12.28.2004

A Clever Piece...

...which has implications for would-be writers of SF: Three novels Margaret Atwood won’t write soon. Not all ideas carry equal weight or fit pre-packaged SF models.

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The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu Teaser looks to have good costumes and sets but sets the bar high on cheesiness, which isn't surprising once you view their A Shoggoth on the Roof: A Documentary. Perhaps a good, serious Lovecraft film is impossible to achieve. Ah, well. Hopefully they have a few good chortles in store.

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Language, Context, Warfare

I am quite fond of Suzette Hayden Elgin's blog, as I was of her emailings and her Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. But potential problems arise for readers who do not read guardedly.

First, she points out herself (and I don't think it can be overemphasized):
Context matters here; context always matters. It's possible to construct many different scenarios that would provide different meanings for the example.

Find out the extra layers of meaning, but remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, or in a different context, maybe the cigar a symbol of cancer, or of prosperity, or of...

...which is to say: Take in the whole. There is no easy or simple formula that applies to all situations, but rather each situation or context provides its own formula of interpretation. So do break language down, but build it back up again and make sure all the parts are fitting.

Second, don't consider language warfare or you'll constantly feel on or under attack. Play the peacemaker. As Elgin herself suggests in one entry:
I suggest that [the person who feels an unstated question is truly being asked] say "Why do you ask?" or "Why do you say that?" -- with their full attention and with neutral intonation.

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I, Robot Revisited (on DVD, which lacks interesting special features)

I watched I, Robot again with the nephews. It seems I forgot to mention a criticism in my first review. Don't get me wrong. It was still enjoyable, but the reasoning of robots was not consistent. In the first viewing I only noticed the contrast between Detective Spooner's first meetings and later meetings with Sonny which show him to be peaceful.

The three laws (Wikipedia goes into great detail) which the movie emphasized are as follows:

1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

So why, in the first linked clip, does Sonny grab a gun? After all, he's rather acrobatic though he gets hit anyway.

In the second clip, if Sonny cannot pick up on "subtle" human signals such as winking, then why should Sonny to escalate to anger after an accusation of murder since, in the later exchanges, Spooner isn't directly accusing?

Maybe these questions could be explained away. Maybe Sonny was egging Spooner along the trail even if it threw Sonny furhter off the scent (one wonders if a more direct line of reasoning could have proved more fruitful than hedging on a few loosely related odd bits). It may also be, in the second case, that Sonny knew language subtleties better than common human gestures.

Although the movie did not directly mention this, the movie does well to render a critique of Asimov's Zeroth Law:
A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Asimov himself noted the Zeroth Law may stymy human progress and creativity but the movie suggests it paves a more sinister path toward a robot-controlled environment, which may or may not benefit humanity. The problem with the movie's portrayal, however, is the same that humans have always had to contend with: war to preserve peace. The scenario feels realistic enough although I suspect that the robots used more aggressive force than was initially necessary.

Despite these complaints, the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. Will Smith played jaded dubiousness well, and the logical inconsistencies are probably outcomes of increasing dramatic tension at whatever cost, so that we have a plot that sweeps us away: an admirable quality even if we might wish for an equally active plot that did not violate its own rules.

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Inspired by or Inspiring?

I found out about Nine Princes in Amber when a friend gave me a copy of the text computer game. After getting stuck, I consulted the original book. I never figured out how to solve the game, but Roger Zelazny's highly imaginative series swept me away. God knows how many times I reread the series every time a new book came out.

Wired recently commented on the phenomenon of amateur gamers updating old games to new computers. Here, for example, as the Amber example above, is a set of folk converting old Lucas Arts games into today's technology. It's amazing what fondness we continue to hold for games despite being outmoded by many computer revolutions inbetween.

I just played Myst for the first time a few months ago and found an uncanny resemblance to the current popular mythos of strange wonder puzzles strung together on thin plots. Do the present generations owe more debt to computer games and movies than to the original progenitor of literature, fulfilling a queer sort of Jean Baudrillard's ideal of simulacrums?

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Story Fodder in Pictures

Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing linked to great story fodder:

Hideous ski masks of the past.

Could one be so ugly that your grandma would knit one of these? Or would the strangeness of the mask absorb all attention from noticing other details of a bank robber?

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12.19.2004

The Fortune of the Unfortunate

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (the site is rather cleverly put together) [clips] has much marvelous atmosphere to enjoy. Its claustrophobic feel is somehow reminiscent of stage plays that require your imagination to extend the world--that is, its reality brings out a sense of unreality in every location: a house teetering on precipice, a herpetologist's house, and an ocean that feels oddly like a back water pond. The period feel is also strange--houses and dress are Victorian but they drive cars and use some mechanisms that don't even exist in this present alternate universe. The characters are all characters--that is, people with distinctive traits and personalities: The baby's a smart-ass biter, Violet's an inventor, Klaus a book fiend who must have a kind of eidetic memory to put to use what he's read, their aunt a grammarian paranoic, and a distant uncle, Count Olaf, will stop at nothing to gain the three children's fortune.

The language of the film--i.e. "unfortunate events," "this is not a film for those who want to watch a happy little elf" and so on--create the impression that this will be depressing. Not so (in this I felt Ebert, while on-target elsewhere, missed the boat). True, the events themselves have the makings of major downers, but the children make do in whatever dire circumstance they find themselves in. If their opponents are clever, they are more so. There's much sleight of hand to enjoy: the language, the aforementioned filmatography, characters' games and resposes. You'll have to look beyond what you're told or what you see.

One strength and flaw is Jim Carey as Count Olaf. While he has great diversity and plays Olaf in various disguises with surprising grace, it seems he also overplays his character, tilting the game toward too much slapstick. Likewise, the draw of the characters' powerful distinctivenesses never quite achieves any reach beyond distinction. Dustin Hoffman has three lines and they're probably three of the best in the film. The thinness of characters, however, did not detract much from my pleasure of the film. There's just too much else to love.

My companion, however, took exception to the ending as unsatisfying. This may be true for those who expect complete resolution. But the ending rather surprised me in how much it worked. It brings back up previous scenes to deliver its sense to the audience, recasting the events under a new lens (this may be the key for why I didn't feel they cheated us). I will submit that if they try to pull the same story structure for the following film--if made--they'll risk boring the audience with monotony. Yet it is a film well worth seeing on the big screen, and if the movie's homepage is any example of things to come, it may be well worth owning when it comes out on DVD.

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Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

Jib Jab has a few interactive Santa Claus animations: Miracle on 234th Street and Santa Claus! and Who's Your Papua?. They've got other interactive selections for your amusement. They're fairly benign but perhaps a little crude for the more delicate.

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12.15.2004

Frosty kidnapped

Yahoo has footage of Frosty stolen. Workers protest: "No Frosty, no chocolate."

(more substantive post soon--working on mundane blog and site)

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