Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

16
Jan
18

TV shows in the streaming age: e.g., the Killing

I’m currently watching the Killing. I really enjoyed the first season, but I’m now on the second season, and a familiar problem has cropped up, which is that the plot has slowed to a crawl.

For the whole first season, there are good twists and turns and the feeling of a real detective caper. But then, amazingly, one finds out that the season finale doesn’t resolve the murder and that the single murder is not just the basis for season 1, but for, as far as I can tell, all the seasons. This is done, I think, because TV shows are becoming long form media events. Movies too are becoming heavily sequelized — look at Star Wars and Marvel. Both involve multi movie franchises in which movies are committed to in advance to fill out narrative arcs with same actors over 5, 6, 7 and more total hours of screen time. This tendency makes superhero movies more like comic books, with continued evolution and cross pollination, and I really enjoyed the way the first avenger movies came together. TV shows follow in this mold. A season can be watched (‘binged’) at once and the total screen time can be more than 7 total hours. The stories that are told on screen are getting longer and longer.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I have noticed that it leads to a predictable form of abuse, which is that shows try to draw themselves out to fit this new style. I watched the Americans and really liked it, but I had to stop because it endlessly teased some kind of revelation on the part of the Soviet spies who are the main characters: would they defect? Would they see the hypocrisy of the Soviet Union (even as they clearly saw the hypocrisy of the U.S. during the 80s). It’s an interesting premise, but not one that the show, it seems, is ever willing to resolve or ultimately address. It seems that many shows take the same form of setting an interesting premise, pursuing it well, but then just willfully drawing it out, giving crumbs of the plot in an endless twisted series of episodes.

Take, for example, the Killing. There are twists, and they are well done I think, but then the twists keep coming as many parties are first spotlighted as very likely criminals and then conclusively resolved as somewhat surprising additional evidence exonerates them. The pattern is too easy and it quickly starts to feel repetitive. Not only does this meta structure of: new suspect, pursuit of new suspect, eventual exoneration of new suspect, start to feel stale and forced, but on a more micro level, each episode seems to take more and more detours. To spend more and more time with family drama that becomes melodramatic, repetitive, and does not advance the plot. Many scenes do not show the characters in a new light or as evolving, but as fighting the same old battles, on new terrain.

I want to find out what will happen in the show, but I also feel that I’m getting trapped in a kind of alternate, melodramatic dimension in which everything happens slowly and with more angst and feeling than any story has a right to command.

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12
Jan
18

today I’m a bike commuter

Today is the first day that I went to school by bike. The average commute is about 20 minutes long according to the census. My commute is a little longer at 32 minutes (timed exactly so I know how much time I have in the morning). I also drive pretty hard so this extra time is probably corresponding to an even slightly greater distance of my commute (4.5 miles).

Interestingly, census data shows that men commute to work at a greater rate than women, even though men and women walk to work at roughly equal rates. Not sure what the explanation of this is — maybe women are expected to appear more proper at work, which precludes biking (sweating, dust, etc.) Or maybe some women are towing kids along to day care and so forth and this is impractical on a bike. Interestingly, on my commute I saw a couple biking to work, and the dad was carrying two kids in a front bus construction. However, he pointed out to me that he had a motor helping him, which could, with better batteries and electronic motors, be an option for more people.

05
Jan
18

Coda: H.P. Lovecraft

I wrote about HPL here, and I tried to give a summary of his brand of horror/mystery. From reading stories, I think that the feeling is one of a tentacle on your skin or the feeling of a bizarre creature lurking just below the surface of a lake — the feeling evoked perhaps, by the JAWS movie poster that shows an innocent swimmer and a shark just beneath the water. Though, for Lovecraft, a shark would be too brutely and familiarly savage and not extradimensional enough.

*Spoilers Follow*

In any case, I finally finished At the Mountains of Madness, and though this story is often cited as among Lovecraft’s best, I actually found it something of a let down. The arctic setting of the story is well done and it’s interesting that there are two experiences of cosmic horror (usually one protagonist kind of goes it alone in experiencing the terrifyingly weird). But the story seems excessively long at some point in documenting the civilization that the adventurers come across. Also, the actual moment of confrontation, where the adventurers meet an aggressive cosmic horror is so brief and does not feel as chilling as some other encounters, though I have to say the writing that describes the creature is pretty well done — the beast is compared to a kind of tentacled subway barreling down a narrow chasm at the heroes, with its face/maw as the front of a train in those iconic scene where on is bearing down on an innocent on the tracks. Still though, I think the world building is done better in the shadow out of time.

There is also an interesting posting that I came across here, exploring the relationship between H.P. Lovecraft and video games. The analysis is rich, and it’s written by a dude who consults about the philosophy and literary aspects of video games for a living. Wow!  He makes the point that Lovecraftian horror is about the possibility that humans could exist “side by side” of eldritch creatures of enormous complexity and power and simply not know it, just as a sunflower lives side by side humans and yet has no inkling of their power and sophistication. I think this point is nice and accurate. There is the idea in Lovecraft that we are rubbing shoulders with bizarre space creatures and ancient fungal jellies all the time and yet we are blissfully unaware of these interactions.

But the blog also says that Lovecraftian horror is about the meaninglessness of our choices in such a world. That I am less confident about. The author of the blog is talking about Lovecraftian horror in the context of a video game called Bloodborne that I have not played — because I think I would be too terrified to play it — but is by all accounts a great game. So, his point about the meaningless of actions might be about Bloodborne as an extension of Lovecraft — fair enough — but as a commentary directly on Lovecraft, I wonder. Specifically, I think that Lovecraft is not trying to say our lives are meaningless because elder creatures lurk all around because the creatures do not “run” our lives. They do not control us and indeed in many stories they need humans to release them or acknowledge them. Thus, there is a role for human reason/actions to play in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft.

02
Jan
18

The Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American horror writer. He is celebrated today as an influential figure in “horror fiction,” and had a considerable effect on, for example, Stephen King. His work is often summarized as being about the “Cthulhu Mythos,” or as exemplifying “cosmic horror.” All of these labels are a true as they go, but I wanted to try to get a feel for this writing of this famous author by tackling a good portion of his works directly. I bought a cheap kindle edition of his collected works off of Amazon and just read some of the beginning stories, some of which are certainly among his most famous works. I read:

  • The Nameless City
  • The Festival
  • The Colour Out of Space
  • The Call of Cthulhu
  • The Dunwich Horror
  • The Whisperer in Darkness
  • The Dreams in the Witch House
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • The Shadow Out of Time
  • At the Mountains of Madness

Before starting, it was the last that I heard the most about and I am in the middle of it as I write this. Before giving my thoughts on Lovecraft, I want to note that he has backward and offensive views about race. He adopts the cheap and demeaning habit of using the blackness of a person’s skin color as a reflection of their character or moral purity. Thus, cultists are often black, servants of dark gods are often black, and there are also offhand references to the savagery of black people. These references, as I said, are unethical and should be seen as such. They are also a demonstration of how naively even a somewhat skilled writer can reach for cultural stereotypes and prejudices to write fiction.

If we ignore these references, and I am aware that there may be no such thing as safely racially “quarantining” the analysis of fiction in this way, I think we see a fairly developed world and style. I am not really aware of the intricacies of the Cthulhu mythos in that I am not sure which books are “canon” for this mythos and I did not pay careful attention to the different monikers given to various creatures and dark gods that would allow someone to find continuity among them and to differentiate their personalities.

*spoilers follow*

However, there is certainly a feel to Lovecraftian stories. Indeed, I had to go back and read summaries of the stories to remember them and differentiate them from each other since they are all kind of the same in the feeling the evoke. This is not a knock on Lovecraft. They don’t all slavishly recreate that feeling, but they all kind of riff on the same themes. Others have tried to encapsulate these themes, but the feeling is not far from the feeling that one gets when one considers an octopuses’ tentacle on one’s skin — a kind of revulsion at the sheer alienness of the thing. A brute kind of disgust. If one were to go beyond feelings, then one might characterize his stories as about the unknown, its vastness and scale, and the fragility of the human mind in the face of space, time, and denizens that traverse these dimensions as we would traverse our living room. Also there is the idea of a kind of creeping corruption. Many of the “evil” creatures in the stories do not really seem to harbor malice (like villains in movies who have an evil plan to gain something or to do harm, get revenge, etc.) as much as to be so other and indifferent to human life that their very existence and propagation is a threat to our kind of life or a threat to our way of seeing the world, hence the persistent reference to madness in these stories. It is successful and some of the better stories did not make me afraid, as much as uncomfortable, agitated, infected, disgusted, and revolted and yet with a desire to read on. This is interesting as a literary fact since many of the protagonists of the stories are seekers of knowledge who “go on” exploring a ruins, a city, an object, or a sound, well beyond what most ordinary people would do (or would they — are there relentless seekers in all of us, in the human condition?).

So let’s go deeper.  How does the label “Lovecraftian” play out in the originator of that term? Well there is almost always a reference to places like Arkham, Miskatonic University, various New England towns, and the protagonists is almost always recounting his stories as the narrator in the first person, looking back on what happened. There is an element of scientific community in most stories as the person is trying to convince people that certain incredible things DID happen even though they seem impossible. Seeking knowledge is a theme. Oftentimes, the protagonist is a scholar of some sort, and they cannot help but pursuing something that they should not. This is interesting because today we often think knowledge is good, or that it is “power,” but not for Lovecraft. He sees knowledge as frightening, terrifying, and maddening. Sometimes, the knowledge is something obviously evil — as when the protagonist in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” finds out that a race of corrupted ocean-dwelling creatures has slowly been interbreeding with humans in an effort to…we don’t know what…dominate the human race? Invade? (No, the story claims that the race prefers not to fight openly with humans if possible) It seems that this race is merely existing and is horrible, disgusting, and corrupting, making humans into slaves and subservient worshippers of them. They just are and that is enough to make them evil given that they are so different from us.

Many stories do not go in the direction that one expects. The “Shadow Over Innsmouth” is the most plot based in that things actually happen that we recognize as “action” or as something driving a series of events forward. The main character visits Innsmouth, a cursed town that others have warned him against. He’s a scholar and wants to see architecture, but he soon sees and hears some very disturbing things about the city. He “uncovers,” as scholars are supposed to do, and in the process, finds things that cause madness — that one would rather not see. Indeed, many characters explicitly tell the reader that they would rather have not discovered what they do discover.  In any case, the main character is forced to stay in the town overnight, but becomes subject of an attack by the local cultists and sea-creatures. He escapes, and since the story begins with his statement that he brought the authorities to the town to investigate further and possibly destroy/capture the ocean monsters, it seems that the story would go in that direction. Instead, there is, a little out of nowhere, a subplot or revelation that the main character is RELATED to the race of sea creatures and is one of them himself. This is a persistent theme — that one has become unknown or other, and the realization of one’s origin or corruption is maddening and unbearable. In “the Shadow Out of Time” the main character is also horrified when he finds out that he “was” one of the cone-shaped “Great Ones” during his amnesia.

My main problem in approaching the stories was, without doing any prior reading, to try and decide if the stories were art, or were pulpy, kind of comic-booky material. Like, what level or kind of literary talent and achievement are we dealing with? Ultimately, I decided that there is something here. What I mean is that there is some genuinely good writing and good-storytelling combined with an exploration of themes in a provocative way. In a word, this is art. Maybe not Proust, Shakespeare, or Faulkner, but some kind of art. Some kind of engagement with timeless and powerful themes in an, artful way.

I tried to highlight some passages I thought represented compelling writing, but I was not very dilligent in this task. Nonetheless, I came up with some examples.

  • Indubitably there was a sort of heavy dragging, and a most detestably sticky noise as of some fiendish and unclean species of suction. The Colour Out of Space
  • …curvilinear hieroglyphs on the walls would blast my soul with their message were I not guarded by merciful ignorance The Shadow Out of Time
  • One detail that annoyed me was the distribution of the few faint sounds I heard. They ought naturally to have come wholly form the visibly inhabited houses, yet in reality were often strongest inside the most rigidly boarded-up facades. Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • I did not undress, but decided to read till I was sleepy and then lie down with only my coat, collar, and shoes off. Taking a pocket flashlight from my valise, I placed it in my trousers, so that I could read my watch if I woke up later in the dark. Drowsiness, however, did not come; and when I stopped to analyse my thoughts I found to my disquiet that I was really unconsciously listening for something — listening for something which I dreaded but could not name. That inspector’s story must have worked on my imagination more deeply than I had suspected. Again I tried to read, but found that I made no progress. After a time I seemed to hear the stairs and corridors creak at intervals as if with footsteps, and wondered if the other rooms were beginning to fill up. There were no voices, however, and it struck me that there was something subtly furtive about the creaking. I did not like it, and debated whether I had better try to sleep at all. This town had some queer people, and there had undoubtedly been several disappearances. Was this one of those inns where travellers were slain for their money? Surely I had no look of excessive prosperity. Or were the townsfolk really so resentful about curious visitors? Had my obvious sightseeing, with its frequent map-consultations, aroused unfavourable notice? It occurred to me that I must be in a highly nervous state to let a few random creakings set me off speculating gin this fashion — but I regretted none the less that I was unarmed. Shadow Over Innsmouth

So, all told, what was the best and worst of these stories? I think the Call of Cthulhu is very paradigmatic of Lovecraftian style, but not the most enjoyable from my perspective. I think the Shadow Over Innsmouth is one of the very best that I read, especially the set up but not necessarily the ending. The Shadow Out of Time was also very, very good. Again, it’s ending is a little bit of a let down, but that is Lovecraftian style. Stories kind of just peter out into madness, with no real resolution. That’s their nature. I think as a complete story, including the ending, the best story was the Whisperer in Darkness, but it does go on  for a while setting things up. The ending is sinister though, and that is a word that I have not used yet but that I should — sinister.

06
May
13

The biggest possible number

This article is great. I understand like 5% of it and its still great. 

http://www.scottaaronson.com/writings/bignumbers.html

04
May
13

Philosophy on bathroom stalls

Never thought I would write that title, but I was over at buzzfeed, indulging the juvenile proscratinator in me, and I looked at this. It’s pretty funny, but more importantly, there is actually philosophical value to this piece of vandalism. Written on a bathroom stall was the following:

Things I Hate

1. Vandalism

2. Irony

3. Lists

Whoever came up with this is pretty smart, because there are multiple layers of self-reference, recursion, and meta-statements. In fact, I’m not sure how to characterize them all.

Number 1 creates irony by introducing a contrast between the communication of a message (that the person hates vandalism) with the form of that message (a message on a bathroom stall, which is vandalism). Number 1 would not be out of the ordinary if it were written on government form or a school test.

Number 2 is meta-irony. If one sees something ironic, one can draw attention to it by labeling it as irony, “hey, that’s ironic,” and 2 is like that (we just saw irony with the vandalism case) but it’s better than that. Because the person is putting irony on a list of things that he hates, but previously just created, there is further irony. Does the fact that the person uses the word “irony” ironically, introduce further irony? Is it of a different type then what went before? One could say that 2 not only points out the irony of (1), but also exemplifies irony by itself.

Number 3 is an example of the same pattern. The person is writing a list in writing 3, just as he was vandalizing in writing 1. This similarity between 1 and 3 makes me think that 2 is the special one in this list. The person has somehow created an environment in which pointing out irony is itself ironic. Quite an achievement.

What if the inscription on the stall was

Things I hate

1. vandalism

2. ironic lists

3. self reference

Would this make 2 somehow more self-referential then before? I’m not sure what to think.

31
Mar
13

I met an Iranian General

I took megabus* from San Francisco to LA. But we stopped in San Jose. A man got in and sat next to me. I ignored him.

Later, we talked, and I wondered about his accent. Still later I asked if he wanted some of my water. He didn’t. Then he turned the vents down a little.

Finally, he told me he was visiting this country from his native land. I asked where that was. He said, somewhat uncomfortable, “Iran.” We kept talking. I found out he was in the Iranian military. Ok fine. He said he flew Chinook helicopters. Alright, pretty sweet. He told me he retired as a Brigadier general. haha. I couldn’t believe it.

America is an egotistical nation in this way: time after time, polls, data, and reports tell us that we’re doing something badly. Or worse than before. For instance, we find out that we’re falling behind in math and science. But public sentiment is unconcerned. This is America! We don’t do things badly. Yet, what always puffs our ego is talking to people from other countries, and this guy did that for me. He told me how much he loved America. He trained in America (there were no flight schools in Iran), then he moved back to Iran, but never forgot America. All of his family members live her and he tries to come here as much as possible. He wants to get a green card, but it will be hard because he’s from Iran. He doesn’t care though. He loves America.

I tell him that the schools in America aren’t what they used to be. He tells me he loves our religious freedom. I tell him college is expensive, he tells me his grandson is an electrical engineer at Stanford and that it’s worth every penny. Wherever I see room for growth or change, he tells me what a wonderful country we’ve built. It feels good. It really does. It’s deceptive, but it does feel really good.

It makes me laugh to think that we have trouble getting behind the idea that it should be easy for people to come to america and study math and science, and then live here when they’re done. I won’t claim that such people love America more than some Americans, that would be heresy. But these people, by and large, seem to love America in a way that some native-born American cannot quite appreciate first-hand.

This general had broken english, and I told him about “the immigrant mentality.” The idea that with hard work, one can make it in America. He knew this phrase and agreed. He said that he told his grandson and other family members that education was most important. That they should work, study, and take advantage of all America has to offer. It was very inspiring. It may be proud to be an American, and it made me more optimistic about the future. Last, it made me think that we really need to welcome people who want to come here.

It’s like school. You can’t make kids want to be in class, and a corollary; those who want to be in class usually do much better than those who don’t. I want to be around people who want to be in America.

*Megabus claims to have wi-fi. That is laughable. Most people know that it is laughable. I could create better wi-fi if molded tin-foil to take signals out of the air.