Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Quotations: He's such a Kittler

As sort of promised.... heeeere's Kittler.

Kittler on pop music and poetry:
"With the invention of technical sound storage, the effects that poetry had on its audience migrate to the new lyrics of hit parades and charts. Their text would rather be anonymous than deprived of royalties, their recipients illiterate rather than deprived of love."

Kittler having a Paul Virilio moment:
"A cinematic war may not even take place at all. Invisible enemies that materialize only for seconds and as ghostly apparitions can hardly be said any longer to be killed: they are protected from death by the false immortality of ghosts."

Kittler on video games and those discos that those young people hang out in:
"If the joysticks of the Atari video games make children illiterate, President Reagan welcomed them for just that reason: as a training ground for future bomber pilots. Every culture has its zones of preparation that use lust and power, optically, acoustically, and so on. Our discos are preparing our youth for a retaliatory strike."

Kittler on psychiatrists video-taping patients:
"The age of media (not just since Turing’s game of imitation) renders indistinguishable what is human and what is machine, who is mad and who is faking it. If cinematographers can ‘correct’ in an almost perfect way’ disturbing occurrences of non-madness, they might as well film paid actors instead of asylum inmates."

And Kittler on class and computers:
"The language of the upper echelons of leadership has always been digital."

He also has interesting things to say about women and typewriters. But another time.

Later Days.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Swear to God, I Spent Five Straight Minutes Thinking of a Title, and the Best was "And That's the Tooth."

Terry Pratchett occasionally employs a joke where the punchline is "fish don't have a word for water." And in that vein, my life lexicon lacks a word for "rut"; I have, instead,rut-shaped universe. I think all of us do, to one extent or another, as we all grow accustomed to things in our everyday experience. And that's why ruts are comforting. We move out of them, and we are constantly bombarded with the need to pay greater attention to the world around us. If we didn't have ruts, I imagine, we would never get anything done; we'd be too busy watching plastic bags soaring in the wind, or cheering on the growth of bacteria cultures. It would get old fairly quickly. (Or, as might be the more nightmare scenario, it would never grow old at all.)

All of which is to say that after two years of putting it off, last week I went to the dentist, for the first time since I moved to Ontario. And this morning, I went back again, to get two fillings. It marked the first time I've switched dentists. My brothers and I had been going to the same guy our entire lives, because... well, that's the guy you go to. Never mind that it was a half an hour drive from Wherever, and an hour drive from Someplace Else (which had many, many times more dentists of its own). He was the guy to go to, and that was that.

Going to a new dentist, then, brought up all sorts of new techniques. The place was brand-spanking new, which meant a) I got see the top of the line in reasonably affordable dentistry equipment, and b) the magazines were only three months old. (Yeah. A "waiting room magazine" joke. Edgy, I know.) Even without the new gadgets, the difference in procedure is revelatory. "Wait, you mean you don't have to install that tent-like thingy to do a filling?" and "What, no sticker at the end? Did I do something wrong?"

But at the risk of sounding like an after-school special, what makes the biggest difference in a new experience is your own perspective. In this case, this marked the first time I was in a dentist's office since I'd read Foucault. For those not immersed in the academic system, Michel Foucault was a Frenchman who spent his academic career studying power relationships, in discourse, in literature, and in institutions. One of his conclusions is that, some time after the medieval phase, we moved away from a model of society where a king holds all the power to a model where power is defused throughout the system, and the individual subject is reshaped to fit the system. This process comes out most clearly in the institution. Think of the education system--a student is marked essentially by a list of grades. And in medicine, a patient is a series of symptoms. And in the dentist's chair, you're subjected to one of the greater subjectal synecdotes of modern healthcare: you become your teeth.

Or, at least, your mouth. The rest of your body is ignored, by everyone involved. It's understood that you keep it as motionless as possible. Agency, too, is severely diminished. Like in a relationship with your doctor, you are firmly in a subordinate position, but in this case, you can't even speak--the dentistry procedure literally takes control of your voice from you. Granted, the doctor and assistants can alleviate the problem to some extent by talking to you as if you're person rather than set of molars, but that conversation is extremely one-sided. You're limited to whatever you can express by mild grunts or blinking. And granted, you can put a lot of meaning into a well-timed wink, but very little that's really appropriate for the context. So basically, unless everyone involved is well-versed in the art of Morse Code blinking, there's not a lot to be done.

(Seinfeld, BTW, has Jerry going to the dentist a few times, always with an emphasis on the power relation between the patient and dentist--it's concern that he's either abusing his power to dispense anesthetics, or challenging his power because he's not a "real" doctor.)

So I came out of the office today with two fillings and deep philosophical ponderings. But I would have preferred the stickers.

Later Days.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Quotations: A Wii Bit of Feeling

"In other words, players can dance, swordfight, and fish the nights away in the comfort of their living rooms, but they still get no hugs and kisses." --Andreas Gregersen and Torben Grodal, speaking on the relation between emotion and embodiment in the Nintendo Wii console system, in the Video Game Theory Reader, vol 2.

You know, it's funny; I compiled an armload of Kittler quotations I thought I'd be working from to find this week's quotation, but in the end, it's the Wii quote that wins my heart.

Later Days.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Much Delayed Doctor Who Post

Right, so it's about time I got around to writing this. Originally, this was going to be one of my long, epic posts, but I'll spare everyone and do something a little more truncated. And, oh, spoilers.

"The Beast Below." The Doctor and Amy travel to a future ark ship, containing the remaining population of England. The ship harbors a dark secret: they've enslaved a sentient space-faring creature for their locomotion, and all the adults aboard (Amy included) are complicit in knowing the secret, but choose to forget it. (Those who don't, it's implied, are fed to the creature.) The Doctor is understandably not pleased to choose between euthanizing the creature , and Amy saves the day by letting it go free, under the assumption that it is like the Doctor--it volunteered to help humans because it "can't stand to hear a child crying without doing something about it." So she frees it, and it decides to keep traveling with the humans.

This episode still caters to a lot of Moffat's favorite ideas, especially the "child in peril" theme. The difference between this week and last week is that this time, it's explicitly part of the plot. The other important element is that they answered the "why her?" question that comes up for each companion; it was largely Amy's perspective that saved the day here. And they're not sweeping her skewed perspective under the rug; the Doctor tells her that she couldn't know the creature wouldn't just kill them all, and she really didn't--she just assumed it would behave the way the doctor did (or the way she thought the doctor did), despite years of torture. Considering that it apparently eats people, I'd say it might be thinking with its stomach rather than its heart--this way, it's got a permanent self-perpetuating food source.
Other quick thoughts: I liked the idea that everything came down to refusing to accept a binary decision--the denizens of the ship had to vote every five years to either erase the creature from their memories or destroy the ship, and it took an outside view to realize that it's never just A or B. The Smilers continue the retro-technology feel--although frankly, the moment you create robots to act as law-enforcers, you pretty much deserve the resulting dystopia. Last: it's kind of depressing that when the human race takes to the stars, we go entirely along national lines--this is Starship UK, and we're told the Scots went their own way. It fits the vibe of the episode, but it's still depressing. (Of course, if you wanted to be REALLY cynical, you'd have the human the human race go to the stars in populations that were divided in terms of corporations.)

"Victory of the Daleks." The Doctor and Amy travel back to WWII, only a few months off--Winston Churchill has, by the time they got there, authorized an inventor to build war machines that look suspiciously like Daleks. And, as it turns out, that's because they are Daleks. And they built the inventor, not the other way around. The Dalek's plan here is kind of interesting--their own technology is locking them out, because after numerous permutations, it doesn't recognize them as pure Daleks anymore. So they need to get the Doctor stating, on record, that they are Daleks, because the computer will accept the Doctor, Dalek's No 1's villain, as an authority on what is a Dalek. Anyway, the Daleks escape while the Doctor and Amy are preoccupied with convincing the inventor that he's human, and not a Dalek bomb that's going to explode and kill everyone. Because apparently, Daleks make their androids in such a manner that this is sufficient to defuse them. Amy reminds the inventor about lusting after forbidden people, and he "turns" human.

One of the essays I read recently on Dr Who said that the Daleks and the Cybermen are both used in the same manner: by comparing ourselves to machines, we define what makes humans--our emotions, our feelings, etc. To me, this episode personified that use to a T. There's some clever twists--putting the racially pure Daleks into WWII, and, by extension, Nazism; using the android/bomb to suggest a middle state between Dalek and human; and the the fact that, before their technology jerry-rigs a brand new Dalek breed, the only Daleks left were impure themselves. But strip that stuff away, and what you have is "Who-by-numbers"--it's just a variation of the same damn story we get every time the Dalek or Cybermen show up these days. They're suffering the same problem comic book villains suffer--they're overused, to the point where all the stories about them are the same.

I should add that the acting in both episodes was very good--I'm really liking the leads. And while I wasn't particularly struck by Queen Elizabeth the 10th, the portrayal of Churchill and the man who played the Dalek "inventor" were both well performed. So the season has been good--but the real test is the next episode, with the return of the Stone Angels.

*UPDATE: Almost forgot. Here's a picture of the new and improved for the up-teenth time Daleks, and a brand new reason I'll have to struggle to take them seriously:

This reminds me of something...

Later Days.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Comic Panel Wednesday: Keepin' It Low Key

This page is From Seige: Loki. A bit of background: In the Marvel Universe, the Norse Gods are real, and spent centuries locked in a cycling of Ragnorak. Recently, they broke free of that; now, they live in the real world; they still have a kingdom, but some members have lost their old places. Hela, for example, no longer has a hell to rule. She's made peace with the loss, because while Asgardians may still die, they just won't go anywhere, they will just wander the earth until she finds a new alternative. But to Loki, that's not enough. They're still clinging to old patterns, and he's still condemned to end up in Hel. So, he tricks the Green Goblin into destroying Asgard to create massive Asgardian deaths, resurrects a coterie of soul-devouring women, marries the group of women, trades them to Mephisto for a corner of hell, threatens Hela with the soul-devouring women, and trades her the corner of hell so she has somewhere to keep the souls, just so he can be free of his destined fate. Which is all a very complicated, very bad-ass plan.

But mostly, I liked the way the artist, Jamie McKelvie, puts so much expression into the characters' faces. Loki's reveling in his own schemes, and Mephisto is entirely "well, I'm the worst being in Creation, and you just sold me your wives, so, yeah, I'll see where this goes."

And the writing keeps up to the art. Here's the dialogue for when Loki wins his brides' hands in combat:
"It will be as you wish. You are the victor."
"No. Victory is a small thing. Thor wins. I want more than that."

Mr. Gillen and McKelvie get the most important part of writing mythology-based characters: in any pantheon, the most interesting being is the trickster.

Later Days.

COMPlicated dreaming

Depending on whether my fickle home modem is working tonight, there will later be two Comic Book Wednesday Panel posts. One features Satan with Sideburns (and they're totally worthy of the Capital), so stick around for that.

For now, though, I just wanted everyone to know I had my first comp-mare for the multimedia exam. As a life-long student, I've resigned myself to the knowledge that I will never entirely leave the phase of my life where my dreams revolve around the classroom. This dream, though, I can do without. For some reason, I was writing the exam back in Wherever, with the rest of my high school class. My Blank professor hands me the exam, and it's a comic book panel featuring Desaad talking to Jean Grey. (It took me a dozen images to find a pic of Jean Grey that didn't feel entirely like low level porn. That concern didn't come up with Desaad, for some reason.) There was no question, just a single word: "discuss."

Now, let's put aside the fact that, belonging to two opposing companies, Desaad and Jean Grey have never and probably will never, have a face-to-face chat. The simple truth is, I should be able to do this. Even putting aside my decades of comic lore, there are some theorists I've read in the past 4 months that help with this. First and foremost, there's Scott McCloud, and Understanding Comics: I can talk about the use of time in comics, the framing, and whether a single panel constitutes a comic or not. From there, I can move on to traditional treatments of image and text, as described in W. J. T. Mitchell's Iconography. Or how this panel works in terms of Edward Tufte's Visualizing Information. Or I could go another direction entirely and talk about the use of vast narratives in multimedia form, ala Third Person. The point is, I have tools for this.

Instead, in the dream, my mind's a complete blank, and I go through a panic so intense that I wake myself up. Ugh. A whole month of this, huh? Well, I could always give up sleep again. Worked for the last comp...

Later Days.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

random junk

More postings soon, honest.

For now, three things I learned today:
1) The shorts I'm wearing are indeed exactly the right length so that if I bike with my wallet in the front pocket, it will slip out and spill cards into the street. Good to know.

2) Just because you can run 12 k at 5:30 am doesn't mean you should.

3) Just because you can spend seven straight hours reading Kittler doesn't mean you should. Also, beware buribunks. I'm serious about that. They're bad news.

Later Days.

Seriously, buribunks.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Quotations: Oh No, He Didn't

"We don't know much about technology, or biology, but we do know stories and storytelling. So why be critical when we can be important instead?" (49).
--Espen Aarseth, mocking the narratologist view of video games, in First Person.

I wasn't going to go with another Aarseth quotation, but... teach the controversy, people. Teach the controversy. That's what that means, right?

Later Days.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cadbury Creme must be EARNED

I've read a hundred pages of First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game today. If that name sounds familiar, it's because I reviewed it for the first time here. It's less than a year ago, but it's amazing how much more nuanced my reading is now with the advantage of four months of multimedia reading. To be honest, I'm starting to loathe the anthologies on my comp list--they're all very large texts that require a lot of mental energy to read, because each essay, even in tightly strung books, requires a mental shift in gears. In longer works, you can let things flow a little. For the morbidly curious, today's readings include applying the Foucauldian institutional subject to schizophrenic AI design, applying emergent and embedded narratives into game architecture, mapping event time and play time in game design, applying emergent narratives to MMORPGs and the Sims, reconstructing interactivity to better fit with the definition of meaningful play, turning hypertext into game, designing oscillating image-texts, applying schema for immersion and engagement, casting linearity as the creative choice over digital, and frankly, even I stopped showing interest about five items ago, so I'll stop the list here.

Have you heard the saying that shopping should never be done on an empty stomach? I would like to add a corollary: shopping should never be done on an overfilled head. I just returned from the store, and my shelves now abound with comfort food: pizza, cola, and discounted Easter candy.

I'm going to watch Glee now and recharge my batteries. 40 days to go. 40 days to go.

Later Days.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Principle Of Ordinary Perturbances

First: Went for a run today. The 9 k half-needle. I don't have a time for it, though, so you'll have to take my word for it that it was so speedy they had to come up with a new word for it: spdy. Too quick for vowels.

Second: Wanna do a review for the second episode of Dr Who. It answers some of the questions raised in the last discussion. But I want to read the Doctor Who essays in the anthology "Third Person" first (it's for my comp exam). But before that, I need to read the earlier anthology "First Person," because that's the one that someone's placed a recall notice on.

Third: Speaking of comp books, one of the best known books in design theory is on my reading list: Donald Norman's The Psychology Of Everyday Things (with the deliberate acronym of POET). Norman's principle is simple: in the modern world, people often have problems operating the simplest of objects, and the reason for that is that these objects are poorly designed. Rather than focus on the utility (or usability, as he puts it) of objects, designers focus on aesthetics, creating beautiful, frustrating objects. A properly designed object, he argues, should have an obvious affordance--that is, you should be able to tell how it's used by looking at it.And in addition to the notion of affordance, Norman lists the reasons he thinks people tend to make mistakes--we start out with one task in mind, but inadvertently turn our attention to another more common task. You reach for the plunger under the sink, but grab the toilet bowl cleaner. You go for a walk, and reach for the dog leash when the dog's staying overnight with the vet. You mean to drive to your children's gymnastic performance, but you drive to the bar instead. And so on.

Norman's message has a clear appeal: people like being told it's not their fault, it's someone else's. I know I do. Through out the course of my life, time and time again, certain people have accused me of lacking common sense (you know who you are). Just the hint that it might be because I'm weighed down by the detritus of other people's errors gives me the courage to face my lot with stoic resignation. On the other hand, I have to raise an objection to the opposition he's created, and state that, in some conditions, aesthetics IS the purpose of design, and the two can't be separated as easily as he does. (I have to define aesthetics. As an English major, it's written in my contract in very fine and very graceful ink.)

Finally, Norman also goes through many examples of poor everyday designs, and how they could be possibly improved. The computer gets a fair bit of his attention--the effect of a button in a program should be clear, and its effect after clicking should be just as clear--and, depending on the consequence of the button, easily reversible. The text was written in the 90s, so the computer examples are a little out of date; the next example, light switches, still holds strong. A row of light switches is very nice to look at, but there's no easy way to determine which switch goes with which light. Norman suggests that we redesign switches so that they are spatially overlaid on a miniature map of the room, thus eliminating the confusion.

And then there's doors. Doors need to indicate whether they should be pushed or pulled. Many fail to do so. On something as simple as a door, Norman feels that if it requires any instruction, even the word "PULL," it is poorly designed. Instead, a door that needs to be pushed should have an horizontal crossbar, whereas a door that needs to be opened should have a vertical handle. I mention doors because I've been having door-related problems recently. Thanks to some lovely allocation policies, the English PhD students in my department have their offices in a separate building than the rest of the English department. Sometimes, this means a lot of back and forth. The buildings are beside each other, but designed in strange half-oval shapes that open in opposite directions (The only logical, yet admittedly apocryphal, explanation I've heard for this is that it's to prevent massing for student protests). Thus, there is one and only one set of doors that allows for easy passage from one to the other. Fine enough. You get used to the pattern, and move on with your life.

Recently, though, the door to the English Department has been replaced. The replacement is a very pretty door. It has a crossbar on the inside, and a handle on the outside. Sadly, the outside handle is ornamental--the door is designed to open from the inside only. What this means is that I can still take the same route from the department to my office, but I have to take the long way around to get from my office to the department. And, because the old route is still in my head, I still walk all the way to the old door before I realize my error and start moving in the correct direction.

Recently, though, I've noticed that some industrious soul has found a way to circumvent the forced circumference circling--every day, someone puts a bucket in the door to prop it open. Every day, someone removes it at the end of the day. This means that the entrance way is subject to the elements and the outdoors far more than usual--so whichever person decided that the campus would be better served with that door closed has created a situation where the door is now open far more often than ever.

This isn't a principle that Norman mentions, but maybe it should be: People adjust to bad design decisions. One way or the other.

Later Days.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Quotations: Okay, I'll Admit It: I was having trouble finding something

"Writing has always been a spatial activity."
--Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext.

*UPDATE* I forgot how quotable Aarseth is. Here's some more, as they appear:
"The real difference between paper texts and computer texts is not very clear. Does a difference even exist? Instead of searching for a structural divide, this study begins with the premise that no such essential difference is presumed."

"Theories of literature have a powerful ability to co-opt new fields and fill theoretical vacuums, and in such a process of colonization, where the 'virgin territory' lacks theoretical defense, important perspectives and insights might be lost or at least overlooked. When we invade foreign ground, the least we can do is try to learn the native language and study the local customs."

"Computer programs can be seen as a new type of apostrophes, with the the magical difference that it actually provokes a response."

Later Days.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Flipping the Clock III

It's 3:30 am. I'm awake and restless after 7 hours of sleep. My plan to get my sleep schedule back to normal has hit a road block. But my burden can be your gain--presenting for your amusement, the latest installment of...
Flipping the Clock.

It's time to reset the stat counter again. And, as usual, that means a quick glance at my global demographic...

I like that you can trace my parents' trip to Vancouver through the trail of IP addresses from Saskatchewan to BC.

...and we look at what links led people here.
"parks and recreation" "he's a tourist" Camden, New Jersey, United States
ron swanson" he's a tourist" Nelson, New Zealand
"Come on Lily... get your head out of your ass" South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
"He's a tourist.He vacations in people's lives takes pictures puts them in a sc" West Chester, Ohio, United States
"he's a tourist" AND "parks and recreation" New York, United States
"He's a tourist. He vacations in people's lives, takes pictures, puts them in a scrapbook, and moves on. All he's interested in are stories." Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States.
"the clock in the painted door sinclair ross" Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Canada
"friday quotations" Providence, Rhode Island, United States
"you are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler" Brookline, Massachusetts, United States
"cmon lilly get you head out of your ass" Dubai, United Arab Emirates
"experimental hotdog" Red Bud, Illinois, United States
"come on lily get your head out of your ass" Floral Park, New York, United States
"come on lilly get your head out of your ass" Latina, Lazio, Italy

"musci classmandeville" Kingston, Saint Andrew, Jamaica
"gender in if on a winter's night women" Perth, Western Australia, Australia
"come on lily get your head" Kingston, Ontario, Canada
"friday quotations" Dudley, North Carolina, United States
"come on lily get your head out of your ass" Aarhus, Arhus, Denmark
"Come on, Lily, get your head out of your ass" Vigo, Galicia, Spain
"come on Lily" Mons, Hainaut, Belgium
"himym come on lily, get your head out of your ass" Hadera, Hefa, Israel
"lily get your head" Jönköping, Jonkopings Lan, Sweden
"get your head out your ass lily" Edinburgh, United Kingdom
"if on a winter's night a traveler themes" Bennington, Vermont, United States
"" Duncan, British Columbia, Canada
"humboldt saskatchewan blogs" Humboldt, Saskatchewan, Canada
"" Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
"" Brookline, Massachusetts, United States
"if on a winter's night a traveler critical analysis" Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
"" Glasgow, Glasgow City, United Kingdom

"Gene wolfe" weer" Edinburgh, United Kingdom
"barney lily get your head" Rotterdam, Zuid-holland, Netherlands

A few thoughts:
1. Apparently, some people, back in February, agreed with me that this Parks and Recreation quotation was worth noting.
2. And also apparently, many, many more people liked the Barney musical number, and agreed that the key words of the song include some combination of "Lily," "head," and "ass." The video has long since been removed; ah, Youtube and the vagaries of copyright.
3. The review of Calvino's "If on a winter's night, a traveler" seems to have some lasting power to it--I think it might, at this point, be the most searched for page on the blog (excluding the Humbug fiasco).
4. If anyone's interested, my thoughts on Mass Effect and Mass Effect II are here; I never got around to doing more thorough commentary, but these writers started a good ground for debate. Just search for my user name: "Person of Consequence."

That's it. See you in the next 500.

Later Days.

Comic Panel Wednesday: The Only Problem? Not Enough Ninjas.

And then there was that time a half-Apache gunslinger teamed up with a wise-cracking duck and a wiser-cracking robot to fight zombies across the multiverse. Marvel Zombies vol 5 (5! And that's not counting the Evil Dead cross-over. Ever wish you could see Ashley Williams eaten by a wise-cracking duck zombie? Wish granted.), Issue 1.

Monday, April 5, 2010

In with the New Old, Out with the Old New: A Spoileriffic Doctor Who review

"It's all true. I thought... well, I started to think that you were just, like, a madman with a box."

"Rose Tyler, Amy Pond, there's something that you'd better understand about me, and it's important, because one day, your life may depend on it--I am definitely a madman with a box." Doctor Who, Season 1, 5,or 31, depending on who you ask, Episode 1: "The Eleventh Hour."

One of the signs that I'm absolutely in the right field is that I can take something I love and spend hundreds of words explaining in great detail what is wrong with it. Let the tearing begin.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a British sci-fi show starring a time-traveling (who travels in a spaceship with the exterior appearance of a police box) alien who calls himself the Doctor. The series has been going continuously in Britain for the past 47 years, with a brief 16 year break starting in 1969. The series rebooted in 2005,and has been roaring away ever since. The Doctor usually runs around space-time (with a suspicious amount of time spent in England--who knew the universe revolved around Big Ben?) with a group of humans, called Companions--or, as they tend to be since the reboot, not so platonic love interests. The Companions change regularly, as does the Doctor himself--through an alien regeneration process, he can become a new person with an entirely new physical appearance, which is handy during salary negotiations.

The current season kicked off with not only a new Doctor and a new Companion, but also a new show-runner. Stephen Moffatt is now in charge, and the new Doctor is... this guy:

Because after the last guy, everyone agreed what they really needed was someone younger.
Snark aside, Moffatt has written some of the best Dr Who to date (I can only judge since the reboot, but...). And for my money, the season 3 episode "Blink" is the best 44 minutes of not just science fiction, but drama, period, that you can find on television.

But let's get to the episode. Plot: Still fresh from the regeneration chamber, the Doctor stumbles into the house of 8 year old (or so) Amelia Pond, a little girl who's afraid of the crack in her wall. The Doctor confirms that she has a right to be afraid--it's not a crack in the wall, but a crack in reality itself, and something--Prisoner Zero--has come out of it. He darts back into the TARDIS (that's the name of time machine) and promises to be back to take her with him in five minutes. But the TARDIS has just regenerated too, so instead of 5 minutes, it's fifteen years, and little Amelia Pond has grown up into Amy Pond, the young woman who's spent her life waiting for the Doctor to come rescue her. Oh, and Prisoner Zero is still on the loose; not only that, but the wardens have finally gotten around to finding him, and are threatening to destroy the world if he's not placed into their custody in the next 20 minutes. Conflict!

...and from here on, I'm dropping the "Dr Who 101" tone, so if you haven't watched the last 50 episodes, go back and do that now. I'll wait.
Right. I think the tone of the episode can be summed up in a single scene. When the Doctor starts "pressing things" in the regenerated TARDIS, we see that the interior has changed somewhat: there's cranks, hotel bells, an oscilloscope--he even stops for a few seconds to input random letters into a typewriter. In other words, it's new, but it's old. And hence the episode. It's littered with Moffat-esque themes: there's the little girl in peril ("Forest of the Dead") who spends her life fantasizing about the Doctor ("The Girl in the Fireplace"). And there's a villain whose creepiness comes out of a disynchronicity with sound ("Silence in the Library"-- "ghosts" whose final living words are repeated over and over again vs. Prisoner Zero, who can duplicate images, but can't get the voice quite right) and with vision (stone angels in "Blick" that can't move when you're looking right at them vs. Prisoner Zero, who, in addition to the duplicating thing, is never seen in its real form except out of the corner of your eye--until it reveals itself to kill you.). Even the new theme song is a return to old, remixing the reboot theme with the more classic theme. (Actually, I'm pretty fond of the new one here.)

There's one remediation of the old that I'm kind of disappointed they dropped; when the Doctor first regenerated, his sense of taste had changed drastically, so there's a Very Funny Scene that shows him trying out various foods in Amelia's kitchen and tossing them away. (A little girl has just approached you with her fear of the supernatural. Do you a)comfort her, b) tell her there's nothing to worry about, c) go upstairs and immediately confront her fear, or d) Go into her kitchen, rifle through her fridge, and throw large amounts of food because they don't suit your taste? Oh, the things we sacrifice for a Very Funny Scene.) Anyway, I thought for a moment that they may be creating a link between this concern with food and the recently concluded two parter in which the Doctor's Nemesis, the Master, is regenerated, but since it went wrong, he was afflicted with an insatiable appetite to consume. Had the regeneration here failed in some manner? But no; just a Very Funny Scene.

let's talk about the biggest repeated element, one that doesn't originate with Moffatt so much as the rebooted series as well: the new Companion as a love interest for the Doctor. Each Companion has had to go through this. First, there was Rose, who is either the Doctor's True Love, or the Girl Who Did Absolutely Nothing to Deserve Being Made a Friggin' Saint, depending on your perspective. Then there was Martha, who served as the Doctor's rebound Companion. And then there was Donna, who had a platonic relationship, which had just a hint of "But is it REALLY platonic? Yes. But... really yes?" And now there's Amy.
Here's Amy:

She's got a Scottish accent too. Imagine me leering chauvinistically.
Actress Karen Gillian's leerability aside, the Companion/love interest angle is wearing a little thin. What I hope they emphasize in future episodes is how broken Amy is. Because I'm a sadist, one of my favorite themes of the series is the notion that the Doctor, because of his immense power, changes people, often without trying, often without meaning to. And what's a single chance encounter for him can have devastating effects on the other side of the affair. From what we've seen of Amy, she definitely may qualify. She has spent her life waiting for the Doctor to come back. Her bedroom, as we see, is practically a shrine, filled with little girl drawings and stick figures of herself with the Doctor. We know she's been to multiple psychiatrists over her imaginary friend. We know she's abandoned her own wedding to go gallivanting across the universe with him. There's something a little off there, and I'd really like to see something made of it. Through Donna, we've seen a Companion end in tragedy, but we haven't seen one broken yet.

Okay, that definitely sounds sadistic, and maybe a little misogynist. All I'm saying is that we've seen the story of the girl saved from a drab life by the mysterious space man; I'd like to see something different.

Let's see... what else? I liked both Matt Smith and Karen Gillian as actors; they both handle their parts well. We haven't really got a sense, personality-wise, that this doctor is any different from the previous one--I could pretty easily imagine this being a David Tennant episode. The amount of comic stammerinig and pratfalls is, as usual, close to being annoying, but that's been an element of the series for so long now that it's practically canonical. I liked the big Doctor speech to the alien prison-guards at the end. Essentially, it's "Earth's mine, stay away from my shit."

And as much as Moffatt's done the visual stuff before, it deserves to be acknowledged that he does it really, really well. Prisoner Zero's just the tip of the iceberg--surveillance is one of the big themes of the episode. The prison-guards are essentially giant eyeballs with crystal tentacles. And the difficulty is never really fighting Prisoner Zero--the problem is identifying which image it's taken and alerting the prison-guards that it's been found. There's a scene in the park where the Doctor quickly reviews his mental snapshot of the park, and the scale of the mental image is very impressive.

And even more interesting, it's almost entirely human surveillance equipment that saves the day. The prison-guards make their presence known by commandeering every communication device on earth--the Doctor makes it known that Prisoner Zero has been located by distributing a virus through a laptop that makes screens all over the world flash "zero." (Never mind why aliens recognize the human symbol for 0. It's a good image. Move on.) And the images of all the people Prisoner Zero can imitate are stored on a handy Iphone. It's hardly a coincidence that the TARDIS was made to look retro in an episode that emphasized the power of this moment of human communication technology.

So yes, I liked the episode. It gets most of the "Who are you?" and "You're a time traveller!" junk out of the way, and established the basic dynamics of the new leads. There's some ominous foreshadowing regarding the cracks in reality, and we've got a season arc too. Let's see where we go next.

Later Days.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Creative Writing

For reasons that I'll get into another time, I'm trying to get rid of my excess stuff. I'm a packrat--I generally don't have much attachment with material junk, but once I get it, I don't get rid of it easily. I blame this habit on my parents, and their boxes and boxes of things older than I am.

Anyway, my particular brand of packrat darts back and forth between unorganized messes and terrifyingly in-depth filing. The latter gave rise to the great archival endeavor of '08. See, at some point in my university career, I decided it would be a great idea to type out all my notes. Best case, it's a nice refresher to go over the material a week later. Worst case, you're looking at illegible handwriting two years after the fact and wondering what the hell a Grobner basis is. (And for the record, yes, I know that preserving a paper copy means more than just making it electronic.) This archiving reached its height in the summer of '08 when I was moving out east and didn't want to take the papers with me. In a period of a few weeks, I scanned hundreds of pages of notes on math, english, and history. Most of the stuff I didn't get to--like the Grobner basis notes--I tossed away. But the one group I couldn't bring myself to touch was the creative writing class notes.

According to my archives, (see? They come in handy) the creative writing class happened during the third year of my undergraduate in 2005. It was a limited number, submission-based class, so I was pretty happy just to get in. It was taught by Guy Vanderhaeghe, (he said, shamelessly name-dropping) a Saskatchewan-based writer whose work I hadn't actually read at the time, and whose name I never spelt the same way twice. (I did read his stuff later; probably best I didn't have it read at the time--it would have intimidated me. I mean, intimidated me more.) The process was my first experience of the round-table seminar-type class: each week, twelve students would critique two stories from two different students. And throughout the term, you'd submit two stories to be critiqued. That meant you had to have the story written a week in advance, and print out thirteen copies, one for the instructor, 12 for the rest of the class. And then be subjected to an hour long flogging over what they thought.

The process was utterly terrifying. My thesis defense was less stressful than these critiques. After all, it was four times the number of questioners, and it's a different kettle of fish when it's colleagues critiquing your creative piece than when it's professionals evaluating your essay writing. But I survived and thrived, and here I am now. Specifically, here I am now with the pile of 13 critiqued papers that I couldn't ever bring myself to get rid of. The archiving process I hit on for these is that I'd type up their comments onto the electronic copy of the essay. And today, I finally got around to doing it.

The disadvantages of this method are readily apparent. First, after a half dozen or so rounds of comments, the paper starts to look like a copy of a prestige edition of a 17th century text, with more marginal comments than actual text. Second, there's the cringeworthy chance you might actually read some of the original text. Normally, I'm someone who can barely stand to read his essays through once an hour after they're written, so this was a special kind of torture. The story in question was "Shelf Space." It's very different from my usual creative writing-- no sci-fi, no fantasy, just an episode from the life of Stanley, the story's main character. The idea was that Stanley, a gifted but awkward 12 year old has had a very vivid, very happy dream, and he wants to recreate the feeling in his everyday life. Problems ensue. The funny part of the story is that Stanley is clearly very close to have Asperger's Syndrome, about four years before I'd have any idea what that is. And yes, for the smartasses in the audience, he is based on me--or at least, my memories at age 21 of age 12, which is something different entirely--but only loosely. He's kind of a caricature of some of a lot of the traits about myself I liked least at the time.

There are parts of it that hold up really well, and parts that really, really don't. But of the latter, they fall into two camps: first, there's a lot of words I accidentally left out. A lot a lot. And once the sixth person has pointed such an error out, words can no longer describe your mortification, even at a few year's distance. Ironically, the missing words are missing because, five years ago, I couldn't bring myself to edit the damn thing properly. It's a bad habit, folks. The other failing, years later, is more problematic, but understandable: reading from five years later, I find myself wincing at how heavy-handed certain aspects of the plot and tone are. Hopefully, five years of pretty intense reading and writing has upped my sophistication somewhat, so it's understandable I'd look back on previous work as a little amateurish.

At the same time--and this is by far the best aspect of looking back on this now--I've got evidence that I'm being a little too hard on myself. People liked the story. Some classmates felt a connection to Stanley, and some felt a connection to his parents, as they could relate to the problems of raising an emotionally distant but brilliant kid. (Okay, one guy felt Stanley was utterly unlikeable, and had no interest in the supposed conflict of a character who had things pretty easy, but you can't please everyone.) There has to be something worthwhile to the story if it reaches people. And not for nothing, but Vanderheaghe liked it too--he thought it was a "charming story" with the feeling of a fable, and that was what I was actually going for, so... Boffo. (It got an 84%--not great, perhaps, but a marked improvement over the 80% on my first attempt.)

The whole experience of typing these comments out has been very strange--a time warp rolled in a retrospective. But it reminded me that there's something in creative writing that I want to explore--once I have the chance. Maybe the summer project?

Later Days.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday Quotations: Man, I Love This Show.

Blair: "It's Anna Karenina. You never read it; don't worry about it."

Nate: "I never do."

From Gossip Girl, Episode 3-13: "The Hurt Locket."

Later Days.

Good Friday, Good Times

There is a world of difference between 11 k at ten degrees Celsius and 7 k at 26 degrees Celsius. Man, I forgot how summer jogging works. Hint: with lots of little breaks in between. And a bottle of water. It was really nice though; it being Easter Weekend, and the beginning at that, there were a lot of families out and about, enjoying the day. And a lot of college-oriented students too, on their break before the studying for finals.

And speaking of studying for finals... after three and a half long years, I've finally uncovered the best part of being a grad student: a stress free end of classes. Throughout the entire undergraduate career, the end of classes is a time of huge stress--you're desperately trying to cram in the last few assignments you didn't quite finish, and then cramming some more for the final exams. Sure, there's usually some "end of class" sort of party, but it's always got this weird sense of desperation to it; you want to get all the partying in before the crunch time comes.

The option to avoid the stress, I suppose, is to get a job and enter the work force--but that doesn't so much avoid stress as make it low level, yet never-ending. Even the MA and the beginning of the PhD courses aren't entirely free, because you've got those giant end term papers to wade through. To date, the closest thing I had to a "responsibility-less" end of term would be the April of 2008, and I was too stressed out about finishing the thesis and leaving my province of birth to really enjoy it.

This time, however, there's nothing to hold back. End of classes means a break from teaching for a semester. And because there's no papers to write, the "end of term" partying felt more tranquil than anything else. Yep, nothing smooth sailing from...

Oh right. That comp thing. Less than two months to finish up over 19 000 pages of over 50 texts that I'm desperately cramming. (There's the cram!) Forget the tranquility then. I'm going to go back to existential dread and panic.
Later Days.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

He Also Teaches

I'm taking notes on a book I'm reading right now (and more on the book later). The current heading is "Making Visible the Invisible," but I typed it "Making the Visible Invisible," thus reversing the meaning. And it struck me that the error might make a good lesson in a first year grammar-based discussion to illustrate the importance of clarity (and articles), and the use of nouns and adjectives. Something to remember for next term if I'm stuck teaching the non-English based English courses again.

*EDIT: fixed the second statement by switching the visible/invisible order.

Later Days.

Comic Panel Wednesday: If You Think This Portrays Odd Values, Let Me Tell You About the TIme Ms Marvel Fell In Love With Her Son

The page of the week is, this time, a cover.

It's very moody, isn't? It's Wolverine, but he's on a throne! And he's wearing a cape! And looking pensive! And about to be eaten by a throne monster!
Anyway, if the image was really an image of Wolverine sitting on a throne, it would be a fairly compelling image. Wolverine's character is the epitome of the brooding loner, and to think he'd seize a dark power, well, that's interesting, right? Problem is, that's not Wolverine. It's his son, Daken.

Wolverine has a son. And a daughter, named X-23. They're both fairly merciless killers, so he should probably do something about that. Or be proud. It's something of a trend--in a similar fashion, Hulk has three children at the moment--the Savage She-Hulk, Skaar, and and a fellow by the name by Shiro-Kala. The idea behind the Marvel Family thing baffles me. Does making them spawn really make Wolverine and Hulk more interesting? They're characters known for, well, slicing and hitting. Are the slicing and hitting fans really looking for Father Knows Best type stories?

It seems like a lazy way to make new characters, frankly. Rather than develop origin, or motivation, or think up a new power--well, let's just give them kids. The only advantage I can think of is that the new characters get to leech off the popularity of the existing ones. So they're gambling that this will expand the line, rather than overextend it.

It's an interesting theory, I guess. But all I can think of is looking at that cover, seeing a violent, costumed figure with delusions of grandeur, and being disappointed that it wasn't MY Wolverine.

Later Days.