no way to do a backup of that apps data. Stanza appears to store its books in the blessed manner (but the app is abandoned and only half-functional under IOS 6); Shubook does not(1). Poof, all those books you uploaded? gone. After all, like your emails, they must not have been very important, right? Fortunately we store our ebooks on Dropbox, so no great harm done. Still, backup is supposed to save all your data, or so I was told.

(1) We shall not speak of Ibooks and the myriad other ebook (cr)apps that were obviously never designed to be used with a library of more than a hundred or so books.
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2013-02-07 03:35 pm

hot and sour noodle soup of the gods

At least, [personal profile] morgan_dhu tells me it's of the gods. Since chili peppers and vinegar both make me sick, I can't attest to that myself. It's designed to be made in large batches and stored in the fridge to be eaten over several days.

There are two steps to this soup. First make the hot and sour broth (I usually make 4 or 5 litres at a time), then use that broth to cook the noodles in and add whatever else you're in the mood for.

NB: if you just use generic chicken broth, you'll have soup with tons of added salt. Even if you like salt and aren't on a low-sodium diet, try to get "no salt added" broth or bouillon. There's plenty of salt in the soy sauce, and you don't want salt to overwhelm all the other flavours.

The Broth:

1 litre chicken broth (or bouillon from cubes). If using cubes, use an extra cube above what the box calls for per litre of water.
125 ml red wine vinegar
10-15 ml soy sauce
10 ml pureed garlic
15 ml chili powder
15 ml ground black pepper
2.5 ml chili oil
2.5 ml sesame oil

Add everything except the vinegar to the broth, bring to a boil. Stir a bit and turn down to a simmer. After a few minutes, stir in the vinegar, turn off the heat, and allow to cool.

Once you can do so without burning yourself, strain the broth though a coffee filter to remove the gritty bits of all those spices -- use a reusable filter so you can agitate the liquid that will stubbornly sit in the filter and refuse to strain through. I have a filter that fits nicely in a funnel so I can filter the broth directly into bottles for storage. Put the broth in the fridge until you're ready to make soup.

The Soup:

1 batch of hot & sour broth (as above)
100g dry noodles
125 ml peas
1/2 cooked chicken breast, diced
15 ml pureed garlic (you can never have too much garlic)
1 green onion (thin sliced)
5-10 diced mushrooms

Put the broth in a saucepan and add everything else. I generally add the mushrooms last and just keep putting in more mushrooms until the saucepan is full, hence the vague quantity. Bring to a boil, then simmer covered 5 minutes, and put aside to cool and allow the noodles to finish softening before putting the finished soup in the fridge. This makes a thick stew-like soup with very little free broth. If you want a more soupy soup, cut back on the noodles.

If you prefer a tofu-based soup instead of noodle based, then replace noodles with tofu, add 20 ml of cornstarch (dissolved in 30 ml of water, then stirred into the broth), and stir in 1 beaten egg at the last minute before turning off the heat.
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2013-01-13 03:50 pm

How to discover Heinlein (and how not to)

Writing this so I can point to it in the future.

After reading for the nth time someone saying they once tried reading (insert title of mid-late Heinlein novel here) and ran away screaming, I thought I'd write up a little primer on how to discover if Heinlein wrote anything you might want to read.

Because if you pick up a highly recommended and easy to find Heinlein novel, chances are you're going to find yourself reading something written by a half-senile right-wingnut elitist libertarian nudist with an incest fetish who regularly interrupts his story to lecture you at length on his really quite peculiar ideas about sex and the virtues of polyamorous marriages. Chances are you're going put the book down and make a mental note that one should avoid Heinlein at all costs.

Which is just fine, except that not all Heinlein is like that. Early in his career, he was a left-wing socialist. Later on, he wrote a lot of books for boys that attempted to preach racial equality and tolerance. Then around 1959, he suddenly turned into an angry old man who wrote books full of ranting and lectures to the reader about politics and sex. Even then, he still managed to write some good books that weren't too annoyingly in-your-face with his politics and fetishes.

So, the question for Heinlein is not so much "what should I read first" as "what should I avoid as my first exposure to this person?" The problem is that as he got older, he got less and less able to keep his fetishes and quirks under control, and tended to let it all hang out. Which, given that he was a devoted nudist, is definitely not what you want to be exposed to when trying to get to know someone.

The last place to start with Heinlein are the brick sized novels he wrote in his dotage (after 1970). Not only are they long rambling books full of lectures about sex and group marriage and how people on welfare are parasites, but they tend not to work all that well as novels either. Some of them are fun if flawed, but you don't want to read one to find out if you're going to enjoy "books by Heinlein" or not.

The novels he wrote between 1959 and 1970 tend to be much better plotted, but they're just as full of angry lectures about sex and politics, so, likewise, not for a first go. Which means just about all of the award-winning and famous novels Heinlein wrote are not good places to start.

The place to start is with his early work. Not only are the books much shorter (so you'll be wasting less of your time if they're not for you) but they're also less angry and politically seem to come from an entirely different galaxy than the later works.

There are a few exceptions -- "Sixth Column" is a nasty example of "yellow peril" racism which he wrote on spec based on an outline by John W Campbell. The racist views in it are Campbell's, and it's best avoided. "The Puppet Masters" is a horror novel and a specimen of Cold War paranoia, kind of dated. The love interest for the hero in "The Door into Summer" is a young girl to whom he is a father figure of sorts (time travel lets him still be young when she finally gets old enough to marry), so, squick.

But in general, if you want to find out why it is that Heinlein became famous in SF before he was adopted as a patron saint of libertarians, if you want to find out why he remains so influential in the field of SF that numerous left-wing, non-libertarian authors, from Varley to Stross and Doctorow write homages and pastiches of his work, then the place to start is, first, with the short stories and novels that he wrote for magazine publication in the 30's and 40's, and second, with the novels that he wrote in the 50's (most but not all of which were written for teenage boys). Then, and only then, if you like what you've read so far, would I recommend picking up some of his famous work from the 60's (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, and Glory Road, but not Podykane of Mars or Farnham's Freehold). His later brick-sized novels are best left till last (Time Enough For Love and Friday are the stand-outs there).
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2012-12-19 11:16 pm

For the upcoming Mayan nopocalypse...

What movies should one watch the night before? (We are of course speaking of end-of-the-world movies here)

[personal profile] morgan_dhu favours "The Day After Tomorrow" due to the sweet, rich schadenfreude of the ending in which the surviving Americans are reduced to refugees begging for aid from Mexico.

I'm thinking more of a popcorn-and-caviar combo like "2012" (of course) followed by either "Last Night" or "On The Beach."
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2012-03-03 11:15 am

Government PR and American anti-government stupidity

I came across this article (on a Washington Post blog) about how most Americans who benefit from government programs don't think they receive anything from the government.

The article talks about how this is because many government programs for median and higher income people are disguised as tax breaks or things that "just happen," so you can receive your social security or Medicare or home mortgage tax credit without ever thinking about where it comes from, in contrast to the programs for the poor, where you have to jump through hoops and fill out forms and grovel to get a grudging handout. Hence the 60 percent of home mortgage holders who don't think they're getting a government handout, as well as the 40-45 percent of retirees who seem to think that Medicare and Social Security are not government programs.

But that explanation doesn't exactly explain how 25 percent of those living in public housing or receiving food stamps could claim to not be getting anything from the federal government.

What the article leaves out, I think, is that the US government never does any PR for itself.

In Canada, if something is paid for by the government, then you can be damn sure that somewhere on the billboard or subway poster or letter in the mail telling you about it, there will be a little "government of Canada" logo that lets you know that this thing, whatever it is, was made possible, at least in part, by the Canadian federal government.

Things that in the US are labeled as being from/provided by/paid for by HUD or FDA or some other government agency are, more often than not, up here labeled as being from "The Government of Canada." And when things are labeled as being from a specific government department up here (for instance, public health ads from Health Canada), the logo used by the agency on the letter or ad will have a similar iconography and font as the Government of Canada logo, emphasising that all these various things (Health Canada, Revenue Canada, etc) are part of the Government of Canada. Contrast this to the plethora of departmental logos and seals used by various US government agencies on their announcements, which don't have very much in common with each other.

So in short, when a level of government up here spends money, it lets its citizens know about it, and it does so most often as a monolithic entity -- "Paid for by the Government of Canada" rather than as one of many sub parts -- "Paid for by HUD" or "Paid for by the CDC."

Explaining all the reasons why the US government is reluctant to let its citizens know when something is happening due to government money could take up a book, but it boils down, probably, to the long history of anti-government sentiment down there, and to two impulses arising from that long history -- fear on the part of liberals that if the government lets people know it's doing something, they will get mad and demand that the government stop that immediately, and desire on the part of conservatives to make the government as hated and feared as possible so they can continue to strangle it for the short term benefit of the rich and corporations without anyone objecting.

[ETA] TL,DR version: In Canada, the federal government is a brand, and the government spends time and advertising dollars making sure that people are aware of that brand and what it does. In the US, the exact opposite is the case.
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2011-04-11 09:40 am

Film review: Jodhaa Akbar

If you watch only one Bollywood movie this year, you probably want to watch this one. By the same director as Lagaan, it's a historical epic about the political marriage between Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (Akbar the Great) and Hira Kunwari aka Harkha Bai (often known in modern times as Jodha Bai).

Akbar was the 16th century Mughal emperor who united, through a combination of conquest and diplomacy, all of Northern and Central India. The Mughals were Muslim, but Akbar maintained a policy of religious toleration and married a number of Hindu princesses in order to consolidate his rule. Jodha (she had 3 or 4 different names during her life and came to be called Jodha long after her death when a historian confused her with another of Akbar's wives, but let's keep things simple), was one of the first of these princesses and mother of his heir.

On the one hand, the film tells a dramatized version of the life of Akbar. On the other hand, it turns to legends of Jodha's life (because nothing about her life before her marriage appears to be known and very little afterward) and tells that. Nobody knows what they thought of each other in history, but in the film, they marry as a matter of politics, but then gradually fall in love. This is a Bollywood film, so it's 3 and a half hours long, and includes elaborate song and dance numbers. There's the mandatory misunderstanding leading to a temporary estrangement, the mandatory stepbrother of Akbar who seeks to userp him, and the mandatory brother of Jodha who allies with the stepbrother because he mistakenly believes Jodha is not happy in her marriage.

But this is very high-end, very Westernized Bollywood - the production quality is superb, the plot makes logical sense, the actors are very talented, the script is excellent, and the songs are integrated very logically into the whole instead of bolted on afterward.

Reasons you want to see this, in no particular order:
-Hrithik Roshan (Akbar) has a lot of presence, and an amazingly intense gaze. If you like men, he's very swoon-worthy.
-Aishwarya Rai (Jodha) is a talented actor, and she fully deserves her reputation as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
-Hollywood would have made this film by including a ton of CGI, and it would have looked like crap. Since this is Bollywood, though, they actually hired a cast of thousands, including several dozen elephants, and did it the old fashioned way, and as a result it looks amazing.
-the sets and costumes. A lot of it was shot on location in the actual palace (Agra Fort) used by Akbar, which has got to be one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, and the set decoration lives up to the demands of the location. And the costumes on the actors make them look like they *belong* in those gorgeous sets.

NB: if you rent this, be sure to check out the deleted scenes on the bonus materials disk -- unlike some deleted scenes, where you can see why they were left out, these were cut not for pacing or dramatic reasons, but in order to keep the running time down, and they add greatly to one's appreciation of the film.

I can't help but compare Jodhaa Akbar to period dramas about Queen Elizabeth, whose reign overlaps with Akbar's. And what it shows, I think, is that for all the wealth and power of 16th century England, it was still a very poor and grubby place. It helps to remember from time to time that Europe only became the centre of wealth and power in the world in the past 250 years (or even more recently, depending on how you're keeping track), and before that, well, you really wanted to be in Asia.
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2011-04-09 11:45 am

Heinlein's "rules for writing" - fixed that for you

Followed a link today to a series of posts on publishing myths by Dean Wesley Smith, and quickly discovered that if I read any more of this person's blog I will do something I will regret. After reiterating that every writer is different, he quickly forgets that motto and arrogantly assumes that his own unique experiences are or ought to be the norm.

Anyway, in the the second post in his series, on how writers should not revise their work, he trots out this old chestnut by Heinlein:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

And you know, I'm really, really tired of seeing this. Heinlein was a writer who was able to produce salable fiction in one draft. He was also extremely unusual in that he was able to produce salable first drafts more often than not from the very start of his career.

I know this is a shocking idea for all of the Heinlein-worshipers out there who have never read a slush pile or who have never taught freshman composition (I have done both, briefly), but not everyone can do that. In fact, 99.9% of amateur writers cannot do that, ever, no matter how hard they try to learn.

The tiny fraction of amateur writers who become professional writers have learned, one way or another, to produce salable material. For some, learning that takes a few years; for others, it takes decades. Some learn to write salable material by writing a lot of worthless first drafts that never see the light of day; others learn by rewriting over and over again until they get it right.

A few writers eventually learn how to produce salable material in the first draft, but most need to rewrite and revise, to some degree, for their entire career. And for a writer who is skilled enough to be able to sell his first drafts to continue to trot out that Heinlein quote in giving advice to amateur writers does a huge disservice to the vast majority of aspiring writers who are not like him, and will never be like him.

If Heinlein hadn't been privileged and lucky enough to be able to turn out salable fiction from day one, then his rules might have looked like this (revisions in italics):

1. You must write work of salable quality.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting a finished work except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold or until it is rejected by all markets that might buy it.
6. If your work is rejected by all markets that might buy it, it was not of salable quality. Learn what lessons you can and try again with a new piece.
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2011-03-30 08:17 pm

Judith Strick's eventful life (book review)

Inspired by Marissa's rant about the removal of women warriors from documentaries about World War II over on her "This is Hysteria" blog, I recently re-read "A Girl Called Judith Strick" by Judith Strick Dribben (originally published in 1970 and now out of print, although Amazon currently has used inexpensive used copies available).

This is an unusual Holocaust memoir, in that only a fraction of it is concerned with the author's ordeal in the Nazi extermination machine. The book has 4 parts of roughly equal length. Part 1 ("Hardening Steel") follows Judith's career in the Polish/Ukrainian partisan resistance following the German invasion of Eastern Poland. Part 2 ("The Big Joke") covers her arrest and time as a prisoner of the Gestapo; in part 3 ("In the Shadow of the Chimneys"), she is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then eventually to a munitions factory as a slave. Part 4 ("The Homecoming") deals with her post-war career, first in the Soviet army, and then in Palestine, first as a member of the Negev (guerrilla fighters against the British colonial regime), then as a soldier in the Israeli army, and finally as a member of a kibbutz. And she did all of that in a space of only about 12 years. she had an eventful life, to say the least )

Once Israel became a state, she joined the Israeli army. At this point, the last 60 pages of the book, I found myself reading with a deeply divided mind, because I know that the war against the Arabs that she talks about was a war of conquest and an exercise in ethnic cleansing. Her racism, her inability to see how she was applying a double standard, and so forth were quite frustrating.

On the other hand, it was very interesting to read about her career in the Israeli army, how she constantly had to push back against attempts to assign her to gender-appropriate non-combat roles. Because her brother had been in the artillery, she demanded admission to artillery training, becoming the first woman to do so. Then, when she passed the course successfully and joined an artillery unit, they assigned her to administrative duties, and so she enrolled in intelligence training, because that would ensure that she would be assigned to combat duties.

The final chapters deals with her life after the army, on the kibbutz, where she met her future husband. All in all, it's a fascinating read, and very much recommended if you are interested in biographies of woman warriors or of Holocaust survivors.
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2011-02-09 02:15 pm

Hollywood pwned once again by overseas films

Being a potpourri of reviewlets.

1. "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a perfectly acceptable, fun movie. Nothing special, but a lot better than the previous two installments in the series. a rocking Reepicheep single-mousedly pulls it out of the humdrum, but cannot make it great )

2. In contrast, consider the Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a lovely, wonderful, fun film from France. Think of one of those children's books where the author seems to have thought up all of the most amazing and wonderful things they could have happen and then packed them all into a single story. This movie is one of those books, on film. And it's proof that not all comic book inspired movies have to be testosterone poisoned teenage boy power fantasies )

Trust me, you want to watch this one.

3. Endhiran (the Robot). I watched the "best action scene ever" excerpt from this after it showed up on Boing Boing, and was inspired to seek out the entire film. It was quite the educational experience. Jackie Chan is the #1 actor in Asia, and he is widely known in North America. Rajinikanth is #2, and few people in North America have heard of him, which is on the one hand understandable, and on the other hand a pity. musing on genre conventions and trying to comprehend the scope of Rajinikanth's popularity )

Anyway, Endhiran is a SF movie set in India's near future. Rajinikanth plays both the genius robotics engineer (Dr Vaseejaran), and his android creation, Chitti. lots of spoilers )

So, that was weird, but in a very interesting and educational way. I'll be watching one or two more Rajinikanth movies in the future, but I doubt I'll become a fan.

4. "The King's Speech" is not every bit as good as its reviews say, it is better. I was especially impressed by the way Firth portrayed a gradual slow improvement in George's stammer over the course of the movie. It's a shoo in for several Oscars, but I think it probably has greater resonance for citizens of the commonwealth than for Americans, since the newsreels and recordings and historical photos that the film goes to many pains to faithfully recreate are not part of the American cultural DNA.